The smallest questions can have the largest answers: Who do you love? What’s the truest thing you know? Tell me: What is the single moment that caused you to realize, This is what I must do with my life?
That was the genesis of the dauntingly rich Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration, a film-on-DVD of 122 musicians sharing a story straight to camera about the song, record, live show or musical forebear that was the first of many formative musical moments for them. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore reminiscing about driving in to New York’s Max’s Kansas City as a teen to see Suicide; Björk talking about the summer the sound of car alarms punctuated the urban landscape; filmmaker Jem Cohen on the music edit at the end of Neil Young’s “The Needle and the Damage Done” — these are just three of the 112 playful, hardly-ever-earnest early-21st-century snapshots included on the DVD. And as directed by Braden King and edited by Ian Williams, what could have been a lazy talking-head assembly is inventively cinematic, with each interview given its own distinct visual and aural pulse.
Thrill was conceived while label owner Bettina Richards was mulling over the 10th anniversary and 100th release of Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey. “Rather than putting together a retrospective on the label, I wanted to address a larger question,” she says. “Why do people start labels, and what keeps them going through all the distribution and financial challenges? What got the musicians I admire into music, and what in addition to the joys inherent in the creative process keeps them going? Can you pinpoint the source of someone’s passion for music?”
Richards wanted to incorporate “people who affected me personally and who I felt were influential on the independent music community as it developed into the vast and diverse network of labels and distributors and artists that it is today.” Scheduling and shyness kept some “names” from the project, but the final roster comprises members of the Chicago music community and musicians they know in turn, including Jon Spencer, members of Tortoise and Yo La Tengo, Eleventh Dream Day’s Rick Rizzo and Janet Bean, Jon Langford, the Mekons’ Sally Timms, Fugazi’s Ian MacKaye, producer-musician Steve Albini and members of the Sea and Cake, Giant Sand and Jesus Lizard.
Richards approached then-Chicagoan Braden King, who had co-directed the music-steeped feature Dutch Harbor: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a study of the geography of the Aleutian expanse that marks one of the westernmost points of the U.S. From Richards’s first phone call, King knew the undertaking would be “enormous,” with “intense conceptual, logistical and budgetary challenges.”
Richards’s hope was simple, that “viewers find the stories interesting even if they are not familiar with the storytellers, and that as a whole this anthology speaks to them as it does to me of how rich a life spent in music can be.” (The labor of love became a charitable enterprise for Greenpeace as well: “Because I was going to be approaching people and asking them to talk about a moment so personal, it seemed grossly inappropriate to do such a thing for profit.”)
An early idea was to make a computer-only CD-ROM to go with a label comp, but DVD technology held other attractions. Says King: “By being able to access the stories in many different ways and orders, with the relationships between the interviews constantly shifting, the DVD would mirror how these moments of inspiration occur in life — through unexpected and surprising experiences, fragmentary moments of epiphany, and seemingly unrelated ideas slamming together.”
There’s no Behind the Music–style bed of music underneath the profiles. But editor Williams, himself a musician, works with what he calls an “ADD style” — as if there were a familiar collaborator in the room, his ear and eye equally at work, rabbiting away with a riff of music or editing jazz: little tricks that echo the story being told or inject a quick burst of the interviewee’s music into the background.
“It’s on a subconscious level,” King says. “I was learning from him even if it wasn’t what I might do left to my own devices. Where it was done for a conceptual reason or to reinforce the story or a certain statement, I found it very exciting. I wanted to avoid putting music under everything — that would have been a real missed opportunity. I kept thinking a lot about how inspiration works as I listened to the stories. The way things filter into your consciousness, the way they affect you — there are these kinds of confrontational moments: you hear something, you see something, you don’t like it, but you want to experience it again. You want to understand it. Or you might hear a couple of songs by an artist and they’re in the background of a club and you don’t really hear them. I thought on some level that should be echoed in the formal aspects of the piece — there should be these staticky, filtered, broken-up elements coming in and out all the time. I also had this idea that I wanted the stories to be like they were on paper, to almost rip them apart and tape them back together. I wanted the editing to call attention to itself. One of our rules was not to allow second takes, keep the interviews to 20 minutes, just set up the camera and start talking to people. One thing fortunate about this project is that generally when people talk about things that they’re very passionate about, unless they’re extremely shy, you don’t have to pry too deeply. They get excited.”
The choice not to use a seamless backdrop, like Richard Avedon or Errol Morris, in the end seems inspired. “I knew if we did a hundred interviews with white backgrounds, it would be disaster in terms of trying to keep some kind of tension,” King says. “I wanted the individual pieces to be as much about the individual person talking as about the story they were telling. I felt that one of the key ways we could do that is by insisting on interviewing them in their homes, or anywhere but a sound check. I didn’t want any clubs if at all possible.”
Considering that Thrill is a film that has a genuine feel of the Chicago community, it’s ironic that King has lived in New York for five years. “When I lived in Chicago, I helped run a recording studio, so I was split between film and music. I’ve always felt that if I was only doing music, I never would have moved. When everything wound down after Dutch Harbor was finished and all the touring [with bands accompanying visual projections around the world], I felt like I was at a crossroads. I could hunker down or start making another film there, which would have meant staying for the indefinite future. If I’d gone through that cycle again, I probably never would have left. I had always felt a great affinity for New York, and I had met some people there and I knew I could work and wouldn’t starve.” He pauses. “To be honest, there’s a lot of advantages to being somewhere off to the wayside and being able to work on your voice and not be in a position where you’ve always got to be talking about what you’re up to. But I was definitely impatient and ready to move on.”
King is about to direct his first fiction feature, a road movie that crosses Armenia, produced by Julia King, a producer of American Splendor. [The feature will] continue “a lot of the themes I began working with in Dutch Harbor in terms of landscape and geography and travel. It brings me back to that kind of broader photographic palette. This Thrill Jockey thing, in a lot of ways, is almost like an exploration of offices, in terms of these locked-down, static, indoor shots as compared to these outdoor, broad, vista-type things, which couldn’t be more opposite. The one through-line, maybe, is people telling their own life experiences.”
Colin Holgate, of New York’s Funny Garbage, authored the DVD, and getting all the material and the multiple ways to navigation presented problems. “The big difficulty with squeezing it all onto one disc is that the filmmaker may not be happy with the quality,” Holgate notes. “If we had split the material over two discs, the quality of the video could have been improved” with less compression, King says. “But we all felt that it was conceptually important to have all of the material on a single disc, so that the viewer wouldn’t have to constantly be switching discs to get at the interview they wanted to see. A lot of time went into the look of these interviews — probably more than one might realize — and it was hard in some respects to have to compress them so much.”
DVD Studio Pro has limits on how many different chapters and categories can be included, and more creativity was required to get around that. “Colin was incredibly creative in terms of overcoming all sorts of limitations that we came up against,” King says, “in the DVD format, the software, everywhere. The issues are complicated, and his solutions are amazingly elegant. I wish I could be more articulate, but the issues are confusing even to me.”