Four kidneys, none of which work, might not seem like the starting block for a heartening documentary about seizing the joys of life but Look for the Diamonds proves otherwise. Seeing something special in fellow musician Joel Goldberg’s exuberant online content, filmmaker James Slater reached out over Facebook and proposed that the two collaborate on a multi-faceted doc short about Goldberg’s health, life and incredible attitude. What followed is a hilarious and artfully balanced exploration of the struggles and mundanities of having to rely on daily dialysis for survival after kidney failure and the power and joy of imagination which has seen Goldberg grab life by the horns. The entrancing kinetic structure of Look for the Diamonds takes us from the medical realities which threaten to take over Goldberg’s life to the soaring possibilities offered by his flights of fancy, all interwoven by his playful, honest and heartfelt narration. After a commendable film festival run we took some time with Slater to learn how he tapped into the imaginative and colourful world of Goldberg’s mind for Look for the Diamonds and discover why he chose to shoot his grin-inducing flashes of fantasy on film despite the self-funded nature of the project.
How did you first meet Joel and come to conceive the idea for the film?
The film was imagined during lockdown, I’d known of Joel for years as we’d both been in bands in Liverpool in the late 90s but we were just acquaintances, Facebook friends really. I’d come to associate Joel as this entertaining guy on Facebook who would always be posting these daft sketches. One minute he’d be doing ninja kicks in strange costumes, the next he’d be dancing like a monkey singing songs about grapes and toast. So he’d made me laugh first and then it was later that I realised the extent of his kidney condition, how he’d had two failed kidney transplants and was now having to dialyse every day in order to survive. It struck me how he refused to live his life defined by his condition and I wanted to make a film that explored his inspirational attitude to life.
He was keen to show how his condition didn’t define him.
What was Joel’s reaction when you came to him with the project?
His chronic illness and having to dialyse every day meant that his world of opportunities had become restricted, the physical world was somewhat smaller. It struck me how, despite the fact in one sense his world had shrunk, his dreams, ideas and ambitions had grown. It reminded me of a book I’d read called A Journey Around My Room about this guy under house arrest who, to combat the boredom, imagines he’s making this epic journey across his tiny confines. So I messaged him on Facebook about how the book “reminded me of your situation and how creative you are with your responses to it and thought we could do something fun with it….and I was thinking about making a little doc which would be kind of about your health but also about your imagination and attitude to it..the creative life.” He replied “I’m all in. Sounds like a short walk to work” He was keen to show how his condition didn’t define him.
Could you tell me about constructing his narration which really drives the film forward and hangs all those creative vignettes together?
The film is very much in Joel’s own words. A lot of the documentary came out of the first interview and I also mic’d him up whilst he was dialysing so I could record his train of thought. We did about four interviews in total which were more rambling conversations than interviews. Some of the ideas we explored were prompted by some of the whimsical stuff I’d seen him write online and others were responses to some of the music he’d been writing, “sometimes I wish I could go to bed ugly and wake up handsome”. etc. Then it was just a case of structuring the story out of the interviews and doing the odd pick up line to stitch some thoughts together.
Look for the Diamonds is a powerfully uplifting film and yet you’re dealing with what many could consider a bleak medical reality. How did you arrive at such an entertaining structure and tone?
The working title of the film was What I think about when I dialyse. Structurally I wanted to find the balance between the mundanity of the daily dialysis and the flights of fantasy that Joel takes whilst sat tied to the machine. I wanted the film to go with the flow of the thoughts and ideas he has whilst having his blood cleaned. I suppose, to make it feel transcendental.
I wanted the film to go with the flow of the thoughts and ideas he has whilst having his blood cleaned.
Going back to me knowing him on Facebook, you’d see him post a funky prog song about liking grapes, then the next post would be about having had a migraine for four days followed by a video of him doing a ninja kick in the living room. Similarly, with the film I start with a funny little fantasy and then reveal the dialysis. I think Joel has that natural yin-yang balance. He uses music and art as his antidote to life with kidney failure so the film kind of embraces that.
The doc contains a plethora of different setups and scenarios, how much of a challenge was it to capture them all as a low budget short?
The film was self-funded so I chipped away at it over a six month period. I had to be clever with the little money I had. In some cases I’d be shooting a music video and I’d invite Joel to come down so I could squeeze in a scene with him in the studio. The film also relied heavily on the generosity of the crew, DOP Paul Mortlock, Focus Puller Sam James, and AC Dan McCaffrey all donated their time and energy to the project.
What guided the decision to shoot on a mix of film and digital?
I wanted the fantasy / thought tangents to have this cinematic feel in contrast to the dialysis world. Paul was also keen to shoot on film. We were lucky to get some stock and process costs donated by Frame 24 and Kodak lab.
I’m assuming that you mined Joel’s musical catalogue for the film’s soundtrack?
Joel’s got a band called Dancing To Architecture and a lot of the music in the documentary comes from that. The end accordion scene was recorded by his father, Dave, who is an incredible musician too.
He uses music and art as his antidote to life with kidney failure so the film kind of embraces that.
Your edit must have been monumental.
Joel had booked a screening for friends and family in Liverpool and I cut it in a blind panic to meet that deadline fuelled by coffee and chewed nails.
What will we see from you next?
I’m currently working on a feature coming of age doc about a band I’ve worked with and I recently set up a production company called Zomdic Films with producers Jack Hartley and Rosie Ford and we’re enjoying developing doc, narrative and music projects through that.
I know Joel. He is an inspiration to anybody who knows him. Excellent bass player.
He really is a a captivating presence in this!