“We didn’t have any rules”: Director Seamus Murphy on collaborating with PJ Harvey for A Dog Called Money
Between 2011 and 2014, photojournalist Seamus Murphy and singer-songwriter PJ Harvey went on a three-part journey together, to Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Washington DC.
Their aim was to collaborate across their respective artistic forms – Murphy’s visual and Harvey’s musical – to see what they could make from their travels. It turns out quite a lot. The two published a book, The Hollow of the Hand, together with Murphy’s photographs and Harvey’s notes in 2015. Then Harvey’s acclaimed album, The Hope Six Demolition Project, based on their travels was released in 2016. Now, a new documentary titled A Dog Called Money, directed by Murphy, visually captures the artists’ journey across three countries as well as the making of The Hope Six Demolition Project.
The film splits its time between their travels and behind the scenes of Harvey making her album in Somerset House as part of a larger performance piece. Members of the public were invited to watch behind a one-way mirror as Harvey and the musicians crafted The Hope Six Demolition Project. Murphy was also there, filming from afar.
The end result is an intriguing snapshot of Harvey’s creative process: how it began with the pairs’ travels – we hear Harvey’s notes taken in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and DC as voiceover – and ended in a studio album.
At the Berlinale, where the film premiered, we sat down with the film’s director, Seamus Murphy, about collaborating with Harvey and the process behind putting A Dog Called Money together.
How did you and Harvey decide to collaborate together on A Dog Called Money?
We started collaborating even earlier than that. We did Let England Shake (2011) first [Murphy made 12 short films for the album]. She had been to an exhibition and saw my Afghan work in 2008. She was researching Let England Shake and got in touch, which is what she does if she likes something – she goes right to the source.
That project went well and we wanted to keep going. So with the next project, we thought we would do it from the beginning. Polly wanted to travel and I travel quite a lot for work so I thought we could do it that way.
Was there a specific reason why you went to those specific places – Afghanistan, Kosovo, and DC – together?
No, not really. I was in Afghanistan already and it was a place that seemed obvious because I’ve got a long history with it. At first, I was concerned about Polly being there with me: how would she find it? Would she be a liability? Would her being there impact her safety or my own? It ended up working perfectly.
DC made sense because it’s the source of Western power which, in many ways, decides the fate of Kosovo and Afghanistan and yet it has its own problems. Some areas there are worse off than Kosovo, and with very little hope. Yet there are communities of young people who are doing amazing work in there.
With the Trump rally footage, I was already in Pennsylvania doing something for a month there and the campaign was just starting. I met this young guy there and he was a Trump supporter and told me that I’ve got to go to a rally. He helped me get access which is usually really hard. I included that because we’re in the same world and we’re all going to deal with what this guy does, especially in places like Afghanistan.
But it wasn’t really planned or scripted. This is what we found when travelling. We were going to explore and discover. We were aware that we might not have been able to do anything with [what we found]. We both said to each other, this could be a complete fiasco and if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. But it did, what she got was amazing. She was finding things I had never even noticed.
"Working with PJ Harvey, I saw places differently. She brought a new angle"
What was it like watching Harvey make The Hope Six Demolition Project?
I was in heaven in Somerset House. I’m not a musician and these are amazing musicians and I got to watch them tinker away. They were in a very open space where they could make mistakes in front of an audience. It was a very forgiving space – if only photographers and filmmakers could behave this way! They were so supportive of each other.
Did you feel like an outsider watching them work?
I very much kept my distance. I even stopped going to lunch with them because I didn’t want them to speak to me when I was filming them. I wanted to be a fly on the wall.
Would you say that Harvey was the subject of A Dog Called Money or a collaborator on it?
Good question, I’m still trying to figure that out. There was never any discussion about what kind of film it was going to be. One thing that was sure was that I wasn’t going to sit down and interview her. That would be humiliating for me and her. There was also never a discussion about me filming her. That was something I did because I thought it was unusual, her being in these spaces so I wanted to capture that. But I was doing my thing and taking still pictures for the book and then every so often I would film her.
We had a long editing process. We really needed it: we had so much material from five weeks of shooting with her and then other stuff. And it wasn’t until late in the edit, we decided to use her as the voiceover. The voiceover is straight from her notes that she took in Kosovo and Afghanistan. They’re first drafts of being right there, this is her watching and experiencing. We put it together and realised that, out of context, you have this floating narrative. She’s connected but also not.
When you were putting the film together, were you reacting to the music of The Hope Six Demolition Project?
There were some very small instances, like a bit with someone dancing that I thought would fit with a song. But generally I just put it together as my own thing. We did try to keep the songs with the places, so one about Afghanistan with images of Afghanistan. Other than that, we didn’t have any rules.
What have you taken away from your collaboration with Harvey?
Working with her, I saw places differently. She brought a new angle. I knew that with her, we would hear a very different version of these places that that have become clichéd through mainstream media. And that it was a very complicated process and it’s not until the end when you’re putting all together, and you realise you’ve got all these voices and ideas and images and it’s an even bigger thing.
A Dog Called Money will be released later this year.