Australian Director Emma Franz talks about her poignant documentary Bill Frisell, A Portrait at SXSW

Australian Director Emma Franz‘s poignant documentary Bill Frisell, A Portrait premiered earlier this month at SXSW in Austin, Texas. The film is, as the name suggests, a portrait on the much loved musician Bill Frisell, both in his own words and through interviews with iconic artists like Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon. I sat down with Emma in the lobby of the Hilton hotel not long after the film premiered to talk about the screening, the film, Bill and the legends that came together to make it all possible.

How have your experiences been so far here at this crazy event, SXSW?

Well you’re right in saying it’s crazy to say the least. It’s been chaotic and lots of work and lots of fun too. I’ve hosted a few filmmaker dinners and I’ve got to meet some wonderful people. But yeah as you were mentioning before we were staring this interview you have to say no to so many things. You always feel like you’re missing things because there’s just so much on.

You’ve had your premiere already and you had a second screening where Bill appeared in a Q&A, too. How have you felt that the audiences have reacted to the film so far?

Yeah it was lovely because we just had a bit of a chat about the film. The audiences have been great, I’m really glad they get it. They’re liking the subtleties within it, and yeah. It’s been fantastic response so far.

I have huge respect for you in putting this together, so much on your own back. Were there any moments during that process where you thought, “I don’t think there’s any way we’re going to get this done?”

Yeah I pretty much stopped working on the film for a year. I just thought, “I can’t do this anymore”… A lot of it’s like bashing your head against a brick wall. And there’s only so long you can do that for. So I regrouped, found some energy, found another tiny bit of money to keep some things going, and continued on a hard long process. I don’t think anyone except people who’ve tried to make films can understand just how hard it is.

Well especially when you’re doing so much of it yourself. There’s so much great footage in the film and one thing I really enjoyed about it was that you let Bill for the most part speak about himself in his words. How important as this approach to you?

Yeah it was critical, because for me it’s a character study in a way, and how that informs the music, and his personality, and his approach, and his ideas. So that was really critical but also because I always wanted to be cinematic, so even though on the surface it might seem like a standard documentary because it’s got interviews and it’s got other people talking as well, to me cinema is all about the sensory experience and the sensory understanding that people can get from sitting through a film, and that involves really trying to access, help people feel that they’re sitting with Bill themselves and really hanging out with him and getting inside his mind and getting to know him. It’s a different experience when you sit with someone as compared to read in an interview. So yeah it was critical that it was in his own words, and Bill, the way he talks…. it’s wonderful.

It’s like his music, where he goes off on all these tangents, so there was certainly a wealth of material to work with. Because even that one main interview that runs throughout the film was eight hours. So just grabbing bits and pieces from here and there and tying them together until this sort of collage from his thoughts came together.

Did the interview with Bill come first?

It was sort of the opposite. I did that at the very end to tie it all together.

Oh so the interview came last?

Yeah.

Wow. Well I guess by then you’d know what questions you needed to ask.

Yeah. Because initially I wasn’t going to do interviews. So what I did, I had done a couple of chats with Bill and … I don’t want to use the word shy but because Bill was a bit shy a lot of my initial interviews were just audio. While we were kind of getting to know each other and not having him feel freaked out by having a camera in his face all the time.

Yeah, he doesn’t strike me as someone who’s had a camera following him around his whole life, he’s not that sort of person.

No he definitely sort of shies from that, even though there was a lot of content about him on the web and so on. But I think by the end he really got a sense of what I was doing and I could identify things that I felt were important to his playing and his ideas that I could maybe ask him about and maybe get them in a more concise way to tie all the elements of the film together. So yeah that came at the end.

I’ve heard Bill’s name around for a long time, but I never knew the extent to which he was involved in so many artists that I listened to, and albums that I listen to. Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon, I didn’t realise the extent to which he’d worked with them. Though I certainly knew how prolific he’s been in the last however many decades. He just released a new album last year, which is incredible. When did you first become familiar with, I guess, just how influential and prolific he was, not just within a jazz guitar world but in the broader music space?

That’s a good question. I’m trying to think back. And it’s almost as if his music is something that starts to seep into your life and before you know it, it’s in there and it’s infiltrating all these things that you’re listening to. He’s mercurial. But I just can’t remember a specific moment but given the fact that I also like, I love jazz, I love R&B, but I love western swing, I love country. My brother plays in an acoustic folk group as well, and when I travel I think across all these people who love different music would just talk about him and just play me stuff as well, so I think he just seeped into my life somehow.

You got to interview some pretty incredible artists for the piece. Was there anyone that you were surprised that even said yes to being in the film?

Well that’s a beautiful thing, you hear a lot of things about how difficult some musicians can be and if I might say so Paul Motian was a case in point. I’d heard that he could be incredible difficult in interviews and I was quite scared about meeting him in some ways and he was just the loveliest person. Completely genuine, completely open. Actually stood up for me when someone from one of the venues was being very arrogant, and that stands for everyone and I guess some ways I think then you realise that’s why their music is so great, it’s that part of their personality so that’s why their music is so genuine.

Another example Ron Carter, just stunning to meet him, just such a beautiful personality, gentle, giving of his time. Jack Dejohnette. And these guys only make a moment in the film, which is heartbreaking too, but I hope to release some of the interviews later.

The DVD edition.

The special collectors edition. But yeah Jack Dejohnette, I went up to the Catskills to interview him just after that massive storm, I’m trying to remember the name of it. Anyway, all the trees were down blocking their access, they had no phone for days. They had been, Jack and his wife had been around collecting clothes and medicine, things to distribute to the community and then he gave me this hour to sit and talk to him in between all that craziness, and so I found people really generous and beautiful. There were a couple of people who were a bit arrogant and I just didn’t bother pursuing it because I didn’t see the point.

Yeah exactly.

Jim Hall was just, what a pleasure to meet him. He’s another hero of mine and he was exactly what I pictured, just gentle. And he said, “Oh one of the things I love about my job is getting to meet people like you” and what a generous thing to say.

And I guess the context of it was important for them as well. I think anyone who’s a fan of his work would be excited by the fact that a light was being shone on him because he’s not the sort of artist that is often given this sort of limelight.

Yeah well actually I’d say without exception everybody would say that. “Oh this is so overdue” and, “Bill’s one of the greatest musicians there is, he’s so unique and creative” so it is surprising in a way except for it all comes back to that thing: unless people are in your face you often don’t notice them.

What’s happening with the film from here. You’ve premiered at SXSW, are there some plans for other festivals over the next few months?

Yep we’ve got Nashville coming up, which I believe I can announce now. A few other festivals that I’m restricted from saying yet. It’s going to be coming to Australia and New Zealand soon, and I can’t announce that yet. It’s all top secret. But yeah we’ve got our South American premiere next month, Europe premiering in June, so yeah there’s a lot, and hopefully it makes its way into the theatres first, because I really would love people to experience this in the theatres before they stream it or DVD, because I think that’s important.

I read that one of the biggest difficulties for you with the film was some of the licensing of the music, which probably led to a lot of the head bashing against the wall moments. How did that affect the final cut of the film?

I basically more or less recut most of the film. So I had to completely make a new film and cut out all the licence fees. I’m a musician and I agree with licence fees and so on, but I think people don’t understand anymore that documentary films just don’t make money. They’re not about profit. And if you go to a two hour film and people want 10 grand per 30 seconds or part thereof, it’s not going to be possible. You’re already starving to death as it is making the film.

So yeah basically it was sad to take out some of those things because it’s a big part of who Bill is and what his music is, but we had full access to Bill’s music, which is such a huge world anyway, so I just focused on that, and I think in the end, I think that was a good thing maybe.

Well it sounded great and as someone who was discovering him, not for the first time, but certainly to that extent for the first time, it was a great exploration of his music in that respect. Using myself as an example, someone that’s not overly familiar with his story, do you hope that this opens new doors for Bill and new audiences that perhaps weren’t familiar with him?

Yeah. I don’t want to be so presumptuous to say that I’m opening doors for someone of the stature of Bill first of all, but certainly I think films do. Films always bring something to an audience that hasn’t, musicians are constantly amazed that they haven’t heard of him, and then they realise that he’s on a bunch of albums.

So I think for sure it will open some people’s minds and a knowledgement of him. So yeah I think he deserves to go down in history, and he will, with or without this film. But I hope it also encourages people to open their minds to different kinds of music, and one of the things I love about Bill is he doesn’t like categorisations and it’s that whole thing. And I agree with that. It’s like a lot of people won’t even listen to something because it’s not this or that or it is this or that, so in the end maybe that’s what i hope this film achieves.

Music is music, guitar is guitar, and take with that what you will. I understand you’ve got a book in the works as well?

Yeah I’m writing a book about creative construct in non-fiction cinema. I’m making a philosophical case for it because it’s a taboo subject. People think you just press record and a film happens and that’s not how it works at all. And sure there are documentaries that aim to just document stuff, but most filmmakers don’t see a difference between fiction or non fiction, it’s only the method, actors versus reality, and you’re still constructing stories around themes that you’re interested in that you want to explore or express…

Is there an ideal version of the music documentary out there that you point to and say, “That’s like the documentary I’d love to make one day”?

No I don’t really believe in ideals or absolutely or favourites. For me it’s always the films that access something about the music. For example, or something different, Latcho Drom, I loved I don’t know if you’ve seen that. It explores gypsy music from all over Europe and North Africa, but it does it all through the songs.

And it’s got the lyrics to some but it films the different nomadic groups and films their music, and it says so much in this beautifully different and creative way. Actually the guy who made it, I’m just having a mental blank, but he is a Romani Gypsy and musician and actor so he had direct sense of what needed to be brought out of that, and it sort of just explained, but on a sensory level, why that music exists and how much it’s an integral part of life and community without explaining anything, without didactically explaining anything. I love things like that.

Bill Frisell, A Portrait premiered at SXSW earlier this month. Screenings are expected in Australia later in the year. Keep an eye on the director’s official website for more details.

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Larry Heath

Founding Editor and Publisher of the AU review. Currently based in Toronto, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.

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