Chills doco interview: “Could Martin Phillipps beat the monster of his own making?”

In Austin, Texas, attending the South By Southwest Film Festival, Dominic Corry spoke to director Julia Parnell following the world premiere of her documentary about Kiwi music icon Martin Phillipps of The Chills.

Parnell’s documentary The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps (co-directed by Rob Curry) explores the ups and many downs of the iconic Kiwi band that many see as the defining driver of the Flying Nun/Dunedin sound.

Although The Chills gained a considerable international following, they have perhaps become better known for their ever-revolving membership (there have been more than 25 members), and the personal stumbles endured by the band’s creative driving force. Martin Phillipps is appropriately the focus of Parnell’s film, and it’s an emotive and insightful journey into the mind of a truly singular talent.

Despite some serious medical dramas chronicled in the film, things are going reasonably well for Phillipps and The Chills at the moment. Currently signed to British independent label Fire Records, through which they released their second album Snow Bound last year (following 2015’s Silver Bullets), they recently toured America with their most consistent line-up in years, including a number of well-received shows at SXSW that saw The Chills included in press coverage such as Rolling Stone’s 30 Best Artists We Saw in Austin.

The Chills: The Triumph and Tragedy of Martin Phillipps is in Aotearoa cinemas May 2, coinciding with NZ Music Month.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FLICKS: It’s kind of amazing a documentary hasn’t already been made about this story.

JULIA PARNELL: Lots of people have tried to do it because, let’s be honest, Martin Phillipps has a dramatic tale. And it’s a pretty classic rise and fall. There’s been about six people who’ve tried to make a feature film about Martin Phillipps, and none of them happened.

How did your initial conversations with him go?

I had this opportunity to sit with him, I said ‘I can tell your story in a way that no one else can.’ I did a little bit of filming with him, and it was the first shoot day that he was told he could die in six to eight months if he didn’t change his lifestyle. And that happened very very early in the process, so that gave it the impetus really, he came home and he said literally, ‘I can’t believe the sum total of my career is to be sitting in Dunedin surrounded by things gathering dust’.

Did the responsibility of perhaps defining The Chills’ legacy weigh on you?

No. I don’t think so. Obviously, I took it very seriously. We talked to every single Chill that would speak to us. We made a big effort. Nicola Pepperkorn, the producer, and [co-director] Rob [Curry], we spent a long time making sure we knew the story. And there’s lots of different ways it could’ve been told in terms of just the historical narrative. But I just turned up at Martin’s house with questions, and he delivered what he wanted to. He told the story in the way that he wanted to, just as the other people told the story in the way they wanted to.

Did you find him a very willing interviewee?

Yes. When Martin Phillipps decided to make this film, he decided to be absolutely honest about everything. Maybe sometimes too honest. Some things I don’t need to hear. And [he wanted to] let whoever I was also going to talk with be honest about their Chills experience. He never vetted that or worried about that. He said: ‘Everyone’s entitled to their opinion and I’m entitled to mine,’. So I think he’s been very brave.

Were you concerned that the drama of his story would overshadow the music?

Don’t get me wrong, we went there. The whole point is: could Martin Phillipps beat the monster of his own making? And that’s what he had to work through himself. We’re talking about an alcoholic, someone completely dependent. He’s had to change everything. He’s had to take a good hard look at himself. My favourite line in the film is when he says ‘I’m not going to sacrifice the quality for a bit of team spirit’…while spray-painting dead cats.

What do you think he got out of making this film?

I’ve talked to him a lot about it since we finished, because I wanted to honour him, because he’s the one who put his life out there, so I wanted to be sure he felt okay. Other things have been going on for him too, it’s not like he’s just been making this movie. He’s just released his second album with Fire, Snow Bound, he’s actually making music that he wants to. He’s got the same band members, two of them for more than twenty years, a lot has been going on for him. But in terms of the film, I know that it’s been cathartic. Having somebody turn up to a house, however many times I did over two years, and keep asking questions… I know I wore him out but he stayed there and we took it one day at a time and he hopefully feels that I’ve done a good job for him. I mean, it’s not about doing a good job for him, but I hope that he does feel that I have honoured his story. The high highs and the very low lows.

Were there any elements you really wanted that you weren’t able to secure?

There was one band member from the Submarine Bells-era band, Andrew Todd, he didn’t want to be interviewed, we had reached out to him. But that’s fine.

Were you surprised by the level of The Chills’ international following?

I knew that going in.  The only way that the Chills film was going to get made was its international potential. It’s not easy to get any kind of documentary funded. [Funding came via NZ On Air and a TV broadcast commitment from Prime, as well as the NZ Film Commission]. We’ve got die-hard fans around the world and they’re die-hard Flying Nun and Chills fans, and we proved that [a Kickstarter campaign helped close the film’s financing], and that means I think this documentary can travel. Hopefully. The Chills were number one in college radio for a number of years. There’s a lot of 50 to 55-year-old white men who are now hopefully in influential positions, who will love The Chills until they die.

In making this film, have you drawn any conclusions about what defines a New Zealand musician?

Right now I’m also delivering six one hours called Anthems for Prime, about New Zealand music. Over the last year I’ve interviewed Lorde and Tim Finn and Neil Finn and Dave Dobbyn and everybody really. It’s kind of like there’s an independent spirit that runs through all NZ music. And we really make music that sounds like our country. Martin Phillipps, particularly, his songs sound like the Otago Peninsula. And I think you can’t draw a bow across every musician, but our sound is really obvious and different and unique and maybe a little bit quirky. There’s a kind of darkness in everything we make as New Zealanders. There’s something that’s a little bit off or something, right?

What would you like the audience to take away from this film?

It’s a universal story about mortality and I think to think about the mistakes you make and whether redemption and forgiveness is suitable for them, or anybody. Because Martin Phillipps made some big mistakes in his life. And I think we all have to look at ourselves in the mirror sometimes and that’s what I’ve tried to portray or at least to think about. And then just the music, you know? What is music? What is Dunedin?