The documentary George Michael: Freedom is the singer’s last work and it comes to Channel 4 next Monday. Read an interview released by Channel 4 with the executive producer, and George's long time friend, David Austin...
Filmed last year, the 90 minute film, narrated by George himself, follows an eventful five year period in his life. This period saw him fall in love for the first time which sadly ended in tragedy and also follows the gripping story of the making of Listen Without Prejudice Vol 1 and the infamous battle with Sony Music which ended up in the High Court. With an introduction by close friend and supermodel Kate Moss, the candid and revealing documentary also features contributions from Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Liam Gallagher, James Corden, Nile Rodgers, Mary J. Blige, Tony Bennett, Tracey Emin, Mark Ronson, Jean Paul Gaultier, Ricky Gervais, the Freedom 90’ supermodels (Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Tatjana Patitz, Linda Evangelista,) from the video directed by David Fincher, and many more.
Here's the interview with David Austin, conducted by Jonny Rothery, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Music:
How did you come to meet George? What was your relationship with him?
Well we were very old friends. Our mothers were best friends. We met at the grand old age of about six months I think it was. Our mothers’ sort of crossed prams in the street and that was when we met. We grew up together and went to school together and wrote our first song together at 6…
I’ve actually got these recordings because we had this reel to reel that my mother and father had – you know those reel to reel recorders – and from a very young age my mother taught me how to use it so I used to record everything. So, eventually I got a guitar at 6 and George was a drummer, that’s what he started out doing and he sort of played on the pillows and I played the guitar and I’ve got these recordings actually and believe it or not, the first song we wrote was called ‘The Music Maker of the World’. True story.
So your relationship developed into different roles?
Well yeah, absolutely, it developed into different roles. Working, writing songs together, performing together and then into the studio and into production and then into management.
So then, cut to 2015 when we (Jonny Rothery, Channel 4’s Commissioning Editor for Music) first met to start talking about this film… what was the reason for doing it at that time and how did the creative develop from there?
Well the reason for making the film originally, we’d just finished working on the Symphonica project and I remember we had the launch at a place called Hamiltons in London and George’s publicist approached me and she said you know what the 25th anniversary for Listen Without Prejudice is looming, you need to go and see Sony. She set up some meetings, I went down there, I met with the CEO and realised that they were really into working this project. I talked to George about it and George said to me look we should make a film to support it, because I’m not going to promote it. He said I didn’t promote it the first time round, why am I gonna do it now?! And that’s when we (David and Channel 4) met – 2015.
And obviously we spent many an afternoon up in your studio in Highgate? I think everyone would probably like to find out more about how you co-directed the film with George and how the creative process worked.
Well you did, we spent a lot of time up there talking and the way it kind of worked was, initially we were just gonna make the film about the Sony court case and the period leading up to Listen Without Prejudice and just slightly after, so that was kind of the arc of the whole thing. But it soon became apparent that there was a bigger story to tell here, there was the loss of airplay in the US, there was the court case itself, there was Anselmo, there was his mother and once we’d realised that we had this mammoth project ahead of us the first thing that happened was, we discovered, I think it was 75,000 feet of 35mm that David Fincher had shot in the archives of Sony all restored and we started assembling as much of the archive footage as we possibly could and then there was all of George's private home footage.
The way it kind of worked was we’ve kind of mapped out exactly how we wanted the film to go, chose who we wanted to shoot for different parts and with that directive, I’d come in and I’d work with everybody, everyday assembling it with the editors that we worked with and I’d go back to the countryside to Goring where George lived, I’d go back every single night, we’d talk about it, we’d be over at the pub, we’d have dinner, every night really for a year and a half we did this and we went through the process of putting the film together. I’d come back the next day to London with directive from George and it was a back and forth thing like that.
And then, once we’d kind of got the initial assembly together George would come to London and would edit the film which is what he did. Literally the film that you all saw today, was more or less George’s cut, you know apart from putting the lower thirds in, you know a few of the CG bits and the graphics, that was George’s film that you saw.
And in actual fact, he was editing right up until the 23rd December we had Nile Rogers over in London filming his part and George was due to go back in on the 27th to continue editing which sadly didn’t happen. But he had basically finished working on the film and the what you see, that was his edit. And he was an editor, you know, all those videos throughout his career, he edited them all together. Freeek! he took over the edit from Joseph Khan. Freedom, David Fincher, same again. I mean George’s career is speckled with sacking directors and editors and taking it on himself and he had a great eye for it and the funny thing is we got the film to a certain place and it was great, it really felt great but as soon as George came in and stepped into the studio and started cutting himself, it just took that different corner. And then like I say, we found all this home footage, all his sort of Video 8 stuff and he edited that in, but that was pretty much the process.
Did he mind looking back at archives and nostalgia?
No, no he didn’t. I was a bit apprehensive to start with because what actually happened was, I was going through a cupboard one day and I found this little drinks bag, this Harrods cooler bag and I looked at it and opened it up and it had all of his home footage that he’d lost, that he shot himself, which is all that stuff you see in the centre of the film and I talked to him about it and he looked through it and I thought he’d be nervous to, I’d already cut a few little tiny bits of Anselmo into the film and I thought he’d be nervous about that, but he wasn’t he embraced it, he loved it and the more the merrier.
The other stand out thing in the film is that George recorded a bunch of audio interviews that we placed into the film, mixed in with the archive audio. Tell us about that, because you spent quite a lot of time doing that.
That’s right, yeah. There were two sets of recordings but the very last one with Kirsty Young in September last year, which is also George’s last interview. Kirsty came down to the house in Goring where George lived in the countryside. He worked with Kirsty before so he had a good rapport and he loved her and she was great. We chose Kirsty because we’d watched the David Attenborough 90th birthday and it was just obvious that she was the one to do it. She was brilliant. She came down, we were only looking for, he was just going to narrate it but this interview opened up and it lasted two and a half hours actually and so we put much of it into the film but actually there’s another hour that we’ve put together that’s going to be in a radio special that we’re putting together.
You say it started as a straight narration but became a long form interview so he obviously relaxed into it…
Yeah well that’s how we started to do it. There are some bits that he did narrate actually but he decided he wasn’t going to sit in front of the film and say “this is what I did on Wednesday”. So we sent the film to Kirsty, Kirsty watched it, put a script together and came down and they did it like that. The interview started, it was very detailed like that, she went through everything that she had to do and then the last hour of it turned in to this general conversation which is where he really opened up and we got a lot of fantastic stuff from it.
Going back to the body of the film itself, it breaks down into various chapters around a several year period but kind of taken them one by one. The first was the formative years and George’s rise which is kind of, fairly well documented. The court case was fascinating and for me personally, looking at a guy in his mid-20’s to go against a whole industry and at a point of his career where he really should’ve knuckled down and got on with it, that must’ve taken some balls to do. He was obviously driven, but how did he do that? Most of us would’ve just done the album and done as we were told right?
I think when you’re that age and you have that kind of success. I mean I look at kids like Justin Bieber today and you think my god, look at this multi-million pound industry around them and you look back and you, when you’re in the eye of the storm you don’t realise, you’re just getting on with the job and rolling your sleeves up, I think it all just comes naturally. He was brave to do what he did, that’s for sure but a lot of people would’ve stepped back and would’ve done as they were told. But not George, he felt slighted and he believed in what he was saying and like Elton says, George is a very stubborn person and when George puts his mind to something he goes for it. And it was a big deal the court case, what could’ve come from that would’ve been incredible. Had he of won and had the standard contract changed, an incredibly brave thing to take on.
Is it something he looked back on in later years with regret that he didn’t win that?
Yeah he did actually. He says it in the film and when I was, when we were talking last August about the court case and how we were going to handle it and I didn’t realise this at all but he turned round to me and said how he regretted it, how he wish he’d never taken Sony on in the first place because it dented the armour in his career in America. There was a guy who was firing in all four cylinders and it blew that candle out in the US without a doubt.
But the stress and the strain at the time would’ve been so bad at the time, he couldn’t have done it. Yes he regretted it but probably would’ve changed it…
No, I think also the fact that he’d discovered Anselmo wasn’t well all these things happened at the same time. And what’s really interesting, what people don’t realise is that while this court case was going and he was on the stands, he was holding very close, nobody knew, he hadn’t come out at the time, his boyfriend was dying and he was holding this close to his chest which was incredibly, equally just devastating for him.
And Anselmo obviously features heavily in the film, it’s something that you could’ve not included and people may not have noticed in terms of the film was originally meant around the album, the creative work but why did George feel it was so important to cover that off?
I mean, all George’s idea, George’s cut, I would’ve never have gone as far as to use his personal footage… I think it was just something that George wanted to do. He loved Anselmo, he was an incredibly important person in his life and it just came from George’s heart, the way George wanted to do it.
The film’s got a great array of contributors… Who knew Liam Gallagher was a fan? How did that happen? How did you find out Liam liked George? He doesn’t like anyone.
Liam's brilliant right? So we played the Olympics and we came back to the house and we had this party back at the house in Highgate, the house that you see on there, that’s George’s north London home and Liam was there and this story had gone on for ages that he and Noel hadn’t talked for ages so Liam was there and we were trying to get them together, we had a bar at the end of the garden, so we were trying to manoeuvre them both so they’d have to deal with each other and I think it did happen actually. It was a great, great night. Liam kept coming up to me and coming up to George and going “he’s got Lennon; he’s got fucking John Lennon in him man” and that kind of stuck. And then I bumped into Liam a few months after in a pub somewhere and he came up to me and he kept saying the same thing. George bumped into him and he said the same thing “you’ve got John Lennon in you, man” and so when we were doing it, when we were putting the list of people together, George said, we’ve got to get Liam in to talk, and he’s great. Liam had said that he loved ‘Praying for Time’ and thing is, I interviewed Liam actually and he knew his stuff and his contribution was amazing and funny and eloquent and right on the mark.
How did George feel about people praising him while making the film?
I mean he was incredibly touched but he was a bit overwhelmed actually. Yeah, I think he was just incredibly touched. These were his friends as well, I think just he was incredibly touched.
You’ve known George a long time and you said you started writing songs with him as a child, and you’ve written quite a few iconic songs with him for a few albums… I just wondered if you could tell me which is your favourite and how it came about?
I mean I absolutely love ‘You Have Been Loved’. It came about, we were working on Older, I was living in France at the time, he flew out and asked me to write something acoustically. I did that and just came up with the music… The way George and I used to write, the way we collaborated was, I would always do the music, completely, and then he would take it on do the melody and lyrics on top of it, that’s how we worked. I just came and put an acoustic piece together, flew to London and that kicked off the album. It was the first thing we recorded for the album actually and as the record went on and we hadn’t finished it and were two tracks left on it and we were thinking shit this isn’t good and it was the last thing we finished on the record. But that’s how that came about.
George worked with many well-known singers throughout his career and he mentioned others that he’d never worked with on records, Madonna, Prince etc. Were they any that he really wanted to record with that he never got the chance to?
I think probably Adele. He loved Adele, actually. You know, George had stepped back in recent years and hadn’t been as active musically. About three years ago, once he kind of stepped forward again and started writing and putting the film together, he would sing along with Adele actually. I wouldn’t say practise but you know, to warm up along to her, but Adele. I think he loved Lauryn Hill too; yeah he always wanted to sing with Lauryn Hill back in the day. I think him and Barbara Streisand, they talked many times about working together, it just never happened but they talked about working together.
Apart from showing all the success of George and the talent, I found it very emotional being so honest and truthful and it made you wonder, because where you end and the rest of the story, did he ever find happiness?
Oh yeah totally – he absolutely did. I mean with Anselmo and later on in his life, he absolutely did.
I think the fans would like to know that.
Yes – that’s a good question too – yes he did. He was a very happy, contented man. He found happiness in love; he found happiness in his friends and family. You know, we had a fantastic relationship, yeah he did find happiness.
The way we decided to finish the film, so we could leave George's edit, we opened it up with Kate at the beginning just saying a few words, that this was George’s film and it was his final work. You know, we didn’t want to mess with the film when George had finished working on it, so I decided to open it up with Kate just saying a few words, introducing the film. And then just added the performance, Chris [Martin], with the visual that I built for the Brits, Chris went in and re-recorded the duet again and I put it to the visuals so that’s how I kind of wanted to address that in the film.
George Michael: Freedom airs Monday 16th October at 9pm on Channel 4
Listen Without Prejudice / MTV Unplugged Double CD comes out on 20th October.