Diving into the archives – 'The Man from Mo' Wax' director reveals his 10-year doc-making journey
James Lavelle is responsible for releasing some of the most legendary electronic music of the late '90s and 2000s including DJ Shadow's iconic Endtroducing..., UNKLE's Psyence Fiction which featured collaborations with Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Badly Drawn Boy, The Verve's Richard Ashcroft and Mike D from the Beastie Boys as well as Never, Never, Land featuring 3D of Massive Attack and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. Now Lavelle's stunning – and, at times, difficult – journey has been documented by director Matthew Jones who was there for much of the ride.
Here Matthew shares his filmmaking journey and how he dug deep into archive footage to produce the stunning The Man from Mo' Wax.
Tell us how you got into making film.
I’m self-taught in many ways. I didn’t go to film school. I studied English and Film at degree level but it was more theory based so it was like studying films the way a Literature student would study Shakespeare. It was looking at films in the sense of just watching them and discussing the themes.
I’m entirely self-taught from a production point of view. I set up a production company in 2005 off the back of seeing a short film by another director. He was a young filmmaker like myself - M.J. McMahon - and he’s the other producer on The Man from Mo’Wax. We set up a production company in 2005, and it’s the same company still going to this day that did The Man from Mo’Wax.
We just chipped away at it for years, gradually got clients, made some shorts and then moved more into commercial work. We’ve done stuff for Nike, Picturehouse, Sky, Jameson, Huntsman and Countrylife. We work for commercial clients and do a lot of stuff for Facebook and YouTube: browser content as they call it.
Our company is called Capture at wearecapture.com. It was a five-six year process to build that up from our bedrooms. We didn’t have any investments, it’s not like we had this angel investor who gave us money to go off and do it. We built it from scratch with no investment other than our own time.
How did The Man from Mo’Wax come about?
It all started in the pub! My cousin owns a quite well-known pub in East London called The Marksman. Its a bit posh now but back then it wasn’t.
At the end of 2006/2007, James Lavelle was just about to put UNKLE in to a band format and go on the road for an international tour. He was rehearsing across the road from my cousin’s pub in a place called The Premises on Hackney Road. A lot of bands do rehearsals there. So he would go over and drink in my cousin’s pub and got to know my cousin. The idea was to send his then wife off with a video camera and record the experiences of going on tour with a rock band.
My cousin said she’d need a producer, someone to help her produce or at least put a camera in her hand and give them some tips on what to do. So we started that off and, from that point, it just grew.
It was the last thing on James’s mind, he’d just started his second record label ‘Surrender All’, but we really thought that the story behind the Mo’Wax record label and the stories behind the artists signed to that label was something no-one had ever done a documentary on. It was a really interesting time in London underground music, the birth of trip-hop, the clubs and the music that James is really into.
The story of finding DJ Shadow, the story of how UNKLE came to be off the back of that. The other artists like Blackalicious and Money Mark. We just thought it was a really cool story that had never been told and that there was so much potential. That’s when the idea solidified into the rough, early origins of what it became. Initially it was never going to be a film, it was just going to be these tour diaries.
When they came back from the tour, they said stick around for the fourth album which was going to be Where Did the Night Fall. We decided to record the whole process of them making their next album but we didn’t know, at the time, that it was going to take nearly two and a half years for it to be made. So we just recorded and got some really great sponsorship from Sony Cameras who gave us a couple of free EX1 cameras. Very grateful for that, probably couldn’t have done it without them. We had permanent cameras that we could just always have around us.
It was just me, my producer and James’ now ex-wife who eventually left the project. We filmed them for many years and it had its ups and downs.
Once you realised the documentary was changing in terms of what it would be, how did you re-direct your efforts into the project?
The main thing I did was look into archive. I really thought that the really interesting story that warranted a film about James Lavelle existing was the Mo’wax story and the history of that label. One of the main breakthroughs that happened and I think really changed the project was that I managed to find some really important MTV archive. My girlfriend was working at MTV at the time in advertising. She put me in touch with someone in their archive department. It wasn’t a standard archive that you search online - it was just a person that represented their library. So I just said “could you just ask someone to search in that library for anything relating to Lavelle, Mo’wax and UNKLE?” and they did it. They found a tape, which I remember at the time was £90 just to get the screener. I thought it was so much money! We didn’t have any budget at that point, we had nothing to show anyone and were kind of making it on the go, in the background. We’ been doing other things but the film had been simmering away in the background for 10 years.
We got this tape and watched it and it was a 30 minute interview with a young James Lavelle from 1995. It was like gold dust. It was amazing to find. It said on it tape one of two so I asked where the other one was. They explained that was why it had never been aired because they had a fire at MTV and half of the tapes were in one building and half the tapes were in the other. Half of the original master tapes for this documentary that MTV were planning on Mo’wax were burnt in the fire and there were no back ups.
We ended up having this tape that had never been broadcast and was brilliant and gave us loads of material to establish the Mo’wax period between the early to late 90s. The first half of the film was all about that. From there onwards was about discovering archive. We only started in 2007 so 60/70% of the film is constructed from footage that we didn’t even shoot.
We took the approach of trying to tell the story in the first person from primary sources as it happened, rather than trying retrospectively to look back at the past.
Would you say the biggest challenge in doing something like this was finding archive footage? We’re talking about pre-Youtube and social media so it wasn’t like everything was so easy to find.
Yes, the best footage we found was from people who worked with James. They were suggesting who to speak to, people who might have filmed stuff back in the day. They would say they only had something on VHS or it was in their parents’ loft. That was done by phone calls and old school communication rather than anything on the internet. Very little of it was found on the internet.
The best footage came from personal never-before-seen footage from James Lavelle and DJ Shadow. Both gave us home videos of their time together when they were recording and introducing Psyence Fiction. They gave us boxes of tapes. James didn’t know what was on half of them.
There was a proprietary format which we’d never heard of called Sony Micro MD – like a handicam format from the early ‘90s – so we had to buy a player from eBay just so we could play these tapes back and try and work out how we could digitise them. It was on that stuff that we found Thom Yorke recording in a studio in San Franscisco, George Lucas’ San Francisco Skywalker Ranch, with Shadow making Rabbit in Your Headlights. James didn’t even know he still had that. Those were the finds.
It was speaking to people and asking them to look in their cupboards.
Were you a fan of Mo’wax growing up yourself? Was it something you had a personal attachment to?
When Mo’wax was in its heyday, in ’96, when Introducing came out and ’98, when UNKLE and Psyence Fiction came out, I was about 16 and so wasn’t as in to it. I’m not just going to say I was a massive Mo’wax head because I was not. It was the early stages of me going out and drinking and going to parties.
Definitely trip-hop was the thing then. I definitely remember DJ Shadow’s record and the records around that scene. DJ Shadow’s record Introducing was on a lot at my friend’s house as was the Portishead Dummy album and the early Massive Attack stuff. I was more of a DJ Shadow aficionado but I wouldn’t say I was deeply into it like some of the fans are.
Tell us about the journey of the film. It came out in 2016 on the festival circuit. The first version of the film screened in 2016 at South by Southwest. That version of the film was two hours and nearly 10 minutes. We screened that as very much a work-in-progress cut. We said the cut that’s coming out would be much more refined and would have nearly six additional interviews, new video archive which we were still in the process of unearthing and doing.
When the opportunity by South by Southwest came along, we couldn’t turn it down really because it was kind of perfect for the film. It also allowed us to get completion funding from the BFI because we were made trustable.
That version of the film is a very different, rougher version that no-one will hopefully ever see because there are a lot of mistakes in there. The version that’s coming out on August 31 is much tighter and nearly 20 minutes shorter. It’s a much tighter film.
Tell us about the journey of the film.
It came out in 2016 on the festival circuit. The first version of the film screened in 2016 at South by Southwest. That version of the film was two hours and nearly 10 minutes. We screened that as very much a work-in-progress cut. We said the cut that’s coming out would be much more refined and would have nearly six additional interviews, new video archive which we were still in the process of unearthing and doing. When the opportunity by South by Southwest came along, we couldn’t turn it down really because it was kind of perfect for the film. It also allowed us to get completion funding from the BFI because we were made trustable. That version of the film is a very different, rougher version that no-one will hopefully ever see because there are a lot of mistakes in there. The version that’s coming out on August 31 is much tighter and nearly 20 minutes shorter. It’s a much tighter film.
What have you been working on since?
Right now, I’m doing a whole bunch of DVD extras. I’m just doing that with a team of people here at Capture. We had 700 hours of footage. When the film ends up being just 1 hour 50 minutes, you’ve got a lot more stuff to play with. So we’re trying to put together as much as a limited edition DVD that’s coming out at the BFI.
It’s going to be this amazing 7-inch record-shaped boxset. It’s got three discs and is going to have about three or four hours worth of extra content. It’s going to be great!
When you’re editing something that you have such a large amount of footage for, is it really hard to make choices?
Absolutely. One of the biggest criticisms we had was there was a guy who was in Mo’wax and UNKLE, early on, called Tim Goldsworthy, who we knew about. Everyone we interviewed talked about him but it ended up being, in the grand scheme of things, quite a boring story. It just slowed down our story. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to the fans but it just didn’t work within the narrative of the film and the pace we were trying to keep. It is going to be one of the DVD extras and available online as well.
Anyone that really likes the film and wants to learn more, there will be more footage to watch. It is a bit of an iceberg in terms of content – there’s a lot out there. The other thing that we’ve been working on is an amazing limited edition soundtrack with Universal Music, Harlem Records. It’s going to be a douple LP vinyl with 19 tracks from the film on it. It’s going to be a really nice release and will be available on CD too with a nice little 16 page booklet.
How do you make the choices for what would be on the soundtrack?
We kind of did a lot of that work for the film. There were thousands of tracks that were out for Mo’wax and we narrowed that down to 54 tracks that you hear in the film so that got us down quite a bit.
From there, it’s just about picking the right ones. These are songs that all the super Mo’wax fans are going to have. We were trying to do it so that if you were trying to explain to people what Mo’wax was with one record, this is the record. It’s got the seminal tracks by Krush and Shadow and UNKLE and it also has some of the influences on the label from the early days.
It’s got a Wild Bunch track - early Massive Attack on there. It’s got loads of other obscure Mo’wax songs and remixes that were really important to the film. Listening to it, it’s the soundtrack of the film but it’s also a really great way of having a first foray into the Mo’wax archive of music.
Did you have any problems licensing footage or music?
There were definitely some. The thing about the film is the Mo’wax archive is a bit of a mess, owned by a disparate bunch of different artists. There’s no one person you can go to to get the all clear. Each track in the film had to be cleared by numerous people, sample holders.
David Bowie owns 1% of one of the UNKLE tracks so we had to go through his estate. It’s all sample bases, there’s so many rights holders so that was a problem. The main stuff we couldn’t clear was Money Mark really. That was our only really disappointment. Money Mark’s rights were just about to revert back to him from Universal so for some reason he didn’t want any of his music included in the film.
Other than that, everyone was fantastic - we got all the big stars. It was fine. Grandmaster Flash is in it too because that’s the first record James ever bought. That’s where James started his love for music. They also played at James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival at the Southbank Centre in 2014 which again is a big part of the film.
It’s a rollercoaster ride. It’s a film about what’s it like to achieve your greatest dreams at a very young age and how do you then live with that success. Especially when everything you do from that point onwards is measured against the success you had when you were 21. How, as an artist, how do you break that down? It’s a film about never giving up, about staying true to your ideals and also about friendship. The importance of friendship in an industry that is very cutthroat and filled with a lot of jealousy.
It’s a human story behind the label and who James was to his friends and how he lost a lot of those things in the pursuit of art really. It weighs up, was that worth it?
What have you got in the pipeline for the future?
We’re currently assisting on a film. I’m not directing, I’m moving back into more of a producer role. I’m using the skills we learnt from The Man from Mo’Wax in terms of archive research and clearances. We also do visual effects and motion graphics at Capture, that’s part of how we keep paying the bills.
We’re working on the official film on Nelson Mandela which is co-directed by his grandson, Kewku Mandela and Kemal Akhtar. It’s in final post. We’re overseeing the edit and trying to see it home to delivery later in the year. It’s a big project. It’s the same thing as Mo’Wax, it’s archive heavy. The production has the first and last ever Mandela interview. It’s a great project to be working on and supporting.
What advice would you have for someone wanting to get into documentary making?
The advice I always hear from other people, which I don’t really love but I always hear, is just go out and make something. Just pick up a camera and make something. I don’t really agree with it because I think it’s more about being very strategic with what you decide to spend years of your life doing.
With documentary filmmaking, if you are using archive like we did, it’s not really about knowing how a camera works. It’s much more about being a journalist, I think, and looking into a story. Then you decide what you need to make or get.
The golden rule in documentaries is access. Access or an angle of some kind that makes it unique. Once you’ve got that, it’s quite easy to put together. If you’ve got access to a particular subject and you know someone who has got some sort of unique angle on a story or an individual who is quite sought after - that’s really where it starts. Once you’ve got that, that’s the USP. That’s what makes it stand out and makes it unique.
It doesn’t just have to be access though, it can be the way you approach a story. Maybe you’re looking into a murder or something that hasn’t been done before in a documentary. Just picking a subject that people haven’t overdosed on previously is the hardest thing really.
Your angle and your strategic approach to whatever it is you’re trying to do is the most important thing. Before you even pick up a camera, I think.
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The Man From Mo’Wax is out in selected UK cinemas on August 31. Fans can also buy tickets and create their own screenings at themanfrommowax.com. It will be released on September 10 as a digital download and limited-edition Blu-ray/DVD via the BFI.Tags: