Think you’re getting a traditional music documentary with Alexandria Bombach’s It’s Only Life After All? Think again.
The piece does retrace some of Amy Ray and Emily Saliers’ career as the Indigo Girls, but Bombach uses interviews with the duo and archival footage in a way that doesn’t just simply lay out their journey from then to now. It’s Only Life After All feels raw and truly lived-in. The viewer doesn’t just watch the steps they took but rather feels the evolution they went through both as musicians and as human beings, and also how they influenced countless for the better in the process.
In celebration of It’s Only Life After All’s 2023 Sundance Film Festival premiere, Bombach, Ray, and Saliers visited the Collider Studio presented by Saratoga Spring Water to discuss their experience making the documentary. Bombach talked about making the shift from vérité films to directing an archival documentary and also emphasized the invaluable collaborator and friend she found in producer Brock Williams. Ray and Saliers reveal the elements of the finished film that surprised them most and also tease another upcoming film they're part of, Glitter & Doom starring Alex Diaz, Alan Cammish, Ming-Na Wen, Missi Pyle, and Tig Notaro.
Hear about all of that and so much more in the video interview at the top of this article or in the transcript below:
I was reading about how the original plan was to film the documentary while on tour, but then that had to change. What's the biggest difference between how you originally pictured the film turning out with that plan versus where you landed with it?
ALEXANDRIA BOMBACH: I definitely had a lot of big different plans for this film before COVID, but everything kind of worked out the way it was supposed to in the end. And beginning a film, I never know exactly what it's going to be. I only know big themes or things I want to listen to or pay attention to, and the interviews that we did in 2020 really dictated so much of this story. And we didn't actually know that Amy had a massive archive of footage in her basement until like eight months into shooting. She was like, ‘Hey! You should come in and check this out.’ I was like, ‘What is happening?’ I didn't really know [that] yet and so that really was just a whole other element. It was that footage plus Sony footage and other things that we came across [and] ended up being over 1,000 hours of footage. My last films were vérité films and so this was my first archive film, and so that made a …
EMILY SALIERS: First and last. [Laughs]
BOMBACH: [Laughs] Yeah, first and last archive film!
And you chose to edit all of that footage yourself.
AMY RAY: Cray, cray.
BOMBACH: Yeah, totally cray, cray. [Laughs]
Is there anything about making an archival film that might influence your work when you go back to the vérité style?
BOMBACH: Wow, that’s an amazing question.
Hopefully it's not all downhill from here. I can’t guarantee it! [Laughter]
BOMBACH: Man, I hope so. Every film I make I learn so much about storytelling, and my values are so determined in the films themselves. I think more than the style of editing just learning so much from Amy and Emily as people and how they prioritize community and activism and service and self acceptance, that inherently changes so much about me as a person and therefore my art so, yeah, it made a massive difference in my life. I'm a completely different person now.
Amy and Emily, you actually joke about this in the movie, the idea that you didn’t know what the story was going to be going in. In the end when you saw the finished film, what was the most surprising thing about the story you wound up telling?
RAY: I think I was pretty amazed at the nuances that she pulled out of all that footage, and realized that she had actually probably looked at every single minute of all the footage because the things that she pulled out were very under the radar, not the same old tropes and the same old things. And then they're strung together in a way that’s, to me, very artful. I don't know. I didn't think you could make a documentary about us that had that kind of flow and arc and nuance. The way we've gotten talked about most of the time has been so tropey. Not all the time. Let’s just say half of it. So it's so nice to have something that's art and nuanced and tender, but also angsty and has everything, all the dimension in it. And is real. It's just really real and authentic.
BOMBACH: And maybe a little bit punk.
RAY: Okay! Yes, a little bit punk.
How about for you, Emily? Is there anything that made it into the final film that you were surprised emerged over the course of the filmmaking process?
SALIERS: It was kind of fun to revisit some of those interviews that I'd completely forgotten about. We were just little babies, you know? And that was fun to see that. I know that Alexandria was meticulous about everything that she chose and I know that she made changes, and so everything was very, very purposefully chosen, and so there's a scene — a scene. Is that what you call it? She's at a concert and these people who are attending the concert are talking about what our music has meant to them. And that feels weird to say, but that's what happened. And there's just this ugly old chair that's right there in the middle of an outside thing and the juxtaposition of that chair and then they come and they sit in the chair, a singular person mostly, and then talk about the music. I found that particularly poignant because they were being very vulnerable about their own lives and the struggles they'd been through and how they connected to the music. There's just something about that chair, the vulnerability, it was very striking to me. So the film hit me in ways that I wasn't expecting, and I think I'm still processing it.
Bringing up how meticulous you were with everything you chose, going into the edit, is there any particular thing that you were certain you were gonna use and highlight, but over the course of the editing process, it wound up being rightfully deprioritized in order to come out with the film you wound up with?
BOMBACH: As a fan I was like, ‘Oh man, do I just get to pick my favorite songs? How is this gonna work?’ And I had no idea how to incorporate music into the film. These are lyric heavy songs and so it's hard to have dialogue with lyrics, and so trying to figure out what songs come through — 40 years of songs, that's a lot to pick from, and also incredible. It ended up just being the story kind of dictated what songs came through. But yeah, I had no idea how that was gonna go and it was really interesting at the end of the day what ended up being in the film.
Going back to what you were saying about people sitting in that chair and sharing how much your work has meant to them. You’re both so incredibly humble and we see that a lot in the movie where I feel like you downplay the massive influence you've had on so many people out there. I know you said you're still processing, but now having seen the finished film, is it setting in more than ever? Can you fully embrace the fact that you've changed countless lives with your work?
SALIERS: The way I feel about it is that I don't feel ownership of that which happens. There's a lot of mystery to it. There’s a ton of community, there's all the people who came before us, the songwriters, the activists, there’s our community of people who listen to our music, so it's just impossible to have ownership of that. It’s complex, you know? And I know what it feels like to tap into music that I need at a critical moment in my life that feeds me emotionally or intellectually or whatever the case may be. So I know that music is at the center of my very being and so I understand that, but to try to feel the impact of affecting people's lives in that way just because of us, I just can't do it. Yeah, I just can’t.
I can understand not being able to fully embrace it, but it's there. It’s factual. It is the truth.
RAY: It's like an exchange of energy in a way because when we started, we were so young. There were a lot of ways that we didn't understand our own sexuality or gender or families or politics or our activism, and so a lot of the people that listen to us also were doing good work, and we were exchanging ideas, too. There's a lot of this thing that almost feels like a brew of stuff that we've mixed together and then we're all drinking from that, and it’s emboldening us and giving us strength and stuff in a way. So we can embrace it, but we're embracing the mystery of it and the power of musical lineage because we come from listening to The Roches and Ferron and the Carter Family, you know what I mean? Think about it. It's so much DNA just going along in the musical notes, and we just get to be part of it.
SALIERS: We do feel grateful for it, for sure. If we meet you at the intersection of your life and there's the confluence of that, then I do feel grateful that we were the ones who were able to meet you at the intersection at that point.
Putting a little bit of a movie spin on that idea in honor of the Sundance Film Festival, do each of you have a movie that you fell in love with that impacted your own life the way that your music has stuck with so many people out there?
SALIERS: So many. I can start to name a few.
I'm here for it!
SALIERS: This is in the film. I talk about Personal Best and what that felt like to be a terrified person discovering her sexuality and seeing that. But, you know, films like Cinema Paradiso and I used to watch a lot of the foreign films that came through the movie theaters. Call Me By Your Name was very affecting. Black Panther was completely affecting. Moonlight, very affecting. God, there's just so many. Those are just the first that come to mind. I'll regret the ones I forget later.
RAY: The 400 Blows, François Truffaut was really important to me when I was younger. And Peter Greenaway was really important. Daughters of the Dust is one of my favorite movies of all time, and I still check back in with that a lot. It really impacted me and changed my perspective and really made me dig deeper into anti-racism work and history and stuff like that.
I'll throw a somewhat similar question your way, Alexandria. It is very special when two artists can find each other and realize that they are the right collaborators. Who would you say is your filmmaking Amy and Emily, someone you can always turn to when you need support when making a movie?
BOMBACH: Oh, definitely Brock Williams. 100% Brock Williams. Brock is like my brother, my family member. It’s gonna make me cry talking about it. [To Williams] Don’t look at me, Brock! He has always been there for me, he’s saved two of my films, been able to make these films even come to Sundance at all. I'm sure we wouldn't have gotten the film ready in time without him. He's everything from my massive best friend, emotional support to a powerhouse producer to the guy that opened my orange yesterday because I couldn't get my fingernails in it, and just an amazing creative collaborator. He trusts me, he respects my work and I trust him, I respect his opinion and I don't think you could ask for anything more than that.
Bringing up the idea of the challenge of getting movies made, I remember reading that you wanted to tell this story in a way that doesn't align with the traditional music biopic and that meant you had to make it independently, which made me assume you had some of those bigger meetings where maybe you could get more financing to make a movie like this. It's a very scary situation to be in to know that in order to stay true to the vision that is in your mind, you need to pass on something like that, so can you walk us through that thought process a little?
BOMBACH: I think it's a very enticing thing to just do the formula of a music biopic. It’s so prevalent in the industry, and there's amazing films that follow that formula, but Amy and Emily did not follow any formulas in their career. They’re not typical and they’re extraordinary in so many ways, and I felt the film needed to reflect that. And also, a lot of the reasons that you have a lot of other musicians talking about how important another musician was in these biopics is because you need to fill in the gaps and say the things with other interviews because maybe those people aren't saying their faults or aren't saying how something felt at the time. But Amy and Emily were so forthcoming and I knew that they were going to be because that's how we were in conversation all the time [and] I knew they could be the narrators of their own story, and I felt that that was going to be the most powerful thing. I didn't need any other famous musician to come in and tell us how important they were, or their lessons. At the end of the day, the interview is looking straight at the camera because I wanted this to feel like a conversation. It’s a conversation with me in the interview, but it feels like a conversation with the audience. The film reflects who they are. I hope it reflects their music and does justice to their legacy as musicians and activists.
For what it's worth, from my perspective it does!
Given what a special experience you had making this, what is something you're walking away from this movie with that might influence the films that you make going forward?
BOMBACH: Definitely this film has influenced me in so many ways. It's helped me with my own queer acceptance. It's helped me understand my relationship with activism in a whole new way. A lot of the films I've made have been about very difficult topics and, really, I was going into this film pretty disheartened, but really feeling reinvigorated now about grassroots activism and just a whole new lease on that. And especially when it comes to values around community, this film really changed my life. And I think going into filmmaking now, I want to make films with Brock. I want to make films with my close friends and collaborators, and that's the priority from here on out, and making films and community and doing it from those core values.
You both have a movie coming up, too. Glitter and Doom, your first experience composing for a feature film. What has that been like and what would you say is the biggest learning curve you experienced making music in that particular format?
RAY: Actually, it's interesting because they used songs that already existed and they made mashups of them. So, super creative. We didn't do that. It was all them. We're working on a song for the end credits, an original song, and that's been a challenge because I've never written for a specific movie, so that's interesting to do. We're not done yet, but it's almost done.
But yeah, they made mashups of things and then produced them and the characters sing them in the film. And it's the story of two men, Glitter and Doom. They’re very young actually when they meet and it's like their love affair and struggle with their own lives and what they go through in their community and everything through the lens of a lot of our songs and stuff. But it's really interesting mashups, so it's not just Indigo Girls songs. It's like a whole new creation of their own. It's kind of like a cross between Cirque du Soleil, Moulin Rouge!, Rocky Horror Picture Show.
SALIERS: And we didn’t pick the songs. They picked the songs.
RAY: We read the script and we really loved the script and so we said, ‘Pick the songs and we’ll see.”
Special thanks to our 2023 partners at Sundance including presenting partner Saratoga Spring Water and supporting partners Marbl Toronto, EMFACE, Sommsation, Hendrick’s Gin, Stella Artois, mou, and the all-electric vehicle, Fisker Ocean.