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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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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 …

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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.

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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.

Dawson City: Frozen Time is now on Blu-ray via Kino Lorber and it also streaming on FilmStruck, along with more of Bill Morrison’s films.

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