Earlier this year Dutch filmmaker Carine Bijlsma released her first feature-length documentary, Devil's Pie. The film follows equally enigmatic and charismatic musical genius D'Angelo throughout his Black Messiah Tour. Blijsma combines never seen before archival footage and interviews with musicians Questlove, Pino Palladino, and tour manager Alan Leeds with access-all-areas fly-on-the-wall scenes. The result is an unparalleled insight into one of the greatest musicians of our time. We had the chance to interview Carine Bijlsma on her documentary recently. Read on, get familiar.
Carine, how did you get into filmmaking?
I attended the Dutch Film and Television Academy.
How did your upbringing have an influence on your career choice?
Being the daughter of two musicians (Vera Beths and Anner Bijlsma) music has always been a big part of my life. Our holidays were joining them on tour etc.
I think music is the most beautiful art form. Going into the arts was a natural choice to me. I went into documentary filmmaking instead of music, but making music documentaries is what feels most natural to me because I know the world so well and it fascinates me.
Watching Devil’s Pie it’s very apparent that the director is fully accepted and has become part of the family. Did you find it difficult to keep your distance and stay in your role as documenter when D’Angelo was struggling?
I have always made films about people I was close to, so for me it is almost a requirement instead of a difficulty. I think the best thing you can do for your main character is to make a truthful film about who they really are. What makes someone ‘attractive’ in real life as well as a character for a film is their imperfections and how they take on ‘this thing called life’. And at the end of the day I was there to make a documentary and him and I embarked on that journey together.
The access you had to the artist and band but also the way in which you gained this access is pretty special. You basically sent him a letter, correct? Can you speak on why you believed this approach would be successful?
Yes I did sent him a letter. I followed my intuition and wrote an honest letter. I think in this day and age everything goes so quick with emails and text messages, that a letter has a big impact. It’s old school.
In the documentary, we see that ‘stardom’ and being seen as a sex symbol is something D’Angelo flirts but also grapples with. Seeing that up close, what is your opinion on stardom and its effects?
By the time I was there, during the Black Messiah tour, the focus was less on the sex symbol per se. Also he shied away from all press or other encounters so the super stardom craziness wasn’t that much around but during the shows. I do think stardom can be very addictive and I think it is hard to not get too caught up in it and D’Angelo is very aware of that. Like he says, you don’t want to lose your ‘rambunctious self’, because that is what makes the music, but as you say he both flirts and grapples with the things that scare him. It is an interesting dynamic to watch.
You shot Devil’s Pie over the course of several years. How did you balance your personal life and the shooting of the documentary during that time?
It is hard to balance a personal life on the road when you are in a different city every day working non-stop for years. I just fully focused on making the film and enjoyed travelling the world, which was an amazing experience in its own.
Coming off tour and going back to your own life, how does it feel?
After the tour the edit process starts and you relive it every day again. So it is a slow process of letting go. I am still in contact with the people that I was close to on the road so that made it a lot easier. The road is amazing and exhausting at the same time. You know it can’t go on forever, because it is just too intense. With D’Angelo you never really knew if it was the last time or not so that emotional moment of it’s done now, wasn’t really there and after the tour I was still filming so my process continued. By the time you are done with the edit and know you have tried everything possible; it is good to let the film go and give it to the audience to enjoy.
What do you want your audience to take away from this film?
I hope that they have had an experience and that it speaks to them on very personal level. The film is very layered so it will be different to different people. I also hope they see what an amazingly talented musician D’Angelo is, if they needed to be reminded of that, and a beautiful human being.
How does this documentary sit in your oeuvre?
All my films explore the passion of an artist and the ups and downs of the creative process and life. I met the main characters of my films at different moments in their lives. The first time touring as a solo artist (Soloist, Rosanne Philippens red) or a life long wish to conduct Schoenberg’s piece for an enormous orchestra (Extase, Reinbert de Leeuw). While the musical genres might be different, the passion and the love for music of the characters are similar. With Devil’s Pie, it went to the next level, it is my first feature-length documentary and my first international production. I think more the level of business around it that was new than the actual film making process.
What is your most memorable footage that was not included in the doc and why did you leave it out?
I have a rehearsal where D’Angelo sings Al Green’s Simply Beautiful, which is one of my favorite songs. We tried to put it in, but in the end, we had to kill this darling.
You must have been present during many a session with legendary musicians and beautiful music being made, can you speak on the unreleased D'Angelo music you’ve heard?
Unfortunately, I can’t speak on that.
Do you have a next project lined up?
I am working on the development of new projects and also am enjoying some time to myself after working on the film for 7 years.
Are you looking into working in other fields other than filmmaking?
I also work as a photographer. I enjoy that as well. I am open to anything at this moment as long as it feels right. I do have a lot of photographs from the tour that I’d love to exhibit or make a book of. That would be a dream come true.