Johanna St Michaels is a writer and director whose films Penthouse North (2014) and The Islands Amid The World (2011) explore the effects of time on people and places that slowly become neglected.
Her latest film, The Inertia Variations (2017), is her most personal to date, taking as its subject her former partner Matt Johnson: better known as the vocalist and songwriter behind The The. We caught up with Johanna to talk about the experience of documenting your ex on camera and the sometimes painful nature of creating something new.
Tom Duggins: What made you want to make a film like The Inertia Variations? It’s quite unusual.
Johanna St Michaels: It was an art project from the beginning, that’s how we sought funding to make the film initially. But what happened was, Matt came to me with this poem that he had recorded, by the poet John Tottenham, and I said: ‘My God – that is you.’ Everything it says about inertia and not being able to do anything. So I said let’s do a project about it. It was hard to get funding for it, even after several attempts, and then we came up with the idea that Matt might do something live alongside it, he said ‘well, perhaps I could sing a song.’ But then the problem was that he couldn’t write anything!
He wanted to do his political radio station instead, so then we got funding to do a performance/art film, but then he had another child and his brother got sick with cancer, so nothing really came of it. The thing is though, we had received money from Gothenburg city – where I live now – and that money was due to expire in 2014. They told us: you have to do something with it or else we’ll take the money back. That’s when we really started to get working. We did this nine metre high radio sculpture that, actually, my partner Jacob (who’s an architect) helped us to design, and he helped us put it up on the top of a gallery here in the harbour.
TD: I was wondering about that actually. The sculpture’s quite important for the opening of the film, but I was unclear what its purpose was.
JSM: It was inspired by a Shukhov tower in Moscow and Matt being obsessed with shortwave radio. I found it really interesting because of its relevance for political views, how they’re formed and how the propaganda machine works. That was the case in the Soviet Union, of course, but also Matt and I used to live in the United States together. We felt like we were living in this shadow of the empire because, I think at least, that a lot of US television is very propaganda-like. Especially Fox and all that.
Anyway, I knew that I could use the poem as the inner side of Matt – because he’s a very private person – and the radio show as the outer side of Matt. So it was quite an experimental way of doing a documentary. The radio show was a very good form, I thought, because Matt had to be very much in the moment. He couldn’t think too much about what he was saying, since he was fielding questions live from people on Skype and over the telephone.
TD: You’re the director of this film, but you also feature in the film quite a lot as well. There’s a scene where Tim Pope literally grabs the camera off you and turns it around onto you. Was that a strange experience, being the film-maker but then suddenly having the camera turned around on you to become the subject?
JSM: Well, I’ve featured in my films quite a lot. I would say I’m quite resistant to the idea of being in my films, but the times in the past where I’ve done it – it became obvious to me after a while that, if I’m asking questions from behind the camera, people will wonder: ‘who is this person?’. I got some outside advice and they said you’ve got to go into this film because you’re the ex-partner and it’s weird if you’re not. You can use those private moments. It gives another aspect to the film. I am used to being an object in my own films, because a lot of the time I do know the people I’m filming. With my first film, I got dragged into it because my subject kept asking me questions and it was inevitable that I also become the subject.
TD: Tim Pope is a filmmaker himself, of course. Is that a danger when interviewing directors that they might do that to you? How did you feel about it when it happened?
JSM: Obviously, I’m a bit embarrassed, I think, in the film. But looking back, I think it’s good. It’s good to have that explanation of how mine and Matt’s relationship really was. We weren’t so good as partners. We were good at working together on art projects and maybe we should have stayed at that.
TD: Very shortly after that scene, there’s a sequence where Matt gets grilled about some of the language in his songs from the 80s, and the slight misogyny to them. He says – it was a different era and I was too young to know any better. I just wondered what your take on that was?
JSM: It’s Tim Pope’s wife Victoria who asks those questions, and I actually asked Victoria to ask Matt those questions. I do go in and interfere with my documentaries sometimes. I wanted to know. It’s interesting, because Matt is very political and I think it’s interesting to look at how women were treated in the ‘80s. It wasn’t that long ago and there were other musicians who did music videos where women are not whores or portrayed in that sort of way. Thinking back, I wonder if I should have pressured him a bit harder on it.
TD: You think you could’ve pushed a bit more?
JSM: Yeah, I think I could have pushed him a bit harder on that, because I do think – even if it’s a different time – it’s still pretty…from someone who’s politically aware. I was a model at that time, in the 1980s. The female stereotypes at that time were pretty horrific. I could have been harder as a director there.
TD: Does your past experience as a model, of having been the subject of photography, have an influence in how you approach things now you’re behind the camera?
JSM: Absolutely. A lot of my documentaries are about physical decay. My film Penthouse North is about a former beauty queen and what happens to her when she gets old. She used to live in one of the best addresses in New York. When she was young, she got all the glory and now she’s old she lives alone and on social welfare. It’s quite horrific and I think the beauty industry is quite harsh.
TD: It’s a very intimate thing to be photographed or filmed and I suppose I wondered if you felt you learnt things by appearing in front of the camera that help you as a director?
JSM: I think I know what makes people very comfortable in front of the camera, or at least I know what makes me comfortable in front of the camera, gets me to open up, and that’s not having a big team around. With Matt, he never would have let anyone else be so close to him. He agreed to it because it was just me and the camera. Especially the scenes in the garage [which housed Matt’s brother Andrew’s studio]. It was very hard for me to get Matt and his father to do that. As Matt’s other brother Gerard says – ‘oh it’s just Jo with the camera’. It’s those intimate moments, I think that’s what I carry with me with the camera.
TD: There’s quite a lot of political content to the film – there’s a lot of talk about manipulation and the way that London’s being taken over by corporate redevelopment – and it all feels very negative. Do you agree with that assessment?
JSM: I think Matt and I share the view that, as I mentioned earlier – we lived in New York, and I lived in the States for twenty years – always feeling manipulated politically by the media. I think that is what we tried to get across. Matt wanted to say his thing. I don’t always agree with Matt on everything he says, but I think it’s interesting to look at how the political stuff is formed. One thing we talk about in the film is that Matt doesn’t want to invite anyone who disagrees with him, and I think that’s the problem a lot of the time. We don’t want to take in any other person’s views.
TD: The film is partly about writer’s block and how difficult it can be to create something. Do you feel that, in making the film, you got a good sense of where that comes from
JSM: Do you mean where Matt’s writer’s block comes from?
TD: Yeah or perhaps just more generally as well.
JSM: When Matt and I used to live together, he had writer’s block then. People used to come to me and say ‘can you get him to write again?’ I think it’s hard, you get scared. One thing I wanted to try to explore is that if you do something and do it well, you get scared about whether you can do the same thing again. I feel that way when I start a new project: perhaps it’s a fluke that I did it before. I think the poem describes that feeling very well. You get up, sit down, write, have that empty paper or an empty timeline in front of you.
You think, how am I going to fill this? And who’s going to watch this? I also found the other side of celebrity interesting as well though. It’s a weird thing, you’re in the moment in front of people where you’re cherished, but then you’re just alone and there’s no audience there. I followed a flamenco band in the film I’m currently working on. They played in one of the most prestigious venues here in Sweden, and then all of sudden, they’re standing at a little hot dog stand outside, where it’s grey and snowing and nobody knows who they are.
TD: And you think that affects their creativity? That disappearing from the spotlight?
JSM: I think so. I think, in Matt’s case, death is also a part of it. His younger brother Eugene died and he stopped writing completely after that, although he still did a bit of touring. His whole family were so saddened by this death of a young person. I try to explore that in the film as well.
The Inertia Variations is available now on MUBI / mubi.com