How the Director of ‘David Bowie: The Last Five Years’ Created a Documentary From Virtually Nothing

David Bowie: The Last Five Years
Courtesy of BBC

Watching the documentary “David Bowie: The Last Five Years” — which aired on the BBC last year but sees its U.S. premiere tonight on HBO — it’s easy to get the sense that the artist allowed the filmmakers incredible access during the last few months of his life.

He didn’t.

The film was meticulously researched and assembled after Bowie’s death in January 2016 by BBC director Francis Whately, who knew and was friendly with the artist, having directed the 2013 documentary “Five Years,” which looked at five key years in the singer’s life and got a thumbs-up from Bowie himself. Yet this new film on Bowie’s final five years, during which the singer largely disappeared from public view, was commissioned after his death in January 2016. (It premiered in the U.S. at the NYC DOC Film Festival in November.)

Consequently, “The Last Five Years” was an extraordinarily difficult film to make. Despite Bowie’s fame and heavily documented life, the last dozen or so years are a media black hole: After he suffered a serious heart attack shortly after a 2004 concert in Germany, he hardly did any interviews, made only a handful of guest appearances, and used his legendary chameleonic abilities to attend concerts and films and wander his adopted hometown of New York and other cities relatively freely by dressing in ways that no one would never expect David Bowie to dress. This intense secrecy also meant that apart from some quiet rumors, his death from cancer on  Jan. 10, 2016 — two days after his 69th birthday, just three days after he’d released “Black Star,” which many feel is his best album in 35 years — came as a near-complete surprise to most of the world.

Through intense research and skillful editing and storytelling — Whately is quick to credit researcher Miriam Walsh and editor Jed Murphy — “The Last Five Years” is one of the most rewarding music documentaries in recent memory, combining archival and previously unaired footage of Bowie with new interviews with bandmembers, video collaborators and others (including longtime producer Tony Visconti and musical collaborators Earl Slick, Gail Ann Dorsey, Gerry Leonard, Carlos Alomar, Sterling Campbell, Donny McCaslin, Maria Schneider and others) to create a vivid picture of Bowie’s last years. Variety talked about the film last week with Whately, a BBC veteran who has also directed documentaries about such wide-ranging topics as soccer, Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright, actress Judy Dench, the fashion industry and artists Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollack.

Did you realize when you agreed to make this film that you’d have almost no material to work with?
When I said yes, I was making the film about Judi Dench and I didn’t really think about it — then I had a lot of sleepless nights! But then one day I thought, “I know, I’ll get the bands back together and get them to talk me through it, and then make it about the past and look at fame through ‘Stars are Out Tonight’ [Bowie’s comic 2013 music video co-starring Tilda Swinton] and the key songs on [his later] albums through the prism of his entire career.” And then we made it in four months!

How did the idea come about?
When David passed away, the BBC showed the full 90-minute version of [“Five Years”] — which I gather has been seen by 100 million people, which is incredible — and they asked if we could do something new. At first I thought “I don’t know whether there’s anything new to be done,” but then I thought the last five years of his life were fairly fascinating and I didn’t think anyone else would approach that. The BBC gave me carte blanche, really, to make the film I wanted to make — but yes, it was tricky.

Bowie was famously private. How did you get everyone to cooperate?
His people knew that I was doing the film, and I guess I had a fair wind behind me from the first film — everyone was aware that David had been very happy with it — so getting people on board was relatively easy, in that they knew I wasn’t interested in his marriage or his daughter or how many drugs he’d taken in the 1970s; they knew it would be respectful if not hagiographic. I saw no reason to tear down this icon but I also saw no reason to have celebrities gushing: I wanted to keep it to the people who were professional with him, the musicians, the video collaborators, the producer of the “Lazarus” play [for which Bowie wrote the music], et cetera.

Where did you find the footage of the last few years?
A myriad of sources. I had a brilliant archive researcher called Miriam Walsh and she just finds things. Now, finding things that would work with what he said [in the film] was difficult, but we had trawled through so many interviews for the first film that we had a huge file [organized] — him talking on this show or that show about being famous or whatever. There was a little extended stuff from the [2013 music video] “Where Are We Now,” which is more than the public has ever seen before. Bowie himself collected a lot [of videos of himself] and they may emerge one day — I know of things in the vault that may or may not ever come out — and he famously would be on eBay and anything interesting that came up he would buy. But some of the quotes we used were so general that they would apply equally to the last five years of his life as they did to the 1970s. My editor, Jed Murphy, is utterly brilliant.

Did any of the musicians tell you about more songs in the vault?
I think there are more songs, yeah. There’s a sort of veil of secrecy about it, but I think there’s at least another half-an-album’s worth of [“Black Star”-era] songs that I think will come out someday. There’s a lot [of unreleased material]: a whole [1978] concert was filmed but he was not happy with it; only six songs from his [2000] Glastonbury Festival show were released. There’s a wonderful track of him singing “Little Toy Soldier” to the backing of [the Velvet Underground’s] “Venus in Furs.” I interviewed Lou Reed once and told him about it and he said “Can you get that for me?” I said, “If you answer my next question I will get it for you” and he said “This is not a hostage situation!” (Laughter) But there’s a that I think will come out someday.

You knew Bowie, yes?
I had met him and I was in email contact with him, yeah. I certainly wouldn’t consider myself a friend of his, although I admired and respected him. But we’re both Brits and we had some similar sensibilities, so I would send him things on science fiction and early 20th century British art and the World Cup and films and TV documentaries, and he would send me book recommendations and things like that — we both loved Junot Diaz’s “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.” He was incredibly well-read, and had an eye for what was interesting and new — he was on the Arcade Fire and TV on the Radio and Lorde very early. And I don’t flatter myself that I was the only one, I think there were lots of people feeding him information and he was clever enough to synthesize it.

I think the reason why we had a relationship, such as it was, was because I didn’t want anything from him. I was just a normal person who he’d talk with about books. I steered away from talking about music — I suppose he knew I was a fan, because when I met him we talked about [the 1969 deep cut] “Cygnet Committee,” and he said [imitates Bowie’s London accent] “Oh that’s a strange song, isn’t it, Francis?,” but I didn’t want to let on too much. And I think if I’d ever asked him for something, he would have shut down.

How did you meet?
There used to be these little two-minute films about art that ran on the BBC before a news program called “News Night.” We had to get celebrities for them and I was given 10 of those to make — and one was about modern British sculpture. It’s quite difficult to find celebrities who know anything about that! But I knew he collected so I wrote a letter to his office in New York, and he phoned me and said he would love to do it. Can you imagine trying that with Taylor Swift today?

Do you have a sense of why he wanted to be basically a normal family man for the last decade of his life?
Yeah. I think he’d missed out on Duncan [a.k.a. Zowie, Bowie’s son, born in 1971] and his childhood, and [Bowie] was out of his head [with drugs and fame] during a lot of those wonderful years, from age 2 to 10. He’d missed that completely, and then his son went away to boarding school. I think he thought, “I’m gonna see my daughter [Alexandra, born in 2000] grow up, I want to take her to school and hang out with the other dads and meet her teachers and be there for school assemblies” and all that. I think that meant a lot to him and he realized the real things in life are what matter. And of course something like [his 2004 heart attack] makes you re-evaluate your life.

I met someone recently who said that he went to a gym in [Bowie’s New York neighborhood] every day and met this guy and they’d come into the gym at around the same time every day and chat. And after about three months someone said, “You know who that is, right? It’s David Bowie.” He’d had no idea at all, and this guy was a fan! And a couple of weeks later Bowie stopped going to that gym, maybe he sensed people were noticing.

Because he was so private, was it difficult getting people to talk freely?
Um… yeah, especially with the “Black Star” band. [Other musicians in the film] knew me from the first film, and they didn’t know about the cancer [while Bowie was alive] so it was easier — they were far more open. The “Black Star” band were probably still under non-disclosure agreements, so I think it was difficult for them. There one was question I asked that clearly made them very uncomfortable — it was fairly innocent question, I think I asked them when he’d told them [he had cancer]. But yes, there was a lot of sensitivity and I think he was surrounded by very loyal people. I will take a huge number of the stories that he told me, or that other people told me about him, to my grave.