The significance of ‘Bill Frisell, a portrait‘ cannot be overstated. The documentary has already acquired a well-deserved status as one of the best of its kind, offering the viewers a rare privilege: to watch one of the most influential artists of our time off stage, behind the scenes, opening up, explaining who he is and how he does what he does. A private person, Bill Frisell has never been more accessible – which makes the film a candid look into genius. And that look comes from the eyes of Emma Franz. The singer-turned-filmmaker approached the subject with admiration, love, genuine interest, shedding light to many of the guitarists different sides. Here’s her account of how it all came together.
How did ‘Bill Frisell, a portrait’come to be?
The spark was Bill’s music. I had heard him for years on records and live in several different contexts. I wanted to understand better what drew me to his music, and moreover, what allows his music to defy categorisation and resonate with such a broad range of people of different backgrounds and tastes. It was sparked specifically by hearing him one time in Austin and watching the mesmerised faces in the crowd. It was a challenge I set myself to see if I could try to elucidate, through the filmmaking process and finished piece, and in however small a way, some of the less surface elements that made that happen in whatever context, room or crowd he performs to.
How did you work on it?
I started by asking Bill whether he would be interested in doing a film together. Fortunately, he said had liked my sensibility in Intangible Asset Number 82 and was willing to put his trust in me. He is normally a very private person.
Why Frisell? What did you find intriguing about him?
Many things. For example, how someone so hesitant (for want of a much better word) in regular interactions, could be so free and collaborative and giving in a musical context. Of course, many people play music in part because they can feel more comfortable and express more in that context, but Bill was a great example because of how accomplished he is and the incredible amount of respect he has garnered. I get tired of seeing films about loud, arrogant figures who feel the need to be up front, in front, or affronting; even the way Bill arranges the band on stage says so much about his attitude, how its about the music, how he tries to affect the music from the inside out.
What did you learn about him, that you wouldn’t have imagined?
That’s actually quite difficult to say in hindsight, because I guess it’s been such a long, slow process, but I don’t think there were any shocks or big surprises. It was more about nuance, and that’s what I try to bring out in the film.
What did you learn about yourself, in the process?
So much, as I do on every film project. The process has helped me understand the ways in which my own (far more modest) music practice and passion for music has motivated and informed my work in non-fiction film. I think it has helped me articulate, in a new book I am writing, why my approach to non-fiction film is not to remember what was, but in a hope of initiating new ways to thought and action in myself and perhaps the viewer. A lot of it is also quite personal and has to do with external things to the content of the film, dealing with various people and attitudes in the production process, etc. Even in the releasing of the film, its an ongoing learning process.
What was the greatest challenge that you’ve had to face?
The greatest challenge for me always is facing and learning how to handle chauvinistic attitudes, which are unfortunately rife in both the music and film industries and scenes.
What has been the most rewarding?
The most rewarding aspect is when I get responses that let me know I’ve put something out into the world that – at least for some people – is meaningful or inspires them.
“Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. Discuss.
Let me start with a quote Bill from the film on this one, as I agree entirely: Whatever it is music, painting, architecture, cinema, and so on – every time one tries to “pin it down with words or descriptions, it limits what the thing actually is, because thats not what it is and we wouldnt do it if we could just talk about it and it would say everything we needed to know”. However, there are things to be garnered and gained from talking about music, even though we can never fully ‘describe’ what it is or how it comes to be. Music can be abstract, elusive, ethereal, intangible (hence the metaphor I used in the title of my last film!). Dancing might articulate, utilise or enhance an architectural space in a meaningful way. Words can be utilised in various art forms and help us access conceptual ideas or deliberately provide more literal meaning, they can be juxtaposed with actions to create a dissonance that makes us contemplate something differently, and so on, but we can only say so much by talking about an art form. So much of art is about lived experience and personal history and interaction with an art form, and there are so many elements about listening to or practicing music that impact on different registers. But as I alluded to earlier, I think different art forms can help us garner new ways to thought about other art forms on a sensory level, and that’s why I try to make cinema and dislike the word ‘documentary’. I think merely documenting or explaining an art form can only achieve so much, you have to try to contribute something new
Why is it important to be able to observe artists and see how they work and create?
No one lives in a vacuum. We all need to learn from, be inspired by, respond to and interact with others. Also, I guess if I have any sort of agenda in my films, it’s to encourage people to be involved with the arts and to try to contribute to any discourse that acknowledges the importance of the arts for learning about oneself and those around us. The arts can create sense of community, be a bridge between cultures, foster mutual understanding, elucidate issues, move people, or just be incredibly fun and fulfilling. I find the current public denigration of artists and the arts, the lack of support, the expectation of people to access it for free, etc. very destructive and damaging for our society. I think gaining insight into artists, their motivations, approach, the rewards, and so on, can be a positive counterweight to the current level of… dare I say ignorance?
Who is this film addressed to? Do you have an ideal viewer in mind?
I don’t address my films to anyone as such; I’ve just tried to be as honest and good as I can in what I have created out of my experiences with Bill and his music, the ideas and themes I wanted to explore, and the access, footage and rights I managed to obtain. My ideal viewer is someone who watches with an open mind, pays attention to detail, and watches in one sitting from start to end to really connect the dots. I’m just laughing to myself because that”s a lot of conditions, but I guess I’m talking about an ideal situation, as you asked!
What is your main aspiration?
To keep learning about myself and the world around me, to get better at what I do, and manage to survive doing it. To be able to play music again more regularly.
Do you miss your singing days?
So much. When I started making films I thought Id be able to juggle both. Filmmaking involves such extreme hours, it can be difficult to keep up another practice. I still hope to find equilibrium somehow, and I hope it’s soon. I’m working towards that goal. I don’t quite feel like myself when I don’t play music. I miss the physical discipline and the interaction, the sociability, spontaneity and just the pure enjoyment of it all!
Bill Frisell: A Portrait will be screened at ACMI on Sunday 4 June, as part of the Melbourne International Jazz Festival.