Contrary to what appears on the Internet, Lian Lunson, director of the concert/documentary film, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, did not write the music to The Passion of the Christ. She did, with old friend Mel Gibson, co-produce a CD of songs on the themes of The Passion of the Christ, including Cohen's own "By the Rivers Dark," and Bob Dylan's "Not Dark Yet." Gibson contributed straight-shooting liner notes, in which he calls Cohen "a great spiritual warrior."
Lunson can't resist complicated men such as Cohen and Gibson or the subject of her previous music documentary, Willie Nelson: Down Home. Over the phone from Los Angeles, she says, "I can see all these guys wandering through the desert and bumping into each other there. They're searchers - complex, deep, vast individuals, and no one can tap into everything that they're all about."
Music producer Hal Willner, the eclectic master of concept albums and concerts, considered Lunson's film about Nelson "the best music documentary of a living artist that I've ever seen." So after repeatedly staging Came So Far in Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs, with artists such as Nick Cave and Rufus Wainwright, Willner played the audio tapes for Lunson.
"I've been a Leonard Cohen fan since way back in my punk days," says the fortysome- thing Lunson. "And I'm a huge fan of Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave." She jumped at the chance to present non-MTV-type artists to a wider movie audience, using the music of Cohen, a man of letters as well as a singer-songwriter. And Cohen maven Gibson signed on as executive producer.
Willner and Lunson planned to shoot the concert at the Sydney Opera House during the Sydney Festival. The festival permitted Lunson to film only closing night, Jan. 31, 2005, with cameras hidden from the audience. She couldn't light the concert for the movie, but Willner thought what she shot was beautiful. So did Cohen. His respect for Lunson's Nelson documentary - and, Cohen has said, his response to "the kind of radiant presence Lian presents" - persuaded him to participate in the film.
"I knew what I was going for," says Lunson. "I wanted people in the theater to feel they were part of something intimate and engaging. I find it insulting when the director cuts to the audience having a good time. As someone watching the film, I don't want to be told that the audience likes it. I hope to like it myself."
She also knew she "wanted a collage of Leonard, including songs that would tie into his life and the conversations we were having. We'd have meals together regularly, and eventually I started to bring my camera along and this is what happened, although he was much more interested in finding out what I was doing. He made me think of what John Lennon would say: `This is where I'm at. Where are you?'
Lunson has never been drawn to what she calls "those horrible, voyeuristic, let's-know-everything-about-someone films." For her movie, she held paramount the "Otherness" of Leonard Cohen.
"For me, he's like a sage who encompasses everything but doesn't pretend to have answers or preach. In his work, he's reporting the truth without passing any judgment. I couldn't ever present the vastness of who he is: I could only hope to touch on it. ... His generous spirit makes him attractive as a human being; whenever you come across that, you feel such a beautiful acceptance."
Lunson says, simply, "He felt comfortable with me." Her favorite moment may be Cohen elucidating his own knottiest, most haunting song, "The Traitor": He says it's about "failing or betraying some mission you were mandated to fulfill and being unable to fulfill it and then coming to understand that the real mission was not to fulfill it, but to stand guiltless in the predicament in which you found yourself."
Lunson found Cohen so "complex and rich I felt I needed to provide a world for him to nestle in," something "celebratory and bright and joyous." She made the credits "very Vegasy, vaudevillian" and with an optical effect strung red beads over portions of the film not connected to the concert, as if drawing a curtain to reveal the climax of Cohen and U2 performing in New York's Slipper Room, a burlesque club.
Lunson started out as an actor in Australia and got into TV and movie production to put herself through drama school. Her last on- screen role was in 1987's Dogs in Space. Her next directing project, she hopes, will be a fiction film about burlesque, featuring Willie Nelson, Katherine Helmond (of TV's Everybody Loves Raymond and Soap) and contemporary burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese (Mrs. Marilyn Manson). Lunson's youthful friendship with a burlesque star called Vanessa the Undressa inspired her to write the script. Nelson persuaded her to Americanize it so he could play a role in it.
For Lunson, Australia is the country born of violence, while America represents hope and opportunity. When she came here 17 years ago, she went straight to Graceland to pay homage to Elvis. Then she settled in L.A. "I'm drawn to the beauty of the birth of the film industry," says Lunson. For her, "the air is [still] filled with promise."