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“This is the first CD I ever bought,” says Alison Klayman holding up a worn copy of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, an album she has had since her pre-teens. “I have a vivid, visceral, emotional memory of lying on my twin bed with the album on the boombox and just poring over the lyrics in the CD insert.”
It’s with this deep-seated passion that the filmmaker, whose prior work includes docs on a variety of cultural and political figures that include Steve Bannon and flower artist Azuma Makoto, embarked on the making of the HBO documentary Jagged which takes a nuanced look at Morissette’s early career through the release and reception of her landmark studio album. The doc features an extensive sit-down with Morissette in her California home, as well as archival footage that tracks her rise from Canadian pop prodigy to a post-grunge singer-songwriter known for her confessional ballads.
The movie premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 13 before heading to the network via the Bill Simmons-produced Music Box series of documentaries. Prior to its festival bow, Klayman talked to THR about combing through Morissette’s massive personal archive and how a doc about Ai Weiwei prepared her Jagged.
When did you first begin talking to Alanis about the documentary?
It was a series of phone calls that then became FaceTimes and then she was down. I think in the interim she watched my films. I’ve never had a subject who I felt cared in that way about me. I’m there to forge a connection but I also want to blend into the background. I don’t want you to overly think about my presence too much, but she just was someone who was very interested in what it meant to do a documentary and who I was.
For production, were you working throughout the pandemic?
I was set to fly out for what would have been like— I don’t even know if I was going to shoot— but to hang out with Alanis in person and to get the archival [materials] out of storage and transfer everything to a digitizing house. It was the week that everything shut down. And it just became like, ‘Oh, we’re doing this in a very different set of circumstances.’ I ended up doing that trip at the end of July. It felt like the earliest that it seemed not totally crazy. JFK was like a zombie movie, nobody was there. It was me and my producer and thank god I didn’t downsize the rental car. I was like “Why do I need a van?” But we were just filled to the brim with all of these boxes of materials [from storage]. We had all these Hi8 tapes and VHS and video cam footage plus all the reels of film and, in the middle of abandoned downtown San Francisco, we were unloading all the material to Bay Area Video Coalition, which did the digitization and preservation. But it wasn’t like I got to review all that material before doing the master interview with Alanis. I think at that point I had maybe watched 20 hours of what we had because we were getting it in batches, as fast as they could do it.
Was the plan to shoot Alanis on tour, as well?
For practical reasons I probably would have tried to film one or two shows in a fairly big way to get that full coverage. It was a happy coincidence that it was going to be the 25-year anniversary tour. But it wasn’t that it was fundamental to see the shows today [for the documentary]. I think the really compelling stuff is the [archival] footage from ‘95 and ‘96. I had a sense that there’s going to be footage on buses or behind the scenes of shows. I was always betting that the archive was going to be the gem, but we were really taking a gamble.
What was your reaction when you finally saw what was in the archives?
There’s just a tiny shot of where she gets on stage and at a club show and you hear her voice from behind the camera and she’s like, “Here’s my perspective.” And you see the microphone in the center, and you just see how small the empty [club] space is and you that it’s going to get to be arena-size [venues]. She really understood that something special was happening without knowing where it was going to go. There’d be a lot of reasons to be like, “Well, I’ve very important things going on. And there’s a photographer who’s around all the time. They got it.” She had a really good instinct that something special was happening and that she should film it.
How did you go about making a doc for fans while introducing new audiences to her music?
My first film about Ai Weiwei was a perfect example of this because I needed this to satisfy the China journalists in the art world and his peers, and then also there’s a huge audience in America who doesn’t know about him or contemporary China. That’s always set me on a path of wanting to satisfy the insiders and the general audience. The real key was the team I had was not very big, and two key members of the team were at the age— probably like 30 to 31— where you’re like, “I’ve heard of Jagged Little Pill. I think I know a song?” My favorite thing was that after watching the final cut, Bill Simmons’ daughter the next day was playing “Ironic” on the piano.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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