Make no mistake, filmmaker Bill Morrison is not a man trapped in the past. Though he deals in celluloid from another time, his work bridges the gap between then and now. Dawson City: Frozen Time, Morrison’s critically-acclaimed documentary, tells the story of a treasure trove of lost silent cinema discovered in Dawson City, Canada under a swimming pool. From these slivers of nitrate film comes something grand. Aided by a remarkable score from Alex Somers of Sigur Rós, Morrison connects the history of film with the history of life in North America. Political movements, sports scandals, heinous fires (some caused by the flammable celluloid itself), and countless other moments captured in time. It appeared on multiple Top 10 of 2017 lists for us here at The Film Stage, sitting atop my own. Compelled to have a conversation with Morrison, the filmmaker was kind enough to chat with us for a good long while on his artistic beginnings, creative motivations and making “real” movies.
The Film Stage: How do you find yourself doing what you’re doing? Recovering and researching film, then making your own work from these discoveries.
Bill Morrison: Yeah, how did we get here, right? I guess I went down my own rabbit hole, you know? It started with a fascination with how early cinema could… we have early cinema. You can’t say we have early literature, or early painting. From that, I became interested in first how is primitive man depicted in primitive cinema, and the idea is that we’ve grown with cinema, we’ve changed with cinema, and cinema has changed us. The way we talk, and the way we dream, and even tell stories and think. What does the modern cinema man look like versus the primitive cinema man? I guess that got me into trying to collect as much, and I started working with a theater company relatively early… building out cinema backdrops for theater. Which I had very loose guidelines, I could pretty much do whatever I wanted, which often comes hand-in-hand with no budget, you know? It’s like you can do whatever you want, we’re just not going to pay you for it, but it did have a structure, a deadline, a context, a community of people to go out with for beers after the opening of shows. It was a devoted amount of people. It was good especially coming out of art school to jump in with a community and get my stuff out there, and very quickly it happened that this theater group that I was working with, Ridge, was working with a composer who fancied himself a protégé of Philip Glass, and I very quickly met Phil, and then [became familiar] with the entire New York downtown music scene within a matter of years.
When was this?
I was doing my early stuff with Ridge [Theater] in 1990…I was looking for found footage and public domain footage for the theatrical pieces, and so I started grabbing whatever was cheap and free, and rights-free.
Where were you going for the footage?
For primitive cinema, I went to the Library of Congress. That stuff is so cheap to get 16-millimeter prints made that it was easier to just look at a title and hope that it was cool and order it rather than try to go through any kind of a pre-screener thing.
Back then it was even more of a process to research I imagine, right?
You’d have the brown book with the Kemp Niver book, and then you’d fax the number and send a money order or something to Washington D.C., and some six weeks later a stack of prints, some with this god-awful footage, stuff that nobody had looked at.
I was interested that it had gone through this intermediary stage. That it had been shot God knows how long ago, and then transferred to paper, and then sat in a vault in the Library of Congress where it was actually exposed to the elements.
There probably wasn’t proper storage happening…
No, certainly not. If it was paper [storage], but I guess rats were in there, and it was rain and stuff. Eventually, poorly transferred to 16mm frame by frame in the mid-century, and this is what we were looking at however. At that point, I think there was no love lost between the technician doing that job, though I think some of it they’re tough original source material to work with, but I think to their credit Library of Congress is trying to go through and scan the stuff. But that was a real crapshoot back then, and sometimes we got crazy stuff, and sometimes we got terrible stuff.
You found some gems, I bet, too.
We found some gems too. I worked with that with Ridge for a few years, and around that time Lyrical Nitrate [by Peter Delpeut] came out, I was like, ‘Wow, so nitrate’s the gem, it’s going to keep moving and changing on its own.’ I didn’t get my hands on it probably for another seven or eight years, but eventually I made The Film of Her, which was about the paper print collection, and kind of a predecessor to Dawson City in terms of just being a kind of a proof of theory that you could use an ancient collection to tell its own story.
It does feel like Dawson City is what you’ve been working towards in a way, some kind of culmination.
It contained a lot of ideas that I was interested in all along, and I certainly always thought I was going to make a Dawson City movie. I didn’t know it would take me this long to make it, but I’m glad it did because I’ve made a lot of movies since , and the technology has caught up so there’s such a thing as a 4K scanner, and I can see all of these incredible films.
Music is so essential in all of your films. I read somewhere that you will sometimes let the composers make the music and then you’ll edit to what they do?
It’s true, but I think what gets overlooked is the original idea is mine. I’m saying [to the composer] to go off and write music about X, I’m going to go off and make a film about X, and I’m not going to tell you how to write music because you’re a genius, and I want you to do it completely on your own terms, but this is roughly the amount of time we need, and I’m going to go off and make the film I’m going to make, and you’re not going to say anything about that. Then at the end, when your music is organically fixed, then I feel like I have a more malleable medium to work with, and I can cut to the beat. Sometimes I feel it to be lost when people say dismissively that I cut to music, because in fact the original idea is mine, and that’s what’s driving the project, so I am the director. With all these projects the seed idea, the title, all of it–well, not always the title because sometimes the title’s theirs–but the seed idea and the meaning I feel like at least the literal narrative meaning that people are going to take out of it is derived from the film, whereas the emotional meaning could be derived from either.
It’s interesting after going back and watching everything and then re-watching Dawson City, the tone of the film feels so unique to the rest of your work. As much as it feels like a culmination and something you’re driving at, it feels meditative almost.
I think Alex and Jonsi, who was originally part of the project, were fans of Decasia and decayed film. That’s what they knew, and they were hoping I was making another Decasia basically. I said there will be decayed footage in this, however that’s not the point. I don’t think they ever really believed me until they saw a rough cut. Very early on, and this was just pure coincidence because I had been in touch with their management, there had been some talk about bringing Decasia out on tour with Sigur Ros like in 2013. I think what they had hoped was that they could bring in another electronic artist who would re-score Decasia as a pre-show thing. The deal I have with [Decasia composer] Michael Gordon is that people can’t do that. When I put my foot down, they were like okay, then maybe we’ll show it before the live act that would have re-scored it, and then have the concert. I was like that’s probably not going to happen, but let’s go down that road together and sure enough it didn’t happen. As with things that don’t happen, you say amicably maybe something else is out there.
What they probably didn’t count on is that I was going to come back and say how about this. Their management said maybe not for the whole band, but Jonsi and Alex are looking for something. As it happened, Sigur Rós was on tour, and they did a stop at the Ottawa Senators’ hockey rink while I was in Ottawa researching Dawson City, maybe during the first days. I described to them what I saw, and maybe a month later they came over to my place [in New York City] and they looked at it. Now two years went by before I had a rough cut, but they in a very short time turned around 20, 25 minutes of this beautiful spec music, really inspirational and guiding. It changed how I thought of the mood and pacing of the film in a certain way. I cut to that and repeated it, and used their 2009 record Rice Boy Sleeps as scratch track… I think if you put Rice Boy Sleeps on [with Dawson City] you might see something interesting. Ultimately Jonsi had gone off on tour again by the time 2016 rolled around, and Alex was good to go.
Oh, okay, so then Alex just kind of owned it.
So this is very specific, but of all of your films that I’ve been catching up with in preparation for this interview, the one that I’ve loved the most is The Mesmerist. It’s short, fifteen minutes or so, and is fascinating on its own, and then after I watched it I went back and I watched The Bells [the original film from which The Mesmerist is based].
It’s in parts on YouTube.
You can find it, yeah. So I did try to watch some of it, and I know that Light Is Calling also comes from a scene from The Bells, and what I can’t help always thinking about when I watch your films is this perspective that’s so interesting where I’m watching The Mesmerist and I love it because I’m watching a movie that feels new to me because it is, and it’s with [Lionel] Barrymore, and [Boris] Karloff. I’m watching it, and it is its own new thing, but then I think that it’s part of this other movie that’s barely available. And then you read what that movie [The Bells] is and you try to watch it, and you learn that [the character of] the mesmerist (played by Karloff) is the climax, but in your movie, it’s the wraparound story, it’s the framework. It makes the whole narrative different, and informs everything…which brings me back to Dawson City and why it feels like a time machine, but also so current. You’re watching the young actress dance at the end of [Dawson City], and it feels so fresh.
She’s actually dancing in support of the suffragist movement, so she’s dancing in support of women’s rights, which it could be incredibly timely. It’s the “Me Too” moment, you know?
It’s so amazing. With The Mesmerist, your film feels like such a stark introspective guilt-ridden thing with Barrymore’s character. I feel like The Bells, from what I’ve seen of it, it’s more traditional…
Ultimately, [The Bells] has a happy ending. Despite the fact that [Barrymore’s character] killed a Jewish guy, his house’s problems are solved in the end. Even if he’s wracked with guilt, the daughter is married off happily, the couple that you see in Light is Calling, and then the oppressive landlord’s out of the picture. He’s set everything right through this murder, which is wrong.
It’s so wrong.
It’s so wrong, right? And there’s something very dark about that because he also drags this Jewish corpse into an incinerator in 1928.
Unbelievable. That movie really just hit me watching it. And is that something that you just find while researching? The Bells I mean?
Yeah, absolutely. The Mesmerist and Light is Calling came out of this same brilliant print from the Library of Congress.
I have to assume there’s a creative process in when to use the distressed film?
In that case, I realized that I could tell the story and that the decay lined up kind of beautifully. The one thing that was a hallucination in the movie, and that being where he’s hypnotized and there’s a flashback, that was all pristine. The dream that he reenacts, that the mesmerist makes him reenact, is actually the clean pristine part, and everything else is these layers of… That was just happenstance, but it also informed how I could construct a narrative out of it, out of the part that really interested me. I wasn’t interested in the rest. I thought that was Light is Calling scene was a minute and forty seconds of just bliss, and I stretched that out almost frame for frame the same, and it got massaged a little to sync with Michael Gordon’s score, but with The Mesmerist I let the decay and the subject matter determine the edit.
What’s fascinating is that so much of what you do is digging into this old celluloid and finding new narratives, so it must be interesting for you now. Obviously Dawson City‘s gotten a decent amount of attention and acclaim which is great, but I’m sure a lot of people are watching it on FilmStruck and maybe iTunes. As the world is going down this road of watching stuff on a laptop more than going to the theater, is there a conflict for you there?
I wish people were buying bigger TVs, I guess. There’s no way to stop it. You see what’s remarkable is that people are watching two to three movies a day now. Especially this time of year, everybody is trying to catch up, that’s our culture, and I don’t mean to sound like… because I’m obviously in the film culture in Manhattan, and it’s something of a bubble, but there are thousands of people who are much more film literate every year because of the incredible access. Something like FilmStruck where you can watch these great directors on your laptop in very high quality. Now I don’t know what it is about me, maybe it’s my age, but I still get much better experience in the theater. I saw four films in the theater this weekend.
That’s probably an optimistic way to look at things. I mean obviously you’re saying for you you’re going to try to see as many movies as you can in the theater, but it’s hard not to appreciate things like FilmStruck.
I just think it’s educating people…the uptick of awareness [for Dawson City] once it hit FilmStruck was noticeable. If you just gauge Twitter mentions and stuff like that, when its theatrical run ended, it was certainly the most successful theatrical film I’ve ever had, but six weeks in L.A., six weeks in New York, and then did the regular circuit, a week here, a date there, you know, and then it was going to be done, but it had this second life in December when it hit FilmStruck where people were saying they never heard of it, you know what I’m saying? Or it started to show up on top ten lists… what the fuck is this, you know? So there was a way to see it, so I wouldn’t want to pit one against the other because I think together they’re remarkable, but not everybody is privileged to live in New York, or even if you live in San Francisco or L.A., you’re not going to get in your car and drive 45 minutes. You’re going to go to the thing that’s at your local theater, or you’re going to watch it on TV.
Right. That point is good, access is so important.
It’s extraordinary, man, and it allows young people to get a sense of what film history is. You know, it’s like instead of it’s just the last things you saw at the mall the last three years, it goes back.
If I were still in film school Dawson City would have blown me away, just that connective tissue of it all. When we’re talking about the film being a culmination of your work and all this, it is also that historical connection where I’m literally learning about Dawson City the place, these films that were discovered, and also the connection the the gold rush in the Klondike and this whole world I never really knew about.
Yeah, that was one thing about Dawson City is that I felt like as the films resurfaced over time it was like the nitrate poking its way through the ice. It’s like that story would come out and then would be forgotten. And I thought it was remarkable that in that one newspaper account about when the kids are finding the film after the thing’s burnt down, they say in the distant past this was a depository for ancient film, when in fact it was only eight years earlier! But somehow people had already forgotten. Anyway, the fact that they were put into a swimming pool and forgotten about, but there was some guy in town who said oh, yeah, I always knew they were down there. You know, there was at the end Kathy’s saying, you know, there’s an old timer, you know …
And even in the beginning, the fact that those two…
Michael and Kathy.
They met, that’s how they met [discovering the film].
It ultimately becomes a romance, yeah. The romance of celluloid… and then even further I feel like everyone forgot the story of the film find, too. Like when I was coming up, when I was in art school, that was still a story that was told–that film geeks told each other–and it was like oh, did you hear the one about the swimming pool in Alaska, or whatever, in the Yukon?
That was a story that was told then.
And in fact I was at a Library of Congress doing some research and CNN came down to do a whatever segment on film preservation, and one of the guys who’d been there for a long time, he’s probably near retirement, he said oh, yeah, and then there was one time when they were found film under a bowling alley in Alaska, and I was like stop. It’s not in Alaska, it’s in Canada, and it’s not a bowling alley, it’s a swimming pool. You know, so you could see how it was starting to jump the rails, you know?
That is funny.
I imagine at one point he knew the right story, but you know people forget, so I feel like once again this story has resurfaced with my film, and …
Well, and hopefully …
Yeah, and now there is a document that sets the record straight in some ways.
There’s been a progression of your work, and I would hope you feel like, well people know about Dawson City, and are watching other things, do you want to move into a world of you’re going to write a thing that’s not found, but a completely new movie?
Work with actors, is that what you mean?
I’m just curious about where you are. Do you feel this need to try and jump into the world of working with actors and what not?
I’ll tell you what, to address that, what’s fascinating to me about Dawson City is that it is a film that advances itself, that it’s a film that tells its own story, and necessitates its own existence, and that’s the kind of film that I find really compelling. Like The Player, what a brilliant movie, and that becomes a movie about the making of that movie…I mean it’s sometimes frustrating to hear people think that Dawson City is only interesting to history geeks or film geeks, because I think it’s telling a much bigger story, and that it’s formally working on a very, for me, a very satisfying level. That’s the type of project that I would consider working with actors if it could in some way necessitate the telling of its own story, that it’d have to have this kind of interlocking quality to it that somehow structurally that formed in the content of… I wouldn’t just go out saying now I’m going to make a movie with actors because it’s time or whatever. It’d have to be still my movie, and it would have to for whoever saw it have to feel like if they saw 150 other movies, it didn’t look like that, that one didn’t look like it.
In fact, it’s not that I’m going at it from that angle, it’s that I’m not very good at working with people, craft services, or hiring the guy to drive the thing. I like to be alone with my things, tapes in a box, and I can stay up late by myself, and maybe stay up two days if I have to, and I can get myself into a thing where it’s just me and the film. That’s hard to do when you’re working collaboratively. Film is a largely collaborative thing, and from the writer to the director to the producer or whoever is casting it, or to the actor, it changes from your vision incrementally and sometimes drastically if there’s, God forbid, a studio involved. I come out of painting and making stuff by myself, and that’s how I got into this, so it would have to be, if I did do something with that, it would be a micro crew and micro-budget, and it would have to have some sort of form where the snake was eating the tail. I feel Dawson does that, I feel Decasia does that. I feel these are circular stories, and those interest me. It’d have to be some sort of tessellation. But I mean somebody asks me that question every time I come out: when are you going to start making …
…a real movie.
[Laughs] Yeah, right, that’s what my dad said. ‘When are you going to make a real movie?’ It’s just I ghetto-ize myself by using old footage, you know, because everyone says that’s a specialty, that’s a niche market thing, and they’re unable to see past the fact that I’m talking about bigger and in some ways contemporary issues. Like this is where we come from, this is who we are… I feel like we’re getting a lot of classic footage. [We’ve got] the woman dancing [in Dawson City] that’s going to be at the end, and then there’s this whole section of doors opening that’s going to go here, and it’s not clear exactly what part of the story that’s going to tell. But that’s going to be an important transition, and then there’s something you’re going to have to leave blank here because we don’t know how we’re going to tell the story about how the [Eric] Hegg photographs were discovered yet. And that actually was a whole freaky thing where I called up Cathy and was like, ‘Do you know who found those things,’ and she said, ‘I don’t, but I’ll ask someone,’ and the first person she called said, ‘Yeah, I found those.’
So I really felt like it was putting together a jigsaw puzzle that came together pretty quickly. I mean some people might say two years is a long time to make a movie, but for this movie and considering that I was working entirely by myself with the exception of Alex doing the music at the end, not too bad. I’d be happy if I could put out another movie in two years.