An Ocean of Sound: an interview with “Weightless” filmmaker Sune BlicherMay 16th, 2012 | Posted by in IndieFlix filmmaker | IndieFlix in the Media | Interview | Movie Reviews | New Releases
In Sune Blicher’s remarkable film Weightless, we are privileged to share in a kind of miracle. Through Blicher’s camera, perched unobtrusively over one musician’s shoulder or observing quietly from a corner of a wood paneled recording studio, we watch as a group of musicians assembled by Danish guitarist Jakob Bro use unlikely constructions of wood, string, and brass to conjure, out of the colorless air, a thing of lasting beauty that didn’t exist a moment before.
The makeup of the ensemble fluctuates over the two-day recording session, as jazz greats such as Bill Frisell, Paul Motian, and Lee Konitz arrive to add their contributions to the mix, each layer increasing the whole beyond the sum of its constituent parts. Just as much as the music each artist adds, their respective personalities color the entire process. This is the real gift of this documentary: we can listen to the album produced by this session, Balladeering, and if we shut out all other stimulus and focus our consciousness on the music, experience a kind of hypnotic surrender. But to watch Weightless is to see how Lee Konitz’s cantankerous old fart schtick conceals a genius for improvisation and melody—every phrase he invents is a surprise, and yet the only perfect phrase for that moment—or how Paul Motian’s cool dude class clown belies his status as one of the most influential jazz musicians in history.
After the group of musicians, in their various iterations, have done enough takes for Bro to knit into a coherent album, they go their separate ways, leaving us a little sad to see them go, but more than a little grateful for having shared this experience with them.
Read my interview with Weightless director Sune Blicher below.
CC: How did the filming of Weightless come about?
SB: Well, I had wanted to do a film about Jakob Bro for a while. He creates beautiful improvised music. But very different from what you usually associate with jazz. His musical landscape is really special; Bill Frisell calls it an “ocean.” You know, a place where anything can happen: you’re floating around and hear that everybody is reacting to each other; everything is connected.
CC: Are you a musician?
SB: I did play music when I was younger, and I’ve listened to a lot of jazz.
CC: What instrument?
SB: Bass. So you know when I heard that Jakob was going to record a new album in New York, at Avatar Studios, with Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, Bill Frisell and Ben Street, I was really excited, and I thought it was the perfect setup for a film.
SB: Have you heard about Jakob Bro before?
CC: No, I had not; I listen to a lot of music, but I don’t know very much modern jazz.
CC: We know most musicians only from their music: from listening to Jakob’s recordings, for example. To make a film about them, however, you must expand your focus, and see more of them than just their music. Why did you choose Jakob to show more of than just his music? Was there something about him as a person you wanted to show?
SB: Yes. Jakob is a gifted song writer. When he composes music, he usually has specific musicians in his mind. So he creates a setup with the right people, in the right place, and lets everybody contribute. It becomes a collective thing.
CC: So you wanted to show that entire process, and not just the end product of the music?
SB: Yes, exactly. That fascinates me.
CC: Were you familiar with his methods before filming?
SB: He told me about his approach, always very open. You know, in a way we do the same thing as documentary filmmakers. We create a setup up with characters that we like: we choose a location, and we set up our gear and start shooting. So it’s similar, right?
CC: Yes, filmmaking can be extremely collaborative.
SB: And as in jazz, improvisation is an important thing as well. You might have a script beforehand, but usually things go in a different direction.
CC: So you choose artists you trust, then let them create.
SB: Yes. And when you’re recording, you need to take decision based on your intuition. Timing is everything; being ready at the right moment when magic things happen. Sublime moments, if you’re lucky.
CC: If not, you can “fix it in post.”
SB: True. But you can’t fix everything.
CC: Like when the musicians speak of dubbing additional tracks. But even that’s another layer of improv, right?
SB: Yes. They try to avoid “fixing” too much. Usually one or two takes.
CC: Each musician in Weightless had a very distinct personality, like a fictional character. As a filmmaker, was it hard not to focus more on the personalities, instead of the music?
SB: Yes it was. Especially in the editing process. Both Paul Motian and Lee Konitz are really unique characters. With the footage we had we could make a portrait of one of them instead. But this was a film about Jakob Bro.
CC: Yes, I can see either one of those easily stealing the focus.
SB: Exactly! They were really performing in every sense of the word.
CC: Most musical documentaries focus on conflict; personalities. It’s rare to see one that keeps its focus so strongly on the music.
SB: Thanks. We got so much cool footage: Paul Motian telling Lee Konitz about his ancestor’s opium farm; Bill Frisell joking with Joe Lovano—funny scenes. But we had to leave it out.
CC: Did you have the feeling that having the camera there affected their “performance”?
SB: Well, not really. They were really very comfortable with the camera.
CC: You don’t think any of them were “clowning” for the camera?
SB: Hehe. Well I wouldn’t say “clowning,” but you know they are entertainers, and they love cracking jokes and having fun. And then suddenly five minutes after, they can be completely absorbed in music, creating beautiful things, in a completely different mood.
CC: Did working with improv musicians affect your filmmaking style at all? Did you have to adjust your level of control or anything?
SB: I knew that my control in the studio would be limited. I had a plan, but had no idea what would happen. So we tried to be at the right places at the right time, and focus on situations that could help to tell our story. I was lucky to have Andreas Koefoed with me in the studio as a cinematographer. He did a great job: very sensitive camera work.
CC: Do you feel more like an observer than a collaborator in making such a film, where you are watching artists create their own work?
SB: An observer; a fly on the wall.
CC: Have you made narrative films? Or are you strictly a documentarian?
SB: I like to work with reality. I’ve never worked with actors. I like surprises!
CC: Frequently, when a director who usually makes narrative films makes a documentary, it seems like they can’t quite give up the kind of control they have when they work with actors. Like the way Herzog inserts his personality into every documentary he makes, instead of being an outside observer. It makes for a different kind of documentary.
SB: Herzog is one of my big heroes. Erroll Morris also. Erroll Morris is a fantastic interviewer. I usually don’t like documentaries that are told in past tense through interviews, but Morris is really good at that.
CC: I agree. I was just thinking they take a different, personal approach. Not a fly on the wall.
CC: What was Jørgen Leth’s involvement in Weightless?
SB: Leth showed up because we told him about Jakob’s recording session, and by chance he was in New York at that time. He wrote a lot about jazz in the 60’s. Lee Konitz was one of his own big heroes, so he was really thrilled to be able to meet him.
CC: So he was just there as a “fan”?
SB: He is a jazz fan, yes.
CC: Do you have any favorite music documentaries you can recommend to us?
SB: Yes sure.
I also like Vincent Moon a lot. He makes beautiful portraits, short films.
SB: One thing i might need to add, regarding the use of interviews. In Weightless the interviews play a minor role. Weightless is not a typical jazz documentary where people sit and talk about the past. I’ve tried to use long passages of music.
CC: Yes; what talking there is is mostly of the talking between musicians.
SB: Yes. And it’s a slow film in as sense.
CC: It parallels Jakob’s music.
SB: I wanted to give the audience the chance to really sink deep into the atmosphere and to digest the music.
CC: Meditative, not slow.
SB: Exactly. I wanted to make a film that was true to the music. Jakob’s music is not upbeat and jazzy in the traditional way. It’s slow and melodic.
CC: Was there a sense of sadness when the sessions were over?
SB: Well, not really. When musicians part, they usually meet again. Unfortunately, this session became the last one with Jakob Bro and Paul Motian. Paul died in November 2011.
CC: That makes these sessions all the more special.
SB: It does. And I’m really happy that we had a chance to document some of Paul Motian’s work before it was too late.
CC: One last thing Sune: how do you pronounce your name? Soon-a? Soon-ee?
SB: Soona, I’d say. It’s a hard name. It’s not a name built for traveling.