James Moll Talks 'Foo Fighters' Documentary 'Back and Forth'
In this Q&A, the filmmaker discusses working with Dave Grohl and Co. after the film's SXSW world premiere.
Dave Grohl and the Foo Fighters call to mind many things, but not necessarily Holocaust documentaries. So it seems like an odd pairing at first that the new documentary about the band, Foo Fighters: Back and Forth, which had its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last week, was directed by James Moll, who won an Oscar for his 1998 debut, The Last Days. Between then and now, Moll has created similarly heavy nonfiction work -- Price for Peace (World War II), Inheritance (the Nazi legacy) and Running the Sahara (desert marathoners), plus Mat Hames' When I Rise (racism), which Moll produced and brought to the Austin fest in 2010. Looking for something different, Moll finally got his shot at a rock doc with the Foos, and the festival crowd’s response to it last week went to 11.
Sitting in the Zilker Clubhouse outside of downtown Austin -- while the various Foos ambled in to the buffet and then back out to the smoking terrace, one after another -- Moll spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how he got former band members to participate, why he captured a Nirvana-related reunion moment that he then cut from the film and how making the doc inspired him to buy a guitar.
The Hollywood Reporter: Was bringing the film to Austin and SXSW always part of the plan?
Moll: We didn’t know we were going to get into SXSW. We didn't know we were going to finish the movie in time. It's one of the fastest postproductions I’ve ever been involved with. Four months -- started the end of October and locked picture by the end of February.
THR: When did you actually do the shooting?
Moll: At that period. That was the time when they were recording the album. They finished in December. But we did some more shooting in January because of the Roxy performance that’s at the end of the film. And Franz Stahl didn’t agree to do the interview until very late in the process.
THR: Who was the hardest to get to participate? Obviously, Goldsmith and Franz -- how did you get them to commit? Did Dave have to get involved?
Moll: No. Obviously, I wanted to interview the former members as well as the current members, because the concept of the movie is the story of the Foo Fighters as told by the Foo Fighters, not interviewing the managers and everybody else that’s been involved with their careers. That’s just so that we can get an opportunity to get to know them, because if you think about it, there’s very little screen time that they really get, the number of minutes each, when there are five members of the band, plus Butch Vig. So I definitely wanted to interview the former members of the band. But the original drummer, William Goldsmith, hasn’t kept in touch with Dave over the years. He kept in touch with Nate [Mendel], because of Sunny Day Real Estate, and so Nate did put in a call to him. But he at first didn’t want to be involved with the project. I did reach out to him on my own first via e-mail, and he did respond tentatively, we had a bit of a back and forth. Eventually, we spoke on the phone for a while. But it’s been my approach to filmmaking in general when it comes to documentaries not to pressure people to participate. If they don’t want to participate, there’s plenty more for the story that we can find. Maybe it goes back to my creation of the Shoah Foundation, and that was our philosophy then, as well. We told Holocaust survivors that we’re here if you want to come and give your testimony. So basically I put that out to William Goldsmith, and we spoke a lot on the phone back and forth, and I think we got to a point at which he trusted me, that I’m not out to try to make a film that’s exploitive. It’s really just to tell his history and give him an opportunity to give his side of his story, to talk about his experience.
THR: And you hope that that is somehow therapeutic, too, that he gets to prove that he was part of the formation of the band and have his final say about what happened.
Moll: I think ultimately that’s exactly the case. I certainly didn’t go into it expecting it to be therapeutic for him, but I think that turns out in many cases in documentaries when you sit down with someone for a long extensive interview and they start reliving these experiences, it can be kind of cathartic.
THR: It’s an odd juxtaposition going from all your Holocaust work to the Foos, but how did you get hooked up with this? And did you find any narrative similarities as you went along?
Moll: That I’ve never been asked. Nigel Sinclair, producer at Spitfire Pictures, had seen one of my films called Inheritance, about the daughter of Amon Goeth, a Nazi perpetrator -- very different subject matter, a very heavy film. And he liked it and he wanted to meet with me, and he asked me, "What do you want to do next?" And among the few scripted, non-documentary projects that I have in development, I said, "I don’t want to do another documentary right now, but I’ve always wanted to make a rock documentary." I had interviewed to do the Dixie Chicks documentary a few years ago, the one that Barbara Kopple made [Shut Up & Sing, 2006]. I interviewed with management a few times on that and I didn’t get the gig. I’m a musician, I’m from a very musical family.
THR: What do you play? Were you ever in a band?
Moll: Keyboards. I was never in a band. I had to decide between music school and film school, and I chose film school. And I haven’t looked back, though I still play.
THR: Really? And doing this documentary didn’t stir up any rock-star dreams?
Moll: Of course it did. Absolutely. Are you kidding? I wanted to set up the equipment in my living room. Not rock-star dreams, but just for fun to kind of get back to it. But this film’s the next best thing.
THR: Did you get a chance to jam with them at all?
Moll: No. No.
THR: Dude, come on. You had to ask.
Moll: [laughs] I couldn’t do it. It’s way too intimidating with these guys. I play keyboards, but I want to buy a guitar and learn guitar. And I was going to ask [Foos guitarist] Chris Shiflett for a recommendation, and then I’m like, I can’t do that. That’s ridiculous! So I didn’t. I didn’t even tell them that I wanted to do this, how this inspired me. Because I figure they hear it all the time.
THR: Are you a fan of rock documentaries? What are your favorites, and did you have any in mind when you were approaching this?
Moll: I am. I’ve seen a lot of rock documentaries, but when this started to look like it was going to become a reality for me I intentionally did not go and watch rock documentaries. I intentionally didn’t watch rock documentaries because I was thinking, "OK, I want to do an approach that’s whatever’s coming from me, whatever’s organic to the process, and not try to be judging it by what other people have done in the past." And then I’m tremendously insecure anyway, so I don’t need that. But it was interesting, in my first meeting with the band, they did ask me about rock documentaries: "What is this going to be like?" And Taylor [Hawkins], who’s a big fan of rock documentaries specifically, was asking me about documentaries, and I wouldn’t answer him. Because I said, "We don’t want to compare this to anything."
THR: They didn’t say, "We want Song Remains the Same 2"?
Moll: No, there was some talk of [the Metallica documentary] Monster, I think because of the sort of bizarre therapist approach. Even though in the end, I think with the interviews that I did with each of them, they were each very in depth and very open and very honest. I was a bit surprised by that and very happy, very pleased. Ultimately, the stories do intercut very well.