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TIFF Q&A: 'White Stripes' director Emmett Malloy

September 19, 2009 |  9:18 am

Meg cries.

Anyone wondering whether "The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights," directed by Emmett Malloy, is any more than just a simple tour film or concert documentary need only know this fact. During a scene shot after the band's 10th anniversary concert in the summer of 2007, Jack White and Meg White -- the brother/sister, husband/wife, black, white and red rock 'n' roll duo -- sit together on a piano bench as Jack plays a haunting rendition of their song "White Moon."

Meg listens and mouths the occasional few words, seeming increasingly overcome by emotion as tears start to roll down her cheeks. As Jack finishes the song, he reaches to console her and she buries her face in his shoulder and sobs.

"It's a very powerful scene and hard for me to watch," Jack White said during a press conference Friday afternoon before the film's world premiere later that night. "And hard for Meg to watch. But I think there's so much about it that I can't even tell you about. It's beautiful. What I like about it is it goes above and beyond anything about the band or anything about the film itself. The whole film opens up, and you forget what you even watched for the last 90 minutes. It's the perfect end to it and I'm glad Emmett was able to catch something like that."

Ostensibly capturing the band's tour of Canada -- which found them audaciously playing every province and territory in the country, including small towns not used to hosting big rock shows -- the film is also a startlingly intimate look at the mysterious dynamic between Jack and Meg.

"Northern Lights" captures some sense of their connection -- Jack talks over Meg as he asks her to explain why she doesn't talk much and she speaks so quietly her lines are mostly subtitled -- while also featuring crackling live performances. Just as the band's post-postmodern take on folk, blues and rock 'n' roll with its daring blend of the real and the fake, the authentic and the emotionally true, has catapulted them to associate with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan, "The White Stripes Under Great White Northern Lights" can credibly be included alongside such canonical rock-docs as "Gimme Shelter" and "Don't Look Back."

Thursday afternoon I sat down with director Emmett Malloy to discuss the film, the band's dynamic and working with the exacting Jack White. As White said at Friday's press conference, "I kind of can't be involved with anything without being involved with everything about it."

While there is some great concert footage of the band playing live, the film functions as so much more than just a concert doc or typical tour film. It really explores the dynamic between Jack and Meg.

Certainly the priority was to get the shows and the music and the experience but it was all the other things that kind of made the film a little more than the average shoot where once you've seen one song you've seen them all. We were at different locations and each show we were trying to present it a little differently. And that's why people are able to sit through this and feel like this is kind of like a movie, there's a relationship, there's this milestone of the band's 10th anniversary and the vintage cars and meeting weird people and the dynamic in the relationship. And I think that's the cool thing about the movie is at the end you learned a lot but you also didn't really learn anything. You're left with just as many questions.

Did you realize you could explore this dynamic, that it could drive the movie, while you were editing or while you were shooting?

For sure while we were shooting. There were definitely a couple times I was standing there with the camera thinking, "I'll just stand here until they tell me to get out, because I feel like I shouldn't be here right now." But the comfort was there early on with us, and Jack knows the power of editing, like, "We're only filming right now." And nothing crazy went down, it was just emotional. I could sense it was an intense time for them. I don't know how to quantify or define that. I think the one thing I will say is whatever you call them -- brother/sister, husband and wife, or friends -- there is a love between them that's very genuine and real.

Jack was involved in the editing?

Right from the first edit I made it a point to show Jack everything. The good thing is he was busy, so that gave me a lot of freedom. But he has full approval. It's fun to talk about this film, and to have the role I played in it, but at the end of the day it's The White Stripes, it's not my film.

-- Mark Olsen

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