Mark Joffe: Working Class Director

September 6, 2018
Veteran Australian director Mark Joffe (Cosi, The Man Who Sued God) was hand-picked by Jimmy Barnes to direct the documentary Working Class Boy. With the film now smashing the Australian box office, we caught up with the filmmaker to discuss how it all came together.

How did you originally come on board the project and what was it that intrigued you about it?

I came on board because Jimmy approached me. He was getting hounded by a lot of television executives to do his biopic. I’d done a couple of biopics and he asked me what I thought and we both agreed that the biopic wasn’t the way to go because they’re not always effective, especially with Jimmy’s own story being so dramatic. So we thought it’d be much better to do a documentary in the style of the classic documentaries that we both loved: things like The Last Waltz, No Direction Home, Living in the Material World, Senna, Amy. Those ones where nothing is contrived, you don’t necessarily hear a narrator. We both thought it would be perfect to show his life in that form, especially after his book and his stage show.

What was your main task in translating those to the screen?

We had to give it another layer. We wanted to cinematically capture it and add another layer to both those things. Basically we had the stage show as a sort of template, but our story producer worked hard on putting a structure to it. The absolute aim, the absolute rule we stuck to was that there was to be no artifice: no dramatic recreations. We had an idea about how we were going to shape it, but the aim right from day one was respect, no judgement, and no artifice.

How open was Jimmy to the process?

Very much. He’s a wonderful collaborator, very generous, and honest – he’s a no bullshit sorta guy, really knows what he’s talking about, and knows his story. It’s much more than rock ‘n’ roll, the story – it’s about issues that society is still encountering now: domestic violence, abuse, alcoholism, all these things. But we’re not hitting anyone over the head, we’re showing these issues through the eyes of a young boy and so far in all our screenings it seems to have had an effect on many different levels. So it’s a documentary about him in one way and hopefully it’s entertaining with all the fabulous music throughout his life, but we’re also really hoping that the film has a lasting social impact.

The film is, from the viewer’s perspective, very much in Jimmy’s voice. Were you mindful of the presence of your own cinematic voice and how that might affect the end result?

I’ve done quite a few movies and some television but I don’t change my approach – I try to make things as honest as possible and believable. When I’m working with actors I don’t want anything that I don’t believe as I’m watching it, and normally I’m working with actors who understand and respect that. With documentaries the basic elements are the same – you’re just making it as honest and true as you can – no fakery, no dramatic recreations – they always seem to diminish things for me, depending on the material.

And also we wanted to make it cinematic – from day one we were shooting for the big screen. We wanted to make it a cinema experience, and to have an emotional impact, for people to have a visceral reaction.

There’s not as much music in the film as one might expect. How did you select the songs for the movie, and how do they comment on the action?

We all felt that the staged musical numbers were the spine of the film. They were chosen by Jimmy, and they were the songs of his life. We made decisions in post-production on how much of each song that we wanted, but they weren’t to be done in a film clip style – they were to be as elegant and effective as possible, and some of the songs we have all the way through. I think they compliment the drama as well as being the spine of the film, and they give you some space for reflection as you’re watching. Elegant is the word I like to use, and hopefully that comes across.

The film takes the Jimmy of today back to some of the locations of his youth, including Glasgow in Scotland and Elizabeth in South Australia. What was it like going with him on these journeys?

Nearly everything was gone – there were only a couple of things left. The thing is, Jimmy puts himself back into those situations, into those moments, easily. It’s a tough life he’s had up til now and for him to come through it is remarkable. A lot of the areas were knocked down, but we did find some areas and we went into the pubs and everywhere we went, including Elizabeth in South Australia, they did have a significant effect on him, and I would think that made it easy for him to relive some of those horrible situations. We were there to record it without actually pushing him. He easily transported himself back into that time.

What are you hoping the audience carries away with them after watching Working Class Boy?

Well I hope they’re entertained, for a start. I hope they’re surprised. One of our really big elements is that if you think you’re just going to see a Jimmy Barnes documentary, you’re pleasantly surprised by how much more you’re getting with this film. That’s been our experience so far. We’ve found the audiences are quite moved.

Working Class Boy is in cinemas now. Read our review here.


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