GQ OCTOBER 2011 - by Andy Morris


They call it "Bonolese": a unique form of scatt-ish nonsense spouted by the lead singer of U2 when the band are sketching out songs. Footage of this rehearsal gibberish is one of the many surprises found within From The Sky Down, a new film by Davis Guggenheim that charts the creation of Achtung Baby. Bookended by U2's Glastonbury appearance this summer, Guggenheim (best known for Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and the music documentary It Might Get Loud) is given unprecedented access to both the band members themselves and to previously unseen footage from deep within their archives. "What is also interesting to me was seeing them in the studio trying to remember how to play Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses or So Cruel", says Guggenheim, sitting in a tiny all-white hotel room in London's The Dorchester. "You see it in the movie - Edge and Bono looking at each other saying 'I think the chords are this.'" Following an acclaimed debut at the Toronto film festival, Guggenheim talks to GQ about Brian Eno's intellect, the band's worst fashion mistake and whose story he wants to tell next...

GQ: From The Sky Down has some very funny moments. Why was it important to bring out the humour of U2?

Davis Guggenheim: On It Might Get Loud, Edge said to me immediately. "We have to be humorous. Because rockstars in general come off as too self-serious. Who cares about the trials and tribulations of famous rich people trying to write songs?" Humour is the great thing that gives levity to the storytelling. To be a good musician you have to take it very, very seriously. But it comes off to other people that you think you're the only person in the world... and how dare you be such a self-centred human being.

Brian Eno seems quite intimidating. Was that your impression of him?

I felt like I was sitting in front of a giant brain. I could close my eyes and see his flesh melt away, his bones disappear and all you would see is a brain with a thousand wires going off - and I could have plugged the wires right into my camera. I was half way through shooting the movie and I asked him [the key] question: how did U2 stay together? We think we know what a band is but we probably only understand it on very superficial levels. I said to him "Forget the way most people think of it - be an anthropologist Brian!"

What was your abiding memory of Glastonbury?

My son and I trying to go from one tent to another in twelve inches of mud that could have been glue. Mud in America is not nearly as adhesive. If you took the wrong step, your foot would come right out of the boot. Also they had a backstage area and my son was eating lunch next to this very quiet unassuming African American eating his potatoes - then I realized that it was the lead rapper in the Wu Tang Clan who was just about to go on stage and talk about banging hoes.

It was interesting to watch Bono talking about creating an identikit rockstar - sunglasses inspired by Lou Reed, leather trousers from Jim Morrison, jacket (and hair) from Elvis Presley. What's your favourite fashion moment in the film?

That's a GQ question! It is fun to look at what they did wear. They had some great clothes and they made some terrible mistakes. Larry always has done well though because he's always stuck with the Harley Davidson buckle. Fashion wasn't very good to us in the '80s. If you look at both Bono and The Edge, you'll find some "interesting" choices...

There are a number of bandanas on screen...

In America we call it "the doo-rag". It helped Edge and it helped all of us when he found the beanie. The beanie works.

You're talked about your admiration for the documentaries Stop Making Sense and New York Doll. Which films did you bond with the band over?

It's funny, we didn't talk much about films but The Last Waltz is in there for sure. I'm a big fan of Errol Morris in all regards - particularly The Fog Of War and The Thin Blue Line. As much as I am frustrated by all Michael Moore's films, he's done a great job in terms of showing that documentaries have a place outside of this ghetto and that they can be entertainment. But I find them to be unfair to the people he makes the films about. He puts himself too much in front of his storytelling. [However] if Michael Moore hadn't been around to influence me, I wouldn't have put the sequence in From The Sky Down of all the reasons rock bands break up.

Was there a particular shot you wished you could have got?

Probably hundreds. Every scene I look at I think "I could have done that better". I would have liked to get more performing from them. Part of the ability is to hide the performance in the narrative - so Edge singing Love Is Blindness is perfect because he's singing the song but he's also telling a story. You're not just wading through a song. When the band sing One at the end it's also pretty great. I could have used a couple more songs in the movie but we just didn't have the time. We made this movie very quickly - four and a half months.

What was the most abstract thing you ended up discussing with Bono which didn't make it on screen?

The first hour we were talking about Irish poets. Knowing I had all this extra time, it was wonderful because I know he's going to settle in and that somewhere, when he chooses, he's going to tie it back to himself - and when he does he's going to bring all the emotion of talking about the great Irish poets. I could just talk about what's interesting to me - it's not just the obligatory "checking things off the list". Even more important, because I do a lot of dramatic stuff, tone is so important - the tone at which I got to interview them in a quiet reflective place really bleeds through in the movie.

It's amazing to see Bono storm off stage in the Rattle And Hum outtake...

I showed it to him and the band could have said "Cut everything out". Especially that scene - he's calling some of the stage hands assholes and idiots. Who wants footage of themselves having a fit? They didn't ask me to cut anything - so I was very lucky.

Who would you like to tell the story of next?

I would love to tell the story, from beginning to end, of Led Zeppelin. I've got one "in" there [laughs] but I need a few more! I'd also love to tell the story of Paul McCartney. I've been lucky to be able to get to people who have been very elusive. If I could get one of them I'd be very happy. I can't wait to see Martin Scorsese's George Harrison documentary.

You wouldn't fancy doing the Kanye West story?

I'd have to read more about it. I have to make movies about people I like. I could like him but I'm not sure [laughs]. I think he's a fascinating, brilliant, talented guy - and his Twitter doesn't tell the whole story.

Any intense encounters with obsessed U2 fans?

I had a fan in the editing room! Our schedule was very tight and we found an assistant editor who we thought was fantastic. She came in and said "I really want this job but there's one time I've got to be gone from Thursday to Saturday". I thought maybe someone in her family was getting married or she had exams - but she said U2 were performing in Seattle and I have to go. She was such an avid crazy fan that she would have preferred not getting the job than missing one show that was five hundred miles away.

Who is your best dressed British man?

I think Jimmy Page is the elder statesman of guitar gods. He has these long beautiful trench coats and these fabulous John Varvatos boots - this is why I got a pair for myself. Jimmy was pretty elegant. All the women in my office would have thrown themselves on him - including my wife.