Kate Nash: Underestimate the Girl is a twisting documentary that is unlike the standard musical doc. It is about a musician who experiences early fame then deals with a chaotic life afterward, but the actual journey will surprise and engage people. Director Amy Goldstein talks about working with Nash, the importance of timing when making a documentary, and women in the music industry.
AIPT: How would you describe Underestimate The Girl?
Amy Goldstein: You know, I think it’s a hybrid. It’s this very personal doc where Kate filmed some of it, that has video diary elements. Then we have these kinds of musical numbers where Kate is writing songs about the things that’s happening in her life as we’re filming and we’re lucky enough to see her write them and see her perform them and then we make them into these storytelling elements.
So it’s a way to get deep inside to really understand what’s happening. I love movies that sort of have all those kinds of elements when you get to mix it up. So it’s a challenging story and it’s very dramatic, but it’s also very celebratory and it’s in no way, I think, a traditional music film.
AIPT: Why did you decide to do the documentary and why did you pick Kate as the subject of the documentary?
Goldstein: So I was in the middle of doing a series for PBS and someone introduced me to Kate. We have a shared friend. At that time, all these movies are coming out like Amy and Janice and Nina, and they all were so tragic. It felt like in order to be a woman in music, you had to die, and I just thought that was such a terrible message. At the same time, people were really starting to talk about what it was like to be a female film director. I had faced many obstacles and it wasn’t a fair playing field and it was too close to home. I didn’t want to make a movie like that.
But Kate had really taken on, as a very young person, the music business. She was very fearless and her career was just starting to take off again and she was starting to be independent. I didn’t know her music or her, but there’s something about her. She has this just indomitable spirit that it’s just hard to describe. Like you just sense that, whatever happens to Kate, she’ll figure out a way out and she’ll make it work for her. That’s a great character. She’s just very appealing.
We went on a tour with them a little bit. We honestly kind of thought about doing a series and we tried stuff when we got to know each other. Then a lot of crazy stuff happened and it was like, “Oh my God, this is a movie.” We really trusted each other and we decided to make a film. So to me it’s a very organic process when you make kind of intimate docs.
AIPT: Did you ever feel that things had gone too far and you had to stop filming?
Goldstein: We did stop filming. So for six months when Kate went home, she was in such a raw place that she still filmed some of herself, but she didn’t want to be interviewed or talk, or she really had to heal and we didn’t know if we would finish the movie. This is a risk. I think the majority of documentaries are not finished and you really have to be trusting and obviously, you care deeply about your subject and you give them lots of space.
And so we honestly, at that point, didn’t know we had a movie. If there was going to be like a third act or how Kate would recover from the things that were happening. So it was very suspenseful.
AIPT: Was there always a plan that it might be an indictment of the music industry or did that just kind of come about?
Goldstein: I knew that would be a theme of the film, but it’s hard to indict a whole industry when it’s abstract. I tried very hard to talk to people involved in her early career and people from her early record label and no one would talk. The British think like you’re doing a tabloid thing or something. Kate called them. I showed them my other movies. I was clear that I don’t make those kinds of movies. I really wanted to hear their side of the story and no one would talk to me.
We have one music executive who was part of her recent career who’s great, who’s a woman and very open and honest, but no one from her early career would speak to us. And I’ve never had that in a movie where I can’t get anyone. And I called them each 20 times, wrote them lovely letters, talked to them. They would not be in the movie. So I don’t know what they’re hiding, you know?
AIPT: What do you want audiences to get out of the documentary?
Goldstein: Well, I’d love it if they left feeling like Thelma and Louise, and they wanted to fight for girls and women and stand up for themselves in whatever field and wherever they work, that they realize that they are equal and they have every right to do what they want to do and feel the freedom to speak. I mean, I guess in some ways it echoes the Me Too Movement, but it’s really about standing up for yourself and not letting people take advantage of you and being treated well in life. I think Kate inspires people to do that. And she does it in such playful, outrageous ways that I think it encourages others.
And also, I think the realization that you can make music or films or art, and you don’t have to die to be well known that you could embrace life and enjoy it.
AIPT: We touched on that you give the camera to Kate at times and you kind of went into the why of it. Strictly speaking as a filmmaker, was it difficult to hand the camera over?
Goldstein: So I’ve done that in all my movies. So my whole crew was mainly myself and my producer who recorded sound. I shot the movie. So we’re a very small crew and people get used to us, but the presence of another human being changes up everything. So if you give people cameras and they take to it, not everyone does, and film in the middle of the night and film when things are unraveling and there’s just no way you can be there or filming rooms like in China, on a tour when you can’t be there, you get a different movie.
So it’s not hard at all. I mean, yes, it’s hard to look through 10,000 hours of nonsense, but it’s worth it. I would not have the same movie.
And we start the movie with Kate turning a camera on because we want people to know that, in part, this is her experience and it’s worked really well for me. And Kate really, really took to it. And there are moments in the film that are so powerful because of that dynamic. So I’m collaborating with my subjects and they’re part of the storytelling, as are her songs and I think that just makes for better storytelling.
AIPT: What future projects are you working on?
Goldstein: I’m doing a movie called, The Unmaking of a College, and it’s about Hampshire College that is a progressive school in Amherst, Massachusetts. It’s part of the five college system that was created by Amherst College in the seventies. Ken Burns went to that school and he’s in the movie and he’s trying to save the school. And it almost closed last year. A new president took over who is like, what is this school? No grades, no tests. All they care about is social justice. They don’t have any money. Maybe we should just merge with University of Massachusetts and kind of close the school. And the kids fought back and they were very organized and they used film to keep her accountable. They took over her office for 75 days. They slept on the floor. And they got press and they had a strong voice and they asked for transparency and they made her resign and the school’s independent now.
AIPT: There’s a lot of timing involved in that too. Just kind of like with Underestimate The Girl, timing played a really big part of it.
Goldstein: Yes. But also, kids aren’t going to go to college next year. Like how are colleges going to survive? So it’s crazy that we make a film about college surviving and things have just gotten so much worse. Hampshire’s using its campus to house the homeless in Massachusetts. They’ve allowed kids to stay. It’s a very, in the middle of nowhere. There’s a lot of isolation. So they’re able to have a very safe place, but they have been a very supportive environment and behave very different than most colleges. But yeah, I think it’s a really interesting time.
Documentaries are a lot about luck, you know what I mean? Like being in the right place at the right time and managing to somehow figure out how to turn that into a story. They’re like these thousands of little puzzle pieces, but you have to try to figure out how to put them together in a way that would be enjoyable for you to watch, and it’s kind of really hard. I come from scripted. It’s really hard to make documentaries.