What movie was that...?

28 June 2012

OMFBC Presents: The Andrew Douglas Interview

Readers of OMFBC will find the name Andrew Douglas familiar (yeah, you talk about him all the time, BC), and film lovers at large should definitely be familiar with his stunning and surreal documentary, Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus. Andrew Douglas has a rare gift for taking the nebulous, dreamlike impression of a moment and coaxing it into a kind of tangible existence, a peek beneath the surface of things. The musical scenes he creates in Searching are like flashes of memory that, though we can never be certain of their verity, seem absolutely real. I never get tired of discussing this film with people, and the mixture of reactions to the film speaks to its ability to reach inside and affect something inside of you. Mr Douglas is currently very busy finishing his newest filmic work, uwantme2killhim?, which is set to debut later this year (so says IMDb), but he managed to find time to answer a few of my questions about the making of that wonderful documentary. I can hardly contain my excitement at such an honor, so without further ado, I give you the Andrew Douglas interview:

1.What is it about photography and film that you can't live without?
With photography, the play of light upon a surface – especially if that surface is a person or, failing that, a motorcycle, whatever – so it glows.
With film, the willing suspension of disbelief so you can enter a dream state with your eyes open.

2.Do you have a favorite film? Why is it your favorite?
Favourite film – just one? That’s a tough call! It has to be a random selection… very few films are perfect. There are appalling films you really enjoy. Then there are classic films you are somehow never in the mood to watch again. One film I can endlessly watch – and enjoy - is ‘My life as a dog’ – perfect blend of humour, pathos and metaphysics

3.Outside of the artists featured in the film (and Jim White’s album), what helped shape the fundamental structure of the film, at least in the early stages of creation?
The initial attraction was Jim White’s little story that he included in the CD case for his album “The mysterious tale of how I shouted out ‘WRONG-EYED JESUS”. This was such a fascinating blend of documentary and magical realism, all set in a matter-of-fact modern Southern Gothic environment.
That seemed such an interesting tone.
Then there were a couple of questions: we grew up listening to music that mostly had its origins in the American South – why did so much music and writing come from this place?
Being contrarians, we weren’t particularly interested in the obvious and well-trodden path of looking at the collision of black and white cultures or the historical/sociological/musicological context.
Instead, we turned to something Nick Cave said:
‘We have a church-shaped hole in our society that the church cannot fill’.
There was something missing in our own society, present in South, and it wasn’t just religion.
From that, we came up with the realization that maybe the most interesting route was to look at the way the church permeated and inspired the culture – the fire-breathing, unequivocal Southern church. Flan O’Connor described the American South as a ‘Christ-haunted landscape’, and herself as ‘no vague believer’.
Maybe, just maybe, it was the conviction that Hell is real, that Sin is everlasting, and that the Endtimes are imminent gave a certain… urgency to the life down there. Without that intensity, we probably wouldn’t have had Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, or hardly any Blues singers. And then, hardly any of the music we grew up – no rock, no pop, no reggae…
All because the stakes were so high if you played secular music…
That seemed an interesting thesis – we’d be the first to admit it’s full of holes, and hard to film.
So we set out to make a road movie that span through the elements of the southern imagination – the propensity for storytelling, the raw contact with nature, the roaring church, the wonderful oratory and passion of the preachers, the materially impoverished communities. A kind of map.
We made policy decisions to step past the black community, and the middle class, and the entire heritage industry elements, and just tell the story of the poor white people as this hadn’t really been told so much. In retrospect, these may have been a mistake, as some have complained.
But at the time we hadn’t found any black artists with the appropriate material, and we felt we had to stick to our narrow focus and not try to be completist. There was more than enough in that!
(In fact, RL Burnside and the Fat Possum stable would have worked, but we hadn’t heard them till after making the film)

4.As an artist, what is about the American South that so intrigues you?
Some of this has been answered above. ‘The South’ is a kind of mythic world, a metaphor for our essential natures, if that isn’t too grand an expression. More simply, it’s a rough, raw world.
As Harry Crews put it, it’s where man makes his last stand, stripped of all the junk.
‘The South’ is an internalized world. Like when rappers sing about ‘the Ghetto’, and you go to where they’re referring and see nice gardens, Tescos etc and not Serpico, the Bronx in the 70’s. But talk to the rappers, and their experiences of their own world are in that internalized place, and it’s real.
On a more surface level, the South is a really funky place, rich in history that is very obvious, and with a strong identity and character that can be captured on film rather beautifully. You can see the mythic world so easily.

5.For me, Sergio Leone crafted some of the finest Westerns in film (largely considered a quintessentially American genre), and I always felt that it was because of his vantage point as an outsider, a non American looking in with new eyes. Do you feel that as an outsider, you are better equipped to discover truths about the South?
It certainly gave us easier access into people’s lives – no way could we be considered Revenue agents or cops! Some of the places we visited would normally shun such people (at best) but they welcomed the genuine interest of obvious outsiders such as ourselves, probably because we were genuinely interested in hearing their stories – and if there’s one thing people in the South love, it’s telling stories. That’s really what the film’s about. And it’s often easier to tell a story to a sympathetic stranger.
Serge Leone was a great romantic, and that could also be said of us. We never claimed to be making a definitive portrait of the South, just a tiny bit that interested us. As for ‘truths about the South’ – a lot of mixed opinions from southerners that have seen the film. Some are overjoyed because they see themselves and know that world we’ve shown with as much affection and honesty as we could: others are outraged because not only have we omitted the black communities, but also all the golfers, microbiologists, accountants and civic initiatives that make up ‘The South’.
So we found and filmed a little pocket of something that was real, but would hesitate to call it ‘the truth’.

6.How did individual scenes or sequences form? For instance, the Handsome Family floating house scene: How did it come to be that The Handsome Family played there and not David Eugene Edwards, for example? Do images like this flash in your mind?
We had a detailed script that we worked from. All the artists and songs had been specifically chosen beforehand as part of the narrative. The film was a combination of road movie, opera and documentary.
The Handsome Family, for example, sang ‘Tiny Hands’, a song about the inscrutable mystery of the natural world, so the strange floating hut was perfect for that. David Eugene Edwards had a song about facing death, so it was appropriate to put him in the ghostly silver birch woods. And so on.
We’d traveled round beforehand, finding the locations and securing many of the contributors. We also improvised, finding people that turned up unexpectedly. Sometimes we were forced to – we had one scene where the great Johnny Dowd was singing a song on a street corner about being bored (which didn’t make the cut) and we were going to follow this by asking people on the street what they did for fun. NO people on the street that day – at all!
In a panic, we asked the helpful local mayor where we could find people to ask what they did for fun. He said, he knew where there would always be people and we could ask them what they’d done ‘for fun’ – in the local jail.
That was a sublime gift of fortune, one we could never have planned or expected.

7.Did you have a favorite Harry Crews story that didn’t make it into the film?
Well, Harry was on a lot of medications that day, chemo, and so he was somewhat erratic. Pure gold when he was focused.
We asked him to tell us a story based upon one of his short stories, about Charles Whitman climbing the tower with his sniper’s assault rifle, preparing to shoot everybody. In Harry’s fine story, he admits he can identify with that, as we have all things in our natures. This story didn’t work out – we had him in the Jesus Is Lord Catfish Diner – and all we could salvage was his quote about Goethe and original sin.
But we took him down the dirt path, and he was magic, one of the highlights of the film.

8.What about a favorite Johnny Dowd story?
Like William Boroughs, John could be described as one of the great lie-down comedians. He has such a dry, deadpan wit.
He had one typically bonkers song about an angry Jesus, nailed up on the cross, noticing somebody stealing his hammer and nails. As we were preparing to film this, a massive thunder and lightning storm burst. How perfect for a song about the Crucifixion!
Rubbing our hands with glee, we told Johnny we were taking him to a gas station, plugging him in outside by the pumps, whilst the thunder and lightning raged around him.
Johnny was quiet for a moment, then muttered  
“Gas…electricity…lightning…I guess this’ll be the explosive end to the film?’
Trouper that he is, John just gulped and nodded assent.
Fortunately for him – and us – the crew truck got lost and when we got to the gas station the lightning had subsided.

9.Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus is a film that destroys what it means to be a documentary, yet it’s as quintessential a documentary as I have ever watched, in that it both chronicles a culture and documents a region. How do most people you’ve encountered describe this film?
As mentioned before, some say it’s bullshit on account of there being no golfers or people with a high tooth count. Others say they recognize the world shown because they live in it.
But fortunately, most people say they see the affection and respect that the film was made with.
We never set out to make a documentary – we couldn’t if we tried! It’s a film that hovers in that murky place between the reported and the speculative. It’s all real people and real places, being themselves in a structured context, assembled to illustrate an abstract idea.
And, hopefully, be entertaining along the way.

10.Has the film been received differently by American and non American audiences? How so?
American audiences are obviously more concerned with the accuracy of the way we depicted ‘The South’, at least in the way it meets their own perceptions. Some are bothered by the omissions.
European audiences tend to go with it on a more metaphorical basis

11.Is the feature film project with Jim White still in the works?
Not the original idea, but Jim is so fascinating and original we have to do something else with him. Various ideas have been kicked around, so something has to happen!

PS For those of you who have not yet experienced this wonderful and provoking film, I hope this interview has piqued your interest.

2 comments:

  1. You've done it again!

    You know "road movie" and "Southern Gothic" tick a lot of boxes with me, so it's only a matter of time before I see this one.

    Take it easy my friend!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Paul, always a pleasure... But yes, this film is definitely worth viewing. One of my favorites, to be sure.

    ReplyDelete

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