on her new documentary, SIX60: Till The Lights Go Out
Julia Parnell is an award-winning producer and documentary director. During 20 years working in the entertainment industry, Julia has developed a singular ability to direct striking documentary with emotional depth, receiving local and international acclaim for her films and television series.
As the premiere music documentarian in New Zealand, she now tackles New Zealand's biggest modern day band; SIX60. We spoke to her about her new film, and her approach to filmmaking.
Jacob: Can you tell us what SIX60: Til The Lights Go Out is?
Julia: SIX60: Till The Lights Go Out is a theatrical documentary about the pretty incredible story of SIX60, who are a New Zealand band that started as a student band and turned into a national phenomenon. This is a group of guys who have achieved the unthinkable in a country like New Zealand - they became the first and only New Zealand act to headline our biggest stadium, Western Springs, which is really reserved for the world megastars. AC/DC, Mick Jagger has played there, Stevie Wonder, Eminem. I mean, 50,000 people were there and if you read that it is almost just a number, but to see it in person and for it to happen in New Zealand, when it doesn’t even happen for acts internationally, it is pretty phenomenal.
Jacob: It’s quite a conundrum, that SIX60 is so popular in New Zealand but is somewhat unknown internationally. Were you looking with the documentary to open up SIX60 to a broader market?
Julia: Very much so, and I think for the film what really stands out is how identifiable these guys are. Like in any documentary, it is about narrative and it is about themes. I’ve made documentaries about Dragon and other New Zealand acts, but there is something about the makeup of these men that I think the rest of the world is going to find really fascinating. When I entered the story, I wanted to understand how they had become so successful in New Zealand - that was definitely my in. I wanted to capture this moment in cultural and music history.
I make a lot of music documentaries, and it’s my passion, but once I started to get into it, I found really complex, fascinating and at times heartbreaking stories that deserved a cinematic telling. I thought these could travel. It’s not my job to promote the band, butI think their story is definitely going to open up people to their music.
Jacob: There is quite a bit of tragedy in the film, and there is a lot of emphasis on the families, and how they aided the band in discovering arts and music. Was that important to you, and was there anything that surprised you in that process?
Julia: Exactly that reason. I had just come off the back of another feature which was more historical in nature but did have an element of modern day story, and that’s where for me as a documentary storyteller that’s where the excitement is. It’s how things are going to unfold in the current day, and it’s trying to understand people as they are. I’m quite fascinated about change, and people who are willing to look at themselves and consider how they can be better, or what mistakes they are making, and speak to progress and change. In SIX60, I really found that, especially in the lead singer.
Jacob: Some of the relationships in the band are quite factitious, and there’s a bit of drama. As a documentary filmmaker, what’s your approach to that situation?
Julia: It’s such an interesting place to be a documentary filmmaker. You do it over periods - you don’t go in knowing everything. You are looking for that journey, and you just keep prodding. It’s a combination of having these interviews, asking hard questions, and then building themes off that and re-exploring those. It’s really a puzzle, making a documentary. Other people call it unwrapping layers of an onion - I have heard that a few times. It’s hard to talk about my own craft and how I get them to open up, but I think these guys were at a stage in their life where they were open to speaking honestly about their challenges, about their doubt, about the struggle for greatness, and that this would be a positive for their audience and inspiring in some way. The combination of my skills and their willingness to do that leads to something really great.
Jacob: As a band in their prime, you have the opportunity to capture footage of them now for the film, as opposed to a backwards focused documentary where you are building off historical footage, and a lot of the content you have shot looks just incredible. Was there anything else that, because of the band’s stature and position, you changed compared to your previous documentaries?
Julia: I’m just kind of remembering that concert now! That was such a full on experience. You know, between you, me and everybody, we were only just closing the finance at that point, so there was all this risk. And I had so many cameras there, and I just didn’t know if the film was going to come off, and so I am just so proud of that footage. The band has been quite brave too, because they have limited creative say - of course i let them watch it and I wanted their feedback -but they had no creative say. So I was able to take that concert, and their music in general, and weave it through the story in a way that elevates their narrative and dramaticises it through their music. I really loved being able to cut back to that concert and all those people, and kind of like the New Zealand fans are woven through the movie because of that.
Most of the band is in their mid-thirties, and I'm a female director entering this quite masculine group; they are, they’re quite sporting and goal focussed. So me, coming in and being quite emotional, and that dynamic with their dynamic, has contributed to the making of the film.
Jacob: What do you want people to take away from the film?
Julia: I’m really privileged to be releasing this film in Australia, and we know that there are a lot of Australian fans of the band. While they are growing in popularity in Australia, to be able to release the film there, Ijust want to be able to shine a light on SIX60, which is kind of intrinsically linked to the battler spirit that both Australia and New Zealand share. We’re battlers, and we have courage to live our dreams, and we look for purpose and meaning, and I think this particular story really embodies that; that kind of Australasian spirit.