When we spoke a few days ago on WhatsApp, Nick Broomfield was in lockdown in Ojai, outside LA, contemplating the edit of his next film. Like the rest of the world he is turning to Zoom, but not just for the business of checking in with friends and family, more to oversee the mechanics of cutting.
He is about to put shape on a new work which itself marks a return to familiar ground, a follow-up to his Biggie & Tupac (2002) which was about the murders of the two notorious US rappers. This time the spotlight will be more squarely placed on Suge Knight (hence the film’s possible/probable title Biggie, Tupac and Suge), the former head of Death Row Records who is alleged to have played a role in the murders.
Broomfield was persuaded by Pam Brooks (star of his Tales from the Grim Reaper, 2014, about LA serial killer Lonnie Franklin) to take a look at the gangs that had dominated LA in the 1990s. These were the outfits who, according to the director, became “part of Death Row Records and of that incredible money-making machine that was also ultimately responsible for deaths of Biggie and Tupac.”
“Pam again has been kind of a guide, introducing me to all these ex-gang prison guys who ran Death Row [and] still live in Compton, and they basically opened themselves up,” says Broomfield. “They obviously didn’t incriminate themselves but have given a very good idea of what it was like [at the record company] and how it happened.”
The director explains the core theme of the film. “Suge, he’s obviously the last man standing [even though he is serving 28 years in prison for voluntary manslaughter, eligible for parole 2037]… but it’s about the rise and fall of these amazing people,” he says. “All three of them were claimed by their fascination for gangs and violence. Biggie and Tupac were brilliant artists … and both of them were ‘A’ stream students. Biggie went to a private school, and Tupac got a scholarship to the Baltimore school of the Arts which is an amazing institution, but they were obsessed with street culture, and probably either of them could have done many other things… And they had this incredible friendship between them, kind of a love affair, that ended in disaster… it’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy.”
The director managed to time the film-shoot reasonably well, losing just one interview to corona, which would have involved a flight to San Francisco a matter of days before eventual lockdown.
“I had the feeling that I needed to get this film in the can pretty quick, so we started shooting before we really had all the funding in place,” Broomfield adds. “We thought we’d do the shoot and then we’ll do a North American deal after we have shot the film, so I am in the process of finding a North American partner as well. It’s a rather eccentric way of working. Most people sit around for months waiting to get the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed before they go into production, whereas I tend to go as soon as I possibly can and then get the funding.”
Broomfield will start the edit before the end of April, looking to finish by the end of September. He concedes that the likes of Zoom are undoubtedly an invaluable resource to turn to during a global pandemic that has rendered just about all of civilization housebound. You can see the cuts being applied in real time on a shared screen, he points out, and it is easy to communicate your wishes, needs and desires. It was how Sex: My British Job (2013) was cut, he says, to the satisfaction of him and his colleagues.
“But it’s not as great as being in a room with somebody and sharing jokes and having an adventure while you are working. You are deprived of all that,” says Broomfield. “It’s not a delightful way to work, and you don’t quite have those sort of wonderful inspirational talks that you do sometimes in an editing room or when you are [outside] having lunch or something.”
“We’re basically animals and are very instinctual about each other,” he continues. “I am somebody who deals very much with intuition and instinct and obviously you get a lot more information when you meet somebody. Their body language, how they are, their being tells you a lot of really important things that their CV doesn’t tell you.”
“Of course [working in an edit suite] is a much more pleasurable way of working because that human contact is what is so special. We all need it,” he underlines.
Widening the discussion, Broomfield further argues that the danger of extreme isolation is as much something to bear in mind as protection from infection.
“It is very interesting. I was listening to a podcast by a guy called Charles Eisenstein where he is sort of analysing the coronavirus and its bigger implications in terms of civil liberties and all that kind of stuff, but he was also saying that by far the biggest killer, far greater than corona or diabetes or any of these other things, is loneliness and people being alienated and separated from each other… and I think somehow we don’t really factor that in.”
And how does Broomfield assess life in the time of corona within his adopted homeland of the US?. “Obviously it’s become very hard living here,” he responds. “The human factor is so small in the politics here. It’s all to do with the lack of any health care, the enormity of the threat if you get sick. It is not a caring society. All that stuff about [how] we are going to go back to work [after] Easter… it’s very hard not to get very disheartened by it all.”
“America is not known for its amazing education system and there is a curious lack of information here [and] no wonderful source of information like the BBC… Of course there are amazingly educated parts of this country, but in the main that’s not the case,” he adds.
“It’s very weird being here, with this very strange, almost biblical plague, and at the same time you have this tyrannical leader [Trump] and a country that basically supports him. That’s the most awful thing. He kind of is the leader that the country deserves and that they want. That’s the most depressing thing.”