Moment of Truth: Eddie Izzard Now Available In Convenient Doc Form

[from | thanks Ramona!]

Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline’s new weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week, we hear from the director of Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, which was released this week on DVD.

The cross-dressing comic and actor Eddie Izzard wasn’t always the “cross-dressing comic and actor Eddie Izzard.” Sarah Townsend knew him back when he was just another struggling performer desperate for a break, working round the clock and riding a unicycle for whatever spare change passers-by on the street might have in their pockets. And since 2003, Townsend has been piecing those days — and the rest in between — together for her debut feature documentary Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story. I know, I know: “Why does Eddie Izzard need his own documentary?” You’d be surprised. It’s quite the inspiration, really — motivational substance for people who hate that kind of stuff. It’s also a fascinating glimpse at just how comedy is conceived and delivered. Townsend talked to Movieline about this and much more for this week’s Moment of Truth.

How did you meet Eddie?
I was running a venue at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I was still a student, and I was directing theater then, but it’s very expensive because you have to pay for your slots. Then I discovered that if you actually took over a venue and collected the money from other individuals, than it would be easier to put on my own show there. So there’s this forum every year, and everyone who’s running a venue meets all the performers who want to go up there; there’s only a limited number of venues. And that’s how we met. He said, “Please can I perform at your venue?”

When was this?
Oh, God, it was years ago. It was 1989.

At what point in your relationship with Eddie over the years did you decide to make a documentary about him?
We actually worked together for years in parallel; he was doing his stuff, and I was doing mine. I’d started in theater but I ended up in moving to music — not intentionally — but I ended up doing a lot of things in a production studio. It seemed very natural to bring a lot of drama into the music, and then suddenly it seemed like the logical place for this to go was making films. But I also knew I’d have to start from the beginning again. So I said, “We’ll do DVD extras, and we’ll do them cheaper than anybody else.”

After we’d done a few of those, Eddie said, “Why don’t you guys come down and film the show?” I said there was no way I was ready for that, but I thought about it for six months and said, “Well, I don’t want to do that, but I’ll do a doc.” We did it in dribs and drabs; we didn’t have a budget, really, to start with. So I was being economical to start with. It was a huge learning experience for me. You also have to find a team, which is a hard thing even for people who really, really know how do this. So I’m coming out the other side of it saying, “Wow, I didn’t know I could do this.” But there’s no substitute for the years it took. I feel good about it now.

“But we were doing what the documentary’s about! We were living it! It was so funny.”

That’s interesting, because it virtually mirrors the ways Eddie struggled to launch his comedy career. In a kind of cosmic sense, do you feel like the documentary had to go this way?
You know, I found this wonderful editor who helped me put this together, and we were laughing about exactly the same thing. But there were four different cuts of this. It started off being one story and then it changed completely to something else. Then it was something more personal, which wasn’t right; that was kind of what the UK market wanted, but I thought, “No, it’s got to be something that everyone can relate to.” It doesn’t mean you have to know this person or be a fan to get it. But the biggest story — and this is where we got the laugh — is to not give up. Don’t give up. Even if all the odds are against you, you’ve got no budget left and you don’t know what the hell you’re going to do. But we were doing what the documentary’s about! We were living it! It was so funny.

The film does feel like it finds its true purpose once Eddie expresses his “Believe” mantra: “If you want to be a comic, you have to believe you’re going to be a comic.” Did you sense the same?
Well, the thing about Eddie is that he’s such a consummate performer, and he’s always on point and will always deliver. That’s great for the work he does. The problem is that when you’re trying to make a documentary, it isn’t enough. It actually took us four years to get that final interview, which was really the only occasion when he revealed himself. When I met him, he was just trundling on until this guy told Eddie something he didn’t even remember he’d said. He didn’t realize he’d been a catalyst for Eddie. That was a precious little moment. Inadvertently, people sometimes do say these life-changing things.

“There’s an extreme analytical side to him, which is surprising given his style.”

Believe offers an unusually close look at the metaphysics of comedy as well. Eddie’s like a scientist with this stuff.
Oh, yeah. Having spent those years in the early ’90s running those clubs and being around all those comedians, it was like the birth of rock and roll. It was an incredible period. The system is different in the States; here it was the reaction to a very right-wing government. People were motivated, they were polarized. It gave the comedians something to rail against. And that’s the irony: Eddie wasn’t doing that. Even though he is very politicized, he doesn’t want to use that side of himself for comedy. At the time, that was very rare. But he’s such an analyst. People who watch him onstage think he’s so freeform and that all this stuff spews out. But it’s based on a framework that is so technical that his analysis of comedy is fundamental to how he creates. It’s a weird balance between saying anything — coming up with rubbish — and also having a rigid structure underneath. I was trying to show what I knew to be the truth, even if I couldn’t get him to say it. There’s an extreme analytical side to him, which is surprising given his style. I think people do find that surprising.

It’s also surprising to see him so tightly wound; one shot shows Eddie digging his nails into his palms until the nail polish rubs off. Even as someone who’s known him so long, did you discover a different guy the way the viewer does?
It’s funny you mention that shot. That’s exactly what we thought when we saw it. Usually he won’t show that stuff. We had to go through tons of stuff to find those moments where he showed — inadvertently — the real tension that’s there. In a normal interview he’ll just talk: “Everything’s fine!” He’s very good at hiding that stuff.

What did you think of Eddie’s performance as host at the Independent Spirit Awards?
I think it’s very difficult to host awards shows. That’s why Eddie, up to this point, has always said, “I won’t do them”: The situation is almost completely non-conducive to doing stand-up. And he doesn’t see himself as a presenter, which is another entirely different skill. So I think it was good under the circumstances, but it’s a stressful situation. And definitely not one where you can easily do comedy.

Written by Momo in: Interview |

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