So Far, So Good: A closer look at Edwyn Collins documentary The Possibilities Are Endless

In 2005, a stroke robbed Edwyn Collins of memories and words. One phrase that stuck was 'the possibilities are endless' – a maxim that now gives its name to a documentary portrait of his recovery. We find out more from those either side of the camera

Feature by Chris Buckle | 29 Oct 2014

Next year marks a number of milestones in Edwyn Collins’ life: 30 years since he called time on Orange Juice from the stage of the Brixton Academy; 20 years since A Girl Like You gate-crashed the top five and gave him the biggest hit of his career; and ten years since the he suffered two life-threatening cerebral haemorrhages, from which he has been in steady recovery ever since.

New documentary The Possibilities are Endless (which takes its name with one of the handful of phrases Edwyn was able to speak after the stroke) creatively explores the trials and tribulations of that last decade. Using extensive interviews with the singer, it narrates an emotional but meticulously unsentimental story of restoration and readjustment, as Edwyn and his wife Grace adapt to a condition that has impaired his speech but not his spirit. Structurally, the film eschews many typical hallmarks of the music documentary form, using archive footage sparingly and doing away with talking-head testimonies. Instead, the filmmakers have crafted something strikingly cinematic and formally inventive, whether conveying the isolation and disorientation of aphasia through murky underwater scenes or pictorialising Edwyn’s emerging recollections with bucolic tableaus, shot near the family’s new home in the Highland coastal town of Helmsdale.

“It’s a beautiful film,” says Edwyn over the phone, speaking a few days before its UK premiere at the London Film Festival. Also on the line is Grace (the story is, after all, hers also), who proffers her own admiration for the finished work. “It’s amazing what they’ve done” she enthuses, emphasising how well the film translates aspects of Edwyn’s illness and recovery to the screen. “I think the boys wanted to convey what it was like for him when communication was…” Before she can finish, Edwyn steps in and finishes the sentence: “Impossible!” It's part of a touching back-and-forth rapport that recurs throughout the interview in both directions, and which speaks to the tightness of their bond. Grace continues: “Yes – and to my mind, they did it perfectly. They’re young guys and I don’t know how they managed it, but they really have captured it very accurately.”

The “young guys” in question are directors Ed Lovelace and James Hall: a filmmaking duo who have worked together since film school on music videos, shorts and a pair of features documenting musicians from opposite ends of the commercial spectrum (lo-fi folk artist Viking Moses in Werewolves Across America and Katy Perry in Part of Me). Though both were fans of Edwyn growing up, they only considered him a potential film subject when seventh solo album Losing Sleep was released “out of the blue” back in 2010. “That was after a time when, well, no one was sure if he could even write songs again,” says James. “So that was the first inspiration, where we realised that it had hints of a guy coming to terms with who he was, or who he is today.” Right from the start, Ed states, “we knew that it wasn’t going to be the A-to-Z Edwyn Collins story that Edwyn Collins or Orange Juice fanatics might want or expect. We always knew it was going to be a film about a guy, as opposed to just a list of events.”

With the seeds of a project in mind, the duo emailed Grace asking to meet, and all four immediately hit it off. “We got on with them, up in the studio” says Edwyn about the initial introductions. “That was the main thing.” As a result, Grace says, Edwyn “decided to put a kind of implicit trust in their ability to make an interesting film. We just got a very good feel from them – Edwyn, particularly.” At no point did either side suggest that Edwyn and Grace might want any kind of editorial oversight; instead, there was an unspoken agreement that all directorial decisions would come from James and Ed alone. “My opinion was, ‘get on with it lads,’” says Edwyn. “No interfering, just get on with it.”

From the very start, Ed and James wanted to enable Edwyn to “tell his own story”, citing AJ Schnack’s 2006 Kurt Cobain documentary About a Sonin which the voiceover consists entirely of interviews conducted shortly before the Nirvana musician’s death – as a key inspiration. “All sorts of people have opinions about Nirvana, but what’s so cool about that film is that it’s just Cobain’s perspective,” Ed explains. “I think that probably gave [Edwyn and Grace] a bit of comfort, knowing that that was the angle we wanted to take.” 

It was therefore crucial that Edwyn had the necessary opportunities to express himself fully. “Near the start, I was, let’s say, hesitating a lot because of my stroke,” Edwyn recalls. “But I relaxed and it started to flow. I remember, back in the studio, it coming back clearer and clearer – ‘oh aye, I forgot that’, and ‘oh yes!’ and so on.” To pre-empt any temptation to assist or paraphrase her husband, Grace was ejected from the room during these early audio interviews, and Edwyn was encouraged to take the conversation in whatever direction his memories returned. “They had a very clear idea of how they would go about the process of recording Edwyn,” says Grace (who, Edwyn laughs, resorted to listening in from the corridor), “and it was really miraculous, because they were so quiet, so still. They never hurried him and they never prompted him.”

 “We didn’t really do much with the audio for the first year,” Ed continues. “I mean, we listened to it every day and played around with edits, but only at the point where Edwyn could really articulate his own story. He was getting better all the time, and there came a point where he was actually able to tell us everything that was important to him. But we were never like ‘right, we need to tell a certain story point, so let’s really try and make Edwyn say something about it’. For instance, Edwyn didn’t really talk about his 6 months in hospital at length, because I think it was just a really intense period for him and something that he doesn’t want to dwell on. Therefore the film doesn’t either.”

At this stage, the directors wrote a script of sorts, drawn exclusively from the interview transcripts. The idea was to structure the film so that “you gradually learn about Edwyn as he is learning about himself,” creating a kind of subjective, metaphysical portrait. Thereafter they continued to record conversations with Edwyn, but, says Ed, “what’s so cool is that a lot of the really poignant lines in the film are from the first handful of interviews. Even in the very interview, Edwyn said a couple of lines that really hooked us, and made us realise that given the time and space he was able to articulate his feelings in such an amazing and quite emotional way.”

The filmmakers were also grappling with how best to present their narrative on screen. “We didn’t want to re-tell Edwyn’s memories just with archive or photos,” says Ed, “[so] we asked ourselves ‘how do we visualise these amazing memories that Edwyn was gifting us on audio? What can we do to really fulfil all that potential?’ And the idea of shooting some documentary scenes that actually feel a bit more like fiction really appealed to us.”

"The ravaged landscape seemed like a great metaphor for Edwyn's brain" – James Hall

The results are awash with natural imagery and themes, from the drowning symbolism that opens the film to the painterly shots of highland wildlife. “Everything really was led by Edwyn, [and] we just kind of intuited things from what he was telling us,” says James. Ideas came from “listening back to the interviews and putting ourselves in his mind… [For instance], that kind of ravaged landscape seemed like a great metaphor for his brain, and the way memories would flow, almost like from one field to the next with a blow of the wind.” He references Gideon Koppel’s lyrical documentary Sleep Furiously as another of the film’s stylistic influences, in terms of “painting a landscape a certain way, and letting that landscape have an identity… That film really stood with us the whole way through the filmmaking process; every time we were wavering on an idea, we could go back to that film and it would solidify our thoughts in a certain direction.”

While James and Ed worked on the structural and visual aspects, Edwyn (along with collaborators Seb Lewsley and Carwyn Ellis) was left to contrive an original score – something he did without the benefit of viewing rough cuts or rushes, let alone the finished film. “We told Edwyn what we were shooting and tried to explain the type of style and atmosphere that we wanted to create” says Ed, “but we hadn’t really discussed specific references.” Any cues they did provide tended to be fairly abstract – for example, asking Edwyn to imagine the sound of Helmdale and translate into a few piano notes. A rigid brief was deliberately avoided because, as Ed notes, “how do you tell someone like Edwyn Collins what direction to take musically? It’s Edwyn Collins, so we just wanted him to do his own thing… Obviously we were quite apprehensive when we went in to listen to the score, because it was going to be so important [to the film]. But when we heard it, it was totally amazing. It didn’t really sound like anything else we’d ever heard him record. It was pretty mad, really, how it just worked so perfectly, [and] I think that’s a testament to all of being on the same page.”

“James and Ed stayed out of the way,” confirms Edwyn of the scoring process, “and the film, I stayed out of their way.” Down the phone line, he begins to sing the piano refrain of Quite like Silver – a song that appears in the film in instrumental form but to which lyrics were subsequently added (the full version is included on the soundtrack album, released through Edwyn’s own AED label). “I kind of pressed him to come up with a vocal version of it,” admits Grace. “And it’s really lovely. It was so nice in instrumental form but I thought it deserved to be a song, and it’s just…” She sighs. “It’s completely beautiful. You’re pleased with it, aren’t you?” Edwyn laughs. “Yes I am, I must admit…”

The first time Edwyn and Grace got to see the film was just a few weeks before its international premiere at South by Southwest, earlier this year. “James and Ed were very nervous, weren’t they?” says Grace, sharing an anecdote that still tickles both her and Edwyn. “We hadn’t seen a foot of it, nothing, not a bit. So the film starts and of course it’s very quiet and quite emotional at the beginning. You can feel the nerves in the room, and about five minutes into it Edwyn pipes up and shouts, ‘So far, so good, lads!’”

His vote of confidence proved to be just the first of many glowing reviews: among other praise, the Guardian called it “remarkable”, while The Hollywood Reporter went with “inspirational”. How does that latter epithet feel, we ask Edwyn; to be considered an inspiration? “It’s up to the audience I guess,” he replies, “but I’m not an inspiration at all. I worked on my speech and language, and Grace helped me… but I’m not inspirational at all. It’s kind of the audience to say so, but come on!

“Edwyn does all this entirely for his own ends, if you get my drift,” says Grace. “He’s not looking to be a figurehead – it’s purely to get back to work. That’s what matters to you, isn’t it – getting back to work? Because without your work…” Edwyn interrupts with a final burst of dry wit. “You’re nothing!” he laughs.

Currently, Edwyn, Grace, Ed and James are touring the UK, hosting post-film Q&As and acoustic performances. Beyond that, we ask where Ed and James plan to turn their cameras next. “We’re kind of working with ideas that don’t necessarily sit in documentary or sit in fiction,” Ed says, “just ideas that excite us”. They’re not ready to offer specific details yet, “but we definitely want to make sure that our next project has the same kind of… er… ” He hesitates, as if searching for the right wording before alighting on the obvious. “Well, the same kind of unlimited possibility to it.” In cinema as in life, the possibilities are endless after all.

The Possibilities are Endless is released across the UK 7 Nov by Pulse Films.

As well as the general release, The Possibilities are Endless will tour across the country. On the road will be Edwyn Collins along with his wife Grace Maxwell, and musical collaborator Carwyn Ellis. The film’s directors Edward Lovelace and James Hall will also be making appearances and each tour stop will include a screening of the film followed by Q&A's and acoustic performances.

Included in the tour are Glasgow Film Theatre (2 Nov), Edinburgh Filmhouse (3 Nov) and Manchester Dancehouse (14 Nov)

For full details go to