Stylish doc follows White Stripes on cross-Canada tour
Last Updated: Friday, September 18, 2009 | 7:59 PM ET
By Jessica Wong, CBC News
The stylish — and at times emotional — documentary makes its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Friday night.
'You just hope for things to go down, interesting things to go down, and be in cool places. All that is really what happened.'—filmmaker Emmett Malloy
Filmmaker Emmett Malloy, best known for his prolific direction of music videos and for his lauded surfing documentaries, described his somewhat laid-back vision filming of the White Stripes on their Canadian tour, during which the band famously supplemented performances in each province and territory with a host of free surprise shows in unlikely locales.
"In a documentary, you just hope for things to go down, interesting things to go down and be in cool places. All that is really what happened and we had the luxury of time to put it together. And no expectations," Malloy, who also co-founded the record label Brushfire with surfer-singer Jack Johnson, said at Friday afternoon's TIFF press conference for Under Great White Northern Lights.
"The goal was really to shoot film that felt good in the moment and to make things feel real," he said.
The doc's homegrown aesthetic — complete with the occasional quick zoom or blurred shot — was a product of having just three cameras rolling (including his own) as well as "doing everything you can to hang in the moment...you're just trying to keep up with it."
Ultimately, these elements add to the film's "energy and the feel," Malloy said.
"Some of the things that were probably our biggest mistakes — that felt like mistakes in the moment — ended up being some of the best things we shot."
Apprehensive at outset
Jack White, left, and Emmett Malloy pose Friday afternoon in Toronto, where they were promoting the documentary White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights. (Malcolm Taylor/Getty Images)Though Jack and Meg White had previously collaborated with Malloy on music videos, the notoriously guarded duo, who cultivate confusion with their relationship status (purportedly siblings, but in reality ex-spouses), were still apprehensive about having his cameras capture them behind the scenes.
"I'm not too big of a reality-show fan or a peek-behind-the-curtains fan. Especially in this day and age, there's so much of it going on — so little mystery about the world of music and creativity — that sometimes it was hard to watch some of the edits that Emmett was putting together," acknowledged Jack White, who was in Toronto to promote the film.
Nevertheless, he eventually felt that the footage was "so compelling... that putting it together made a lot of sense. I became more and more interested in watching it."
Filming backstage required a delicate touch, even when the door was "shut right in my face," Malloy said.
"I would kick it open a little and walk in, kind of creep in there, and just pay attention to my boundaries. But it was important for me to push forward [during] times when maybe the cameras didn’t feel like the best thing to be in there...Something that I've always prided myself [on] is letting the artist be and capturing moments."
Black and white and red all over
Focussing mostly on the northern leg of band's cross-Canada jaunt and on their 10th anniversary show in Glace Bay, N.S., the documentary shifts between moody, often grainy black and white to full colour, often highlighting the band's preferred red, white and black colour palette.
In addition to the "timeless" feel of black and white scenes, the film shifts into colour "because we were in Canada and it was red and white and it really felt like everywhere we went it was art directed for us. That was undeniable," Malloy said.
"When the mayor of Yellowknife picks you up on the tarmac in a '51 Chevy, I think I want to see that in black and white," White quipped.
The director and star also praised the "otherworldly" environment of Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut as well as the everyday Canadians they met during the tour.
Asked about his favourite Canadian memories, White at first demurred that there were too many before replying "the air in Whitehorse. The accents of people in Newfoundland. I just love the accents."
He recalled the band and entourage going out to a bingo hall during their time in Newfoundland and one of their roadies asking an elderly women there if she’d ever been to prison.
"The story that came out from her was so special to me," he said, laughing. "I can’t even tell you. There's a lot of those moments."
White Stripes: Under Great White Northern Lights screens Friday and Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Further theatrical release is pending.