Nick Cave for “The Proposition”

Sipping a cup of tea in a Toronto hotel room, publicity shy Nick Cave, songwriter, musician, some time actor , icon and now screenwriter, seemed relaxed and upbeat in the midst of Toronto’s annual film festival, which was premiering his Australian western, The Proposition, directed by friend John Hillcoat and starring Guy Pearce.

The pair no longer call Australia home, fitting, as Cave has often been defined as being on the outer. He lives in England these days, Brighton to be precise, and only returns to Australia when works compels him to do so. He thrives on the anonymity that Brighton holds for him, and tries to ignore the icon status that has been thrust upon him over the years. “I like it from a distance,” Cave says, smilingly. “I am happy to be an icon and from a distance get good press and all that kind of stuff but I don’t like it when I am there, I don’t like walking around Australia and being an icon, ” he confesses. The musician says he has a love/hate relationship with the Australian public. “They are just like ‘g’day Nick, geez you are looking like fucking shit’. They are a bit like that and find that a little after the third or fourth time of walking down the street it becomes annoying whereas in London no one gives a shit in that you could drop dead on the street and they would step over you and carry on,” he adds, laughingly.

While Cave is by no means giving up his music, he is emerging as an accomplished screenwriter. Take his latest script, The Proposition, a distinctly Australian western that takes the genre into new and intensely dark territory. Cave recalls that had ” been wanting to make an Australian western for over 17 years because he has been talking about doing this before we made Ghost of the Civil Dead,” for which Cave did the music as well as acted in. “For one reason or another it wasn’t really getting together and then a script was written, which we felt was good but also felt that it was an American story stuck in Australia and didn’t really have much relevance to Australia at all. I complained about that and John suggested that I write it and so I did,” Cave explains. “But what was interesting to me about being approached about it was that writing a script was in a way the secondary thing. I just wanted to work out how to go about the process of writing a screenplay and as it turned out it felt a very natural thing for me to do.” Natural, because “it is just telling a yarn and story, then basically you just write. I mean I have watched so many thousands of hours of good, bad and in between films over the years and it was just this joy to be able to lie in bed at night after writing your 10 pages or whatever and think: What can I have these characters do now and I could make them do whatever I wanted them to do, so that was a really exciting process for me,” Cave explains.

The musician/screenwriter admits to parallels between film and music, but readily adds that “you can go deeper with film, and really run with something for an extended period of time. With a song you are constantly back at the start again, you write one song you are back at having to work out what your theme is again and what you want the next song to be about. But to tell an extended story like a film is something that feels quite natural for me.” The challenge for Nick was to avoid making an American western yet at the same avoiding an overt parochialism. Cave sees the film as being both Australian yet intrinsically universal. “I don’t think you can even consider those things and at the time you just write the best thing that I personally could write.”

Cave seems comfortable with his tea in one hand and sense of jocularity, but in reality he shuns the limelight while recognising, here in the midst of one of the world’s premier film festivals, an unfortunate need to flog your product. “I mean I am in a band, I do music and rock n roll so there is this desperate need to flog your product at these things. There is something that initially seems incredibly sort of vulgar and tasteless about the whole enterprise but after a while you just realise that is just the way it is and that there is a hell of a lot of films being made and only a certain amount of cinemas that they can be shown in so you’ve just gotta do it.”

He says there are different attitudes between marketing one’s music and film. “It is very different, because first of all to actually make a film is something that requires an enormous amount of commitment and patience when you take one idea and three years later to be kind of talking about it,” explains Cave. “With a record you write 13 songs or something, go into a studio put it out, it comes out and you do a few interviews.”

Cave is by no means specializing in film though he and Hillcoat are collaborating on a secretive new film to be set in England. Also “I am working on all sorts of stuff, including music for theatre, music for films, and my own stuff.” Which includes, adds Cave, “a new record soon.”

While Cave is currently in Australia doing some publicity for The Proposition, he generally return annually “for one reason or another. I have a different relationship with it, in that I don’t live there anymore and I am almost tearful to go back there and screaming to get out after a couple of months and I don’t know why that is, because I really love it.”