The Great Pretender Documentary
Rhys Thomas Q&A
The idea of a new Freddie doc came up sometime ago when the Queen Team discussed the Barcelona Special Edition - how did you go about figuring out what the structure would be for a piece covering Freddie's solo career?
To start with, I went into this documentary on my own with the intention of making a nice little 60 min documentary about the making of 'Barcelona.'However, the journey to the album is a long one and I thought it was important to see why Freddie loved opera, Montserrat and how he came to make an album like this after 'Mr.. Bad Guy.' Therefore, gradually, the documentary turned into, sort of the definitive Freddie Mercury documentary. So much more footage had come to light that it was a shame to waste this opportunity on a specialist album in many ways and go for the big story. So what we have now is a 90 min, feature length documentary about Freddie, essentially in the 1980's when he decided to go solo for the first time.
The key thing for me was the fact that Freddie thought that Barcelona could be his last album. He had discovered his AIDS status and was on borrowed time.Looking back you can see why he put so much of himself into it.
Also on Days of Our Lives, naturally, we were dealing with four individuals,all equally as interesting, so some of the solo aspects of Freddie's work and personality were omitted. I wanted to re-address that here and show people what a brilliant, funny and sensitive man he was beneath that exterior.
It had to be different to The Untold Story clearly-
Yes. Though there is nothing that Untold in The Untold Story. I didn't want to interview all and sundry. I didn't want endless anecdotes or anything oversentimental. We've all seen a million 'poignant' montages of Freddie and this was a chance to let Freddie himself lead the documentary. There is no voice over.The whole plot is linked by the Freddie / David Wigg interview and we branchoff from there. I structured the documentary like a film. I loved Senna and Man on a Wire, those kinds of feature length documentaries are very powerful and you can't beat the real thing rather than re-constructions etc. We were lucky to have discovered a lot of unseen footage that has been in tins for years which means 70 percent of what you see on screen is completely unique.
This documentary only talks to the people who were there, who knew Freddie and worked with him. Matt Lucas and David Arnold offer a reflective take as massive fans, which I felt was also important.
I guess more tapes from the Queen archive had to be sourced and watched, how does that process work?
Well You Tube is one amazing source. All of this stuff you find around the world shows up there, usually badly recorded. I spent hours on there looking for stuffand we found a lot that doesn't even exist anymore, so we had to take what was on there.
A great find was the uncut Rio show, with Freddie in full drag, which opens our show. I also went through hours and hours of tapes, with no labels, literally looking for things that had never been seen and I found the unseen interview with Freddie from 1985 and Keith our researcher found an early interview from 1975 and 76. - Quite outstanding stuff. We also had access of ALL the rushes from the videos now transferred into glorious HD.
Find anything of interest unrelated to 'The Great Pretender' project?
Yes, things like the New Orleans press conference from 1978 live early footage and lots of outtakes from Queen Videos. One day there will be a great Blue Raypackage of ALL Queens' Greatest Hits with lots of unseen stuff.
What is Montserrat like?
Lovely. In Barcelona she gets the same reaction from the public as Royalty would. Very modest, very kind and talented.
She clearly thinks a lot of Freddie-
She clearly adored him and we both cried whilst she told be the story about the -well, you will have to watch the documentary.
Queen manager Jim Beach appears in front of camera once more following his contribution to Days Of Our Lives, his input here seems key, correct?
Without him there is no story. He is a great storyteller and has fascinating insight. He also opens a lot of doors. Without him we'd never have had access to this footage or even Michael Jackson/Rod Stewart audio. He can trust me though. The truth is, I am not some director who had been hired in to make a Freddie documentary. It's a passion for me but I am also aware that this is not a puff piece. Days of Our Lives and The Great Pretender are painfully honest and show the good and bad of everyone, but without going to far. That is important.
All the main characters around Freddie seemed to contribute, apart from the main man himself, was there anyone else you would have wanted?
I would like to have talked to John Deacon who was very close to Freddie and Mary Austin.
Did even you get a clearer picture of the story of how the 'Barcelona' album came about?
No. I knew it all anyway.
Knowing you and how passionate you are on the subject matter, how did this differ personally from a Queen project?
I preferred this in a weird way, as it was less about the music and more about the person. It also shows a flawed side of Freddie, the fact that not everything he did was a success, yet he wasn't bothered by it, he just bounced back. Days of Our Lives was a group effort really, it was both Simon's dream, and mine to make that.
This felt more like it was my thing. I had more confidence to go alone. Simon was busy on other projects so couldn't be there, but came to the first showing and we have both worked together for so long, know what we both like.
I directed this so I didn't have another director to battle with; it was just me and the editor Chris in a room for weeks and weeks. We never, ever got bored with the music, or Freddie. It was constant fun. He has this effect on you - even people at the edit suite, staff, other technical people who had to come in were overwhelmed by his personality, his humour. So strange.
We see clips from interviews with Brian and Roger that were done at the same time as Days Of Our Lives; you must have covered an awful lot in those sessions.
Yes, ideally, we'd have filmed new interviews with them but they weren't free.Also they were pretty talked out after all of those sessions. On Days of Our Lives, I interviewed Roger and Simon interviewed Brian. A large part of that documentary was going to cover this mid-Eighties period when Freddie went solo. There was no need to cover the same ground.
Some of the stuff we used in the DVD extras, but I always felt it was wasted on a tiny audience like that and now this will allow the mass public to see more.
Apart from live releases is there any other part of the Queen or related topics that could be documented from what you have seen in the archives?
Not really. There's the Bob Harris documentary that could be finished. But Ithink Days of our Lives and Great Pretender are the last of the documentaries.
What are you personal highlights from Freddie's solo material?
Love Kills and Guide Me Home, as good as any Queen track. I love them. The Great Pretender/Barcelona videos are exceptional.