SXSW 2021 saw the world premiere of Alone Together, a rich documentary on PC music trailblazer Charli XCX, following her behind the scenes of crafting her 2020 album how i’m feeling now during the global pandemic. What stands out about this doc, directed by Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler (known collectively as Bradley & Pablo), is that it’s essentially four films in one. It’s a succinct making-of feature, a portrait of her dedicated fanbase, a love story and an examination of the lockdown’s impact onc mental health. With its inventive approach to narrative and aesthetics, it’s the most novel music biopic in some time, dynamically capturing a unique period for the artist and her fans during a unique time in the world. During the festival, I caught up with the co-directors to speak about the makings and the meanings of the film, lessons from a quarantine production, creative marketing plans and more.
Musanna Ahmed for Film Inquiry: You had a lot of footage to work with – I’ve read that you had 5,000 clips – and I love that you’ve assembled multiple movies in one. You have a sweet romantic story, you have a reflection of the national mental health crisis during the lockdown, a portrait of Charli’s fans and the making of a terrific album. Tell me about stitching this kaleidoscope of Charli’s life and the world in general at this particular time.
Bradley Bell: It was really, really difficult. There were a lot of challenges in making it but also many positives to this approach too. I think a big positive we got from it was the verite style from Charli self-shooting. I think we got something very warm and genuinely organic, particularly between her and her boyfriend Huck. There’s a great scene where she interviews him and I think it would have been hard for us to have captured that ourselves, had we been in the house. It’s really interesting because that scene actually was part of their bonding – the film-making became part of their bonding experience so that was quite cool.
The flip side of that is that without being in the house, sometimes scenes were a bit underbaked cos she could decide when to turn off the camera. We also got footage from the fans who were a little inexperienced with shooting themselves. Well, social media means everyone knows how to shoot themselves however it did mean that overall things weren’t necessarily consistent. Then we did the Zoom interview format as well and phone recordings so it was a big multi-format piece which came with its challenges but also its advantages. I think it feels very of the times because it’s mixed media. One other thing we did to help make the whole piece more cohesive was to use graphics a lot and have a coherent graphic treatment to encapsulate everything.
Pablo Jones-Soler: I guess one of the things that was opened up to us by making a film during this period was the ability to involve people from all parts of the world as well. On this quite compressed timeline, we wanted all the footage to be happening whilst the album project was unfolding in real-time. We had four weeks to try and talk to people from all different parts of the world. Enlisting them as their own cinematographers and sending us all the clips that they had been already shooting during the quarantine opened up a whole new world of possibilities to that as well.
I want to go back to the point you made before about not being there. With the idea of self-shooting, there also comes the risk of self-editing. Were there any differences in the film you wanted to make versus the film Charli wanted to make?
Pablo Jones-Soler: I think there was for sure. I think one of the big things which was surprising for her actually as she started this project, a very organic reaction to the situation she was in, was that making music is her go-to way of coping with such a difficult situation. I don’t think initially she even realized the reach of the project and the impact it was having on the fans around the world. Being inside that space made it harder for her to see how far-reaching and meaningful this was in a lot of ways. Initially, she undervalued the project and thought it maybe wasn’t going to be an interesting film or it should just be a making of featurette. I think she actually wasn’t confident in the impact it was going to have. It’s something that we sowed the seeds of very early on and then as we were receiving the footage and everything was coming together, it grew into what it is now.
Bradley Bell: I think one thing that we were fortunate with which helped us alleviate and get over that hurdle was the fact that we had the fan story. We were able to craft that story separately alongside Charli filming himself, as well as additional subjects, and we had some more control over that. We could then figure out how to craft the bigger story in the edit.
I think what really separates your film from the conventional music biopic is the involvement of the Angels, the name given to her fan base. You’ve worked with various artists who have passionate fan bases, from Harry Styles to Nicki Minaj to Dua Lipa. What is it about the Angels that makes them unique?
Bradley Bell: The most prominent thing is, I think it’s fair to say, they are predominantly LGBTQ. I think what makes that connection particularly interesting is that Charli also feels her music operates in a marginalized outsider space. I think they as fans connect their struggle as feeling like misfits and outsiders with her music and she equally with her self-esteem issues and what she’s gone through in her career. Charli and her music found a connection and resonance with those fans for that reason. They came together and accepted each other.
Pablo Jones-Soler: There was this turning point in Charli’s career where, after having made huge pop songs that were in the top 40 and having her mainstream success, her fan base was quite spread out. I guess there wasn’t this really strong sense of community between them until she released Vroom Vroom in 2015. That was a turning point for her in connecting with her fans in a much more meaningful way and them finding her. I think since that point onwards, the community is growing stronger and have been prepared for a moment like this.
One of the ways you represent the fans in addition to the intimate talking heads is these gorgeous sequences of animation. I know that you began by working exclusively in that medium. Could you speak on what these sequences represent?
Pablo Jones-Soler: Yes. The sequences are basically inspired by the idea that Charli and her fans were creating a virtual space to exist together inside during the pandemic. It made sense to use animation – we had to find a way to visualize a lot of stuff because Zoom and self-shot iPhone footage has a limit to emotional capacity and we needed to find a way to push that. We wanted to create a virtual world for them to exist in together. The avatar idea came from that.
Bradley Bell: I would also say a big part is that we are inspired by fantasy and speculative fiction, and what we felt was really cool about what was happening was that we were all existing in the abstract. We had all lost the ability to exist physically so the idea that they were creating their own space virtually, it felt quite magical at times. It’s a visual representation of what we felt and experienced during the lockdown.
Seeing as this film is a huge extension of her social media, I feel like you have the opportunity to do something really interesting in the marketing before the global rollout. Do you have any particular plans after South by Southwest?
Pablo Jones-Soler: We’ve been talking about NFT’s a bit. [laughter]
Bradley Bell: I guess it just depends on who ends up distributing it. I definitely agree, though, I think it could be really cool and interesting.
Pablo Jones-Soler: We have a lot of stock that didn’t make it into the film. One of the big things we struggled with structurally throughout the film is how the fans were weaved into the main story. We have more in-depth footage of these fans and their individual characters. If the opportunity arose, we’d love to give them more space, sharing character profiles and things like that. It would be a nice moment for those people.
Considering this whole thing was quite spontaneous, I have to imagine that, as filmmakers, you had a different idea for what your first feature film was going to look like and this upended your expectations. What do you think the realization of this project means for your future as filmmakers?
Bradley Bell: I imagined rolling onto a set like Titanic with a multi-million dollar budget as our first feature film. [laughs] This is very different. I think what this taught us will stay with us for our entire career, which is that we really can just work from nothing to be honest. Obviously, we have Charli as a friend and collaborator and we’re fortunate to have her as the impetus of the whole thing. In terms of actually making the film, we really did just pick up cheap cameras and started filming, and then figured out how to make a story around it. I think that spirit of just doing it and being really resourceful of how we do it, we will carry into all of our work in a way that we haven’t done before.
Pablo Jones-Soler: Yeah and also just learning the absolute basics of storytelling with none of the bells and whistles to lean on was super valuable as well. In terms of learning how to construct a story, there was nothing more valuable than editing the documentary.
Bradley Bell: It also taught me to be less precious about shots. They don’t always have to be perfectly framed. Plus to step out of the ego that comes with being a filmmaker and wanting to have control of pretty much everything. I think part of what this project was is relinquishing some of that control and getting over your own ideas of what the story is and letting the story speak for itself. Sometimes I think you could be in danger of trying to over-stylize something or put too much emphasis on your part and that ends up taking away from the protagonist and how people connect to the story. That I think is a really valuable experience to have gone through.
Finally, what’s your favorite song of how i’m feeling now and why is it your favorite song?
Bradley Bell: Mine is party 4 u. I love party 4 u. It’s a very emotional track.
Pablo Jones-Soler: I’m just a big fan of her mixtape Number 1 Angel so I listen to that all time… but what is my favourite from this one? click 2.0! I think that one encapsulates a lot of the sentiment of the whole project.
Film Inquiry thanks Bradley Bell and Pablo Jones-Soler for taking the time to speak with us. Alone Together premiered at SXSW 2021 and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
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