[This interview was originally posted as part of our 2012 Tribeca Film Festival coverage. It has been reposted to coincide with the wider theatrical release of Searching for Sugar Man.]
Malik Bendjelloul may be the most enthusiastic person I’ve interviewed, and there’s good reason for it. His debut feature film, Searching for Sugar Man, has been getting rave reviews and been a crowd favorite on the festival circuit. The documentary is about the mostly forgotten musician Rodriguez. His two albums from the 1970s sounded a little like Bob Dylan by way of Detroit. They sold very little in the United States, yet years later and without him knowing it, Rodriguez became a major hit in South Africa.
Before sitting down with Bendjelloul, I got to watch Rodriguez play a solo set. Even in front of a seated crowd in the brightness of daylight, he’s still got swagger. He should have been a big star — he may yet become one. (Since seeing the film, both Cold Fact and Coming From Reality have been on steady rotation.) While I spoke to Bendjelloul in a small meeting room, Rodriguez was just outside under a stairway conducting a few select interviews. Periodically, both Bendjelloul and I would look out the glass at him in admiration.
Look for our review of Searching for Sugar Man tomorrow.
How did the Tuesday’s premiere of the film go?
It was magical! I must say, it was magical. There were three standing ovations! Three! At Sundance I want to say we had six standing ovations in a row. It was beautiful, it’s overwhelming. It really is.
And at SXSW, did it take you by surprise by how well it was received?
Yeah, yeah. I mean, every time the same things happen — we always have standing ovations, every time so far. But this time it was three. [laughs]
But it was beautiful, and it’s always about him. [We looked out the window at Rodriguez.] People love him so much because he’s so easy to love.
Watching him play just now, it’s amazing how much charisma he has.
Yeah, he has. And, you know, the twists and turns of his life — what did the film say? If you’re not moved by the story then you don’t have a heart, and it’s kind of true. The story’s incredible. I’ve never heard a better story in my life. I was looking for good stories, and that’s how I found this story. I was traveling around for six months — the world — in Africa and South America looking for the best possible story ever and this was it. [laughs] I found it!
How did you pursue the story? Did you hear a Rodriguez album and ask around?
No. I never heard his music, and many people haven’t. He’s not famous. Basically I was traveling around and reading, reading, reading and asking, asking people — literally asking people on the bus “What’s the best story you’ve every heard?” And looking for stories for a Swedish TV channel. That was the main target, to do seven-minute pieces. And this was supposed to be a seven-minute piece. I got like $2,000 for this.
That’s all I got!
That’s basically all I get for four years of work: those $2,000 dollars. [All that] for every single day of almost four years. But it was worth it! Because it was like working with gold! Every single day when I was sitting there editing it, I knew that this was going to be something special. I’d never done a film before this, so I didn’t know if I was the man, you know. It’s a big responsibility, and this story was the best story I’d ever heard, and it needs to be the best film possible. And that was what I was dreaming of. “If I don’t fail and if I don’t screw up, this film could be fantastic,” I was thinking. That’s the engine that kept me going — the fuel, the dream, that this could be quite a beautiful film.
This is your first feature. How many challenges did you face making this story work? The story itself works because it’s so fascinating.
There was so much stuff. And funding the movie, there was no money. So in the end I edited it myself, I did the music myself (the original score), I did the opening titles, I did the illustrations. Because there was no money! I couldn’t find people in Sweden because I am a first-time director. I felt the story would speak for itself — it’s so good — but it didn’t. People were very much hesitant about this project. It was very hard to get people. And Rodriguez is famous with playing with his back to the audience — to get him to have confidence in the film was also a big part of it. But in the end… it became easier and easier because we got to know each other. But he’s a very private man, and he should be that. The first time we went there [to his place], we didn’t even ask him for an interview because we kind of felt that he doesn’t want to do that.
What was that first meeting with Rodriguez like? Did you just show up at his door?
Yeah, just showed up at his door. Yeah, basically. Before that I had interviewed all the other people for months. So the producers and all the South African fans, and all those people that he knew. The producers he hadn’t seen for 40 years, literally 40 years, so it was the first time he saw those people and heard all the things they said about him. Guys who had worked with Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder said, “[Rodriguez] is the greatest artist I’ve ever worked with in my life.” At least Rodriguez felt I was kind of serious: I’d done my homework [laughs] and had been traveling around a lot. Quite an extensive [amount of] research and interviews. So I think that’s one reason why he opened up and kind of liked the project. He was never difficult! In that way he was always warm and welcoming, but he didn’t like being on camera. Now he seems to take it well and does interviews, but at that time he didn’t like it. He hadn’t done interviews a lot.
Yeah, when he was initially on camera, I noticed a kind of discomfort, where he was brushing his collar and you could hear it on the microphone.
Yeah, and also because it’s video, right? It’s easier for him to speak like this. [He pointed at Rodriguez through the glass.] He’s not visual, is what he says. “I’m music, I’m audio,” he says.
That’s fascinating since he has such a distinct and interesting look.
I think so too, I think so too. But the way he chose to communicate was music, and it is all audio. He doesn’t need to say anything more. Those songs I think are perfect. They are perfect! I mean, you can’t add anything. It’s just completely the integrity of his idea. They are flawless! And in a way, maybe he doesn’t need to speak anymore; maybe he’s good as this mystery. But his story’s incredible. When I told people briefly what it was about, “A man who doesn’t know he’s famous!” A man who fails as an artist. He makes albums that sell nothing, so bad that he gives up and starts to work in construction. I mean there are many struggling artists who continue, but he got this smack in his face — sold nothing. And he did it again — [sold] another 50 copies. “No one is interested in your art, you shouldn’t do this,” that’s what the people said to him. So he stopped! And of course, he’s not stupid, he understand that if people don’t want this, then I better do something else. And he worked in construction, which is what people do in Detroit. It’s kind of a city for hard, manual labor work — it’s very hard, a very, very hard place. So he was struggling for 30 years without knowing that at the very same time he was more famous than the Rolling Stones on the other side of the world. He was a superstar! Every single person in South Africa — everyone loved him! Everyone knew him! And he doesn’t know. For 30 years, basically… 27 years.
One of the striking things about that is not only does Rodriguez not know he’s famous, but he doesn’t know that everyone thinks he committed suicide on stage.
Yeah, exactly! They didn’t look for Rodriguez, they were looking for the story of how Rodriguez died. There was different versions: did he kill himself by shooting himself on stage or did he burn himself? People didn’t know. And they were working as detectives. It was like a thriller; they were treating the lyrics like a crossword puzzle. They were deciphering information.
And that’s such a great scene too because the lyrics are so cryptic and they’re looking for any hints that were there.
Right, right! Exactly. They’re so hard to decipher because it’s poetry and doesn’t necessarily mean something. There was one line in there that actually meant something: “I met a girl from Dearborn.” That was the first little piece of the puzzle that made the solution.
So you did all the drawings and animation yourself?
Yeah, I did the drawing, the illustrations I did myself.
What made you decide to incorporate illustrations into the film?
Because I was thinking how to tell a story where there are no images. And there’s moving images. Rodriguez was never famous, no one filmed him. They didn’t have a video camera in his family. There was nothing, literally nothing. So I thought that animation would be the thing I would use to tell the story, but in the end, I didn’t use it that much. I thought it was going to be used much more. Again, lack of money made it this way, and lack of money made me do illustrations. It was supposed to be full animations, but it was those illustrations. That way I could do something without money.
I remember in a previous interview you said you didn’t like music documentaries in general. Could you explain why?
The same reason [I mentioned earlier]: there is nothing to add to a song. A song is there, it’s all there. And if you ask artists… I did a lot of music documentaries, and especially when I meet young artists, they’re like, “Yeah, we did this song. And, uh, you know, it’s good.”
“Well, why did you write it?” “Because we like this kind of music.” It’s very hard to speak about music. But the story is what makes everything. So I started making music documentaries, and then I stopped making music documentaries, and I made those kind of spectacular stories, like I found the story for The Terminal, for example, the guy who’s living in an airport in Paris. [Editor’s note: One of Bendjelloul’s short TV documentaries went on to inspire the Steven Spielberg film The Terminal. Another one of Bendjelloul’s TV docs inspired the film The Men Who Stare at Goats.] I mean, that’s a good story. And I realized it’s so much more fun to make a good story — something you can just tell in two minutes and you will make someone happy. It’s kind of a gift to tell someone a good story. And this element was really the strongest. I have found many, many stories in my life, but this was like 10 times better than the best one I’d ever before. It was so beautiful. If I have the best story I’ve ever heard, then it’s my responsibility to make the best film I’d ever seen, which was really… I’d never done a film before. How could I do that? I don’t know if I succeeded at all. But it was like, “Hey, the story is that good!” Now try to make a film that doesn’t ruin the story.
Do you feel an obligation to look for more stories and continue to make more films about these interesting stories?
Right, yeah. Exactly, I’m trying to find a good story. [laughs]
What’s the process of hunting for stories like?
Traveling is very good. I was traveling for six months looking for this story, so it was really kind of a big job to find it. And when you just read, it’s so boring. You sit at your computer and fall asleep. Traveling, you see stuff, and you get into stuff, and things get much more interesting.
And it’s more like being a detective too.
Kind of, yeah. It’s so much more fun to be… You know, traveling is such a beautiful thing, to see the world. There’s nothing I like more than that, especially to coming to new places. And being a filmmaker is the most beautiful profession there is because you’re doing this work to get some money to be a tourist, right? As a journalist you do the same thing. When you’re a tourist you see that beautiful house, but when you’re a filmmaker you can knock on the door and you can actually enter that house and speak to people, and you can speak to anyone you want in the whole world! It’s a beautiful, beautiful job.
I remember there’s one scene in the film that says there’s an unreleased Rodriguez album. Have you heard more of the material from it?
I have, yeah. Rodriguez sometimes plays a few songs that are new. He’s made many songs, many, many songs. He never stopped making music. He’s been sitting for 30 years making song, so he has all those beautiful songs that we hope he’s going to release. I think, again, we shouldn’t ask him to — he should do it himself. Because that’s what I realized: if you ask people for stuff, they get stressed. But in the end, most people want to do stuff. I think in a way he, in a way, would like to [release these songs], but if everyone says, “You should do it!” I don’t think he’s ever going to do it.
He doesn’t seem like he would respond well to being coaxed.
No, exactly. His whole life has been about freedom. In the 70s, there were people telling him “You should do it this way — you will have much more success.” And he was like, “Umm, this is me.” They tried to spell his name “Rod Riguez,” like make it an American-sounding name.
And he said, “No, I’m not up for this. I’m Rodriguez, okay? I’m not going to change just because you want me to.” And that’s why people love him in the end! If you’re an artist, you really love him. He has this integrity. He didn’t compromise, he never compromised a single bit. And that’s why he’s sitting there. [We both looked at him.] He’s the coolest guy in the world.
I got to say, the fact that he’s not in a room, he’s just hanging out under the stairs…
The greatest thing ever. [laughs]
Absolutely right! [laughs] I am in awe when I see him like this. He’s such a beautiful, great artist, I think.