An interview with Nickolas Rossi, director of new documentary
‘Heaven Adores You’
Elliott Smith (1969-2003) was an American
songwriter and musician. Having played in rock band Heatmiser for
several years, Smith switched to a solo career. His first albums
were ‘lo-fi’ works,
which gained a cult following and critical acclaim. In 1997,
several of his songs were featured on the soundtrack to 'Good
Will Hunting', culminating in his
performance at the Oscars ceremony in 1998. This led
to him being exposed to a much wider audience and the pressures of
fame, with which he greatly struggled.
“He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were
- Autumn de Wilde
Smith suffered from depression and
substance misuse and he dealt with these subjects in his lyrics,
explicitly. In 2003, aged 34, he died in Los
Angeles from two stab wounds to the
chest. Many believe he committed suicide, although the autopsy
evidence was inconclusive. At the time of his death, Smith was
working on his sixth studio album, From a
Basement on the Hill, which was posthumously released
in 2004. (Read a
Guardian Interview from not long
before Smith’s death in 2003).
Smith was a gifted musician and composer and
there is considerable variation in the style of his songs, from
to whimsical and
playful. His detractors sometimes pointed to an
overly-confessional approach to song writing, but the frankness of
his lyrics resonated with listeners worldwide and his fan base has
continued to grow in the years since his death. His life has been
the subject of several biographies, including ‘Tormented
The Things You Forgot’ and ‘Can’t Make
A Sound’ and the documentary 'Searching for Elliott
This year sees the release of a further
documentary, ‘Heaven Adores You’ (2014), with UK
screenings from next month. In anticipation of its
release, I spoke to the film’s director, Nickolas Rossi. Nickolas
is an experienced cinematographer who has worked on a variety of
projects. His website is here. ‘Heaven
Adores You’ is his directorial debut.
JT: Can you tell us a little bit about
how you came to know Elliott Smith, or about him?
NR: I didn't know Elliott personally. I met
him once outside of a venue in London back in 1998 while he was on
tour with his record, XO. I told him that I too had lived in
Portland and that I admired his music. But that was the extent of
it. We both lived in Portland at the same time, and probably had
beers at the same bar, went to the same shows. I'd see him around
Los Angeles before he died, as well. When it came time to explore
this project, I relied on the people who actually knew him the best
to help tell his story and his experience.
You have stated that his music has
been very important to you- can you explain why? What about his
songs are so distinctive or moving do you think?
I think a lot of people who
discover Elliott’s music do so at a time that sort of makes
the most sense for them. It’s likely that you come across his music
when you need to have someone express some of those feelings for
you, through lyrics and melody. As Autumn de Wilde says in the
film, “He gave us the words that we couldn’t find when we were
I definitely had my Portland experience with
the music of Elliott Smith. And when I left Portland, I
carried that experience with me, but seldom really felt like it was
a shared experience with anyone else. He has a way to make songs
very personal for those who listen to them. I think he’s important
because regardless whether or not you ever knew him or ever met
him, he feels like an old friend.
You are primarily a cinematographer.
What drew you to this project? Was it just the music or did it tie
in in some way with your interest in visual art?
I enjoy the relationship I've had with music
and with cinematography. Sometimes, it's just great to put some
music on and put on headphones and go for a walk through the city,
or get on a train and watch the scenery pass by while you listen to
the poetry of the songs. So, I think it's both. I always felt
that Elliott's music was cinematic and that there were images
and situations to explore through his songs. As a cinematographer,
I wanted to explore that in the places where he made that music.
There's a feeling to putting those songs to images. The three
cities he recorded his records in are all very different in their
aesthetics. It was a really fun process to delve into those places
with his music as the soundtrack and see what came out in the
process of editing the film.
Some people feel that his work is
overly confessional or personal. My view is that while his material
dealing with darker mental states is undoubtedly powerful, some of
his best output was more playful and musically inventive songs,
such as ‘Junk Bond Trader’, ‘Lost and Found’ and songs like ‘Bled
White’ and ‘Baby Britain’, which deal with serious subjects, but in
perhaps a more hopeful way. This suggests to me that if he was able
to overcome his difficulties with depression and drug use, his
output in the long run may have been somewhat broader in scope, as
well as him creating more of it. Others may counter of course, with
arguments about suffering being required for great music. What are
your thoughts on this?
One of the things that kept on coming up in
interviews with his friends was how a lot of people thought his
songs were autobiographical, and how that wasn't the case all the
time. Elliott was a great storyteller and was very adept
in observing situations and then writing about them and being able
to tie them into universal themes. It's probably why his music is
so relatable for a lot of people. I'm sure
there's probably a lot of personal stuff in there,
too, but I wouldn't be able to confirm that.
When I first started listening
to Elliott's music, I found a lot of it really heavy and
dramatic, but I have had a few years to really absorb a lot of it,
and I think you're right--there's a lot of hopeful and optimistic
poetry in his music. I guess it really has to do with what time in
your life you discover his music. It's all very honest and raw, but
also very witty and well constructed. I hope that the film can
start to sort of shift that "sad sack musician" mythology that
people quickly tag on songwriters like Elliott Smith.
Can you tell us a little about the
making of the film? What themes have you chosen to focus on most
We wanted to tell the story
of Elliott Smith, from the stories of his friends and
from his own interviews. It was really an organic process, with a
focus being primarily on what we thought mattered most- which was
Have you been surprised at the scale
I'm glad the film is being well received with
the fans. It means a lot to us that they have been so supportive of
the film, and I can only hope that it stays available for the newer
generation of fans of Elliott's music that will crop up in the
years to come.
Can you pick a few personal favourites
from Elliott’s catalogue?
There's so many! I think at the end of the
film we counted approximately 47 tracks of music. I think there's a
lot there to start with as favourites. Sometimes, it's a
different song depending on the day, the weather, or the kind of
day you've had. I think that's what’s great about Elliott's
music. There's something there for everyone and every occasion. But
a few personal favourites by Elliott would be: Waltz #1,
Everything Means Nothing To Me, No Confidence Man, Satellite.
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