John Angus StewartChunky Shrapnel: A Conversation with John Angus Stewart C.S. Harper August 2023 Interviews Issue 106 Few concert films have stood the test of time in the way that Chunky Shrapnel (John Angus Stewart, 2020) has. Originally set to premiere at the Astor Theatre in Melbourne on 3 April 2020, the film was instead given a digital premiere on Vimeo on 17 April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. After a theatrical premiere on 8 May 2021, Chunky Shrapnel has had screenings across North America throughout 2023. Shot and directed by Australian filmmaker John Angus Stewart, Chunky Shrapnel follows Melbourne rock band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard on their 2019 European tour in support of their album Infest the Rats’ Nest. The film was described on the band’s website as “a uniquely immersive experience never before captured on film,” and it showcases never-before-seen footage of the band performing across 15 cities. Chunky Shrapnel begins with the band’s Luxembourg performance of “The River” at Rockhal Club, which provides a jazzy start to the documentary with its ‘70s Turkish funk groove. However, the film quickly picks up pace with the heavy riffs and thick bassline of the following track, “Wah Wah,” performed in Madrid. Aside from delivering riveting concert footage, Chunky Shrapnel also showcases the mundanity of backstage life. Mic checks, B-roll of tour buses, and scenes of the band members eating or lounging around while waiting to take the stage show the humanity of the band – and the tediousness of touring. Despite the dull life behind the stage, the film’s final act ends it on an explosive note. The band performs a medley titled “A Brief History of Planet Earth,” consisting of footage spliced together from London, Berlin, Utrecht, and Barcelona. Complete with stage-diving and a performance from the crowd, the band’s closing song ended the documentary with a bang. Chunky Shrapnel Three years after Chunky Shrapnel’s original release, I sat down with director John Angus Stewart to discuss his filmmaking process, the documentary’s longevity, and more. – CSH It seems like you’ve had a collaborative relationship with King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard for about four years now. How did this relationship come about? We were just kind of friends, really. We knew each other for ages, like drinking at parties, that kind of thing. And then I was kind of making short films and working at a pub, that kind of deal. And they sort of were starting in their career. And we never kind of thought about the idea of working together because we were just mates. Then they started recording their metal record called Infest the Rats’ Nest. And because we’re sharing the same studio, I had a studio upstairs and they had a studio downstairs, I would just sort of constantly come down there and like, have beers and cigarettes with them while they were playing their music. And then eventually, they were like, would you want to make, like, three music videos for us? And I was like, “Yeah, I’ll give it a crack.” I mean, I hate – I hate music videos, but I’ll try. And then the Chunky thing came about because they were playing a show at this venue in Melbourne, called the Forum Theatre, which is kind of like a seminal Melbourne venue. And I was like, “Why don’t I come on stage and just film some 16 mm of you guys playing, just like a one-take thing?” And they’re like, “Yeah, for sure.” We did that; and that turned out really well. And then they were going on tour, like, maybe a month later. And I was like, “Why don’t I just come and do that, but with the whole tour? And it just happened like that. It was really organic. There was no sit-down conversation, like “Let’s make a movie.” Or like, “Let’s work together.” It just sort of started. You mentioned hating music videos. What made you take a crack at it? I’d been making short films for a while. And I just kind of liked the idea of – I mean, to be honest, it’s similar with live music footage. You know, it’s like, I never liked that stuff. I mean, I love music, and all my friends [are] musicians, and I love watching live music, but I always thought the coverage of live music was really boring. It never felt like you were there. And it felt similar to music videos. You know, it’s not 1998. No one really watches music videos in the same way as they used to. And at least for me, it’s like music videos – maybe it’s not like that anymore – but they’d gotten away from things actually just being entertaining to watch, as in like, as a band playing music. But you might just watch a little bit of it, you know? “Oh, yeah, that’s cool.” But I like the idea of trying to make stuff that is entertaining for three and a half minutes. And I feel like in those early videos, I was trying that out. And then I feel like I was more successful with later music videos that I did or whatever. But yeah, I mean, I think music videos are great, to be honest. I just think they’re still standing on the shoulders of like an era when they were really important to the band, if you know what I mean. Right, like the MTV era. Yeah. And when it was a calling card and it made a lot of sense for a band to put a lot of money into a music video. But if you’re starting up a band now, it doesn’t make sense to blow all your money on a music video where it might not work. It might just be better to play more shows. Despite that, you actually built a bit of an interesting niche with your music videos. They were pretty surreal and non-narrative and they stand out in the music video world. How did you find that style with your directing? I thought it would be interesting to try something that kind of confused Gizzard’s fanbase (who are so prolifically interested in them) a bit. At that point, Gizzard had such a locked in style with Jessica Leah, who at that time had made most of their music videos. And it was a really cool style, but it was like a very much look at the camera and nod, wink sort of stuff, which was really dope and really funny, but I was like, it’d be really interesting to subvert it and do something kind of nasty, and see how people react. I think at the time, a lot of people enjoyed them. But I think also a lot of people are like, “What the f-ck is this?” At that point, Gizzard had never been photographed with a camera that was probably worth more than $50. They were always behind that VHS kind of sheen. And at the time, I was like, “Well, why don’t we shoot with like, a high end thing?” And I don’t think people like that. That’s the cool thing about their fans, it’s like half of the people will like it, and half of the people won’t. And that’s what’s kind of fun with working with them. If the reaction to the music videos was mixed, what have the fans’ reactions to Chunky Shrapnel been like? I ask because the film has had quite a lot of longevity since its first premiere in 2020. Yeah, people love it. I’m really proud of it too. It’s not necessarily a documentary and it’s not necessarily a concert film, it’s somewhere in between. And I think that it puts the audience in like a point of view. So it’s like you are the camera in it. And it’s like you’re moving through this kind of world of like, you see them a little bit backstage and a little bit on the bus, and then onstage and the camera’s, single-minded. So it’s like shot, like it is onstage the same way as it is backstage. And it’s got like a point of view, which I think a lot of those documentaries, or concert films, don’t necessarily [have] because they’re normally shot by a team, you know, six cameras on the stage. You know, it’s cutting five times with someone playing guitar line. There’s like 300 edits per song, which, again, can be great, but I just think I’m not interested in that. Because me as a viewer, when I watch that, it just kind of becomes white noise. And that’s why I think it’s got a unique point of view. And that’s all I ever want to see in any film is like something with an actual point of view. I would rather watch something that’s half-cooked with a point of view than something that’s overcooked. That was one of the first things that stood out to me when I was watching the film: its distinctive style. The score is eerie, and then it has the juxtaposition of the offstage moments with the onstage moments in an organic way. What was it like finding this balance between creating a narrative with the surreal elements, and then having it all fall into place and feel organic at the same time? Well, to me, it’s like, I’d never been on a tour before. Like, I’d never really understood what it was like, and they told me about it a lot, about what it was like being on tour on the buses and constantly moving between cities, because I’d be like, you know, “What’s Paris, like, you know, this year?” And they’re like, “I don’t f-cking know.” I was like, “You didn’t pop out and like, go see the Louvre and stuff” And they’re like, “Nah, man, you don’t understand, like, you’re exhausted, you don’t have time. It’s green rooms and stuff.” And so when I was there, it’s like, from my point of view, I tried to literally make the film feel like how I felt when I was there. And that was excited, but it was like, full of mystery and at times, like dread. It’s a really weird experience for like a lay person to come into this kind of tour mentality. It’s really interesting, but it’s really strange. You have to actually develop a pretty strong sense of yourself to do it day in day out. My partner is in a touring band as well, and she tours seven months of the year. And just knowing it from her, it’s like you really have to get your brain into a certain state to be able to do it. Like, you know what I mean? It’s like they’re always doing it, they’re leaving their partners and now they got kids. You really have to have a strong sense of yourself. And they’re just really lucky that they’ve got each other to do that with. But in terms of balancing that in the film, the only other films that I looked at when I was making it, when I was editing, [were] the films of Alan Clark, who’s probably my favourite filmmaker. He’s a British filmmaker, mainly made stuff for television. But the way he’s got this naked social eye, the way he shoots people walking around, it’s like a really kind of flat window frame of just following people around and letting them exist in the frame. That was one of the things that I really wanted to teach me how to edit something, especially the way he uses music in a similar way that I’ve used it and – I don’t want to compare myself to him at all, because he’s a god – but yeah, that’s definitely the stuff I looked at. I actually didn’t look at any music films at all. The only thing I looked at was, when me and Stu [the frontman of the band] were making the score was Fantasia and, and a couple of scenes of Blade Runner, for some of the music. Instead of looking at classic music documentaries because I just felt like, I mean, all that stuff’s just been done so well. It doesn’t make sense to try and replicate something that’s already perfect. Now that you’re explaining your creative process, your approach is making more sense to me, because when I first watched the film, something that stood out to me as a bit odd was the score. It definitely contrasts with the livelier nature of the concert footage, because as you mentioned, it reflects the dread and mystery you felt while traveling with the band. Yeah. And I think as well, it’s to be honest, a film about a band touring. It’s basically just this celebration of like, how f-cking good is this band, and they’re all my friends. And that feeling is so there, because I’m basically in that documentary on the stage of the band, another member of the band, right? So that kind of point of view in the film is so obvious that you need to bring something else that is more complicated. And the complexity of the film is what I think is what gives it longevity, because like in any relationship there’s always ups and downs. And leaning into that felt real interesting, because their music is so joyous, and so awesome – in the actual sense of the word awesome – that, you know, going to a grubbier place that just makes the shiny bits shine more, you know, because if the whole thing is just a puff piece, why watch it because it’s got no drama? Despite your humanisation of the band, there are still some grand moments that happen. There is the mundanity as well of touring, which I think you captured beautifully, but there’s also some larger-than-life moments like that 15-minute medley at the end. What was it like capturing both sides of the coin when it comes to touring? Well, the mundane is basically 90% of tour. And I think that if I was shooting – I think the format in which I shot the film on had a lot to say about that. Because I shot on 16 mm film – I own a 16 mm camera – and we sort of just bought like 30, 40 cans, each can has about 11 minutes or something like that. So it’s not like that’s a lot of footage but it’s also not for a documentary. You know, so you kind of have to choose. You have to choose what you think is worth shooting and I didn’t have a sound person; I was doing sound myself. So I would literally put the camera on my shoulder, get a light meter reading, and then clap it in myself, start recording sound, and then start filming. And so that’s what I did with every single shot in the entire film. So the mundane stuff, I was like, okay, you know, there’s weeks and weeks and weeks of mundane happening before my eyes, but which parts of that am I going to film? So you kind of have to choose it while you’re shooting. And it’s the same with the grand moments. It makes you make this really kind of lean film because you can’t shoot everything. So the moments that you lose, because you lose a lot of spontaneity, like these little conversations that they’re having over here. And then by the time you pull out the camera and decide on the film stock and everything like that, it’s gone. So with that, you end up having to do more with framing and choosing those moments. So if you see someone eating a hamburger there, you’re like, “Okay, that’s something that reflects this.” So then you have to kind of spend more time doing it. So in a way, it was almost like taking portrait photos with a still camera, like choosing the moments that reflect a bigger feeling, rather than just shooting everything and then just doing it in the edit. You know, because, like I said – the film’s 97 minutes and there’s about three and a half hours of footage, and that includes all the music. That’s kind of not that much stuff. So in a way, the edit was pretty hard to get that right. But I just edited it in this heatwave in summer on this tiny little laptop. I edited it in this weird frenzy in my studio, which was the hottest place on Earth. The film was edited in the same way it was shot, just basically not really thinking about it, just doing it based on feeling. Can you talk more about the editing process? Yeah, it probably took a couple of months. I just did it myself. And when we got back, I basically – we recorded all the sound from all those shows on the desk. So we got all these bounced out clips of all their live stuff. And all the songs that I recorded, I put them all on a big timeline and showed all of Gizzard, and we went round to one of their houses and just sort of watched everything. And I was like, “Which of these songs do you guys like? Which ones do we sort of want in the film?” And we made a shortlist on stuff. And then we went from there. So I had the songs. Like here’s the song. And then I basically drew a graph of the film, and I knew I wanted it to be in the 90-minute mark, like it can’t be any longer than like 95, 96 minutes. And I basically drew a graph. And I was like, this is where I want it to go, like a classic Greek tragedy 3 act structure, kind of coming up, you know, like the classic bell curve. And you know, in a normal film, you’re kind of like, here’s the problem, here’s the turn, here’s the falling action, resolution, all that kind of stuff. But I was like, I don’t have enough footage to create this. I want to do it through music. So I basically replaced all of that stuff on the graph with just a smiley face and a sad face, and basically said, this is where we need to feel that, just kept it really basic. And then I used pieces of music to create – like in the timeline – I put the music down first, and sort of created the film purely through the music. And then I went in and sculpted it all back with the footage. Like I knew it was going to end with that huge medley. I knew it was going to end with that when I was shooting it. But I never knew how it was going to start. I never knew what was going to be in the middle. But it was basically just like, can I make this interesting for 90 minutes? If you have no idea who Gizzard are. That was the goal, that you win the audience over of who Gizzard is and what kind of music they play within the first 15 minutes of the film. And that first 15 minutes was the thing I worked on the most. Because I was like if I’ve won people over by the end of this, then they’ll just see where it’s gonna go. What made you know that that medley was going to be the final act? I think it was just the energy of that day. It was also the last show. And also, it had this real hyped up energy where I’d been filming so much and had all, just stacks of film. And it’s like, you know, none of it was developed. I didn’t know, like, maybe all of it was just blank, like, you know, it’s like you just don’t know. And you’re just in this crazy frenzy and you’ve been hung over for weeks. And you’re coming up to the last show, we drove into Barcelona, and there’s actually just these massive riots all around Barcelona. So the whole town was just like really charged up. And we’re playing in a club show. And there was talk of maybe it was gonna get cancelled. And, you know, there [were] huge riots the night before, and it was just a really strange time to sort of be there. And then when they started playing, you could just feel it. Like it was always gonna descend into this kind of madness. But like, in that medley, I had to change magazines. I had to walk off during it and change magazines. So there’s a 15-minute medley and that kind of thing. But it actually starts 15 minutes before it. So that final melody is like, actually, the last half of it, the first half of it I’ve still got on my computer, but that’s not in the film. So I literally shot that twice in a row basically. That’s how crazy it was. And I had to go backstage, change magazines, loop the film back up, put the camera back on my shoulder, and then come back out. Because I don’t have a camera assistant. So I feel like yeah, when I was changing that magazine, I was like, this is probably going to be how the film’s gonna end. That’s so weird. Like, I would never do that again. What was it like being D.P., director, and sound guy all at the same time? It’s fun. It’s kind of freeing; you’ve always got something to think about to do. I also think in that situation, it kind of wouldn’t have been possible any other way. It just wouldn’t have happened if there was a sound guy there, or if there was a camera assistant there. And because it’s obviously a documentary, it’s like, you basically have to be in that situation, you have to be the D.P. So it’s like if I couldn’t actually shoot myself, or shoot on film, it just wouldn’t have happened. If I didn’t know how to do that – because I’ve actually never, I’ve never worked with a D.P. before. Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve shot myself. So if I didn’t know how to do that, that would definitely have been more challenging. But yeah, I’m keen to work with D.P. at some point, but maybe, after this next thing I’m doing. Can you tell me more about this next project? I’m just finishing off our first narrative feature film, which is very exciting. Hopefully next year. It’s starring Amy Taylor from Amyl and the Sniffers. She’s gonna be great. I’ve been working on it for ages and so keen to do it. It’s a very exciting time. Congratulations on your first narrative feature! I noticed you’ve made lots of shorts, so it’s nice that you’re starting to dip your toes into feature-length films. Yeah, exactly. And that’s, well, that’s kind of why we’ve sort of stopped doing music videos and everything, because we’re kind of like, we just want to do this now. Like, we’re doing a bit of advertising stuff, which has actually been really fun. But, you know, this is what I’ve always wanted to do, is narrative. And I guess that’s why if you do watch Chunky, it wants so badly to be a movie. It really wants to be a movie, you know? That’s what I always think about when I watch it. I’m always like, “This guy just wants to make a narrative.” That’s what makes the film stand out in such a great way, and I think that’s why it’s spoken to the fans too. It carries that liveliness and quirk of the band. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned this yet, but they’re so f-cking talented. Like they are really an amazing band. But to me, that’s so obvious that to me that wasn’t the focus of the film. I was like, obviously, when shooting on stage, my whole thing was like, it has to be one take, so people can see what these guys are f-cking doing. Because if you’re cutting around, you actually lose sight of it. But they’re all looking at each other, and they’re working off each other. And the energy onstage is really unparalleled in live bands. And so it’s like, with being onstage and putting you as another member of the band, you really get to see that happen. And I always felt like seeing live photography of bands, it actually does a disservice sometimes. You know, it’s shot from the back of the room, and it’s zoomed in. And so you really don’t get a sense of what’s happening, you may as well just go see the show. And that was always my thing. It’s like you want to give people something that they can’t get from going to see them play. I love how Chunky Shrapnel has that gritty feel, and like you mentioned, it makes you feel like another member of the band by weaving the camera in between band members. What was it like doing that? Did it ever bother the band? They were pretty chill with it. We talked about it at length beforehand. I was always like, during rehearsals or whatever “Is it cool if I get this close?” And everyone was sweet, everyone was more worried that I would fall over because there’s cables everywhere. But luckily, I never bumped into them and I never fell over. And I don’t know, it just kind of worked. I feel like your athletics get pretty – like the stakes are so high, you know, because it’s like, when we’re filming at Ally Pally, or Alexandra Plaza in London, and it’s like, there’s 10,000 people there. And I’m filming two songs. And because it’s one take and you’re getting the whole band, it’s like, you kind of can’t – you can f-ck up a little bit, but you can’t like, actually f-ck up because I’m pulling my own focus and stuff as well. So you’re, you’re gonna make sure it’s interesting, you don’t fall over. And you don’t knock Stu’s guitar lead out and ruin the show. Yeah, you know, there’s actually those kinds of factors. And if you really think about it, that’s actually just crazy. But at the time, and whenever I’m doing that stuff onstage, it’s like the last thing I think about because I’m always just like, “Well, this is them, they’re playing, I don’t want to bother them with me.” Like, I’m always just like, “I’ll get out of your way, you do whatever you want. And if I’m in front of you, I’ll get out of your way.” And it should never be interrupting their thing. And I always thought that if you’re gonna see someone film on stage, it’s kind of cooler if they come on for one song and they’re just running around the stage. Just ducking and weaving, at least it’s something to watch instead of someone walking on with a headset on and a steadicam, just coming in and out, like that’s just real weird to watch. I’d rather watch someone run around with shorts onstage for three minutes. There’s a new short film, Sleeping Monster, that’s now screening this summer alongside Chunky Shrapnel. Can you tell me more about it? Yeah, that’s something that we shot during COVID. So we intended to make this bigger thing, but we basically just shot them building their studio, when they made a new studio. And we were originally going to shoot this giant film about them making this album and some of it was going to be narrative and some of it wasn’t, but again, just because of COVID, it got real complicated. And in the end, we just kind of wanted to make something that was like a hangout movie. So it’s like, all the stuff that’s not in Chunky Shrapnel. It’s like them just sort of hanging out, being mates, like in Melbourne. And just like weirdly, we wanted to shoot something really kind of banal, like them just sitting around talking about the music, but shoot it in a really cinematic way. So it’s kind of the opposite. Like, whereas a tour is naturally quite cinematic, but I wanted to shoot in this really raw way. Whereas this is like them sitting around in the studio, which is not cinematic, and shoot it with dolly and stuff like that, like kind of the other way. And there’s talking heads interviews and stuff in there that I really like. It’s just like a little short film, really, more than anything, but it ends with a live recording of one of their songs, “Change,” that we shot on a 360 degree dolly, which we shot in black and white as well. So it’s like a really long take of just spinning around constantly as they’re recording it. And that’s the actual recording that’s on the album, it’s not like a live recording, it’s like them actually recording the album. I thought it was online, but I think it will be soon.