“It Fits Together, Like a Puzzle, to Make Something Bigger”: Matthew Caws and Mark Pellington in Conversation

Nada Surf’s lead singer and the acclaimed filmmaker discuss their recent collaboration on “Just Wait,” plus life, death, the pandemic and more.

For years, a mutual friend of filmmaker Mark Pellington and Nada Surf frontman Matthew Caws told them they should work together. Each had a deep respect and appreciation for the other’s art, so it seemed to be an intuitive partnership. As it so happened, they finally collaborated earlier this year, when Pellington made a music film for “Just Wait,” a track off Nada Surf’s latest album Never Not Together. Pellington’s rich, hypnotic visuals, Caws’ prescient lyrics (“You’re gonna be just fine / It might take some time”) and haunting meditations recorded by Caws’ late father, Peter, combine to create a film which is striking, timely and deeply resonant. In November 2020, from their respective homes in Los Angeles and Cambridge, England, Pellington and Caws spoke over Zoom about the process of making the film of “Just Wait,” their long-gestating friendship, fathers, life, death, and more.N.D.

Mark Pellington: I’ll just go right to the personal and say that I’ve known of Nada Surf since their first hit and been a fan of the band’s music for a really long time. There are a few songs in particular that were really meaningful in my life, particularly “Inside of Love,” a pop song which is just incredibly aching, melancholic and full of life. In 2002, my daughter was born. I remember when she was six weeks old, I heard that song and it filled me with love and safety, the most beautiful feeling in the world. It cradled me and I remember playing it over and over again with my wife and my daughter. The song captures that incredible feeling of having a newborn, or a new family. It was bliss.

Tragically, two-and-a-half years later, my wife passed away. “Inside of Love” had stayed with me, and I played her last voicemail message and that song at her funeral. I’ll never forget a huge chapel all filled with people and that feeling of love, but also acceptance of loss and change in the world. Death is terrible, but it’s just a change and no one is immune from it. “Inside of Love,” and the band and your words, have a great power to me.

Over the years, I would listen to that song and other Nada Surf songs and every new record as they came out. And a mutual friend of ours would always say to me, “You and Matthew need to work together.” Sure enough, when this new record, Never Not Together, came out, you and I connected. The song “Just Wait” was the track that spoke to me, that really hit me. In around April of this year, as the virus was really starting to hit, you emailed me and said, “You know, people are really responding to ‘Just Wait.’ I think that it’s saying something to them in this time of isolation when they’re searching for something emotionally. Would you be interested in making a film for it?” And that’s where it started.

Matthew Caws: Man, thank you so much, Mark. For my part, in addition to being a really big fan of your work for a long time, I’ve always felt a personal connection to you, maybe because we have this old friend in common saying we should work together and who also said I should send you a copy of the “Inside of Love” single, which I did. I sent you this new album when it was done and you wrote that “Just Wait” was your favorite. I’m only realizing this now, but when you picked that one, it gave me a feeling of trust about that song. Because you’d said you responded to “Just Wait,” I thought by then I knew you well enough to just ask you to make something for it. I’m really glad it worked out that way.

Pellington: The good thing is, when you do a super low-budget thing like this, there’s no pressure. I think I wrote a paragraph or two – it wasn’t even an official treatment. I had some ideas and then some more ideas, and then you had some images, and we just kind of went back and forth. In those conversations, we talked about fathers and memory, and so when you shared an early version of the [soon-to-be-released] film The Book of Hylas, that changed the tone and tenor of the film.

Caws: For sure. The timing was so lucky, in a way, and I’m really grateful that you took a dive into this process. You wanted to make something longer and so asked me what I was reading. Because my father had passed away two months before, I was reading some new meditations of his that I’d found, and I had just spent the past three or so years putting together a project called The Book of Hylas, around some meditations that he shared with me years before. He was a philosopher and a philosophy professor, and though he wrote many books, he didn’t write very much original work. The Book of Hylas was supposed to be the beginning of a novel, but he stopped after four short paragraphs, which were meditations by an imagined character called Hylas. My dad was very practical and these meditations are kind of a guide to life. I found them so incredibly moving that I wanted to make something out of them, so I asked my friends the Parkington Sisters to record him reading them and set them to music. Barsuk, our record company, put it out; I’m very proud of it and my father was, too.

When I collected some of my father’s things, the last time I saw him, I found this new set of meditations and I sent them to you and they seemed to really connect with you too. I’m really glad you used some of each. Somehow, you managed to make them match the feeling of the song “Just Wait,” and also of the film that you made for the song. It’s really great. One of the things that makes me happy is that so many people have sent me messages saying how comforted they feel by the film of “Just Wait.” It all seems to work together, because the point of the song is to comfort, is to tell somebody who’s anxious – or anxious about the future – to hold on, that all feelings are temporary and reality will change, as it does every second. And that’s what my dad’s text was trying to share, and it seems like that’s what the film is trying to do. I’m so thrilled at how it fits together, like a puzzle, to make something bigger.

I also want to say that I loved the film you made about your dad, Father’s Daze. I thought it was so moving and I really liked how – and it’s something you do in a lot of your work – it takes a sideways approach, kind of sneaking up to things and maybe not saying them overtly. I think there’s so much of that in the film of “Just Wait.” When my dad died, a really good childhood friend of mine said that when his father passed, a private channel opened up where he could still talk to him. What was so great about working on this film is that I got to have, so soon after his death, a way to kind of interact with him. While watching edits of the film, there was my dad, with music behind him and the film illustrating his words, with his voice loud and clear. It was like the private channel came true in a physical way; it’s wild how audio does that.

Pellington: When I made the documentary about my dad, it was about his struggle. He had played pro football and at 60 he got CTE. Literally within a three-month period, he went from saying, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s New York?” to not knowing my name. And so that failure to say goodbye, that lack of closure, is a core hole in my soul. As much work as I’ve done, it’s still there. When I was making the film, there was lots of footage of him – Super 8, home movies, football footage – but what I was really craving was his voice. There was so little audio of him and all the filming I had done of him was after he was sick. And the older footage was silent films and home movies, meaning the audio didn’t exist. So having your father’s voice in the film was amazing. I think memory, in that connection, is aural more than visual for me.

Caws: Yes, totally, I feel that about other relatives of mine. I feel like there should be (is there?) a service where you pay somebody to go interview your relatives so that you can have their voices on tape but they don’t feel like they’re being put on the spot. I mean, if you have a really loving relationship, maybe you could put a tape recorder in front of your aunt and she might relax, but if not, you could have somebody else do it. But the important thing is to have that sound, you know?

Pellington: It’s funny that you brought up that service. I was pitched an app, to develop into a movie or TV idea, which records your voice and your picture, and as you answer thousands of questions, it digitally captures you so your loved ones can continue a relationship with you after you’re gone. With advancements in A.I. and deep fakes, we’re literally getting to the point where someone who’s having a hard time can say to their deceased father, “Hey Dad, I’m having this problem…” and based on the amount of information that this system has, it will give the response, “Oh, don’t worry, honey, it’ll be OK,” like a super sophisticated Alexa or Siri. Deep fakes are getting so incredible in terms of their replication, they’re using them in movies now and we’re getting rid of humans. I can’t believe the advancements in the past year. It’s very frightening, yet incredible. It’s been fascinating learning about the ethics and the technology of it, and thinking, would I want to go ask my dad questions? I know I’d love to see my dad again, but it’s all futile, it’s all fake. But is that false thing better than nothing?

Caws: Well, you know, I love the notion that if you “fake” bravery, it’s just as good – because if you pretend to be brave, the result is effectively the same. So even if what’s comforting you is fake, comfort itself is a real state, however you get there … It all sounds like the benign version of a Black Mirror episode!

I was thinking a lot about “family math” lately. I’d mentioned that to you, Mark, about the idea that on a good day you can hope to be the best of your mother and father, and on a bad day, you might feel like some of the worst of them. I think part of waiting and being patient is to hear yourself, and part of hearing yourself is going back over your life, everything you’ve experienced, and getting comfort from whatever parts of it that you can, to gird yourself for going out there into the world when you can’t wait anymore.

Image of Matthew Caws by Annie Dressner.

Mark Pellington is a filmmaker, writer and artist based in Los Angeles. He is internationally recognized as one of the world’s premier music video directors and has also gained wide recognition for his film and television work. His best-known films include the controversial political thriller Arlington Road, starring Jeff Bridges and Tim Robbins, cult favorite The Mothman Prophesies, starring Richard Gere, Laura Linney and Debra Messing, and The Last Word, with Amanda Seyfried and Shirley MacLaine, which premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival. His latest feature, Nostalgia, with an all-star cast including Jon Hamm, Nick Offerman, Amber Tamblyn, Patton Oswalt, Catherine Keener, Ellen Burstyn and Bruce Dern, is released by Bleecker Street on February 16.