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Bill Morrison on ‘Dawson City: Frozen Time,’ Primitive Cinema, and the Theatrical Experience

Written by on January 30, 2018 

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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?bill-morrison

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.

Fascinating.

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 [1996], 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.

Yeah.

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.

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