29th May2018

Interview: Rob Curry on ‘The Ballad of Shirley Collins’

by Philip Rogers

The Ballad of Shirley Collins is a new documentary from co-directors Rob Curry and Tim Plester, which was selected to play at the Southend Film Festival on Sunday 27th May. I got a chance to talk with Rob Curry and a few questions about how the idea for the documentary come about, working with Shirley Collins and the process for co-directing the film with Tim Plester.


What can we expect from your new documentary The Ballad of Shirley Collins?

It is a film about an English folk singer called Shirley Collins, who was famous in the 1960s-1970s. She lost her voice in 1980 through a series of incidents which we explore in the film and without giving too much away because it’s quite widely know now, the film then explores her trying to sing again. It explores that alongside a story from the beginning of her life, when she went to America and went on this amazing song collecting trip. It is mainly about an 80 year old lady living in Sussex, having a second chance in life.

How did the idea for the documentary come about?

My co-director Tim and I had made a film called Way of the Morris (2011), about the great British tradition of Morris dancing. We were approached by a music promoter who had been working with Shirley, saying someone should make a film about Shirley Collins, then it turns out Shirly had seen the film we did before and loved it. So, when we went to have a meeting with her it was much easier than we thought it would be, because we already had this mutual connection. At this meeting we then discovered the connection to Alan Lomax who is one of the main American song collectors from the last century. He went around rural communities with a recording device getting people to sing folk songs that were dying out. There’s was a really famous trip that he took in the 50’s, where he had really high-tech equipment, making amazing recordings that are of modern studio standard. It turned out Shirley had been his lover at the time and had gone on the trip masquerading as his secretary. So, she had been to all of these wild bits of America where young English women did not venture and recorded this incredible body of music. So, we then had a story about a literal journey in her past and a more figurative modern-day journey to rediscover her voice. There is something really powerful about the story of a singer who has lost her voice as well, so all of that made us decide to go and make that film.

It must have been an incredible journey for Shirley going back over the archives and her history, what was she like to work with?

She’s amazing, she is a wonderful person to work with, really open and really transparent. The only thing that was difficult, she has been doing talks for about 10-15 years about her life and folk music, so she is very used to talking about her life. It is very hard to get her off guard and get her to think past the official story. We kind of invented all sorts of techniques to throw her off guard, which is not necessarily a nice thing to do to an 80-year-old member of the English music royalty. But I think she appreciates it now.

But I guess you really want to get that raw honest side to her

Memory is a funny thing, we all kind of have a version of our lives that we tell ourselves. You kind of need to capture someone in the moment of reliving it. It’s always a difficult thing, especially when someone is used to being in the public eye, because they create a public version of themselves that you need to get past when you’re making a documentary. In this instance we chose to let Shirley tell her story almost entirely herself – no talking heads or other cheats like that, so it was doubly important to get behind the headlines so to speak.

You co-directed the film with Tim Plester, what is the process for your working together on the documentary?

Our process of working together is really great. Everyone says, “Two directors, how does that work?” but it’s great to be honest. We bring slightly different things to it and what it basically means is we can edit our own films, because one of us can do the edit and the other can be on the outside commenting on it. Then we can reverse roles and play it to each other. Also, on a film like this takes four years to shoot, if one of us is busy, the other one can do it and swap over. There’s other people who I work with who I don’t necessarily have a harmonious relationship with, but we challenge each other and somehow know where the other one is coming from. So, we don’t really get into any conflicts or anything, it’s great.

You said it took four years to complete the documentary, do you have a structured of how you want to do the documentary?

No! At the beginning of the film we did a Kickstarter campaign and we knew how we were going to spend that money, we were going to reconstruct lots of the 1959 America trip and then get the basics down that we needed to tell Shirley’s storey. But at that time, we were making the film about someone who didn’t sing anymore, at the beginning there was no sense that she was going to sing again. So, then we kind of had to keep changing what the film was about. First of all, she did a secret live gig with a friend of hers, which at the time we thought that’s amazing, that’s going to be the climax of our film. Then after that she decided she was going to do a recording, then that kind of grew into a full LP and she signed with Domino Records, a big independent record label. So, we ended up following her on this journey to making what is probably her best album of her career, which hadn’t even been on the cards at the start. In part the reason it took so long was that we kept running out of money. So, it may well be if we had the budget at the beginning we would have finished the film before she even thought about singing again, so it’s actually to our benefit that we kept running out of money. But it’s hard work making a film that way, you are constantly halfway through making a film and there is no money left. But that is a lot of the reasons why it took four years, but actually it took four years for the story to unfold. It’s all worked out in the end.

What were you favourite moments whilst making the documentary?

Probably filming the festivals. We decided not so much to make a film about Shirley’s back catalogue, as about the things that she was passionate about. Where she lives in Sussex there’s all sorts of fantastic big old festivals which whole town’s take part in. Like the ‘Lewes Bonfire’ celebrations and ‘Jack in the Green’ in Hastings. So those became a real integral part of the film and we ended up filming with people who ran those societies and staging a live concert on the cliffs overlooking Lewes, with the bonfire procession going on below us. Just really amazing and getting the trust of those communities to come in and represent what they were doing accurately was really great as well. There is a famous brewery called Harveys in Lewes who only ship beer to Sussex establishments and going in there was an incredible too. I could go on!

Do you have any new projects which you are working on?

Yes, I am making a documentary about a New Zealand band called The Chills. Completely different they are a 80’s indie power pop band. On one level it is a similar story of collapse and redemption, but in a very different genre. Tim and I are working on another Sussex based project as we speak, but it’s not been announced anywhere so I had better not say.

If someone was looking to direct their own documentary film, what advice would you give them?

Find a subject that you love, that is what I would say, it has to be an end in itself kind of thing. For me there is no point in making a film just for the sake of it, it has to come from a place of passion. Actually, I guess I mean something that you feel strongly about, rather that something that you love. Because you might feel strongly about how awful something is and feel that needs a film made about it, but just make sure you know why you want to make it.  It will sustain you through the inevitable hard times!

The Ballad of Shirley Collins played at the Southend Film Festival on Sunday 27th May at 8:30pm. For more information on the event and to purchase tickets for the Southend Film Festival please see the website for details: https://www.southendfilmfestival.com/


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