Adapting Lizzy Goodman’s novel of the same name, Will Lovelace and Dylan Southern’s Meet Me in the Bathroom captures the essence of late-90s, early-2000s New York, covering the periods right before and after 9/11. For primarily capturing the rise of the Strokes, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and LCD Soundsystem, it represents a nostalgia for a time of independence, a moment in which an entire music scene could bloom out of near nothingness. Full of live concert footage and archival interviews, the documentary finds the two U.K.-based filmmakers embracing the shaggy, messy nature of the bands they’re depicting.
Ten years after their LCD Soundsytem concert doc Shut Up and Play the Hits, the directors assemble a mythological picture of New York, a city bursting at the seams with new musicians and a new wave of rock. Julian Casablancas of the Strokes and Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs become the poster childs, enigmatic leaders accruing adoring fans and steep expectations. It works as a time capsule for a time that feels longer than 20 years ago, smashing together these archives for an experiential documentary that drops audiences into this music scene without much of a preamble.
Lovelace and Southern talked with us about feeling nostalgia for something they didn’t live through, inclusion of Ryan Adams, and coming-of-age narratives lined throughout Meet Me in the Bathroom.
The Film Stage: What do you remember about the early 2000s? How was that time in your lives?
Dylan Southern: We were in Liverpool in the UK at that time. We were just out of film school, we were making music videos for friends’ bands. We were trying to manage a band, but not successfully.
Will Lovelace: They were about the least successful an agency could ever have.
Dylan Southern: That music was the soundtrack to that period. Our eyes were very much on New York at that time. It just seemed exciting stuff was happening there. And the place we were working, that was the music that would be the backdrop at that point.
Were you ever able to get to New York?
Dylan Southern: First time that I came was in 2002. So yeah, and that was largely because of the Strokes, because of the music that was happening there that we’re seeing in the UK music press. But yeah, that was the first time, it was the first time I’ve ever been to America actually. It was definitely the first time I went to New York.
Will Lovelace: No. I’d been as a kid, but hadn’t then. I missed this whole [era]. I didn’t get over during any of the period that our film covers and spent a bit of time over there towards the end of the period.
Do you still feel a sense of nostalgia for that time and that place, even though you weren’t there while it was happening?
Dylan Southern: I think so. I think being English, one of the reasons why Lizzy [Goodman] was really happy for us to take on the book as a project was we have an external view of New York. We didn’t live through it all. Growing up, New York was always a city that has a mythological quality. And it’s from movies, from music, from the past. It’s a place that contains some draw. And I don’t know whether you’d call it nostalgia, but I guess it was just a sense of the city looms so large, over all of the culture that it has a pull to it. That’s always been intriguing. And then, subsequently, when we were making Shut Up and Play the Hits, we were in New York for about six months, and probably have more nostalgia for that time, just because it was an amazing time just going. I always feel New York is probably a great city to live in your 20s. I feel like if I live there now it will just be too much for me.
Dylan Southern & Will Lovelace. Photo by Ross McLennan
Do you still feel external from this time? Now that you’ve been looking through the footage and making this documentary for the last couple of years.
Will Lovelace: It does a bit for sure, having not ever been to those places. I never went to any of those venues, lots of them don’t exist anymore. Didn’t see those bands play at the time. But you spend two or three years living this, all of the footage, hearing all that music. And yeah, so you do definitely feel closer to it.
Dylan Southern: I think a very weird thing as well as this, we were due to come to New York, we’re gonna shoot some stuff. Some original material for the documentary, and then COVID hit and we couldn’t travel. So basically the last two years, whilst the world has been through this seismic change of a pandemic, we’ve been half-living in dystopian, COVID times and half-living in New York 20 years ago through all this archive that’s coming in. Yeah, so it’s been a weird one. The world has changed. Incredibly, but we’ve also been doing this project, that’s all based 20 years ago. So it’s been a really interesting process. We have lived through that time in New York vicariously because we never knew what bit of archives would be getting next, or we never knew when something new would come in. And we might suddenly be seeing the first Yeah Yeah Yeahs performance or seeing the first-ever LCD performance, a piece of the archive that came in at the 11th hour.
Do you know how much total footage came in?
Will Lovelace: I mean, hours and hours and hours and hours. We had so much and there’s so much of it that we weren’t able to include in the film, but it was so exciting when you discovered a gig or a song from a gig that you’ve never seen before. Stuff you either didn’t know existed or spent a year trying to find and then get hold of it. But I know that about an hour of the film, I think approximately, is new or unseen photographs or archives.
Dylan Southern: The way it works with archival films is: you end up licensing footage from the people that had it. So when it comes to finishing the film, proper and distributed, it’s basically what’s in the film belongs to the film, and what’s not in the film belongs to the people who captured the archive. But it’s a much different process making an archival documentary than films that we’ve made previously, because you’re building a puzzle in a way. We actually sat down and went through the book and I tried to think about how we could approach this as a film. And of course the answer is there’s multiple different ways because the book’s 650 pages. I was looking at the duration of the audiobook—it’s 22 hours or something like that. And we have to take those 22 hours and find a story that works in the format that we’ve got, which is a 90-, 100-minute documentary.
So yeah: it was a difficult one, boiling that down. So our whole approach was to try and make something that was experiential, that dropped into the time and let the story unfold. And we want it to embrace the aesthetic of the time. And we want it to embrace the chaos of the time and make something that creates a feeling of the time or creates an immersive film. Because we knew that we wouldn’t have everything we needed to make it in the way that we would have made one of our other documentaries, for example. So embrace the virtues of the footage that we were able to get and just create something that hopefully gives people a feeling of what that time and place was.
Is that why you don’t have a narrator or any talking heads?
Dylan Southern: We didn’t want it to cut to the guys from Interpol now, because it would break the spell of being in that time. That was the plan. But when we started, diving into it as an archive-only project, it just felt it would snap you out of the period that the film is set in. Pretty much all of those artists in the film are still creating today, they’re still very forward-facing. And we didn’t really want to jump out of that. We’re telling the story of 1999 to 2004.
How did you come to the decision to include Ryan Adams and his storyline?
Dylan Southern: It was a big discussion that we had. Should we be platforming him in any way? And I think that decision we made was that within the book, and within the particular period of the story that we were looking at, he was a force within the Strokes camp at that point. I think our decision was not to promote his music, not to promote him as an artist, but he actually did have an impact at that point. And we wrestled with, “Do we deal with where his story ended up going to?” When all the stories came out. But given that what we’ve made is a time capsule, we’re not doing that for anybody else in the film. It’d be weird to suddenly contextualize him in that. And to be honest, I think we were thinking people bring that context with them. And I don’t think it’s a particularly flattering portrayal of Ryan Adams in the film—I don’t think he comes across well. It was a difficult conversation to have and what we’re doing is actually presenting the time through contemporaneous archives and largely contemporaneous interviews. It was tricky, but there wasn’t a way through that point in the Strokes’ story without at least mentioning it.
A moment that struck me was the scene with Karen O, towards the end of the film, featuring video from the “Maps” shoot. It’s one of the few times a shot is held for longer than a few minutes.
Dylan Southern: Because of the strength of that performance, and because of the narrative of Karen as a self-destructive performer, a lot of what we’re looking at is this persona that she creates, and that fans expected to see. And I think it was a persona that became something she felt that she had to maintain. That performance represents a stillness and calmness. So we were using it as a character point more than anything. We’ve been through this journey with Karen, in the film, where she discovers this other side to herself through performance on stage, but that persona ultimately becomes a little bit too much. We got the rushes to the video and we found just a single take on her. So we just wanted to hold that and give you that something that was aside from the rockstar Karen O that you see in the live performances, and just gave you that vulnerability that’s in that video. We always knew when we saw that footage that we would want to hold on it.
Do you remember when you first saw it?
Will Lovelace: Definitely. I mean, oh my God. They were very generous, letting us have the rushes. And yeah, I think we all knew when we watched it that we would want to play that out as a single take. The moment of film, as soon as we saw it, it’s just such a powerful, powerful moment.
There’s talk in the documentary of these bands changing the music scene, changing the culture, having this big impact. Do you believe they made the impact that everyone thought they’d have?
Dylan Southern: I don’t know if there is that much talk about the huge impact that they had from that, because all the voices you hear in the documentary are from the bands or they’re excited fans at the shows. But one thing we deliberately kept out and we probably wouldn’t have had we had a longer duration to tell the story, which were those voices of cultural commentators or people who are trying to give you that impression. What we were very much interested in is the coming-of-age narratives of the artists. So we’re also interested in what are the particular ingredients that create that perfect storm where a musical scene can emerge at a specific time in a specific place. And again: another question on our minds was, given the way that the world’s changed, given the proliferation of technology—the different ways we consume music, even make music—could it happen again?
I don’t think we’re interested in any grandiose statement about the impact of the bands or anything that they changed. I think what we’re more trying to do is create a feeling of what it’s like to be young and creative and what it’s like to be part of something that emerges quite organically from a time and place. When you’re young you have an innocence, and over time you lose that energy. And then you spend a long time chasing it and trying to get it back. But ultimately that’s futile because youth is this ephemeral moment in your life. And so I think for us, what was interesting is what they achieved, in terms of that moment in time. When the Guardian reviewed the book they described that era as a flashbulb moment before everything changed. And I think that was what we were reaching for.
Do either of you still listen to these bands? Or are you burnt out of them after watching them for so long?
Will Lovelace: When we were making this it was brilliant to almost rediscover some of that music again, because I hadn’t sat down and listened to those albums for a while. And that was great. And hearing some of these songs performed in a way I hadn’t heard before. For example, when TV On the Radio played “Ambulance,” I think that was a moment that we all fell in love with them again.
Dylan Southern: We’ve made an incredibly nostalgic film, but I don’t feel like an incredibly nostalgic person. So I’m always listening to new music. And I probably hadn’t listened to a lot of that stuff for a while when we jumped into the documentary. So it was weirdly a process of hearing them again, after a long while. I’ve recently been listening to them more.
Will Lovelace: You don’t end up listening to the tracks that are in the film. All of the music films we’ve made, you end up needing a break from it. But I would say, I think it was brilliant to rediscover that music again.
One of the main characters in the film is Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, who feels so distant and opaque in the archival interviews. How did you attempt to frame him in this story, even though he isn’t very forthcoming?
Dylan Southern: I think you just have to embrace that. And I think you have to do a bit of filling in the gaps in a way. I think even if you sat down and did a three-hour interview with him, you would still end up having to do that. And I think that’s part of his enigma. You don’t want to put words into his mouth. But I think there’s some clear indicators from the way that other members of the Strokes talk. And sometimes I think that opaqueness, and that his desire not to say too much can be quite telling. And I think there are moments that we try to include, so that you’re seeing character, and these situations through action, and through body language. It’s the cumulative effects of the bits that we could put together that hopefully give a sense of what’s going on there.
It’s something that’s gone from music now. Artists give us everything—what they have for breakfast, where they get their clothes from. It’s all on Instagram. I think I don’t have a problem with somebody wanting to try and maintain that mystique. Will rockstars ever be mythological again? Will there ever be that mystique? Will there be that mystery? Could a scene like this emerge? Again, given how we are now, would as many people embrace it? Or is music so fragmented that everything becomes that little bit more niche?
What do you think the answer to that is?
Dylan Southern: I think stuff is happening—definitely in a different way. Probably, if they’re doing it, we shouldn’t recognize it. It’s going to be happening differently for a bunch of teenagers and 20-year-olds. And we won’t understand that.
Will Lovelace: That sounds like a very, very melancholic answer.
Meet Me in the Bathroom premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.