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Comedy Young [g]’uns

Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story

It would appear that Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is about to be or just has been broadcast on TV in the UK (and certainly will be again) because the blog's getting hits. I interviewed filmmaker Sarah Townsend for FilmInk back when it was released on DVD. I reckon you can have the whole thing here now.

Eddie Izzard Believe

Photo credit: Eddie Izzard, courtesy of Getty Images/ Kevork Djansezian/


"Documentary," Sarah Townsend says, "is a very difficult form, especially if it's not your natural bent. It's like trying to learn to do math if you're a writer." And she should know. Townsend directed Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story, a fine doco - one that didn't so much begin life as a different documentary but almost ended up as one.

If you've seen Believe, you'll know Townsend from her ‘cameo'; part of the reason she ended up making the film - and has produced a number of Izzard's live performance DVDs - is because she's known Eddie since he began his career, when they were in a relationship. "Eddie's stuff was not political or cutting edge," she recalls. "Other people were much more obvious frontrunners. As time went on that very factor meant his comedy continued to be of interest." As demonstrated, in fine detail, in Believe.

It begins with the comedy process. The point of departure is a ridiculous UK tabloid beat-up of Eddie ‘conning' the public because his tour, promoted as an ‘all new show' by one venue, consisted of material the comic had already toured with in the US.

"It was bullshit, nothing to worry about," Townsend says, "but it got to Eddie because he's the guy who'd roll over his material faster than anybody. So the whole tour was about him trying to re-establish himself in his own head as the person he thought he was."

Presented parallel to Izzard's triumphant presentation, from scratch, of a totally new show, is his life story from infancy to worldwide success. But combining the strands of story was difficult. Sarah knew, dramatically, how it should be told but was stymied by editors insisting it was impossible.

"I'd think, ‘I bow to your greater technical knowledge' and end up with something that just wasn't going to work. So I'd be back to the drawing board yet again!" Eventually, the perfect collaborator, an "absolutely amazing editor" Angie Vargos appeared at the right time. "They always say ‘it takes years to find your team' with film. I went through something like eight editors before I found the right one for me."

They had their work cut out: despite amassing many hours of excellent material, some of it was in tiny fragments. "So much technical work went into making ten seconds here and there seem like a two-minute piece of footage. It was like making a jigsaw with only two pieces." Through it all, one essential piece of puzzle proved elusive.

According to Townsend, all documentary consists of manipulating material in order to create a "greater truth" from bits that, "strictly speaking, might not be true." But, sooner or later, you need to have the subject of the documentary acknowledge that truth, either admit or realise or "have the reality hit them in that moment." Without that element, there's "no proper journey."

Surprisingly - because they're old mates, and also because he seems so forthcoming in interviews - Eddie doesn't give much away. "On film, you can really tell when someone's not getting to the root of anything," Sarah says. "We did interviews for four years before we got anything that was genuinely truthful. There was no genuine revelation of the self in it, and ultimately, that's what we really want."

It was at the point where they were ready to relegate Believe to the ‘one-hour television special' that Eddie came through. "Suddenly we got the interviews that were the most revealing and formed the backbone at the end of the story."

The revelation? The truth Eddie reveals - as much to himself as to filmmakers and the audience - is that his entire career is predicated on his yearning for the approval and presence of his mother, who died when he was very young.

"That was an amazing moment," Sarah says. "A complete shock. We never thought we'd get there. We'd absolutely given up. And it was so real, so extraordinary. I remember us sitting in the room staring at each other afterwards not speaking, going ‘Oh my god!' That's the bit that made us able to turn it into a feature." Thus, Believe was equally a journey for Sarah.

"It was very interesting for me to discover, structurally, what we as humans require from a film in order to connect with it and believe in it and not feel that it's just something superficial."

Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story is available on DVD now (and showing on television in the UK some time).



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