Inside St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein’s surrealist meta-doc ‘The Nowhere Inn’
“It would have been an insult to our audience’s intelligence to make a straight-ahead concert film,” Annie Clark tells Rhian Daly
In 2009, St. Vincent – aka Annie Clark – released her second album, ‘Actor’, and along with it the track ‘Actor Out Of Work’. The video for the latter featured the musician auditioning a series of budding on-screen stars, each trying to summon up their best performance of emotional despair while she lip-synced opposite them.
For Clark’s first lead acting role in The Nowhere Inn, the surrealist and very funny meta-documentary she created with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein, there was no such awkward auditioning process – who else would play Clark but herself? Over the phone from LA days before the film’s first UK screening at London’s Doc’n’Roll festival, she credits parts of her career in music with preparing her for making the step onto the silver screen.
“I do a version of acting when I’m on stage,” Clark, known for adopting different personas on each album cycle, explains. “I’m performing – it’s not acting, but there are some parallels, right? As far as acting goes, this was a pretty comfortable place to start – being in a film that I co-wrote with my best friend, starred in with my best friend and was directed by a friend. No one was asking me to play…” Her voice trails off as she searches for a role that would have been more out of her comfort zone, crackling back on the line with a laugh once she’s found the answer: “King Lear!”
The Nowhere Inn, out on VOD from Monday (December 13), begins as a seemingly real – if with little hints of the abstract drama to come – capturing of her life on tour. Sure, the opening scene sees her limo driver disappear into the American desert, but when we first see her and Brownstein on screen together, it’s with the Portlandia star setting up for a tour doc and Clark getting used to being on camera. Things soon change though when Brownstein worries the footage she’s getting – of her best friend playing Scrabble rather than doing body shots and talking about her love of radishes – is too boring. Hurt by the insinuation that she isn’t interesting enough, Clark leans into a calculated and cold alter-ego to give Brownstein what she wants.
Originally, rather than a narrative “documentary”-style film, The Nowhere Inn was more of a concert film with scripted sketches woven in between performance footage. After working on that concept for a while, though, it became clear that wasn’t the best way forward. “As we started to look at the St. Vincent album ‘MASSEDUCTION’ and its aesthetic and sonic landscape, it felt like too great a dissonance between the very maximalist, heightened world of those songs and the live show, and the casualness of sketch,” Brownstein recalls on a different call. “It felt too disparate.” What they ended up with, she says, is more reflective of “where St. Vincent was at with that album and who she is as an artist in general”.
While some of the ideas they’d been working on were rejigged for the film, there were some moments that didn’t make it at all. “I don’t think Carrie or I wrote it, but at one point there was an idea pitched to us about a fan being so excited that they poop their pants,” Clark shares. “We were like: ‘I’m not sure I can go scatological.’ That’s the Rubicon for me!”
Toilet humour or not, the film confronts our idea of who our favourite artists are – particularly female ones, who are often expected to be likeable, palatable characters and are chastised if they’re not. The Nowhere Inn, though, presents both Clark and Brownstein as different shades of unpleasantness – one becoming egomaniacal and unbearable, the other exploiting her friend’s private life to create a more explosive documentary.
Clark says it was important to show themselves in that light. “The irony here is, in large part, Carrie and I are both grounded and actually legitimately likeable people,” she says. “But that’s not what we wanted to put forward because there was something about that that felt like a manipulation to me.” She cites respect for the audience – be that her or Brownstein’s fans, or viewers who come to the movie in another way – as the deciding factor in that approach.
“It would have been an insult to their intelligence to make a straight-ahead concert doc that purported to tell the truth about me behind the scenes. Ultimately, I would have been in control of that narrative and what I would have ended up with is a piece of propaganda intended to manipulate people into liking me. I’d rather be unlikable than liked for reasons that aren’t really honest. I don’t want that in my personal life, I don’t want that in my creative life.”
Brownstein agrees, describing her and Clark’s presentation in the film as “carving away at the sense of authority documentaries try to bring to the table”. She adds: “I also think it’s more interesting to have two anti-heroes that are each trying to be the heroes but are really very unreliable as narrators and protagonists… We wanted to expose that unreliability – authorship can be murky territory.”
Throughout the film, clips from Clark’s ‘MASSEDUCTION’ tour are folded into the edit – and that record was a huge influence on the movie itself. Brownstein points to its “almost obsessive” qualities “that really verged on horror” as a prime factor in The Nowhere Inn’s spiral into psych-thriller territory.
Clark, meanwhile, sees its impact in two different areas. “That record followed the most public part of my personal life and I definitely wanted to address that in a way that was funny,” she begins. “And I think the ‘MASSEDUCTION’ era was very much about an overt performance of sexuality – to me, I was performing sexuality to such an extent that it felt aggressive and actually like a ‘fuck you’. I thought I was being cartoonish in the whole thing.” That spirit lingers in a particularly memorable scene in The Nowhere Inn where Clark and on-screen girlfriend Dakota Johnson invite Brownstein up to their room to film some steamier scenes. “We were getting to wink at her film trilogy there,” Clark laughs, referencing Johnson’s appearance in the erotically-charged Fifty Shades of Grey series.
The Nowhere Inn isn’t the first time Clark and Brownstein have collaborated on a project together – they often send each other ideas for lyrics or riffs, seeking feedback from a friend, while Clark produced Sleater-Kinney’s 2019 album ‘The Center Won’t Hold’. “One thing that is crucial to our friendship is the ability to bounce ideas off one another and to feel like we have a partnership that is creative,” Brownstein replies when asked if they have any other projects in the works. “So whether it’s more sanctioned or not, I think it’s always an ongoing conversation that Annie and I have.”
As for Clark, this might not be the last we see of her on the big screen, even if she doesn’t have anything planned right now. “Ambition might be too strong of a word,” she says of her aspirations as an actor. “But I really enjoyed doing this and I’d love to do more of it. [Anything else is] TBC, but it’s fun and it’s definitely a creative challenge for me – and I like those.”
‘The Nowhere Inn’ is out December 13 via video on demand