The Great Flood

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We’ve been looking forward to this next one ’round the old Sun-Ray for some time now. It’s definitely on my personal drop-everything-to-sit-down-and-watch list (I wish that list was longer but popcorn scooping and chit chat so often beckon) and I especially look forward to watching it with an audience. I hope it’s a big one. And I hope you’ll be part of it.

For a little background on what you’ll experience enjoy the interview below with filmmaker Bill Morrison who will join us for screenings of two works, his new feature THE GREAT FLOOD, preceded by short film THE FILM OF HER at 7:15PM Tomorrow, Saturday March 15.

I could blab about how excited I am by a narrative told only through documentary footage and how interested I am in hearing a Bill Frisell score but I a) obviously haven’t seen the new film (Tim has, he loved it) and b) Mr. Morrison did a bang-up job of answering some of the excellent questions presented to him by the folks over at the Folio Weekly so I’ll just turn this blog over to them.

Folio Weekly: What made you choose the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 for your documentary? What drew you to this specific event in history?

Bill Morrison: A number of things conspired. Firstly I had been looking at archival footage of floods for a multimedia project called “Shelter” that I did in 2005. I was struck by how much of the footage was shot in 1926 and 1927. After Hurricane Katrina hit and decimated New Orleans, there was increased interest in John M. Barry’s brilliant book on the ’27 Flood from 1998, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America”. I was at a dinner in Baton Rouge in 2006 when the book brought up in relationship to Katrina, and I realized that I had already seen a lot of footage from that flood from my work on “Shelter”. After reading Barry’s book, and I came to understand the implications the ’27 flood had on American culture – specifically the exodus of African Americans from the Delta to the northern US cities, and how that changed urban culture and popular music forever. It then occurred to me to approach Bill Frisell with the idea of doing a long form music-film project on the topic.

FW: From start to finish – concept to editing to release – how long of an undertaking was creating this film for you?

BM: Seven years. But I began and completed many other projects during that 7-year span.

FW: What resources did you use for collecting the footage? Did you face any challenges in finding what you needed, or was there ample footage from this time for you to choose from?

BM: I was aware that there quite a bit of footage on the ’27 Flood – as noted above, stumbling upon the footage was partly how I came across the subject in the first place. But I endeavored to cast as wide a net as possible, and for the first time in my career, I hired archival researchers – Judith Aley and Susan Hormuth – to help identify other sources. One of the big challenges was in securing original film material for all the shots, and then scanning them for the first time at HD resolution.

FW: In “The Great Flood,” some of the film you use is damaged and you embrace those organic imperfections in it. Why did you choose to embrace those imperfections instead of trying to repair the footage or find alternate, undamaged footage?

BM: This footage has existed since the flood. It is a living document of the flood, and also of the time that has elapsed since the flood. All of it shows the effects of time, and some shows degradation specific to nitrate stock, usually caused by humidity. Visually, I often find the decay when it occurs to be very beautiful, especially when paired with Bill Frisell’s music. The rhythm of the decay operates as a visual counterpoint to the rhythm of the image, and corresponds to different aspects of the music, the melody vs. the percussion for example.

FW: Along with the minimal amount of text, the chord-driven, sometimes moody soundtrack written by Frisell adds a whole new tone when paired with the footage. The NYT review of the documentary called the soundtrack “an artwork in its own right, one worth savoring as you would a fine recording.” As you began to conceptualize this project, did you have a clear idea of the backing sounds you were looking for?

BM: Yes this project was conceived for and with Bill Frisell, and I had a very clear idea of what type of Frisell music I wanted to hear.

FW: Were you “gunning” for Frisell in particular? Did you have any challenges in getting him on board or did he back the concept from the beginning?

BM: I wanted to do this project with Bill all along, and there were no challenges at all in securing him for it. The challenge was finding the right ”big” project for us to work on together. I first met Bill in the early 1990s in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard, when I was working as a dishwasher there. I had used his music on two short films, “The Film of Her”(1996) and “The Mesmerist” (2003), and we were looking to work together on a longer piece for which he would write all new material. Once I approached him with the idea of doing “The Great Flood” in 2006, he was onboard. He then brought in his producer and representation from Songline / Tone Field, and Phyllis Oyama became the producer for the film, raising the necessary funds to complete it.

FW: What was the music-writing process like between you and Frisell? Would you communicate a mood or tone you were looking for and you would collaborate on the writing or would he view the footage/concept and write independently?

BM: It was a really collaborative experience for me. I went on tour with Bill in the Spring of 2011, while he was developing the music for the film with his band, Ron Miles (trumpet), Tony Scher (bass) and Kenny Wollesen (vibes and percussion), playing a series of shows in the South – Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Missouri, and up to Iowa and Chicago. The tour was designed to tour the Mississippi River, but we did not predict that the River would be flooding that Spring to heights that had not been seen since 1927 – with the major difference being that the levees largely held this time. But we all saw what that looked and felt like to be in a community that is wondering whether it will be flooded in the next couple of days. Bill’s audio engineer Claudia Englehart recorded all the rehearsals, soundchecks and performances, and I was able to use those recordings as a rough draft of the emotional arc of the film. I edited film to that track, and Bill re-wrote from that track. Then we passed edits and recordings back and forth for the next two years of live performances with the film, culminating in the recording and edit represented in the final version of the film we have today. It was a long and organic collaborative process, and I think you can feel that in the film.

FW: For me at least, this minimal form of documentary is something I’ve never experienced before watching “The Great Flood.” What films or filmmakers inspired you to take on this style of documentary filmmaking?

BM: I think it is more effective if an audience member discovers your intention, rather than being told outright what it is. So I felt strongly with this project, and with my earlier doc “The Miners’ Hymns”, that the imagery could tell the story with minimal text. To answer your question about which filmmakers have inspired me, I wouldn’t say that it was always in this regard, but these are some of the filmmakers whose work I have admired and in some way internalized:
Craig Baldwin, Stan Brakhage, Peter Delpeut, Gustav Deutsch, Ron Fricke, Ernie Gehr, Werner Herzog, Ken Jacobs, Terrence Malick, Chris Marker, Vincent Monnikendam, Errol Morris, Nicolas Provost, Angela Ricci Lucchi and Yervant Gianikian, Jurgen Reble, Godfrey Reggio, Walter Ruttman, Phil Solomon, are some of the filmmakers who have inspired and continue to inspire me.

FW: What are you hopes for your documentary now that it is out of the editing room and into the world? What impact are you hoping it will have on those who view it?

BM: I think we are going to have increasingly extreme weather stories every season for the rest of our lives. The politics that you see at play in “The Great Flood” are endemic to these catastrophes. This film is startling by how clearly it still depicts our society, as if recovered from a lost ancient scroll. The flood also had an incredible impact on how this country developed – the damming of rivers everywhere under the guise of “flood control,” the spike in the Great Migration of African Americans to northern cities, the election of Herbert Hoover to President, and the switch of African Americans from the Republican to the Democratic party, to name but a few.

FW: And what’s next for you? Any new ideas or projects in the works?

BM: I just finished a piece about WWI, composed by Aleksandra Vrebalov for the Kronos Quartet, which will have its premiere on April 6 in Berkeley, CA. I am working on a new doc about a film collection that was discovered in 1978 after having been buried for 50 years in permafrost in a defunct subarctic swimming pool in the Yukon.