Bill Morrison creates stunning works of cinema from forgotten fragments of footage. His debut feature, Decasia (2002), a beautiful composition of decaying nitrate celluloid, was the first film of the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, although UK audiences might know him best for The Miners’ Hymns (2010), his majestic, poetic rendering of lost coal mining communities in North East England.
Eleanor McKeown spoke to the American filmmaker ahead of the UK premiere of his latest masterwork, The Great Flood, at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival in March 2014.
Eleanor McKeown: How did you find the material for The Great Flood and how did the project come about?
Bill Morrison: I had been looking for a longer project to work on with Bill Frisell. We’d done a couple of shorts before – The Film of Her and The Mesmerist – where I used pre-recorded tracks of his. We were looking for a project where we would start from the ground up; he would write new music and I would find new footage to make a new film. I had been working on looser, more metaphorical treatment of flood footage and was looking for any old footage of flood-inundated houses for a project called Shelter (this was back in 2005), and I kept coming across footage from 1926 and 1927. It wasn’t until some time later that I was at a dinner party where they were discussing a book by John M. Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed American Culture, as it related to Katrina and the problems with that storm and the flood in New Orleans. I read that book. Knowing that there was a lot of footage out there from that era and that Bill wanted to work on a project with me, and that there were musical ramifications from people moving out of the area into the newer cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York, it all kind of conspired and I realised that this could be a long-form project.
Once we had decided that we wanted to go forward with this project, Bill approached his management team – that’s Phyllis Oyama and Lee Townsend at Songtone – and they were able to assemble a list of performing venues that would co-commission the project. It was not the regular route most filmmakers take to finance a film, but it really came about as part of the multimedia side of the live performance. There were a number of venues that contributed more or less money to the thing, and quite a few would premiere the piece in that region.
Was there a difference between how The Great Flood was originally performed live and how it currently appears in its finished version? With The Miners’ Hymns, your last UK film release, I understand that the film was shown on a double screen when it premiered, with live music, at Durham Cathedral.
Both films were much looser when they were originally performed live, before we had a definitive master recording, which we re-cut to. With The Great Flood, it was a very unique set of circumstances, where I was on tour with Bill in the Mississippi River Delta in the spring of 2011. We had booked a tour just to give Bill and his bandmates a chance to familiarise themselves with the material and to work on it together through rehearsals and performances, on sort of a mobile artist’s residency, if you will. We had absolutely no indication, of course, that the tour would be during another major flood of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the flood levels that spring were as high as they had been since 1927, so it became a very real sort of history lesson on what it feels like to be in a community not knowing whether the levees are going to hold or not.
It was through recording all those soundchecks, and rehearsals and performances that I was able to structure a sort of narrative and emotional arc of how I thought the film would sound. That tour became a tool, both for me to start forming a rough cut of the film, and for Bill to write more music or re-write music that was recorded. It was also just a chance to talk to him about things that I was really enamoured with on his previous records, and how I saw the opportunity for some of those same dynamics to work: the idea of taking a theme and expanding on it. He was really receptive to that collaboration, really more so than any other composer-collaborator I’ve worked with.
How was it different to working with other composers in the past? Was there more improvisation?
I work a lot with classical composers and, once they’ve written the score, it’s really in the hands of the conductor and orchestra to perform it the way the composer wrote it. We arrive at a master recording that way. With Bill, it’s almost exactly the opposite. He doesn’t want to repeat himself two performances in a row. In fact, if it’s something’s good, he tries to avoid it the second time, and if it’s bad, of course, he’s going to avoid it the second time! It’s really a completely different way of approaching performance. The music grew from the spring tour but, after it premiered that fall, we used a recording from the premiere to re-edit the film. Then a few months later, we had a better recording that we made at Duke and that became the basis for the film, and the edit that was used during much of the film’s performance life in 2012. It wasn’t until about a year ago, in March of 2013, that the band did a performance in Seattle that we felt very strongly could be the definitive soundtrack of the film. The film, as released in 2014, was entirely re-cut to this soundtrack to support every note and every chord change. It is cut to the beat in a way that would be impossible to do in a live situation, and that was the same with The Miners’ Hymns too. We started out with a very loose edit and then, when we had a final recording, we re-cut to it, sometimes as many as three or four different times.
Thinking about the narrative arc of the film, The Great Flood is divided into chapters. How did you make decisions about these and, in particular, the segment that uses a montage of the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue and the change of pace in this sequence?
Bill was really adamant that we include these up-tempo musical numbers: music that I associate with Thelonious Monk or a bebop tempo. I’m really enamoured with his dirges and ballads, but he was adamant that those don’t work unless you have something that also cuts them and changes the pace and the mood. He’s a real master at constructing a set – and this was after all a set – so including that type of mood was really Bill’s influence. It was something that initially I was resistant to, but I came to see how he was right.
The Sears Roebuck catalogue was my idea. As you can see from the start of that chapter, it’s listed with a circulation of 75 million, so you can imagine how prevalent this book was in just about every house. It would be like the internet is for us today. It was sort of the portal to all the stuff that’s out there. I’ve been told that some houses had only two books: The Bible and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. There’re also stories about children making up fantasy stories based on the characters in that book. It was a source of amusement but also a source of dreaming. This is all the stuff you could own, if you had a better life. Then, in the context of the film, it’s also all the stuff that’s getting destroyed by the flood and getting thrown away –what you grab onto. I was able to find a reprint of the 1927 catalogue, which is really upheld as an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. It was financially a very fat time in this country, before The Great Depression, and so this book is an artefact of everything we had and everything we could own. Because the layout page-to-page is very similar, it lent itself to this fast de facto animation. I simply scanned every page and then played with it in edit until it kind of moved. It was also a different way of treating up-tempo material rather than relying on fast action or fast editing.
This up-tempo music reoccurs at other points in the film, such as the segment showing footage of politicians visiting the flood sites.
Yes, also in the dynamiting Poydras chapter. It’s an ironic use of the music, because of course the chapter is showing large class discrepancies, treated as business as usual, and I think that the music communicates that.
Out of all the footage you were working with, you chose a woman dancing to live music in Chicago as the last shot of the film. How did you decide on this final image?
That had always been the premise of the film. The water came down the river and the people moved up it – to the north – and, in so doing, brought music and a way of life and a culture to northern American cities that then went global and really affected popular music and popular culture in the latter half of the century. That shot said so much. It’s obviously an old shot, it’s over 50, almost 60, years old. You can see a woman in the back carrying a large poster of John Kennedy, so one can assume that it’s either an election party or an inauguration party. It’s something that would place it in November 1960 or January 1961. My guess is November 1960. It comes from a film that was released in 1964 by Mike Shea, called And This Is Free, which is a beautiful depiction of Maxwell Street in Chicago, a flourishing musical area and commercial area, which no longer exists in the way it did back then, of course. For me, coming from the South Side of Chicago, I always thought of this film as ending there. It’s as much about me trying to understand where I’m from, as how my neighbourhood became that way and the significance of Chicago as a conduit to the rest of the world. We came across that shot and it encompassed so much. It was at once modern, as well as being ancient. It was very beautiful. It showed passion and great intimacy. There was something very real about it; something where the people were oblivious of the use of the camera, or seemingly so.
And after all the work and really demeaning and unpleasant situations that you’ve seen people in throughout the film – and really you haven’t seen that many women, it’s mostly been a lot of men – to see this woman dancing was so emblematic of survival and of strength. That story goes on. This is not just an ending but the river continues.
Her expression is an interesting one, which provokes a lot of different ideas. She seems to convey so much in that expression.
Yes, there’s a lot of resolve to her. She’s very serious about her dance and she’s extraordinarily beautiful. That’s what I wanted the film to be.
It certainly was. What are your plans for The Great Flood and what projects are you currently working on?
The Great Flood is being distributed in North America by Icarus Films and they’re doing a phenomenal job with it. They oversaw a successful opening here in New York and also in Los Angeles, and they are now taking it to independent theatres throughout the United States and Canada. There’s also going to be a DVD release in May, again through Icarus Films. We don’t have an international distributor yet, and I am interested in finding a UK distributor.
In terms of my upcoming projects, I’m working on a new long-form doc about an archive that was found in Dawson City in the Yukon territory in the late 1970s, after having been buried in a swimming pool for 50 years. And I just finished a film on World War One with a score by a Serbian composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, which will be performed by The Kronos Quartet. That will premiere in Berkeley, California, and make its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. With this film, I worked with the Library of Congress to find footage that other people aren’t able to access on the war. Through soaking and restoration, we were unspooling rolls of film that hadn’t been seen in decades. We’re very much looking forward to the reaction to this film.
Interview by Eleanor McKeown