A STIRLING REFLECTION
It’s hard to believe fifteen years time has passed since R.E.M. played the first of three shows at Stirling Castle in Scotland on July 19, 1999. The band was in the last couple of weeks of a European tour in support of UP (released in 1998) and the three-night stand in Scotland was highly-anticipated not only because of the spectacular setting and the castle’s history but also due to the fact that R.E.M.’s Scottish fans were on par with the most passionate and supportive anywhere on the planet. To top all of that, a small UK film company called Lonely Goat had contacted REMHQ about making a documentary on the subject of how R.E.M.’s presence would impact the quaint Scottish community in which the castle was located. The band was “all in” for this slice-of-life approach; they all agreed it would be nice to have things told from the fans’ perspective and that of the local community. What transpired was a wonderful documentary known as A Stirling Performance, released in 2003 as a bonus feature on the Perfect Square DVD (a live concert performance in Wiesbaden, Germany). A Stirling Performance combines interviews with the band, concert footage, and conversations with Stirling locals and R.E.M. fans who converged on the town to see their favorite band perform. To celebrate the special anniversary of the Stirling shows, we reached out to the documentary’s directors, Debbie Hogan and Andy Cronk, to get their reflections, fifteen years later, on that special moment in time. Read on just below and if you’d like you can watch the trailer for A Stirling Performance at Lonely Goat’s site (click on films, docs, and the image of Michael and enjoy). Check out the R.E.M. Timeline for setlists of the shows…
*Remembering A Stirling Performance*
15 years ago we were in a state of total panic. We had just dared ourselves to ask REM to be in our very first film. And they had said yes.
Our company, Lonely Goat, had not long started and we were working on lots of design and advertising projects. Film, however, was our big love but it was proving really difficult to get anything off the ground. Then, in June 1999, a film we’d spent ages preparing for was cancelled at the last minute. We were furious but fired up and ready to do something.
We’d seen REM play in London at Earls Court the week before. It’s the most awful place to see a band – a massive aircraft hanger of a venue with zero atmosphere. (It’s also about to get torn down, hooray!) It was our first time to see them live and we almost felt like we hadn’t. Afterwards, we noticed a tour poster with a list of the other venues. Stirling Castle! We knew it well and thought it would be something unique. In the days after, Stirling Castle stayed on our minds. How and why were REM playing there? And how would the town be affected? It was a great story but destined for our ‘things that will never happen’ pile. When our other project fell through we thought, ‘What the hell. Let’s phone up REM.’
They weren’t in the phone book. And the official channels were unsurprisingly unreceptive to our pitch. In our determined state, we came up with another plan: contact each venue on the tour with our proposal for the film. Things this communication didn’t mention: we had no money, we had not planned this, we had not made a film like this before.
We faxed our proposal to the first venue on the list. Faxed! Now you know it was 15 years ago. Everyone in our office thought this was hilarious. Whenever the phone rang that day, we heard shouts of, ‘It’s Michael Stipe for you’, across the studio. So we couldn’t have been more stunned to answer a call later that day to an American voice. It was Bertis. He liked the idea. They were in.
Then we had a bit of a meltdown. There was barely a week before the shows. We scrambled a plan and a crew, begged and borrowed equipment and raced up to Scotland.
It wasn’t long before we had a whole cast of characters to talk to. No-one said no to us! Shooting with small digital cameras and appearing as if we might not entirely know what we were doing probably helped. We were scared of missing out on something, anything that was happening so we ran around like crazy for 10 days filming anyone and everyone we could. We just kept meeting amazing people. One person led to another to another and everyone had something different to add. We loved meeting Roy and Margaret Stirling (yes their real names!) the b&b owners. We just randomly knocked on their door and they gave us tea and cakes and our favourite line in the film. As they talked about all their rooms being full with people going to the concerts, Margaret said, ‘I can take that extra money and go and buy another pair of shoes.’ It was such a lovely, tangible effect of the concerts. Who would have thought REM = new shoes?
News of the film soon spread to the media. We even appeared on a local radio show and it became one of the funniest segments. The presenter, Chris Kane, asked us to come up with a question for their concert ticket competition. ‘REM are playing in Athens in Greece next week. Why will this remind them of home?’ We thought that was an easy one but some of the answers made us laugh out loud live on air. We were happening upon so much great stuff, we almost never wanted to turn the camera off. Even when we went into a bar for a break, the whole place was singing Losing My Religion!
As the first concert day arrived, there was a nervous excitement everywhere. The location of the castle at the top of a steep hill with narrow access roads – hey it’s a castle – was proving problematic for everyone. When we tried to drive up for our first interview with the band, we were stopped by the police. We had no official filming passes yet and I explained to the officer that we were on our way to meet Michael Stipe. ‘Aye, so am I darlin!’ came the disbelieving response and we had to abandon the car and run up the hill with all our equipment.
Waiting for the band to come on stage the first night was incredible. This venue was everything we thought it would be. The sight lines were perfect and the atmosphere electric. If capturing the build-up to the band going on stage was something we felt privileged to get, walking on stage with them to show the extent of the crowds was unforgettable. As the concert got under way, we had to remember we were there to work.
We planned to interview one band member before each show. Peter was first and put us all at ease straight away. Mike was second and gave us some great insights. On the final night, Michael got stuck in traffic on the way – those narrow roads again – and arrived too late for us to talk to him. We were assured there would be time after the gig. But we knew it had been a long few days and that everything would be packed up swiftly when the show finished. Suddenly we were nervous it wouldn’t happen at all. As we waited, the crew helpfully informed us that without him, we had no film. Thanks guys. Then after midnight, Michael arrived more charming and willing to take part than he had any right to be. His was the last shot – providing us with a killer end line about how the use of the toilets directly related to enjoyment of the concert! – and then it was done.
We hadn’t slept in weeks, lost a ton of weight (the documentary diet) and spent every penny we had. It was lot to recover from. It’s hard to imagine now, but all that footage sat under our desks for more than a year before we could afford to do anything with it. We called in every favour we could think of and with the help of some brilliant (and tolerant) people, spent months assembling a rough cut. Then came the anxiety. Would anyone even get it? It’s not a rockumentary. It’s not a tour film. It’s not trying to sell anything. But it got the support of Bertis and the band and suddenly it took on a life of its own; film festival screenings in the UK and US (some people said the film would need subtitles because of the accents!), a Q Magazine sponsored tour and then finally the DVD release. A Stirling Performance truly changed our lives and gave us some great opportunities. Since then, we’ve worked on lots of different things including commercials and shorts and we’re currently working on a feature. We couldn’t be happier that original film was cancelled 15 years ago.
-Deborah Hogan and Andy Cronk