Interview: Paul Duane, director of ‘Very Extremely Dangerous’

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Jerry McGill spurned a rock’n’roll career for a life of crime, robbing banks and running from the FBI while touring incognito with legends of country music and appearing in movies. After three jail sentences, aged 70 and suffering from terminal cancer, he announced his return to recording. Very Extremely Dangerous follows a heavily armed McGill and his long-suffering fiancée Joyce through four states as he stole whatever’s not nailed down and charmed his way into and out of trouble.

Film Ireland spoke to director Paul Duane to find out more about his compelling film and the “original rock and roll outlaw”.

Very Extremely Dangerous turns the camera on Jerry McGill, a pill-popping, crime addicted, gun-toting, rock’n’roll renegade. Not only did he not play by the rules, he burnt the rule book and urinated on its dying embers. Missing in action for the last decade, Paul Duane’s 2012 documentary follows McGill at the age of 70 as he attempts to return to recording music and perform his music to a live audience again.

McGill died earlier this year at the age of 73 leaving behind him a reputation as the “original rock and roll outlaw,” and described by Robert Gordon, the film’s producer, as “a really gruff charmer…If you didn’t like his sweet talk, he’d show you the muzzle of his gun.”

McGill was a singer, songwriter and guitarist who recorded for Sun Records, releasing one single in 1959, ‘Lovestruck’. Yet already by this stage in his life McGill had become a notorious criminal – claiming himself that he was arrested 97 times for various offences, including armed robbery.

Under the pseudonym Curtis Buck, McGill spent most of the ‘60s and ‘70s on the road – bringing crime with him – with country star Waylon Jennings, who described him as “crazy” and wrote that “While I was singing, he’d go find the girls, and if we needed drugs, he’d go find the dope.”

By the late ’70s McGill had disappeared from the music radar, spending most of his time being arrested, tried, and occasionally convicted, for crimes that included possession of illegal weapons, drugs and attempted murder.

Duane’s interest in making the film that would become Very Extremely Dangerous began when he received an email saying that McGill had surfaced after a ten-year vanishing act, was suffering from terminal cancer and wanted to make a return to recording. At that stage, “I’d really only 2 sources to go on,” recalls Duane, ” one was Robert Gordon’s book It Came from Memphis, which had quite a lot of stories and legendary stuff about McGill, stories told by people who had known him in the ‘50s and ‘60s and the early ‘70s. The other was the William Eggleston’s Stranded in Canton, which has scenes of McGill that turn up in Very Extremely Dangerous where you can see what sort of a person he was.  It was all second or third hand information.”

Duane made contact with McGill in Alabama and was one of the first people to speak to him for a while. “Jerry hadn’t spoken to any of the Memphis heads who knew him way back. So I sort of tracked him down. That was a strange feeling. Nobody else had heard from him in many, many years. From there we had a couple of long conversations on the phone.”

Armed with little ammunition, Duane headed over to meet McGill. “It could have been a wild goose chase – it was a big risk to go to the USA never having met this guy and start filming and then see if it was something worth chasing further.”

After watching the film it certainly was worth it. Maybe not quite what was first imagined though. Duane recalls how originally he had “certain aspirations. I enjoyed The Story of Anvil very much and liked the notion of maybe someone missing their opportunity to become a star and having a second go at it With  his undeniable charisma and openness on camera plus the added pathos that he was under a death sentence from cancer there seemed to me to be the ingredients there for what could really be a redemptive, positive and funny, sweet story of this guy rediscovering his musical abilities after 50 years of living a very, very difficult and dangerous and illegal kind of life.  That was our initial idea. That was how we pitched it to ourselves – but it didn’t quite work out that way. “

As the film testifies to, McGill was not an easy subject to engage with. His erratic behaviour and drug addiction gave rise to abusive behaviour and threats of violence toward his fiancée, Joyce. McGill’s on-screen behaviour proved so problematic that Duane was forced to end proceedings when things came to a head. Duane admits reaching that stage during filming when “two things became clear to me – no audience would stay with our story beyond the point we’d reached, Jerry’s behaviour had crossed a line; and I wasn’t willing to go with him on this journey for another step.”

McGill’s sometime producer and song-writing collaborator Jim Lancaster has said about him that “He was an outlaw down to his soul.” What’s interesting about the documentary is how much this outlaw seems to be a constructed image that McGill plays up to. Duane admits that McGill was indeed charismatic but “clearly unreliable and can be problematic to be around. Part of the reason Jerry was excited about the film was that he always wanted to be a star. Point a camera at him and he starts to perform.”

Welcome to “Jerryworld”.

“When you’re entangled with someone who is playing a game and how far they can go and being goaded on by the presence of the camera to do more and more, you wonder whether the principle of observing this person is making them do the things they’re doing and maybe if we stopped observing him he’d have a more normal life and wouldn’t damage himself and other people. Also there’s the fear of ethically being in some way responsible for his behaviour. And also the fact that I personally couldn’t take it anymore – at a certain point as a human being you just go I can’t be involved in this any longer. And also as documentary filmmaker one of the most difficult things, one of the most indefinable things you have to have – no one can teach you – is knowing when you’ve reached the end of your story. When you’ve filmed the scene you know is the end – that’s when you walk away.”

Very Extremely Dangerous is not about being judge, jury and executioner. It’s a film that asks more questions than it answers, perhaps the most important being how do you decide about a person. Asking Duane about looking back now on the whole experience, he’s quick to focus on the positive. “My best memory of Jerry, and the one I want to hang onto, is the last time I saw him when he came to Memphis. We had a sneak preview of the film – the film’s first screening – and he travelled to see it. We had agreed it see it before anyone else. We sat in a hotel room and watched it – by this stage he was off his painkiller addiction and was living a much more moderate life – he was shocked and horrified by what he saw but he was able to take it on the chin and say, ‘Look it’s an honest portrayal of how I was at that time. It’s difficult to watch but thank you for doing it.’ He sat through it again with an audience that evening and it must have been very, very difficult for him to sit there in a room full of people while you’re threatening to break your girlfriend’s jaw on screen. But he sat through it and came out the other side and people applauded him at the end, which was maybe a surprise to him because I think they understood that even just by being there showed a certain amount of moral courage and I was very proud of him. Proud of the way he responded; proud of the way he didn’t shirk or blame or attempt to evade responsibility for his actions. That’s the mark of a real man – at that point he showed himself to be a grown-up and much more so than I’d ever seen from him in any of his behaviour before then.  That was the real Jerry – his fiancée Joyce always makes the distinction between Jerry McGill and Curtis Buck – Jerry being his alter ego and the guy who is the devil incarnate and Jerry, who is genuinely a sweet, nice, loving, kind, creative guy. Thankfully I got to know both of them before he died. It’s a real shame he went the wrong way and became a criminal because he had all the positivity to be pretty much anything he wanted to be. He has a lot of positives and a lot of negatives and they’re all there to see on the screen in the film.”

 

Very Extremely Dangerous is in cinemas now.

 

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Cinema Review: Very Extremely Dangerous

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DIR: Paul Duane PRO: Paul Duane, Robert Gordon ED: Colm O’Brien, Fiona Starogardzki

A prominent sub-genre of the wider musical-documentary field consists of a quest or travelogue in which the filmmakers rediscover and redeem some gifted musical talent omitted from the success-obsessed mainstream of musical history. Into this uplifting niche fall such films as Searching for Sugarman and The Buena Vista Social Club. It would be odd, however, if the filmmakers who set out on these journeys always came up with subjects who fitted neatly into this happy frame. By focusing on Jerry McGill, director Paul Duane has found a subject who cannot help but derail this intended upward arc. McGill was a contemporary and acquaintance of Elvis who enjoyed a hit record in 1959, but subjugated whatever musical talent he once possessed to drugs, thrill-seeking robberies and violence—while these may be the kinds of activities to be celebrated in song, they play havoc with the cultivation of a successful musical career. Despite being diagnosed with life-threatening lung cancer, having the attention of a documentary crew and the chance to record his music once again, the 70-year-old McGill reverts to the anarchic outlaw behaviour that ensured his career never took off in the first place, and pisses all over his chances of making his longed-for comeback.

Narrating the film, Duane recognises that the expected redemptive narrative will not be possible in this case, and the film shifts subtly so that it almost becomes a revelation of the romantic impulses and patterns that must operate in redemptive musical documentaries to repress, obscure and elide awkward realities like the subject’s fecklessness, ego and stupidity in order to come up with the pre-scripted happy ending. The wit, charisma and talent we charitably attribute to McGill at the outset are gradually chiselled away as he abuses trust, alienates his friends, threatens violence on his long-suffering girlfriend and indulges in absurd prima-donna preening. He betrays the same mix of sentiment and selfishness as some deluded crank auditioning for the X-Factor. Duane does a very good job of undercutting the overworked redemptive narrative, it is just a shame that that the very last scene grasps for a sense of uplift, by which time I was hoping that Jerry would return to the obscurity he had originally merited. In an earlier moment, the hopeless old peacock is seen purchasing some bling in preparation for a dismal comeback gag. He settles on a piece of jewellery that reads “2pac.” Ol’ dirty bastard would have been more fitting.

TonyMcKiver

85 mins
Very Extremely Dangerous is released on 16th October 2013

Very Extremely Dangerous – Official Website

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IFI Stranger Than Fiction 2012: Very Extremely Dangerous

Those who took refuge from the burning sun on a sweltering Saturday afternoon and attended the IFI Stranger Than Fiction 2012 documentary festival were treated to Reluctant Revolutionary. Director Sean McAllister’s film focuses on Yemen and Kais, a 35 year-old local tour guide, who travels from being a cynic to a participant in the revolution that eventually leads to the toppling of Ali Abdullah Saleh, dictator for 33 years.

This was followed by the early evening screening of Very Extremely Dangerous –  a provoking and disturbing portrait of a once-failed rock star now into his 70s hamming himself up as a hell raiser. Director Paul Duane recently brought us a fascinating study of another troubled figure in Barbaric Genius. This time his documentary’s subject is Jerry McGill, who, after recording a track for Sun Records in 1959, pursued a life of crime and drug abuse ending up in prison for shooting a crack dealer. The man was obviously no Osmond.

 

Duane’s film tracks him down after he has been diagnosed with lung cancer and follows his attempt to find redemption in music as McGill goes back into the studio to record and gets back up on stage to perform. If this were a conventional documentary all that would have worked out just fine and dandy and we could of all gone home smiling after the film ended happily ever after. But it’s not and it doesn’t.

 
While there’s no denying McGill’s charisma his ongoing selfish tantrums and aggressive behaviour (particularly toward his partner) drive a wedge between him and both the director and audience. All the more surprising then that Very Extremely Dangerous makes for an utterly riveting 85 minutes despite its subject’s self-serving indulgences.
 
Duane has skillfully crafted a documentary that is an enthralling portrait of a difficult and often infuriating subject who is a ragbag of hoggish traits and bellicose attitude, and, as Duane told the audience in an enlightening post-screening Q&A, is a man who is difficult to be around, a man who creates drama and tension wherever he is. Duane admitted that being around him ‘as a filmmaker it’s great; as a human being it’s difficult.’
 
An inciting film that will challenge audiences, Very Extremely Dangerous is a lightning bolt of a documentary.
 
Saturday came to an end with the screening of Anton CorbijnInside Out, an intimate portrait of the influential Dutch artist who has taken iconic photographs of iconic figures throughout his career from David Bowie through Nelson Mandela to Kylie from Neighbours. 
 

Director Klaartje Quirijns gets us as close as she can to to Corbijn. She was given tremendous access to him filming him at work and at home and was thus able to to create this personal exploration of his life. The film was introduced by Steven Averill, the Irish designer who first worked with Corbijn on the cover of U2’s 1984 album The Unforgettable Fire recalling how they spent 3 days travelling around Ireland looking at ‘lots of castles’. Referring to Corbijn as a ‘fantastically creative person’, the pair have worked together since on most of U2’s albums.
 

The documentary features the likes of U2, Depeche Mode, Arcade Fire, Metallica and Lou Reed all singing the praises of  Corbijn, who would appear to have the gift of making his subjects aspire to be the image he captures of them. Most interesting though are the moments throughout the film when Corbijn hints at what makes him tick. A deeply private man, there are one or two revealing scenes – one in a church and one when he is with his mother – that provide a brief glimpse of who the man behind the camera really is  – but nothing more than a brief glimpse. To misquote u2’s ‘Stay’, we get So Close! Faraway.
Steven Galvin
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