Songwriter: An interview with director Murray Cummings
Ed Sheeran has released three number one records, played the biggest stages in the world and is one of the highest paid musicians yet he remains grounded and down-to-earth. Songwriter depicts the charming singer-songwriter in his creative process as he begins writing and recording his third album. We spoke to director Murray Cummings about working with his cousin Ed, showing his genius and crossing those personal/professional lines.
What attracted you to making a music documentary?
There’s a moment in the Jay-Z documentary, Fade to Black, where you get to see him and Timbaland in the studio. Timbaland is playing him lots of beats but Jay’s not feeling any of them and then he plays one that gets Jay out of his seat. That song goes on to become the hit on the album. It’s this cathartic moment where you go “Wow! I’m so happy I saw that”, we were there!”. My goal is to make these moments. I would ask myself what is my moment like that. I was looking through all the footage, looking for these moments. I was editing before the album even came out so I had to guess and speculate which ones were going to be the big hits.
Songwriting in the films seems effortless. Does Ed ever have moments of procrastination or frustration that you didn’t show in the film because it looks like he’s churning out song after song.
He goes through all these different moments and processes. Some days he’ll have pressure to write something up-tempo, and he ends up writing a ballad. Whatever comes out comes out. I think the stresses were more the types of songs he was writing rather than not being able to write. He’s got a rule: it doesn’t matter if it’s a bad song, just write because if you ever stop, you’ll lose your confidence. You need to keep going. The good songs will pick themselves.
During the process of this film, did you feel like you got to know him better?
The film is the side of him I know. He didn’t reveal anymore than I already knew.
Did you ever have the feeling that, because you know him too well, you’re too close to show him objectively?
Definitely. One of the reasons we didn’t have a lot of sit down interviews is because I could have family and friends talking about Ed because they would just say “He’s so lovely”, “We love him”.’ I can’t have any of that, that’s going to embarrass people. I’m going to show what I saw and let people decide if they like it and like his personality. I really didn’t want to make a propaganda film.
Ed is a huge star who is careful of his image. What was the editing process like? Did you have a lot of people telling you what you could show? Was there intervention?
There wasn’t intervention but I self-edit. I’m close to him, I have to know where the line is. I feel personally embarrassed if I’m crossing it, even if I really want to. I feel like there are other directors that are more able to do that. There are certain scenes that I didn’t want to film but luckily we had a second camera to capture the stuff I was too embarrassed to. I would ask, “Oh no, why did you go into that room with Ed?”, but looking back, thank God they did.
Did the camera ever bother Ed or his entourage?
Yes, I think its hard for people who write with Ed to deal with. Some of the times, I just showed up and they weren’t ready for it. All of a sudden there’s a camera in the room and his songwriting partners freeze up. Once they saw how close Ed and I are, they tended to relax and be themselves around the camera.
Could you recommend three music documentaries that inspired you?
Jay-Z’s Fade to Black. There’s a David Bowie one, where he’s sat on the floor, cutting up pieces of paper and putting them into lines of a song. Just watching that process, I realised I wanted to make that. I recently saw the new M.I.A one, which is amazing. Searching for Sugarman was incredible. I didn’t know anything about him so I got the maximum impact, I was blown away.
You don’t show a lot of the family, you mostly focus on people he works with. Was that a deliberate choice to not dig deep into his personal life?
I didn’t originally want to show the family at all. Just to protect them, they’re private people and they don’t want to be swept up in Ed’s fame. The more the album started to become about family, I felt like especially the Abbey Road moment with his dad was amazing. I tired to shoot that in a way that wouldn’t invade their privacy too much.
Thanks so much for your time!
Songwriter does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2018 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.