the Sake of the Song
An Interview with Margaret Brown,
director of Be Here to Love Me:
A Film About Townes Van Zandt
by Danielle McCarthy
Photo by David LaSpina
The story of the artist
unknown in his or her time and resurrected
after death is by now a well-known archetype
often passed along through word of mouth
by faithful followers. Taking on a life
of their own, these stories of the tormented
artist dying young slowly trickle into the
mainstream, causing said unknown artist
to catapult onto the world’s stage, à la
Vincent van Gogh. The music world has more
than its fair share of “cult” figures—Nick
Drake, Gram Parsons and Big Star just to
name a few. But a singer-songwriter from
Texas by the name of Townes Van Zandt, whose
haunting and sparse songs toe the line between
country, folk, and blues, remains largely
unknown. I remember the first Townes song
I heard, “Waiting Around to Die,” and being
deeply touched simultaneously by the song’s
simple beauty and grim outlook. Often focusing
on a life on the road, lost men, tragic
women, drugs, and alcohol, his music is
inherently American in its sources (i.e.
Texas songwriter Lightnin’ Hopkins and early
Bob Dylan are two influences). His songs,
though solemn, are ultimately life-affirming
and contain immense wisdom and truth. And
his allegiance of followers include such
renowned musicians as Guy Clark, Emmylou
Harris, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson,
Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, just to
name a few. Even still, he is not widely
known, and his fascinating life and early
tragic death are ripe for the telling.
Director Margaret Brown has passionately detailed
Townes Van Zandt’s life in a documentary that breaks
the insipid Behind the Music mold. A true
fan, Brown truly inhabits the world of Van Zandt’s
songs. Her film, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About
Townes Van Zandt, is both a revelation and vindication
of one’s conviction in loving an artist that no
one else seems to have ever heard of. While a lesser
filmmaker would have reduced the man to myth, glorifying
his legendary drug and alcohol addictions and tragic
death, Brown presents a well-rounded portrait of
a man who “blew off” his loved ones, his freedoms,
his happiness for his art, and the consequences
of those actions (interviews with his children are
particularly sobering and heartbreaking). With fiction
films like Ray and Walk the Line presenting
the warts-and-all true-life stories of legendary
musicians, Brown’s film reveals with searing honesty
the price of becoming a legend. Elegiac and haunting,
Be Here to Love Me transcends the music documentary
genre to become bigger than its subject and his
cult of admirers.
Danielle McCarthy spoke with Margaret Brown about
Be Here to Love Me on the eve of its theatrical
RS: Why did you decide to make this film?
MB: Well Sam [Brumbaugh, producer], who was my housemate
in Brooklyn eight years ago, had this really extensive
record collection, and sometimes at night when we
first moved in together we would play records, and
we would have sort of a mini competition of who
could play the best thing that the other person
had never heard of. My dad’s a songwriter, so I
thought I knew a lot about music, but one night
Sam played a Townes [Van Zandt] record. He played
“Waiting Around to Die,” and it really struck me.
So that started my interest in Townes’s music. But
it wasn’t until I went down to Austin, Texas, where
I now live, that I would hear stories about Townes,
because down in Austin he’s sort of a mythic figure
and people in bars would tell me stories. I read
an article about him and people always talked about
how he lived his life for his art, and everything
else fell away.
So personally I was really interested in that idea
because my dad was a songwriter too, and while I
had a really stable childhood I knew that to be
a great artist you really have to live your art.
For me this film was a chance to explore that idea
through his incredible music and his life and all
the people around him.
RS: It’s hard to categorize Townes’s music. There
are elements of country and folk and blues and some
rock ’n’ roll. I think the same can be said of your
film. It doesn’t neatly fit into that Behind
the Music mold.
MB: Obviously, I wanted to showcase the music… Sam,
who co-produced the film and went on this insane
journey with me for five years, going on six, wanted
to showcase the music. It’s so much fun to turn
people on to it the way Sam turned me onto it, but
I was also really interested in the idea of to what
degree you have to live your art, or is it a choice,
or do you have no choice and you just have to do
Those were the questions I had, and more specifically
for me, how am I going to live my life. I wanted
to make a film that was open enough so that listening
to it and feeling it would make you think about
your own life and the choices you’ve made. I wanted
it to be a really active thing rather than an escapist,
Hollywood, Christmas fare, although it is that as
well since it’s coming out at Christmastime.
RS: [laughs] I think
the problem with those Behind the Music documentaries
is that they glorify that decision to live your
art and make minimal note that really living for
your art has consequences on a person’s life and
their family. I think you see that in this film,
and it’s really heartbreaking. It’s a film about
MB: Yeah, I wanted to make something that was about
family, but I don’t think even if someone was paying
me to do it I would make a Behind the Music
kind of documentary. I wanted to make something
that was more of a collage with stuff that you wouldn’t
necessarily expect to fit together and you figure
it out later on. There’s this moment when Townes
is talking about his music, and then it cuts to
Katie Belle and she’s singing one of his songs,
and until that point in the movie you don’t even
know he had a daughter, and it reveals in that moment
that it’s 2002 — when you saw him before it’s 1983.
I cut so you would feel these things and the shifts
in the narrative so the story builds but not in
a chronological order.
RS: It’s very interesting how it jumps around
in time. There’s also a lot of space in the film,
and everyone is so open. It’s pretty remarkable—I
don’t know how you managed to get them to be so
candid. Did you just build a relationship with them?
MB: Honestly, sometimes I had a hard time believing
that people were telling me the things they were
telling me just because I asked them. There’s that
Janet Malcolm book, The Journalist and the Murderer,
about how much your subject trusts you, and in the
book it’s about a murderer who becomes best friends
with this journalist who ultimately betrays him,
and it’s really about that quandary in any kind
of journalism or documentary filmmaking. I’m not
necessarily going to tell the story you want me
to tell, and I’m definitely not going to tell the
story you’re invested in or is your narrative so
it’s amazing when people are so open — but maybe
they just trusted me enough or intuited that I wasn’t
going to somehow betray them. It’s quite a responsibility.
RS: I think it is
a very even portrayal—there’s no real villain.
MB: Well, I think there are some villains.
RS: But you let us decide whether we think they’re
a villain or not. You may have your opinions…
MB: I sure do!
RS: But you don’t manipulate us into thinking,
well, I don’t want to name names…
MB: Well, there’s truth and there’s truth. I felt
like so much of Townes is about myth that it’s almost
like, do I always have to tell the truth? I mean
there are some things in the film that I know aren’t
true, and I’m not really going to say what those
things are, but I felt like it’s better to overall
service an emotional truth and that the story is
truer with myth in it.
RS: Specifically the stuff with Guy and Susannah
Clark is unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what they
MB: Well, with them it’s a little different because
they were a little triumvirate: those three people
spent a lot of time together, and they were all
really close, and I think that Guy and Susannah
sort of decided they were going to give what they
have to me, and it was weird for me to receive that,
but they put themselves in a place where they were
able to do that. There was this one journalist who
wrote a book about Townes and said that Guy did
that knife game with your hands or put a knife in
his hand, I can’t remember but it was some kind
of story like that. Guy and Townes used to have
this thing they called “Skinning a Yank,” where
it’s basically how to take advantage of a Yankee.
RS: Well, maybe since you’re from Alabama they
trust you more and maybe there’s something interesting
about the way you approached it as a woman.
MB: Well, the family theme of the film was not added
until the very end. I knew I wanted the film to
feel like a collage and not have a typical three-act
structure. I edited the film using orderly note
cards, but the biggest, most important theme I put
in at the end was the family, and that just wasn’t
an element until the end of editing, and it is so
hard to believe that because it would not have been
as good without the emotional resonance of the family.
I really like how you hold off introducing
Townes in the beginning. You use people’s
stories about Townes (like Joe Ely describing
meeting Townes in Lubbock) and the majority
of “Rake,” which is one of my favorite Townes
songs, to really introduce to him.
MB: That song is very epic feeling.
RS: How did you decide to introduce him?
MB: He’s a mysterious character so I wanted
there to be mystery before you see him.
You do see glimpses of him, but we used
optical printing to obscure him a bit, like
by cutting the frame almost before you see
RS: The first time you actually see him
is on the television.
MB: I think the first intimate moment is
when he’s playing live in 1974 and he’s
playing “Pancho & Lefty,” and then it slowly
moves in and you’re starting to get to know
him at that moment.
RS: Well, because he’s now gone, the
archival footage really has to tell the
story. And all that archival footage is
a goldmine to Townes’s fans because none
of it has been seen before.
MB: The only stuff people have seen is the
two minutes in the film that are in a film
called Heartworn Highways [dir. James
Szalapksi] that just got re-released on
DVD and was originally released theatrically
in 1976, but everything else has not really
been seen before now.
RS: The “B” Roll footage you shot is
MB: Well that’s Lee [Daniel, cinematographer],
and he’s such a great collaborator, because
he really understood what the tone of the
film should be. He listened to me about
the way I wanted the film to feel and he
suggested we do optical printing so we bought
this old optical printer in Dallas. Lee
is, in a way, familiar with some of the
demons that Townes had, so I used a lot
of his ideas.
RS: You also really capture the visual
tone of Townes’s music in the footage you
shot. I think a lot of people waste the
creative opportunities when using talking
heads in documentaries, but yours are staged
so beautifully they feel more like stories
and less like talking.
MB: I had another rule in my head as I was
shooting (which I broke all the time) that
I would only use a talking head if something
else were going on, like at the end when
Townes’s friend Bob Moore is talking about
picking up Townes at the airport, and the
look in his eyes is so profound, so it’s
okay to use it for a while, because there’s
something happening in him as he’s talking
to you. And also there’s a tradition in
the South of storytelling, so if someone’s
telling a great story, I can watch them
talk for hours. Most films squander that
opportunity; it becomes something you just
expect in documentaries, so it becomes boring.
It’s too bad.