This is History: Mat Whitecross on directing Supersonic

Filmmaker Mat Whitecross is uniquely positioned in the Oasis story. As the director of Supersonic, he got closer than most to understanding the highly-charged, enigmatic relationship of Noel and Liam Gallagher. The brothers each sat for more than twenty hours of interviews with Mat, a process described by Liam as “Like [the] therapy I never had!” In the course of making the film Mat also pulled together hours of rare footage, drawn from the band’s own archive alongside the previously-unseen collections of their friends and family.

On 26th October 2016, Mat spoke to Tom Stroud at length about making Supersonic.

“There’s no way you could grow up in the ’90s and be the age I was and not have Oasis as part of your DNA. And, personally, I love the fact that people have such a complicated relationship with them, the fact that they are a love/hate band, y’know? No-one sits on the fence and says, “Yeah, I can take them or leave them” – you either love them with all your heart or you hate them with all your heart. Which is great; that’s what you want from a band, right?” 

 

Tom: Let’s start with a bit about you – you were born in 1977, you’re a year older than me, and you’re exactly the right age to appreciate Oasis and that moment in British music from the mid-’90s. You were obviously a fan; you didn’t get to go to Knebworth did you? But obviously they were on your radar.
Mat: They were definitely on my radar! I was exactly the right age. And I missed Knebworth! Because I was actually out of the country; I was travelling around South America. And so I wasn’t around [for that] but I’ve got a lot of friends who went. And I started to go and see them on the third album. I should’ve gone before but it was one of those things where you go “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah I’ll get round to it…”. I remember a friend – I mean this is a classic thing with every band – every person I met, and even now, people are like: “Whoah you should’ve seen them in the first two years! You missed it.” So, in a sense, making the film was a way of travelling back in time and correcting that mistake.

Tom: I was just going to say, it doesn’t matter now because someone’s made a film and put it on the big screen!
Mat: [Laughs] That’s true, yeah! You can dip in at your leisure.

Tom: So when you came to it, did you have a fixed view of Oasis and the story that you wanted to tell? And did any of that change when you were making the film?
Mat: Well the way it came about was that Simon Halfon (who’s one of the producers) used to design the record sleeves and the album artwork from the fourth album [Standing on the Shoulder of Giants] onwards. And so he contacted me – we were supposed to be doing another film about the Clash, quite a few years ago. And the timing didn’t work out. So when he came to me I didn’t know what we were supposed to be doing, and he sent me this slightly cryptic e-mail saying “Do you like Oasis?”

And that was pretty much it; that was all the information I had going in. And when I said yes, he said “Do you want to come and meet Noel?” So I didn’t really know… I can’t even remember if he told me the band were getting back together, whether there was a reunion on the cards, or whether it was a retrospective thing. And then, of course, Noel’s first question was: “Well, what’s this film that we’re making?” [Laughs]. So I wasn’t exactly armed with a huge amount of information. But it was great because everyone in the room had been talking about Knebworth and the fact that they had this great footage that no-one had ever seen. And it just felt – the size of the thing, even being out of the country when it was on… it was just on a scale that no one had imagined. Certainly not that band, in two years; it was inconceivable in this country, just two years before. So it felt like that was a good way of focussing attention. Because the more we talked about it, it just felt impossible to me to do the whole story up to 2009. It would’ve been just so superficial. And there’s so many changes not only in the band but in the world around them, that I just think it would’ve been too much. I mean you could have a mini-series maybe, but…

Tom: Yeah I mean that’s the frustration with this film, just for the period you’ve covered it almost feels too short; to do the whole lot is impossible, isn’t it?
Mat: Right, for sure. It was a tricky one. And it was tricky going into it because I hadn’t really had a chance to do the homework I would’ve liked. Obviously I knew the story- I’d grown up with it; I used to read the NME every week like everyone else. I knew enough about them that I could kinda wing it and I was a big fan. So I knew enough about the story, but it wasn’t like I’d done the kind of research I normally do going into it, before meeting someone like that, talking about the project… I think I was in the middle of something else and I didn’t really have the chance to sit down for a day and go: “Right, what is this film that we’re gonna try and make?” I didn’t even know if I was making it. Because I was effectively going in to meet them – I assumed I was auditioning but no-one really briefed me! [Laughs].

Tom: You were being sounded out.
Mat: I was being sounded out, for sure. Because I don’t know if they saw anyone else for it but it was one of those things where we didn’t know if we were definitely going to do it, what the film was gonna be, and if we could raise the money. All those kind of issues that you have going into any film. But when Noel first mentioned this film I thought that if we focussed on the early years it would be much more intense, and we could go into so much more depth. And also just the fact that what’s really unique about Oasis is those first two years. He said it himself when we were doing the interviews… Noel was saying there was that danger. “We knew at the time that after Knebworth you become another band, and the machine takes over.” And that is kinda the inevitable thing that happens to most bands. But it did mean that after that, you can compare the journey and the stories. As crazy as they were, you can compare them in some ways to other bands. Whereas on the way up it was very different.

Tom: Why did they want to do it? I know it’s twenty years since Knebworth and that footage hadn’t been used before. But, as fans, we had the sense that Oasis was buttoned-up, the relationships had broken down… they didn’t get involved in any of the promotion for the reissued albums. It felt like Oasis was this done thing, and the next thing we knew there’s this film coming out. Did they have a sense of wanting to tell their story properly, or their place in history? What was driving the idea?
Mat: Yeah I would say it was probably that sense of wanting to try and convey the legacy of what that band had achieved. Because I think… I dunno, probably you and David and the fans, know this better than anyone else: which is that – it happens to a lot of bands – the shine goes off. Once you become successful it’s not cool to like you anymore. But I think, given all the tabloid excesses, controversies, and caricature that was perpetuated, the problem was that people forgot about the music. They forgot about the great attitude and the vibe in the first few years, and started to remember the tit-for-tat nonsense, and all the problems towards the end. Which, in my mind, wasn’t what Oasis was about at all.

And also – I think unfairly – a lot of the later albums got criticised and were slagged off by the press, who were looking for the next thing. Y’know as soon you’re big then everyone wants to knock you down. I love a lot of those later albums, and a lot of those later songs. But it’s impossible to compete with the first two albums because they’re masterpieces. And I remember saying that to Noel, and Noel was like: “Well why should I have to live up to the first two albums? No one else can!” [Laughs]. It was one of those things – like they didn’t make another album as good as Definitely Maybe (arguably). And Noel was like: “Well no one has!” [Laughs].

So, from my point of view, I thought – let’s focus on the early days which had all those things. I felt like, when I was talking to friends about it, for whatever reason it’d become… it wasn’t like it was uncool to like Oasis, but it was more that it was like “Hmm, yeah… they kinda lost it by the end, and were they any good in the first place?” People had forgotten how great they were. But then as soon as you’re playing one of those songs – you hear the song back home, or on a jukebox – then the whole place erupts and everyone’s singing every lyric. So it doesn’t take that much to give them a nudge, but I felt that in some way we could redress the balance. And I guess that was Noel and Liam’s motivation as well.

And the other thing that Noel said is that the industry seems very beige, and safe, and corporate now. He was joking and kinda saying: “Look, back then – twenty years ago – what was the biggest band? Well, there was this kind of punk rock band from the wrong side of the tracks who really shouldn’t have made it.” And everyone was focussed on them. And what’s the biggest thing in music right now? It’s basically Cilla Black. He was saying that, for his money, that’s a tragedy. Not to say that people shouldn’t be allowed to listen to any type of music, but you should want to listen to music that’s gonna challenge you and be in your face. For lots of reasons: technical, cultural, all these things… the way that people (for want of a better word) ‘consume’ music has changed. And I guess maybe a band like Oasis aren’t possible in the same way any more.

Tom: Yeah that’s one of the points at the end of the film isn’t it? That this story couldn’t happen now in the way that it did.
Mat: Yeah, I mean it was interesting because I don’t think Noel was saying that because music’s changed it can never be as good, or as interesting now. It’s more the fact that people’s minds can’t be focussed, in the way that they were, on one particular band who seemed to represent everything at that moment. Because I guess the industry is so fractured and we’re far less tribal in the way that we listen to music. You can listen to lots of bands and lots of types of music, and that’s normal now. But, back then, you had your band and they were like your football team: you supported them through thick and thin, through good days and bad days, great albums and terrible albums. And now it’s much more like: you might listen to some of their songs but you just have them on a playlist. And if you don’t go to the gig that night because you’re tired, or you’re drunk, or you miss it, then you just watch it on YouTube twenty minutes later. So you’re not invested in it in quite the same way. It doesn’t mean that there’s not great music and great characters out there now, but they’re not part of the mainstream in the way Oasis were at that moment in time.

Tom: Right, let’s talk about interviewing Noel and Liam because you had unprecedented access. I heard Ron Howard talking about the Beatles film [Eight Days a Week] and he said, “Oh yeah, Paul and Ringo were brilliant – they gave me loads of time! I had two two-hour sessions with them.”
Mat: Hahaha!

Tom: …whereas you had twenty hours with Noel and Liam, didn’t you?
Mat: Yeah! And it could’ve been more, that was the crazy thing. They were happy to do as much as we wanted. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion because when we met for the first time they [cautiously] said, “Yeah, OK. We’ll do the interviews, keep on going and we’ll see how it goes.” But I knew in the back of my mind that, if it’d gone badly up-front, then they’d probably get bored and just get the hump. Just walked off! There was always that thing in the back of my mind: what if they just find the process really dull and boring? What if…? I mean, especially Liam tends to have quite a narrow attention span, so what happens if, after two hours, he says: “You know what? I’m not really feeling this. Have you got enough?” And we’d barely covered his childhood, y’know? But he was amazing – they both were. They kept coming back each week. Even after the first session I spent two, three hours with Noel talking about songwriting, and about what music means to him. Those kind of things – it was all much more abstract; just getting to know each other. And at the end of that he said: “We haven’t really talked that much about Oasis!” I was like, “Right, well we’ll do it next time.” Which was an amazing luxury to have, and probably no-one’s ever had that before.

So each week we’d go through it and he said he’d prefer to do it chronologically, because it would help him remember. So we went month-by-month through those three years. And obviously I would say something like, “I want to talk a bit about your brother, or Bonehead, or your childhood”, or whatever it might be… and then we’d go off-piste for half an hour or an hour (or whatever it was) and then come back. But that was the way we did it. Each week we’d go, “Well, we’re nowhere near Knebworth; I guess I’ll see you next week again?” And the same went for Liam. Even Liam, on the last session he was like: “You sure you’ve got enough? I’ll come back and talk about the third album. Can we do that one as well?” And Noel was the same – he said “Anytime you need me, I’ll come back.” I said that we’d kinda got to that point, we didn’t want to waste their time. Although there was a little bit of me – in the back of my mind – saying let’s just pretend we haven’t finished the film, I’ll keep on interviewing him for the rest of my life! “Yeah, there’s just another couple of things I wanted to ask you…” Would’ve been great.

Tom: When you’re doing an interview the barriers come down over time, don’t they? And I know you’ve said that, at first, it was kind of terrifying doing those interviews – and I completely get that.
Mat: Yeah, yeah. Well it was… you know, sitting down the first time you do that thing where they’re such great storytellers you immediately relax into it. And you listen to them, and it’s surreal because they’re people that I grew up with: I had their posters on my wall and the albums on my shelf. So it was very odd because you’re in that situation but [it feels like] a slightly “out of body” experience. And then suddenly you realise you’ve got to ask the next question: “Oh shit, he’s talking to me!”, and I’m like – “OK, fine. I’m not listening to this on the radio or something.”

Tom: And then when you have to look Noel in the eye and say, “Your dad hit you”, that’s tough to do isn’t it? Were they alright about that?
Mat: Yeah I mean, you know what they’re like. There’s nothing off-limits, which is amazing. I kinda assumed that… it wasn’t that I assumed there were any questions that weren’t going to be allowed. It was more that I thought he would, after a while, get to a point where he’d say, “Look, I think we’ve covered this.” Or, “Let’s move on.” But that never really happened. The only thing was that – if I felt we were getting to a point on a subject where he’s a bit talked out, then I’d say “Well let’s move on, we’ll come back to this another time.” Or I’d find another way, so if Liam said something about it, or I went to meet Peggie and she said something else that was revealing, then I could say: “Well it’s interesting, because your mum mentioned this, whereas you’d said that.” And so that was a way of circling round and covering something we hadn’t done in enough depth.

But there was never any point with either [Noel or Liam] where they said they weren’t comfortable with discussing a topic. Which is the amazing thing about talking to them, because some people [in the music industry] have media training or management before they go into interviews, because interviews seem so tame now. But [Noel and Liam], uniquely, are still exactly just as you take them. And I guess the only danger for us was that, because they’ve been such great interviewees and so open in the past, was anything new going to come out? Were we actually going to add anything to the story? It felt like the depth that we got into was something new.

Tom: And you definitely did. And I’m pretty sure I know the answer to this, but presumably a joint interview was never discussed?
Mat: It wasn’t. Well… it was discussed by us, within our filmmaking team. Because I think it was before I met them both… I remember Liam tweeting a photo of him backstage at one of Noel’s gigs, with a triple-A pass. And I never really got to the bottom of that… I don’t know what the story was there.

But I was thinking, does it seem to be thawing? Are they gonna be mates again? Or is there gonna be a reunion? Part of me thought this is great, but the other part of me thought actually, it’s probably going to be more valuable to us to interview them separately. Because when you get them together – as entertaining as that is (and you see them in the film, they’re fantastic) – but it tends to be relatively superficial; it’s banter and they can’t take it seriously.

Tom: Yep.
Mat: One brother talks over the other, and all those kind of problems. And I just felt like if we’re going to start talking about their difficulties, their problems with each other, their childhood and any of these things, I can’t ever imagine them opening up in the way that we need when they’re doing it together. It’s just an amalgam.

Tom: And that’s a visual thing anyway; you’d want to see them reunited because it hasn’t happened for so long. But I love the fact that the whole film is done in voiceover, which keeps you in the moment.
Mat: Ah, good! Yeah I think so. That was something that we discussed up-front. Noel said, “Look, I don’t want this to be just an exercise in nostalgia. I don’t want us to wallow in the past.” Obviously when you’re looking at the old days there’s an element of nostalgia involved, if it was a good moment in your life. But, on the other hand, it felt like an easy way of avoiding that was not seeing them in the present, and not feeling like (as he said) “A bunch of grey-haired rockers talking about the good old days.” Which is fair enough.

And we realised that if we weren’t gonna be able to get them together, then the only way of creating a conversation between the two of them – without getting too tricksy – was to interview them separately, and create that conversation through me. So I would ask the same questions to them both and if Liam said something that was interesting or provocative, I could put that back to Noel, and then put Noel’s answer back to Liam. So you could create a dialogue even though none existed, because they can’t be in the same room together.

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Mat Whitecross was interviewed by Tom Stroud on 26th October 2016. Online presentation by David Huggins; published on Oasis Recording Info, 2nd November 2016. In Part 2 Mat recalls searching the archives for lost footage of Oasis! Supersonic is out now on DVD, Blu-Ray, and digital download from iTunes.