Seventeen years in the making, the debut feature film and passion project from director Jonathan Alley on the life and times of the late, enigmatic, genius-touched musician David McComb has made its mark in numerous film fests.
Now Love in Bright Landscapes: The Story of David McComb of The Triffids is available to own with some brilliant exclusive extras – so we put some questions to its maker.
How long in the making was this, your first feature-length music documentary – from conception right through to final edits – and what initially attracted you to this project?
I had the idea over a pot in the Northcote Social Club in 2005. I did precisely nothing about this until 2007, when I left Madman Entertainment, where my co-producer was also working at the time.
In 2008, we shot our first interviews at the Triffids reunion at Sydney Festival. Footage from these reunion shows is also on the newly released DVD. In 2009 we went to WA and shot landscapes and several valuable interviews with David’s family and friends, that remain in the cut to this day. In 2010, after cutting a pitching trailer, we ran out of money. We limped along on the back of the odd CD sale of our fundraising tribute live album Deep in a Dream (still available!), shooting interviews here and there. After shooting some great interviews in 2012 and 2013, we secured private investment, went overseas and secured the cooperation of the estate and family. The archive material from this changed everything. Between 2017 and 2019 we were re-editing, re-shooting and re-writing. COVID came along in 2020 and 2021, so we used that time to secure a distributor, some completion investment from Film Victoria, and complete a sound mix and grade. And, here we are.
What attracted me?
I met Dave McComb in 1994, having seen him play solo and in The Blackeyed Susans. His innate charisma, wit, intelligence and command of his material stood head and shoulders above his contemporaries. Why was I seeing this person with 200 people, instead of 2000? Then he died in 1999, and I wondered what had happened to him. So, taking us back to the NSC and the pot of beer: I was reading the PBS FM radio station magazine, and there was a story on Dave. I decided then and there to make a film. So, I did!
When did you first become aware of the music of The Triffids? Do you remember the first time you ever heard one of their songs? If so, which song was it, were you immediately hooked and does that particular song remain a favourite of yours to this day?
I first heard the Triffids as a teen, living in New Zealand in 1987. They were so elegant, mature, nuanced and melodic, I thought they were English. They were on an English label, Island Records, at the time, and the clip for Bury Me Deep in Love was shot in a Welsh coalmine. Was I hooked? No; I was 16, and they were too sophisticated and out of reach for me then.
I started doing radio shows in 1989, the year the last Triffids record – The Black Swan – came out. I remember thinking New Year’s Greetings was just incredible, at the time. But then they ended up taking a break that turned into forever, and I forgot about them for a while.
When I moved to Melbourne and started doing radio on Triple R, I’d raid the CD library. I found the live album Stockholm and pushed Property is Condemned as loud as it would go. Now I was hooked. It scared the other records in my living room into a corner. It sounded totally contemporary, but then I discovered the song had been written in 1982/83. It was bitter and howling and enveloping, and I just wanted to know more. I still do. A favourite? It’s all my favourite: but Field of Glass, Stolen Property, Tarrilup Bridge, Save What You Can, New Year’s Greetings and Too Hot to Move Too Hot to Think might end up on the desert island with me, let’s just say that.
How did you go about assembling the talking heads who would feature throughout? Were there any interview subjects suggested to you during the course of making the film that you may not have previously been aware of, but who ended up featuring quite prominently or added a fresh perspective?
The story dictated who we used. That’s why a lot of non-musical figures in his life consistently appear, and some musical people who were interviewed, do not. Whatever propelled the story forward, we used. It’s also about gut instinct – as the whole film is.
Interview selection was based on those responses that made an emotional connection, rather than just being information. I was also conscious of keeping talking heads off camera; you’ll maybe notice that in some cases we use interview audio with other footage, rather than keeping the talking head on screen (once we’ve met the interviewee and know who they are).
We spent a wonderful long weekend on the NSW South coast with The Triffids’ former manager Sally Collins – who appears plenty in the film – and she gave us insights into some of the people that were important to Dave, who weren’t music figures – like his friend Bill Dunbar, who’s great value. Also, Adam Peters’ interview was quite revelatory in both its candour and quality: he had written with Dave plenty in The Triffids and beyond, but the depth of their close personal friendship gave us great material. That interview was shot in LA, where he works as a film composer with people like Oliver Stone, at the end of a very long international shoot; but it was worth going all the way to LA to get it.
I feel Dave’s former partner Joanne Alach underpins our entire third act; she was very brave, candid, level-headed and steadfast. But she was honest: all I could ask.
At what point in the filmmaking process did Australian author DBC Pierre come on board to read McComb’s poems, letters and lyrics? Was this decision a structural game-changer?
In 2009, DBC Pierre wrote a chapter in the book Vagabond Holes, a collection of writings about David, that was published by the late Niall Lucy (who also appears in the film). His very incisive and personal piece suggested that one reason The Triffids make more sense in 2022 than they did in 1986, was that the clash of romantic elegance and dark discomfort – expressed quite unconsciously – is the perfect sonic backdrop to the sense of the world falling away from beneath our feet. The feeling grows with the music, basically.
We went to the UK in late 2015, and met Pierre in a strange small town in Cambridgeshire in some backwater hotel, and he gave us this really erudite, engaging interview. I was listening to him answer questions on my headphones during the interview and had the lightbulb moment: ‘This is the guy to read the poems and letters.’ It’s not just that he sounds like Russell Crowe on two packs a day (and he does); he just had this empathy for the material. He got it at the gut level required.
A year later he was in Australia for only one day, and I went up to Sydney and did a day in a studio with him. When the poems were published posthumously, I knew I had to find a place for them in the film. Too little would be remiss, and too much just very lazy. So the idea to include them was incorporated into early drafts. It was just a matter of the right person. The rest of Pierre’s interview is also included as a DVD extra if people are curious.
What are a couple of revelations you had about McComb while researching and creating this film? Have any of your opinions about what type of man he was changed at all?
During the final cut, it occurred to me that we’d made a film about a man who got quite lost, despite his fierce intelligence and utterly unswerving, driven determination, to find success on his own terms. David was happy enough with critical acclaim and audience appreciation of his work, but there’s no doubt he also wanted those big hit singles that eluded him. He wanted commercial success – but only on his own terms.
When I consider the key conflicts in the film, they aren’t between Dave and various lovers, or Dave and the record industry, or Dave and his parents’ expectations of him. They are within Dave himself. Things – his band, the industry, his health, some of his relationships – got beyond him. He was an innately private person who truly charmed those around him – not in any nefarious way at all – but it’s obvious he showed certain sides of himself to certain people. He remains enigmatic to me, even after all this time. I’m hardly alone in this: Graham Lee (from The Triffids) said “We never really knew him” during a [post-screening] Q&A with myself and Dave’s brother Rob McComb, and that floored me slightly. But when I think about, it shouldn’t.
The letters he wrote to his elder brother John, that form a strong narrative thread in the film – we only got access to those in the last couple of years before the final edit; [they] go back and forth over several years from the late ’70s onward – in those pages we hear his authentic voice. And it’s gentle, and thoughtful, and real. He was just private about it. I have mixed feelings still about their inclusion, but they were too revealing of him not to use.
What sort of impact has making this film had on you as a fan of the great man’s musical output? Would you say you listen to some of these songs differently after living with them and dissecting them through a filmmaker’s lens?
His music kicked me in the bum when I needed it, all through the making of the film. The songs, as Nick Cave puts it, truly did “become my friends.” All through the writing, filming, editing and post process, they never failed to show up when needed. His songs are unique to reveal themselves in new ways continually, even years after you first hear them. They still do. I think they always will do; and that’s David McComb’s genius right there – he left these ever-evolving gems that don’t stay still. They are, as he says at the opening of the film, essentially love songs; they’re about what it is to be a human being.
No matter your orientation, gender, background, etc – one day you’ll fall in love. These songs relate to all people, for all time, for that reason. These songs will be around as long as we are. They deserve to be, and I hope the film contributes to their longevity in whatever small way it can. I never got sick of the songs, ever.
Love in Bright Landscapes: The Story of David McComb of The Triffids is out July 6 via Madman.