Want to make a film about a cult musician-turned-bank-robber who’d like to make one last record before he dies of lung cancer? Paul Duane tells you how.
When this all started I was in limbo. A documentary called Barbaric Genius that I’d given three years and a great deal of my own money to was on the verge of collapsing, leaving me in real doubt as to whether I’d be able to continue. I was able to finish that film in 2011, but at the time previously committed co-producers were melting into thin air on all sides as the going got tough, and I had taken to drinking whiskey in the office where I spent most days alone, looking out the window at the hotel opposite, feeling like some hopeless case out of an Edward Hopper painting.
I’d spoken to Jerry on the phone a few times. He’d found his way into my life via some blog posts I’d put up a few years earlier, when I was desperately trying to fund a film about the extraordinary Memphis musician and producer Jim Dickinson, one of the very few people I’ve ever met who absolutely deserved to have a film made about him.
Jerry had eluded me at that time – he was in jail in Florida, it later turned out – but now he’d resurfaced and I was the first ‘media’ person he contacted, and only because he wanted to get back in touch with Jim Dickinson, who was at this point (mid-2009) in hospital and seriously ill.
Then Jim died – a black day in the memories of all who knew him, though his self-penned epitaph – “I’m just dead, I’m not gone” – has proved true. And my contact with Jerry lapsed. I had many things to work on. Until, one day, I had nothing to work on, everything except the whiskey and the view out the office window had fallen away, and that was the day I heard from Joyce (Jerry’s saviour, fianceé and the love of his life, it seems).
10 March 2010
Jerry got up to go to the bathroom, didn’t turn on a light, tripped over his amp. I sleep across the hall,heard him fall, ran and got him in bed.. He thought he’d cracked his ribs, took him to the emergency room, ribs ok but x-ray showed large mass in his lung… Emergency Room Dr. did catscan, says its lung cancer…
Jerry says he’s had a life most people only dream about, doesn’t mind dying but wants to make some good music before he leaves.. Has no money at all, is in pain constantly but is making plans to be in Memphis on the 19th to cut a record.. So on that Cheerful note –I was instructed to let you know that he’ll be in Memphis on the 19th ,would love to have you and Mr.Gordon meet him at Phillips Recording Studio at 9 pm on the 19th. Please keep him in your prayers –he’s ORNERY but I’ve gotten used to having him around ,would really hate to lose him again.
So the long and the short of it was, Jerry was dying but he wanted to make a record before he went. He wasn’t wasting time either. I had a week to get a crew together and film with him in Memphis. And bear in mind, Jerry’s not a known quantity to me or to anybody at this point – the only experience I have of him is as a reptilian, snake-eyed psychopath in William Eggleston’s film Stranded in Canton. Now he wants me to travel halfway round the world to film him in the recording studio.
Anyway, I agreed straight away.
The next morning I tried to figure out if it was the right thing to do. I’ve never met Jerry. There’s no budget. It’s crazy. But what else is money for? You have to take a crazy chance. I had, for a brief couple of years, a guaranteed income via a TV show I’d initiated that had become hugely successful. You don’t often have that window. I found a flight to Memphis that wasn’t earthshatteringly expensive and set about trying to figure out what I was doing. What is this film about? No idea yet. But Jerry interests me.
He’d asked me to bring him a blackthorn stick so I scoured Dublin for one, finding it in the last shop I tried. It was a beautiful thing. Joyce had warned me he’d be ‘ornery’ – I wondered what that meant. He didn’t seem to be the bashful type at the best of times, and these were not the best of times.
Dr. says Jerry has aggressive type of lung cancer – has scheduled biospy and other tests for the 25th of March… He’s handling it pretty well,says he’ll do whatever Dr. tells him to do , has no plans to die anytime soon..He was lighting a cigarette as he said it but I’ll let him rest tonight–start nagging him about that tomorrow…
He’s really excited about the trip, looking forward to seeing everyone and making music.. He’ll be there Saturday around 3 p.m.check-in time,I will send you his cell phone # tomorrow. Right now I’m going to bed,been a very long day. Will let ya’ll know if anything changes–
Dublin-Atlanta flight. I had the blackthorn stick wrapped in bubblewrap for the journey, but not wanting to pack it, I’d decided to pretend I had a bad leg. Going through Security, I was stopped – I’d overthought this. If I needed it for the flight, it couldn’t be wrapped. A supportive official told me, “just go back out, take the cane, bring it to the toilet and take the bubble wrap off – I’ll let you through.” I sat in a cubicle and frantically tore off all the careful, supersecure wrapping, then limped back, trying to remember which leg to favour – which leg had I said was the bad one? I got through but almost missed the flight – heart pounding. Sitting on the plane, put in my earphones to drown out the noisy family in the adjoining seats but I shouldn’t have picked Mickey Newbury’s San Francisco Mabel Joy to listen to. It reduced me to tears – it usually does – but I don’t think anybody noticed. Roll on beer o’clock.
So that was the state of mind I was in when I started trying to make a film about Jerry McGill. Desperate. Probably the only state of mind that would cause anyone to make a film about Jerry.
Business Names I Saw on Billboards In Mississippi and Alabama:
Gobble-Fite Lumber Co.
Sweet Homes Alabama
Big Jim’s Boobie Bungalow
I’m on a Greyhound bus leaving Huntsville, AL, for Memphis, via Nashville. A seven-hour journey. It’s three-four by car on the freeway, but I’m travelling the old-fashioned underclass way, sitting down the back near a piss-smelling lavatory, brown-bagging a beer (they’ll throw you off the bus in the middle of nowhere if they catch you). Welcome to Jerryworld.
From first meeting McGill on Saturday night, myself and Robert Gordon were swept into Jerryworld. It’s a crazy place full of wild stories, chaotic happenings, and bullshit. In fact, I’m sitting on this bus because of bullshit. McGill talked me into accompanying him, Paul Clements and Joyce back to Huntsville with the promise that he’d send me back to Memphis in a chauffeured limousine (to be fair, it’s based on a shadow of truth – Joyce’s son used to run a limousine service).
In Jerryworld, people do all sorts of things they wouldn’t normally dream of doing, because Jerry asked them to. Getting invited to accompany them all back to Huntsville was a fantastic opportunity to experience something I never would otherwise, something which worked for the film but also on the simple personal level of ‘fun’ and ‘adventure’. It was a whole lot of fun singing along to Sixty Minute Man in the back of Joyce’s car, profoundly lost somewhere near Corinth, TN. In fact it was the most fun I could recall having in a while. They – Joyce and Paul – are good people and they appreciate a good time.
I’m in Chicago Airport, headed for Huntsville, a week later than anticipated due to an Icelandic volcano that’s shut down most of Western Europe. What’s more, the person I was headed to Huntsville to meet isn’t there any more, so the minute I get off the flight, I’m getting into a taxi, and I’m hoping to God I get where I’m going in the end.
OK. First thing is, I was due to be in Alabama on the 19th, when Jerry was due for surgery. He missed it – possibly due to being under arrest. Joyce has washed her hands of him because he stole some of her stuff. Jerry moved into a trailer with a guitar player he’d met, but was thrown out of there within days for some reason nobody can quite get straight. He moved into the Motel 6 with Paul but Paul called the cops on him, so he talked a driver into taking him to Florida on the promise that somebody there (most likely Jim Lancaster) would pay the tab. Lancaster gave the guy, Terry, $20 in the end, so he’s the latest arrival in Jerryworld. Now I’m hiring the same driver, Terry, to meet me at Huntsville Airport and drive me to Florida. Maybe I can interview him about it on the way.
I got an email from Lancaster this morning while at Dublin Airport – he’s had the police round already. Jerry is causing chaos everywhere. Joyce wants to meet me when I arrive at Huntsville with a care package for Jerry, and she wants me to make sure he calls his doctor tomorrow, and to try to get him back for his appointment. Whenever that is. Everything is vague and crazy. It’s starting to feel like he just wants to avoid the whole nasty cancer business in favour of going deep into the music and the drugs and the craziness and I can’t say I blame him.
Sunday was a killer. 24 hours nonstop travelling, the last seven in a taxi to Florida driven by two kids, somehow related to Terry, who (I tried not to worry but …) could have robbed me, dumped me on the road, whatever. They didn’t. I recall my fumbling attempts to conceal the roll of cash I was holding (I knew the taxi fare was going to be close to $1000 and I had to have it on me), and the frowning face the driver turned to me. “There’s gotta be some TRUST here, man.” It was fine – I stopped being worried somewhere around Montgomery, AL, when I realised they were as far from home as they’d ever been, marvelling at the prospect of Florida. The fare ended up being $750. I’m still amazed they didn’t sting me for what McGill owed Terry. Unbelievable.
Got to FLA, slept five hours, up and over to meet Jerry who’s in the final stages of a meltdown/flare-up. Police encounters, dog tranquilisers, general insanity. I missed the worst, or the best, of it. He was exhausted by the time I got there. He put on a show for me, and for the camera, though, with costume changes (courtesy of clothes borrowed, without permission, from his unknowing host, Ed). Knives and bludgeons fashioned prison-style from rocks, shivs and duct tape. Three days with Jerry in this state is a long time, though it’s fun, too. It’s just that he’s always ‘on’, always ready for trouble, always up to something. So I have to be, too. Every time you put down the camera you miss something. So I film constantly. It’s exhausting.
About to head back to film another session with McGill. I haven’t looked at the camera since I got back – I pick it up, turn it on, and the LCD monitor is cracked right across – not working, unusable. No time to fix it. Not only am I now flying blind, I can’t monitor the sound (the headphone jack socket has been busted for weeks and I’ve been filming with one eye on the audio levels and hoping for the best). As at every step, I feel like this process is completely and utterly doomed. There’s still no definite finance on board, though the Film Board looks hopeful. Robert Gordon and I are doing our best to keep each other’s enthusiasm high but even on a technical level – I’m not a cameraman or a soundman, and I have been doing both. Will this be the most expensive and debilitating home movie in history? How many people would pay to see a movie shot with a broken camera, where the sound is recorded through a mike gaffer-taped clumsily to the side? I feel like somebody should be making a documentary about me at this point.
The word from Alabama isn’t good either – McGill’s going crazy, sounds like it’s painkiller withdrawals. Oh well – at least it isn’t going to be dull.
I’m haunted by the funeral of my old friend Jonjo Mayo, which I’ve just attended. The Parting Glass, sung over his grave. Trees all around, the trees full of parrots (or at least that’s what I’m told they are) squawking. Drifts of white pollen piling up like snow or candyfloss. I can’t believe the old fucker went, and I wish people like him could live forever, or at least longer than me. But he lived a great, free, full life, or that’s how it seemed to me anyway.
Headed for Memphis again. Taxi radio – “The euro is at its lowest level against the dollar in four years”. Great.
We’ve done a 9-10 minute rough assembly of some of the material we’ve shot and I’m thrilled with it – it feels like I’ve finally made something that I can be legitimately proud of.
Structurally, what the film needs to complete it seems pretty clear – we have our live show with McGill at the Hi-Tone, then the journey through his illness with whatever unknowable result. On the other side of his cancer, there’s our ending, whatever it may be. Tired of this travelling back and forth but on the plus side, if Jerry calms down and submits to the inevitablity of medical treatment, it might be at least slightly more predictable.
Of course, plans change. This trip’s filming was truncated 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.
I returned to Memphis, swam and cycled around the city for a few wonderful, calm days, wandered into quiet midtown bars where I walked in knowing nobody and walked out having made some friends, flew home and booked a holiday in Sicily for me and my family. Returned to living a normal life, in short. Received messages letting me know that Jerry had been arrested by bounty hunters – spent a long time trying to get through to prison governors asking for him to be released in time for his cancer surgery, hoping that my status as “an Irish filmmaker” might give him some hope of special treatment. He was apparently so thin from his illness that the prison uniform wouldn’t fit him, and the thought of Jerry, half-naked and undergoing withdrawal, missing his window of opportunity to survive cancer was terrible, even though his behaviour had placed him outside my concern. So I did my best and through none of my actions he was released. And that was all I heard for quite a while.
However, during the eight weeks I’d been filming with McGill, a solution had been found to the problems that had blocked Barbaric Genius from continuing, so I returned to the task of finding a way to put that film’s subject (the London-Irish writer John Healy) on screen, and found that the confidence I’d gained through this eight crazy weeks of guerrilla filmmaking unlocked what I needed to finish the film – the confidence to go out with no crew, no backup, just me, a camera, a microphone and my subject.
In long one-on-one sessions, John finally opened himself up to me in a way he never could have when there were cameramen, producers, sound recordists in the room. Filmmaking of this sort is a bullfight – your eyes locked on the eyes of the person you’re filming, trying to help them forget the artificiality of the situation, trying to bring them face to face with basic truths about themselves that will go down forever as the record of what they’re really like.
While it was never necessary to probe Jerry McGill for information – everything with Jerry is on the surface, like the early days of the California gold rush, when nuggets littered the ground, too many to carry away – the experience of filming with him was one of the most valuable in my career, because I learned how powerful moments of truth can be, even when the focus, the exposure or the handling of the camera are less than perfect. It doesn’t matter. You’re not making tv commercials – you’re in a bullfight with the truth and any tactics that help you to win are ok.
Very Extremely Dangerous is showing in London at Odeon Panton St and at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin from October 18th. There will also be a special one-off screening at the Roxy in London on October 20th.