The Great Hip Hop Hoax - Jeanie Finlay

3 September 13 words: Alison Emm
"I wanted to make a film about them: what they did was extraordinary, it wasn’t a logical reaction to rejection"
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Silibil n Brains. Photo: Goetz Werner

How did you first hear about Silibil n’ Brains?
I’d been away in Valencia, and was back home, lying in bed, catching up with all the weekend’s newspapers. I read about the hoax and thought, “I’m going to make a film about this.”

It was that instant? What other thoughts did you have when you read their story?
Just that I’m a really rubbish liar. It was a first for me, I’d never read a story in a newspaper and instantly thought I’d make a film of it. There were lots of little details that made it really compelling, like they’d never been to America but they’d pieced together enough about a whole society by watching the telly to impersonate that nationality. Also, my Dad is Scottish and I phoned him to tell him about the story and he was completely appalled that anyone wouldn’t want to be Scottish, it was inconceivable to him.

There was supposed to be an Irvine Welsh adaptation of their story…
I don’t know what happened to that - you never know, it could still get made. We were making our film but Gavin was tied to another production for a while, so when that other project didn’t happen it meant that he was free to come back to us. The whole tension of the film is that it’s a bromance that was corrupted by lying.

Did Gavin and Billy become estranged after the lie was discovered?
Well, you’ll have to watch the film, but I’ll say that the devastation of the lie left them not speaking for about five years afterwards. They only really spoke to each other after they’d see the film at the end of last year. It enabled the conversation and they got to hear the stuff that they should have said to each other. They were just being boys. But they recorded a new album together in February.

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Do you think their story is indicative of the entertainment industry?
There are levels and layers of storytelling in every industry: Lana Del Ray is described as being as fake as her lips, and Alice Cooper is a Republican that plays golf at the weekend. The reason I wanted to make a film about them was that what they did was extraordinary, it wasn’t a logical reaction to rejection.

How did the collaboration come about with Jon Burgerman?
The first time I met Billy Boyd, I looked at him and thought, “you’re like a Jon Burgerman character brought to life.” And he really was; his style, everything. I believe the John Cage thing that “the medium is the message”. They became two dimensional cartoon characters so why not animate them, and Jon was the perfect person to do that.

You got Scottish animators on board to animate Jon’s work – how did you hook up with them then?
Part of the investment was from Creative Scotland, and Jon’s not an animator, he’s an illustrator, so we wanted to find someone to bring his drawings to life. I found Will Anderson and Ainslie Henderson in a list of animators I was given. Their work seemed brilliant and it was gut instinct that I wanted to work with them. They’re both incredibly talented and humble, “We’ve made this film… it’s called The Making of Longbird.” Yeah… that’s only a BAFTA award winning film.

You premiered the film at this year’s South By Southwest (SXSW). What was the reaction?
It was a bit mental. It was the first time that Gavin had ever been in America which added layers of strangeness to it all. SXSW is a crazy and insane experience – it’s like Glastonbury but in a city and more intense. I adore SXSW, it’s where I premiered Sound It Out and it was amazing to go back.

Music underpins a lot of your documentaries: is it that music is such a passion of yours, or is it not that premeditated?
I wouldn’t say it’s a subject but a means of delivery, and what better kind of emotional punch than absolutely ramming a film full of music? It’s like knitting a jumper and choosing the music as the thread. Although my films are obviously musical stories, they’re about people and portraiture. My next film is going to be Orion: The Mask of Elvis which is about a singer.

How did you find out about Orion’s story?
My husband, Steven, bought a record at a car boot sale in Nottingham - it was on Sun Records, gold vinyl, a mysterious masked man on the front cover – and the music and his voice were incredible. I investigated and uncovered this rollercoaster story through the music industry. I’ll give you my pitch: “It was a Faustian pact for fame that mushroomed in a time before Google and ended in murder.” It’s an utterly brilliant story.

Have you got anything else lined up?
Pantomime: I shot over 120 hours of the am-dram pantomime, Puss In Boots, at the Nottingham Arts theatre last Christmas. It’s very similar in tone to Sound It Out in that it’s a microcosm about one particular place and it’s made up of small stories, a series of storms in teacups. It’s a portrait of the players on and off stage. I’ve never had so many tears during filming. I hope it will be moving, hilarious and a little bit heartbreaking.

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The Great Hip Hop Hoax was commissioned by BBC Scotland, BBC Storyville and Creative Scotland whereas Sound It Out was crowd funded through Indiegogo – would you consider crowdfunding again?
Maybe, but only for the right project. It’s a lot of hard work but the people that do fund really invest in the film. Recently, one man who crowd funded Sound It Out travelled 4,000 miles from Kansas City to visit the shop. The shop has just expanded and it’s doing really well - they get about five visitors a day who have seen the film and are tourists.

As a documentary maker you’re not supposed to affect the subject, but it obviously can’t be helped at times – how does that feel to you on a personal level?
It’s quite weird. I originally made Sound It Out with the plan of selling it in the shop and because I was fed up of being on hold making TGHHH. Tom’s [owner of Sound It Out] dad clenched me in a bear hug on Tom’s wedding day and whispered in my ear, “you’ve changed his life.” I said, “he’s changed mine.” He really has. When everything’s finished you’ve got to know you’ve done everything with integrity because otherwise it’ll haunt you forever, and I don’t want to be that person. I’m not a campaigning filmmaker, I just tell stories. But the reactions that I’ve had are at times totally overwhelming.

Would you ever consider making a fictional film?
I should never say never but the whole process seems boring. For me, it’s all about spotting a story and thinking about how to make it happen, tracking down the archive, persuading people that really don’t want to be in a film to take part. Nearly all the men in Sound It Out didn’t want to be in the film. I knew they all had something amazing to say and now none of them regret it.

Who are your inspirations?
Werner Herzog, John Waters, Ira Glass - who I met recently and was even nicer than I imagined and brilliantly sweary - John Hughes, Carol Morley, Jerry Rothwell, and my husband Steven Sheil. He’s a filmmaker (Mum & Dad, Dead Mine) but what we do is completely different. We’ve been together for sixteen years and he’s just the cleverest man I’ve ever met.

You’re not from Nottingham but you’ve lived here a long time – any plans to move?
I love living in Nottingham: in all my contracts my only proviso is that I edit here. All of my films have been edited at Broadway Cinema. There’s something about this city, I came here to study at university and I never left.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax is released on Friday 6 September through Vertigo films. A gala screening with a Q&A with Jeanie Finlay is at Broadway is on Thursday 5 September at 8.15pm.

The Great Hip Hop Hoax website
Jeanie Finlay's website

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