Danny Cohen on debut Courtney Barnett doco: ‘it was like creating visual poetry’

From intimate audio diaries to bombastic tour footage, Danny Cohen worked with musician Courtney Barnett to create the antithesis to a rockumentary.

Anonymous Club marks a few firsts: it’s Danny Cohen’s first feature film, and the first music documentary to be made about Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett.

The film is being described as the ‘antithesis’ of a rock biography, and a raw and intimate picture of the enigmatic Barnett. She’s known well as an introvert, yet as a performer is acclaimed by audiences the world over. So how do you go about making a classic tour doco starring a strong female artist in conflict with herself?

ScreenHub chatted to director Danny Cohen about the process of creating Anonymous Club.

You’ve collaborated with Courtney Barnett in the past, where did the idea to do a full tour documentary come from?

I think it was a natural progression from having worked together on a bunch of music videos. There was one particular music video with Kurt Vile that was shot on 16-mm [film], where I followed Kurt and Courtney around and tried to capture everything but the music. That included things like hanging out with friends or family, and anything they do in their spare time that doesn’t involve rehearsing, touring, or writing music. I think that video spurred the idea that we could do a documentary – but at the time we weren’t really sure what it could be about.

Courtney and I both immediately bonded over the creative process and what drives artists to do what they do, and so that became the springboard. Then we decided to just start shooting a few tours, and see where it went from there.

How was making Anonymous Club different from making one of your music videos with Courtney?  

Everything’s quite planned out in a music video, and I storyboard a lot. We pretty much know what we’re going to get out of it. With the documentary, we would start filming every day without really knowing what we were going to get. It’s a month of shooting with no script. I think working in that way is super liberating, but also really difficult when it comes to finding a story and telling it succinctly over 90 minutes.

There’s no talking heads in this film. It’s all just based off Courtney Barnett’s Dictaphone entries, which ended up narrating the film.

This was a three year project that started as an audio diary – how do you make a film where you start with the voice over?

It was an idea I came up with to help Courtney open up and share how she’s feeling without the pressure of the camera on her. She tends to seize up in the limelight, which is totally natural, especially when people are expecting you to say something profound. So I gave her a Dictaphone and told her to record anything she wanted – it could be like, ‘Danny, I need a haircut!’ or ‘I played a show tonight and it was great,’ and that would be it. But sometimes, if she felt like it, she would just keep chatting. Some entries ranged from 30 seconds long to an hour long – she would just sit there noodling on the guitar and chat in between. That then became the backbone of the whole film.

We never knew how long the film was going to take. It could have been five or even ten years, we could’ve kept coming back to her over her career. When we started filming, her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, came out and then in the three years following her outlook on life shifted, and her third album became more positive. It felt like the right time to bookend the film.

Can you tell us about the choice to capture footage in 16-mm film? Is that the norm for you or did you choose it specifically for this film?

I’ve done a few clips in 16-mm, I really enjoy shooting on it. Initially it was just a stylistic preference, because it feels a lot more immersive to me with the way the film renders color and tone. It just has a magic that I can’t really explain. It’s also a practical decision: compared with digital, we would shoot a lot less footage on 16-mm due to the cost of it. So that makes the editing process a lot easier, as opposed to just rolling four or five hours a day digitally, and then coming into the edit suite and trying to pick through hundreds of hours of footage.

How did you and editor Ben Hall achieve the final edit?

We kind of went a bit mad over those four months, because it’s so difficult to only be relying on her audio diaries and what you’ve shot, and with no ability to interview someone for a talking heads insert. The first step was to go through and catalogue all the footage and all the audio diaries. We transcribed all of Courtney’s Dictaphone entries, and when you see it on paper you start to find more meaning in it, so from there we plucked out our key themes. It was like condensing her diaries into a mini novel. Then we’d go and find matching footage, which either meant it matched the audio entry chronologically or thematically.

There was a lot of contrast, like seeing Courtney play live and absolutely shred it, then hearing her Dictaphone entry where she’s doubting what it means to be musician. Those moments became really powerful. It was like creating visual poetry.

What will you do next? Will the collab with Courtney continue?

I don’t know. I’d love to work with her again, and I’m sure we will. At the moment we’re both just keen to hang out and have a friendship without filming all the time. So my next step is to do nothing for a little while.

I do have a few music doco ideas kicking around, and another sort of strange, psychedelic musical idea. When I’m ready I can put a lot on my plate and just switch between whichever one’s gaining more momentum. I’d definitely be keen to do another feature as soon as possible.

Anonymous Club shows at the ScreenWave International Film Festival on 22 April. For tickets, head to the SWIFF website.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports