Bill Morrison Interview: “The Water Came Down & the People Came Up”

by Chris Vitiello on November 15, 2011

Bill Morrison


Filmmaker Bill Morrison, of Decasia fame, spent a few days in residence at Duke Performances around the Southeastern premiere of The Great Flood, his collaboration with musician Bill Frisell. I met Morrison for an interview before the filmmaker held a public conversation with Duke music students, where he would eloquently sum up The Great Flood: “The water came down and the people came up.” Read on to learn a ton of behind-the-scenes stuff about the creation of, and ideas behind, the project, as well as Morrison’s thoughts on the art of decay.

The Thread: What is touring The Great Flood like, logistically?

Bill Morrison: The performance on Saturday at Reynolds Theater was the first concert where I didn’t accompany them. That was the fourth-ever screening and the first time I thought I could send it off with the band without me. We did it in September at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois, and Bill was seeing it with the film for the first time, and I was hearing it with some of the music for the first time.

The 13 chapters of The Great Flood are loaded into a laptop as separate files. So as the band comes to the conclusion of each chapter, I advance the film to the next one. There has to be somebody who does that. It’s not a difficult job but you have to be familiar with the piece. Up until now, I’ve also been basically still editing. I’ve added a new piece. While we were at Dartmouth, I split one piece into two, so there was a little bit of finessing. As of the Dartmouth show, the film’s pretty much locked with the music. Bill’s really pleased with the sound quality and with their performance at Duke on Saturday. We recorded that show, so in all likelihood we’ll use that recording to make a master film. Until they go into the studio, anyway.

So the musicians are set up in a semicircle with their backs to the big screen, and they’re looking at the film on monitors?

Yeah, and they’re also still reading the music. I imagine that as the tour progresses, and they get more familiar with the music and how it integrates into the film, they won’t be reading music anymore. They’ll be able to respond more to just the film. It’ll be an exciting evolution for the piece, I think.

When you’re collaborating with a composer, do you ever have an emotional disconnect between their music and a certain sequence of your film? Does it ever jar you?

Bill Frisell (photo: Ralph Gibson)

Well, that’s not how I work with musicians. Generally what I’m doing is cutting to their music. I’ve always loved Bill’s music. It’s the kind of music I listen to when left to my own devices. I was always sure that the music he’d write for this would correspond pretty well. There was one type of tune—and Bill was really instrumental pointing this out, that you can’t just have all poignant, lyrical music—there has to be something that sort of cuts the other way when you’re forming a set. So there were pieces that he was very insistent that we include. And I adapted certain material for that.

The Sears catalog piece is different from any other piece. The idea was to go with that type of music because it was lively, upbeat, and, I don’t want to say comical, but there were overtones of Thelonious Monk, who’s been a big influence on Bill. And it wouldn’t have gone with this slow, sweeping flood imagery. So I wouldn’t say it was jarring, but I understood that there were going to be different types of music that were going to require different types of imagery or treatment.

Same with my collaboration with Dave Douglas on The Spark of Being, which is the film I’m going out to Los Angeles to show at the AFI Film Festival. He’s a trumpet player, he plays jazz. And, you know, I had to be real clear that I can’t play catch-up if you’re going to play hard bop. That’s going to be really tough editing for me.

But there were a couple pieces where they really go for it, so in those cases the decay or the distress of the imagery is the thing that corresponds with the percussion. And I think that happened with Kenny Wollesen’s playing in The Great Flood too. The decay, in a way, goes with the more percussive and staccato elements of the music, and the imagery forms a different layer that goes with the melody.

That’s an interesting distinction. Visually, you have these two layers. You’re looking at, in some cases, the decay, and in other cases at the imagery. At last night’s Decasia screening, you said something interesting about the people in the image being unaware of this activity of decay overtop of them…

…And also our activity as audience members; we’re constantly searching for a recognizable image through the decay. So that sets up some kind of weird relationship between us and the image because it’s constantly being interrupted, yet we keep looking past it. The decay is interference but it has some kind of trancelike or hypnotic quality to it. You’re fixing your gaze past it, in a way.


There are a couple of different ways of looking at it. It does correspond to different parts of the same music, but it also talks about two different qualities of the same film. The film is, in the end, a long strip of material. It’s just a single continuum. And what we see as cinema, what stays steady in the frame, is actually repeated frames. You see around six to eight images per second and you see it as motion. But it’s ironic when you look at how film’s played out, because what we see as a steady image on the screen is all these different images. And what we see as distress or animated—changing from frame to frame—is actually just the material that it’s printed on, with a streak in it.

For me, the way Decasia was constructed, I think the long material is the life breath; that’s a human life. And all the images that are printed on it are the days of our lives or the dreams or stories that we tell. But the thing that continues is this long thing that’s taken up on either end.

There’s the linear layer—temporal experience. Time is inexorably straight and continuous. And then there’s the circular decay, which is on the reel, which is why you see that pulsing pace to it. It has a different pattern and animate quality, too.

Yeah, if it happened on the outer part of a reel it would be a longer pulse, and on a shorter reel it’d be a quicker pulse. That’s an interesting point too. To an archivist, it’s a cancer. It’s entered the reel and it’s threatening to take over the whole thing. So you excise it to save what you can.

Have you become an expert on the many kinds of stress that films take?

Oh no, I wouldn’t say an expert. There’s a whole school of film preservation that graduate students spend three or four years in to become experts. I have my own pocket reference terms for different types of decay as they appear visually to me, to give them handles. There’s swatches and bubbles, and Matisse “Jazz” shapes.

Oh yeah, the Matisse cut-outs.

Yeah. I cut Decasia ten years ago, so it was an editing organizational thing. You know, it’s incredible to still be talking about this film so many years later.

Well, it’s a really significant film for a lot of people. And not just filmgoers. It’s a substantial artifact of the early twenty-first century for a lot of people. Sometimes artifacts jump their creators.

Dave Douglas (photo: Siebe van Ineveld)

Yeah, it’s weird. They certainly do jump their creators. One of the last films I made, before The Great Flood, was a Frankenstein piece [with Dave Douglas] made with found footage, and it was sort of about that too. That this was going to go on and have its life without me.

I was reading a Joseph Cornell biography where Cornell wandered around New York, coming up with found footage and working on Rose Hobart. It mentioned that, in the early days of film, there was little thought, if any, to preserve it. “We’ll shoot something, we’ll show it for entertainment purposes, and then we’ll discard it.” When did that change, historically? And why?

Cinema had a long time before it was accepted as an art form. It took a serious back seat in high culture to painting, sculpture, opera…you know, the “higher arts.” I’m not sure when the switch flipped, but cinema came out of vaudeville, out of the sort of bawdy, low-life, sensationalist entertainment, and still lives primarily there.

One thing that film has given us is an event that can happen without people there. Because it still has the event quality of a concert or one of these vaudeville shows or a play. People congregate and that’s part of the experience. It’s different when you go to a theater than when you watch it at home, even if you have a nice TV set. It’s a different social experience. That’s something film has that painting and sculpture don’t. It’s not an object that can be sold; it’s an event. Part of the attraction for me in working with modern, live musicians and composers is repositioning the film as a one-time event. You’ve gotta see it with these guys playing. Yes, maybe you can see it later on a DVD. But the event is a sort of spectacle. I like that quality about cinema.

As The Great Flood tours, and now that the film and music have settled down, how does the event change for you?

Arkansas City in 1927

Well, I really like being with these guys. So I’m probably going to go out there and see it as much as I can. And also I think that, while Decasia sometimes begs some explanation when it’s shown—though I’m okay letting people ascribe reactions to it now, whether or not I’m there to explain it—with The Great Flood there is some historical context, so I can see my role as a speaker as being a part of the show in a way that it wouldn’t necessarily be with a film like Decasia.

Earlier this year, you guys were all traveling together and you went up the Mississippi, where there was flooding at the time. What was that experience like for all of you?

That was a really incredible coincidence. Bill had booked that tour not with the film  in mind, but just to go out and test new material. During the sound check and the gigs, they would basically be developing these pieces. That’s how they work. Bill has the phrases that he writes on pieces of paper, and when he gets in the room with the guys, they work on it and he collages them together and they become these incredible pieces with changes. Which was a really fascinating process for me to watch, by the way.

But it also gave me a chance to listen to what they were playing and suggest how I saw the arc of the film going, so that could be incorporated into some of the arrangements or how he would write in the future. And Claudia Engelhart is the sound engineer—she made recordings of all the sound checks and rehearsals and the gigs and gave them to me on the drive. From that, I cut my rough draft of the soundtrack, and I sent that to Bill. And he basically rewrote that. But I was able to use that as a structure skeleton that I could edit to.

So you were almost an assistant composer in a way, taking chunks of the music and organizing them and handing them back to Bill Frisell?

Well, they were pretty complete chunks. I would not in any way call myself a music composer or assistant to Bill. But what I was doing was editing, in a way—sound editing for my film, giving him ideas about how I was thinking the piece would be structured. That really beautiful, thematic piece, he was of course already thinking of as something that would recur, so my ideas were pretty pedestrian in comparison. I think it was helpful for him to say, “Okay, here’s a 75-minute set. We actually have to include this and this and this too.” So there was a back and forth.

But getting back to what it was like to be in the South with the flooding: we get down there, and Bill’s booked this tour months in advance, which goes from Memphis to Texas to New Orleans and elsewhere. It was pretty well structured as a small club tour and work session, sort of a mobile residency, if you will. And the real coincidence was that there was an enormous flood happening at the same time, which rivaled 1927.

Bill Frisell (photo: Jimmy Katz)

The 1927 flood was on everyone’s lips. When Bill played “Old Man River,” it was significant for everybody—really, in some ways, crushing—to end the set that way. It was even the same time of year as the ’27 flood. We all stood on a levee and felt the humidity and the warmth and the mosquitoes and the smell. And also, floods are really weird because it’s not this big moment of panic. It’s this insidious thing where you go, “Boy, I hope it starts going down at some point.” It’s slow and creeping, and there’s a lot of hand-wringing but no big traumatic moment.

I’d never been in one before. It was strange that everyone knew it was coming. There was a lot of standing around and saying, “What are we going to do about this?” But ultimately, if your levees aren’t going to hold, they aren’t going to hold. That certainly informed The Great Flood for me. I mean, our images of Hurricane Katrina are infused with trauma and violence. This thing blew up or this boat rammed the levee in the lower 9th and everybody was washed away. But it happens in a much stranger way than that. Sort of a creeping way, which I think the music reflected. Sort of mysterious, this slowness, which is also part of the South.

Ironically, it’s also how we have all that footage, because unlike a fire or earthquake, a newsreel producer could say, “Hey, get your ass down to Mississippi and get me some reels of film” to their cameramen. It was covered by every major news corps because there were weeks of advance notice, if not months. A few levee breaks and people had their incredibly odd imagery of people paddling past stop signs, which makes for great cinema. Disaster porn.

I’m interested in the Sears catalog chapter of The Great Flood. It’s unlike anything else in the film. Where did it come from and what role do you think it plays?

All of us had heard that apocryphal story of houses that had two books: the Bible and the Sears, Roebuck catalog. And how that kind of informed the imagination of previous generations of Americans. Kids would make up stories based on the pictures. It fueled this whole idea of what else was out there. So, because this was a migration story, and a story about people aspiring to a better life, it was representative. The stuff, for instance, that you see when the church is emptying out in Chicago, that all those people maybe have all that stuff. And it’s also all the stuff that people are losing in the flood. All these houses are filled with that stuff.

The Roaring Twenties

And those houses are Sears, Roebuck houses. You could plunk down $2000 and get the top-shelf one, or $500 and get the more modest one. Some of them are still standing and they’re really well-made houses, evidently. So that had been kicking around in my mind. And then in that book The Warmth of Other Suns, they mention the catalog. It kicked in that I should try to get ahold of a copy of the 1927 one. As it happened, 1927 is sort of a representative year of the highfalutin ‘20s. That was really a high time for us. So there was a 1970s reprint called “The Roaring Twenties.” There were a bunch of them available on eBay. Then it was just the tedious process of digitally scanning all those pages, and I played around with it.

I also knew that it would be funny in a certain way. That there would be a comic thing about how the similarity of the layout would lend itself to an animation and I could make jokes, like the baby grows up and gets married and there’s a wedding ring and those sort of things. And then where it comes in the piece—talk about disaster porn—right after the couple on top of the car as it gets washed away.

That was the one really harrowing moment where I inhaled and found myself gripping the armrests thinking, “That’s going over, they’re not going to survive.”

That is pretty traumatic footage. It was also sort of about the newsreel industry wanting to shock people. The fear of floods became an incredible driver of policy because 1927 was kind of bizarre. There wasn’t just that flood. There was a flood in the east, too, that flooded Hartford. By the time 1928 came around they handed the reins to the federal government and the Army Corps of Engineers could dam whatever they wanted. It really changed flood policy after that, these sensationalist images of people getting washed away.

In another shot, the point of view is the camera in a boat coming up to a shelf of debris sticking out of the water, with a dog on it. And the dog sort of makes eye contact with the camera and then turns away as you’re fading out. That was another moving moment. It’s interesting that you would end a chapter with that. What was your thinking there?

I think, like you, it really grabbed my attention as a beautiful, symbolic image. I thought it would make a lasting afterimage, if you will. I thought it would give people something to seize onto.

There was something about locking eyes with the dog that was different. I can’t remember locking eyes with people…

Well, there’s quite a bit. In some of that newsreel photography, they’re telling people to not look at the camera, but there is that whole sequence where they’re in the train station during the evacuation in Greenville, with the young girl who’s just locked in with you.

You know, a lot of animals died. A lot of people died, but a ton of animals died, so that dog is sort of representative of the less fortunate. It’s a story about class in America, and it’s not a pretty story. There is this baleful look to this animal that had no way of helping itself.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the film, you see wealth migrating out of the flood zone and the poor staying behind and clean up. It’s not that simple, but if you were poor, you couldn’t hit it to Chicago.

The Rising Tide

But it wasn’t a matter of means sometimes. It was that these were sharecroppers—there’s a fascinating book about it by John Barry called Rising Tide where, at gunpoint, some sharecroppers were kept on the levee to stem the tide, and also so they wouldn’t leave the area. Because if they left the area, the “old South” was done. This was a way of saying, “Wait, if we lose this workforce, the entire way that we’ve run our economy in the past is over.”

The Spark of Being trailer:

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