Cinema Scandinavia: The musician St Thomas is perhaps best known in Norway. How did you hear about him and decide to make a documentary about him?
Richard Knights: ‘I’m Coming Home’ was the first St Thomas album I bought. This was back in 2001, after reading a review in the English press. Bookstore was my favourite song. For me, at only 1 minute and 52 seconds, it’s a perfect pop song. There’s a manic energy simmering just beneath the surface of that song, something intangible, ready to combust.
I’d only seen him play live once. It was a small venue and I remember it was seated, which was strange because it was so small. Thomas and his drummer played a loose, ramshackle set to a half empty room. A heckler shouted abuse between songs. I wish I’d walked up to Thomas at the end, selling his own merchandise, and said how much I’d enjoyed the show. But I never did. I never intended to make a film about him.
Many years later I was looking through racks in a record store for a new St Thomas release. That evening I went online and I saw that he’d died.
Now, I was looking for a side project. I sent an email to Thomas’s record label asking if we could make something about Thomas and spoke with Pal Klosterman at Racing Junior. I didn’t know anything about his personal life back then but when we travelled to Norway those first few times, I found a real warmth to the people we met and a heartbreaking story that added a new narrative depth to his music. I thought ‘let’s make a film, it’ll only take a year’ and so we did, but it took much longer than a year.
CS: The documentary is almost two hours in length, which makes it seem like you had a lot of archival footage…
RK: We ended up with a vast amount of archive and interview footage, which we sorted through over a five-year period. Everything was done in our spare time so it became a slightly staggered process. It obviously isn’t ideal working in such a ‘stop-start’ manner, but when you’re limited to a budget of pocket lint and spare buttons you must find creative solutions and ways of working you wouldn’t necessarily choose if you had a ‘proper’ budget.
There were only two of us across the whole production, and it was all very DIY. We travelled back and forth to Norway many times, all our equipment in two rucksacks and a couple of camera bags. In some ways, I think this helped to put people at ease and over the years we visited a huge number of interviewees who knew and played with Thomas and in long interview sessions, often lasting late into the night, we became completely absorbed by their stories. We hope that the intimacy of these very personal recordings come across in the film and that what we lost in extravagant production we gained in empathy.
So yes, after a period away from the film it could feel a bit overwhelming to sit down and be faced with this mountain of archive and interviews but we didn’t have the luxury of any shortcuts to the finishing line and it was a story that needed to be told.
During this extended production period, I began thinking of Thomas as this Peter Pan figure, set adrift in the ‘real world’. There’s something of ‘the boy that never grew up’ about him. I think some of it’s down to his naivety, or his non-conformist attitude but this purity or clarity of thought became very important to us. I don’t think he was an idealist, because I don’t think he wanted to change the world around him, but he very much wanted to believe he lived in a world that fitted in with this more ‘innocent’ viewpoint. This childlike aspect ended up defining the structure of the film and we decided upon a very linear way of telling the story, like a children’s book or a ‘Boys own adventure’. I remember one of his closest friends Espen saying ‘it’s not a sad story’ and to me it isn’t. Obviously, some aspects are completely heartbreaking but I never wanted it to be a tragedy, I wanted it to be an adventure story, with a very human heart at the centre.
CS: While this is a documentary about a Norwegian, the documentary is in English. Was it easy to convince the Norwegians this needed to be in English?
RK: Making a film for a country whose language you don’t speak has been both humbling and slightly nerve wracking. I still feel the need to apologise that it’s mainly in English, but the honest answer is the language barrier wasn’t something I’d even considered before we started making the film.
When it first dawned on me that we would need to conduct all the interviews in English I was a little concerned it would make us appear rude, or worse still arrogant. I needn’t have worried because there was a genuine kindness, warmth and acceptance from everyone we met. Early in the filming, Thomas’s parents wanted to do the interviews in Norwegian, so I agreed, without thinking, and after ten minutes realised it was impossible because I couldn’t understand anything they were saying. So, I asked if we could do the rest of the interview in English and they kindly agreed even though they are clearly much more comfortable at speaking in Norwegian
All these people, and Thomas himself made it easier for us. Thomas sang in English and he often spoke of it as well. He perhaps did this so his voice could reach outside the country he lived. Hopefully what we’ve done, in some small way, is take that voice and echo it back. Hopefully, maybe even carry it a little further.
CS: One important aspect of the documentary is how overwhelmed he became from the pressure of the media, especially considering how outspoken he was…
RK: The beautiful thing about Thomas’s songs is that so many of them are personal, ‘diaristic’, specific to how he was feeling, and what was happening at the time, and this is how we’ve tried to use them in in the film, fading in and out, giving Thomas a voice and hopefully a sense of narration from his perspective. His illness moved more to the fore in his song writing as it moved to the fore in his life and this can be heard in his music and his interviews with the press. But this honesty exposed him to a lot of criticism in the media, who I think to some extent, wrongly portrayed him as a rock and roll cliché, a spoilt, self-destructive brat and that’s a misrepresentation in so many ways. He drank and ‘self-medicated’ as a way of coping with an illness and the way that illness shaped the world around him. I don’t think he was someone throwing himself from a cliff edge but rather a man slowly tumbling down the increasingly steep hill he was born onto. In many ways, it became a self-destructive loop but he spoke, and sang, honestly about what he thought and how he felt right up until the end and I think that was a very courageous thing to do.
CS: The film has had its premiere in Norway. How was it received there?
RK: We had the Norwegian premiere at the Bergen International Film Festival in September. We had a great crowd and some positive reviews off the back of that. Throughout the screenings, we’ve received positive reactions to the film. Of course, a few fans have been disappointed by the lack of, for want of a better word, ‘reverence’ we’ve shown, but we didn’t want to sanitise the story or hold back on anything, because we felt to do so would have been a great disservice to the spirit of Thomas Hansen.
However, at the same time, there was a genuine concern that taking such an uncompromising approach might create additional pain for his friends and family. You start to question your motives when you contact grieving parents to tell them you’re making a film about their son. I can only imagine the pain of losing a child and I think this was when Thomas became a real person to me, rather than just ’the guy on the album’. However, from day one Thomas’s family were the warmest, most generous people you could hope to meet. Although it was painful for them, they agreed that the film should aim to be as honest as Thomas was. He was very open about the flaws that made him human and his family and friends were equally forthright in their interviews. As Espen, his close friend and guitarist, said to us during filming, “EVERYTHING has to be said to honour him.” Those words became a kind of a mantra to us as we worked on the film, and whenever I’d feel uncomfortable about something, I’d repeat those words in my head and aim for the truth, as painful and uncomfortable as that was at times.