Simon Ogston on Skeptics Documentary 'Sheen of Gold'

Simon Ogston on Skeptics Documentary 'Sheen of Gold'

By Brannavan Gnanalingam

Monday 1st July, 2013 9:11AM

Documentary filmmaker Simon Ogston's latest documentary takes on legendary '80s band the Skeptics. Cut short by singer David D'Ath's death from leukaemia in 1990, the band's hugely influential and eclectic sound gathered fans from all over – but they soon disappeared into cult fandom. Their music is about to get a timely re-release via Flying Nun, while the documentary Sheen of Gold (screening in the New Zealand International Film Festival) shows the compelling background to the music.

I saw your Chants R&B doco, and I know you made a documentary about Squirm, did you plan on becoming a documenter of forgotten or underappreciated New Zealand musicians?

I guess it was kind of a decision to focus my time and energy in that direction. I had been in TV for about ten years, and four years ago, I started making the Chants film and my Squirm documentary around the same time. I figured these stories are never ever going to get funded, so I was keen to make something I was interested in personally, and make something that wasn't going to happen without me doing it, I don't think. Not many other people out there doing this kind of thing.

You were always into music?

Ever since high school, I played in bands. Squirm was influential for me because they were a local band and played at my high school and played at lunchtime. I was always into music – music and comedy.

Why the Skeptics?

It's a hard one to answer really. I was in the process of making Antarctic Angels and the Unknown Blues and I'd heard a couple of their songs in compilations. I don't have any personal connections with the band. I never saw the band. I saw the 'AFFCO' video, heard some of the music. I had my interest piqued seeing they were from Palmerston North and the fact that David [D'Ath] had died young. That was enough to suggest to me there was an interesting story there, and there is. More interesting than I could have imagined.

They're a band with a pretty hardcore group of people who love them, were you nervous about taking them on?

Not really. Anything is better than nothing right? No I wasn't. I didn't worry about it.

I was going to ask if you were a fan before, but did you discover a lot about the Skeptics while you were making the documentary?

I did, I'm not a long-term fan of the Skeptics. I didn't know really much about them at all, and I learned a lot along the way. Still discovering things. Still love their music.

Were you much of a Flying Nun fan?

Yeah, just your average indie music fan. I'm no real authority on New Zealand music history. I'm as interested in people as I am in music. I don't know if there is a typical Flying Nun mould. If you think of a single Flying Nun, you tend to think of the same kind of thing. Whether that's justified or not, I don't know. The Skeptics certainly don't fit that. They're a quite difficult band to categorise, which makes them a great band to make a film about.

How did you find access to various people?

They weren't looking for a documentary and they'd be quite happy without one. My initial contact was Nick Roughan. He lives in Auckland, where I live now. And so it started there. I made contact with John Halvorsen, who lives here [in Wellington] and Robin Gauld who lives in Dunedin. I went to Palmerston North. Spent a bit of time with those guys, and I kind of had to wait a little time for Brent McLachlan and Don White to pass through the country as they live overseas. I had much shorter amount of time with those two. We covered a lot of ground. It was really important I got all of the surviving band-members in the films. That was something the band was very keen on, and I was too. They're a great bunch of guys. It's really heartening to see people who make music you really admire are also people who are honest and have integrity and nice people.

They all speak pretty positive about the band, it's not like one of those type of documentaries where people have reservations – obviously D'Ath's death drew a line…

I think some of them have got reservations about some of the early stuff. But there's a period of learning and experimentation. It's all like that. I'm kinda surprised a lot of the early stuff, including The Lost EP is going to be re-released. It quite amazes me. I think they're proud of what they've created. They've never really gone out and sought attention. I think they're really - I hesitate to use the word role-models so I wouldn't want to say that – but I think they had a really great model about how to conduct yourself as a band and as people. I don't want to sound too sycophantic, but their focus was always on the music and they worked hard, and they sat on the music for a long time and were quiet about it. They never really sought attention, and I don't think it really mattered to them a great deal.

Was it coincidence that your film coincided with the Flying Nun re-release of the Skeptics' work?

I didn't know when I first started the projects. There'd been thoughts for a number of years of putting out a compilation, but it just hadn't happened for a number of reasons. And then I came out of the blue. I guess they saw the potential of doing it all at the same time. It was always the rough plan, and it worked out well, and it worked out the way I hoped.

It's a wonderful body of work to work with as a filmmaker. It's probably the thing that has given me the most joy. What a palette to work with as a soundtrack. Regardless of what people think I've done with the film. It has got a cracking soundtrack. It was a lot of fun to work with.

You mentioned you liked focusing on people, did that influence how you made the documentary via interviews etc.

I'm not a social butterfly, or talking to people all of the time. I was fascinated by who made the music, where they'd come from. When you hear it without knowing anything about it, which is kinda where I came from, it's hard to imagine. The first time I heard 'Heathery Men', you imagine this Celtic poet, that's what it conjures up to me. Seeing photos of the band and seeing where they had come from, that intrigues me. I guess the risk is the film would erode some of the mystique around the band, but I certainly don't think that's going to detract. Long-term fans will learn a lot, and there's plenty there for people who know nothing.

There's quite a bit of focus on the technical stuff, so there'll be something there for the people who know their stuff…

I tried to strike a balance between that kind of detail and making the film accessible to everybody. I don't think you have to be a fan of New Zealand music or the Skeptics to enjoy the movie. My litmus test is that someone who doesn't really like that type of music can enjoy the film, that's what I'm aiming for.

What was your reaction to the AFFCO video when you saw it for the first time?

I was blown away. It's a great video. I've never seen anything like it. It's been a blessing and curse I think for the band. I guess most bands have one thing they're remembered for in particular, and AFFCO is certainly that for the band, although possibly less so as a result of the film. It's a great video and it features prominently in the film. I didn't want to give it undue amount of time, because it's quite a well known story. There's a lot more that had never been told.

Was it easy accessing the archive material?

I didn't know it was all there when I first started. All of that stuff came to light. Everybody was really open about helping the project, and I think that says a lot about the esteem the band is held under. I think also because the film is unfunded made it a lot simpler in that respect. People can see that I've come in with the right intentions and helped where they can. I received a lot of archive footage which you can see. I got hours and hours. I've kinda come to love the look of that grade of '80s era video footage. Some of that stuff looks great. It's not hi-def, but it's nice, organic degradedness about it.

That last footage is pretty great

Yeah it's pretty good. That bluescreen Sensible Shoes stuff, I think a lot of people would look at that and think it's unusable. You start to watch that and inevitably, it starts to chime in with the music. I like the way it looks.

Were you surprised at how much esteem the Skeptics were held when you started?

Yeah, I don't know if surprise is the right word, but they certainly are held in a lot of esteem. They were a lot of people's favourite New Zealand band and a lot of New Zealand musicians' favourite New Zealand band. For good reason I think. I don't think there are many bands that you can say that about, that significant amount of people think they are the best we've ever produced.

How nostalgic were the band members to look back?

It varied from member to member. Some were very unsentimental, at least to me. I don't know what they're like in private. Some were a bit more open to looking back.

I think it's very unique to find a band who is so celebrated and respected, and yet so little was known about them. I really can't overestimate how little information there was out there about the band when I started the project. Those four things I told you: from Palmerston North, 'AFFCO', David dying, and I forgot the fourth one. When I started researching the band, there was very little online. I don't think you get the opportunity as a filmmaker that often, where you find a band where the story hasn't been told.

They're very atypical of '80s New Zealand, or worldwide music?

They had their influences and their contemporaries. I'm no authority on music, but I don't think you find many bands quite like them.

What do you think made them great, having spent a bit of time with them?

I think it was a really fortuitous combination of distinct but compatible personalities and skill-sets. I do really think it was a group effort. I think David in particular was a very unique and creative individual. They all were creative individuals, and I hint during the film that it was a group effort and they worked hard. They put in the work. They put in more work than most people are and were prepared to do. I think if you put in that amount of work and you're fortunate to have that right group chemistry and good things happen. That's my take on it.

And 'Sheen of Gold' for the title…

That was actually Bob Sutton's idea. I was going to go "And We Bake" and Bob was like, "Sheen of Gold is better". I have to agree. It's probably better. I think it's appropriate.

What's the plan with the film after the Festival?

It'll be released on DVD, but when or how, I'm not sure. It'll be before or end of the year and a bunch of bonus stuff with extra scenes and live tracks. In time for Christmas I hope.

Sheen of Gold Trailer

Sheen of Gold screenings at NZ International Film Festival:

Saturday 3rd August, SKYCITY Theatre, Auckland
Thursday 8th August, Paramount Theatre. Wellington
Saturday 10th August, The Film Archive, Wellington

More to screenings be announced.

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