The British are Coming: ‘Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day’ director touts reunion concert film
Over the past 15 years, director Dick Carruthers has filmed a variety of different rock acts. He’s the guy who lensed Portishead’s PNYC: Portishead – Roseland and The Killers Live from Royal Albert Hall. He’s also worked with Beyonce, Oasis, The White Stripes, The Who, Stereophonics, Alicia Keys, Rage Against the Machine and Elton John. Carruthers recently rang us from his London home to talk about his latest project, Led Zeppelin: Celebration Day, which screens in cinemas throughout the US on October 17 and comes out on DVD on November 19. The film documents the 2007 Zeppelin reunion concert and captures the band’s terrific performance with real flair as Carruthers used a variety of cameras to capture the action from every possible angle.
I know you’ve been making movies for over 15 years, but how did you get attached to this project?
I was asked by [promoter] Harvey Goldsmith. I’d like to think that at some point before that he discussed it with the band. I had worked with them on previous occasions. In the run up to the gig, there was for a very small period of time a strange sort of secrecy and I was making a re-release of The Song Remains the Same for the band. We were going to make it as a special edition with surround sound. I had found other extra songs and extra footage. We did “Over the Hills and Far Away” and “Celebration Day.” We were putting together a double DVD across all these formats. I was in a room the size of your downstairs toilet. I knew they were doing the gig and I knew I couldn’t say anything because that would be unprofessional. I know it’s happening but I can’t say anything, and I knew why we had to get the DVD out on time for what was going to be announced later in the year. I went out on holiday and they had to have a meeting. I was like, “Thank God!” After a series of secret meetings, they were like, “Oh, Dick [is going to film the show]; that’s fantastic.”
How many cameras did you use?
You’d be amazed at how many people ask that. It’s not a yardstick. I do want to say that the number of cameras is not really indicative of the size of the shoot. You can shoot a golf game with 36 cameras. But it would still be pretty dull. But I shot Portishead in New York 15 years ago and I had five cameras and we shot the rehearsal and the gig and to this day, it’s one of the best things I’ve done. I still meet people who love that film. There you go, with five cameras. You need a certain amount of coverage and angles. I wouldn’t want to shoot any gig with fewer than 10. With 12 to 15, you have more angles. I had nine cameras that I was mixing directly to the screen and sometimes I am just using one mix and sometimes two and three. I did two or three mixes and a lot of special effects. That was the style we worked out with the band and creative team. In the run-up to the gig, we thought we should record it – not just for a DVD or film – but just because it’s happening and it’s a bit of rock and roll history. We were just going to record it and lock it in a box and then have a look after. The question was: what did I need to add to get this in the can? I didn’t need much. A couple of extra cameras for wide shots and Super 8 cameras amongst the crowd. I thought that would be a good cut-away thing. We put two robotic fixed mini cameras on the drum riser. They’re useless most of the time but every once in a while [guitarist] Jimmy [Page] turns to the camera and goes “1,2,3” and they nail it. There are hardly any wide shots and hardly any shots of the crowd. Generally, there are few wide shots because I always have eight or nine cameras with a far more interesting shot of what the guys are playing. That’s why it has an intensity and this close-up, intimate portrait even though we’re in an 18,000-seat auditorium. I bet 90 percent of the film is made up of footage from six or seven cameras.
There’s lots of camera movement. Talk about that and what you hoped to accomplish?
I think cameras need to move because the music is dynamic and moving. That’s a stylistic thing I would bring to most feature length concert films, even Portishead. The camera needs to move but it should never make you aware that it’s moving. There are no cranes. There’s no obvious maneuvers. It’s very “fourth wall.” It’s invisible. I also have a personal rule that you shouldn’t see cameras wandering around much. You shouldn’t be reminded that it’s being shot. The fluidity has to match the music. The motion and movement of the cameras and the pace of the cut is all totally symbiotically linked to the music, even within a song. Led Zeppelin songs change gears a lot and the movement and pace of the cameras must reflect, punctuate, and enhance and encompass that.
Directing and cutting a show live with the band’s performance is the greatest adrenaline of all and I’ve jumped out of a lot of planes.
Speaking as fan, were you excited about the show?
Oh God yeah. Directing and cutting a show live with the band’s performance is the greatest adrenaline of all and I’ve jumped out of a lot of planes. I’ve done a fair amount of skydiving. That’s a similar feeling. Back in the day, I toured with the Stones for about two years. It was a constant high. Every night we were shooting the whole show live new and fresh. There’s no hesitation or playing it safe. We never played it safe. You can’t hesitate. You have to make it all work like a three-dimensional chess game at a very high speed. You have to weave it into a visual narrative that perfectly fits. It’s like a toboggan run. You have to sprint like hell, heads down and go for it. It’s just adrenaline and excitement. Most good shows feel like ten minutes. Suddenly, the house lights are on. You’re like, “Wow. Did that just happen?” Neither the band nor I saw it for years. We read the reviews and it felt like it was amazing. It wasn’t until years that we got the years later and saw that it really was great.
Why did it take so long?
That’s just the way Zeppelin are. There was zero surprise for me. I was entirely prepared for it never to be mentioned again. When I first worked with them in 2003, I was getting all the old Led Zeppelin stuff that had been shot in 1969, 1975 and 1980. That stuff was 22 years old. Some of it was amazing and some of it wasn’t amazing and needed an incredible bit of polishing. That was a big process. Mission accomplished there. That was an amazing DVD, partly because nobody had seen that stuff. My point is that they sat on that stuff and didn’t have any incentive to release it until the technology was there. I could do visual trickery and sync stuff at that point. The lesson from that is that the band will sit on something if they want to despite how many fans want it. Those pressures don’t apply. I knew that. After the fantastic gig, everyone would ask when that stuff was coming out and I would say don’t hold your breath. I said, “I’m sure they’ll ring me when they want to.” Sure enough, three or four years later, I got a call from one of the offices and they literally said, “Shall we have a look at it then?”
And what did you think when you first saw the footage?
Everyone was blown away. We were blown away and it was better than we dare hoped. Don’t forget that for the DVD release, disc two has the entire rehearsal, which is a complete ying and yang to the concert. We really got it polished and I spent months putting it together. The rehearsal is just one camera. It’s my old DV camera in the back of the room. They ran through the set from top to bottom and Robert would sing every song and a couple of people and Harvey sat in six chairs. There were a couple of photographers buzzing around and generally getting in the way. I stuck my DV camera and recorded a wide shot. They never watched it back. Five years later when we’re putting the DVD together, there was the question of what else I got. I had one rip of the wide shot of the whole rehearsal. It was in my safe. We looked at it, and they thought it was amazing. This is Led Zeppelin. They never play the same song twice, infuriatingly at times. We looked at this and the discussion was to put six or seven songs as extras. Then we thought, “Why don’t we put the whole thing on, from start to finish?” It’s an hour and 56 minutes with just this one wide shot. You have the concert film, which is an absolute rollercoaster ride, and the antithesis with one camera at the back of the room. And yet, the Zeppelin magic is there. At times, it’s comic. They’ll finish a song like “Kashmir” that has a huge big finale and you’ll hear a couple of people clapping and a ripple of applause. It’s comic. That is on the DVD and it’s truly exciting. Zeppelin fans from around the world will love it. The rehearsal is a closed set and we burned test DVDs of it and sent it out with a note that if you have the courage and generosity and confidence to include this in its entirety, it would be a beautiful thing. Praise be, that’s what will happen. No one has seen the tape yet. You can compare and contrast the rehearsal with the show and see all this power in parentheses.
I think seeing the film at the theater will be great.
I’m biased but it doesn’t disappoint. It is quite an arc. The beginning is fever pitch excitement and the first couple of songs are brilliant but them finding their feet and you hit in my time of dying and you get through the question mark of what’s it going to look like and sound like. They do this incredible song that they’ve never played live before, which is “In Your Life.” It’s a real visual and it’s so staccato and bright. It’s absolutely knocks you for six. And then it goes up a level to “Dazed and Confused” and “Stairway to Hell” and then up another level and they hit “Kashmir” and it goes up another level in the next couple of songs. So take some water with you.