Category Archives: Interviews

Philip Hoffman Radio Banff Interview (1989)

by XX – Autumn 1989

XX: Last evening in the Banff Auditorium there was a screening of three films by an independent filmmaker from Toronto, Philip Hoffman, who has been in the artist colony for the past week; rejuvenating and working on ideas and basically plumbing the depths of new ideas for, and taking shots around the Banff area for up and coming films that he may make or will make. Philip’s in the studio this evening with us. He leaves tomorrow, you leave tomorrow morning.

PH: Yes, short stay. Short stay. Good one, though.

XX: It seems like quite a homey bunch in the artist colony at the moment.

PH: Really good group. We’re working on our own, plus we seem to be working together too. Everybody’s looking at each other’s work, and it’s nice to meet new people.

XX: In the artists colony there are times when people are producing intensive work and you rarely even see them. You hear that so-and-so is here, and nobody even in the colony knew because they would sneak out in the middle of the night, and be gone by dawn. Sleep all day… or however they worked.

PH: I’m sure that still prevails.

XX: Yeah, oh yeah. It’s just that there’s a liberty that I think is wonderful when you’re in the colony. Maybe you could just tell us a little bit about your background. I know you began as an amateur photographer in your youth, and maybe you could take it up from there.

PH: Yeah, that’s just one of the stories that I put out.

XX: Is that the real one?

PH: It could be. Yeah, it was important, photography, right from the start; when I was thirteen, fourteen years old. I managed a darkroom in the basement of the house. And went out collecting images. As I was saying last night, after all these films I’ve made, about eight now, I’ve realized how that’s been so important in my work. Both being interested in the realist image in photography and questioning that image. And on the other hand, the magic that happens in the darkroom when the image starts coming up, when you’ve got the paper in the developer, in that moment of transformation, that fleeting moment that you can’t really put your finger on. Those things are happening always in your life, I think… in my life. How to try to use film to conjure that transformation? Maybe it’s in the view or in the viewer’s mind that moment might appear.

XX: So you’re saying that magical moment, which for you was when the picture started to appear in the developing process, is possibly transferred to perception? When the viewer perceives your work. Is there another place for you where that magic still exists in the making of a film?

PH: Yes, there is. It’s in the shooting and the interaction between camera and subject. I like to work from that rather than from scripts and confront my subject whatever it may be, and let the structure and the rhythms of the film come out of that moment in shooting. Sometimes I just go collecting images, and that tells me what a future film might be. Which is something evolving here for the past week in Banff, giving myself the time to concentrate on that kind of work.

XX: You use the term diarist not only for your films but the working method. So it’s a very ongoing process, you never start with a script, you collect and assemble.

PH: I don’t think it’s an unusual way of working for artists in any discipline. It’s an unusual way to work in film, when you consider that 99% of the stuff that we see on television and feature films is prefab, the script’s got to be there, or the money doesn’t happen. When you’re working with a Bolex or in Super-8, with small equipment, you have control of the costs so you can work another way. I may work on larger projects in the future, but I would always like try to hold on to the role of intuition. I’m sure this happens in feature films, when people are working with actors there must be moments when the script is changed right on the spot. This is important because filmmaking doesn’t happen on paper.

XX: In a recent interview out of the University of Calgary and in your comments last evening about the films, the word memory came up. And in seeing the films, your approach to time and the use of memory especially in the second film breaking through/torn formations… breaking through or is it the other way around?

PH: Passing through.

XX: passing through, sorry.

PH: Slash, torn formations.

XX: Those two elements. Almost the manipulation of time. Not in a way that’s so rigid you feel some sort of structural approach, but in a way that’s definitely engaging, mixed with your concern about memory. I remember in the Calgary interview you said that memory was something that we were going to have to deal with in the latter part of this century because most mass media is creating a passive viewer, creating things which are very fleeting and ephemeral so we don’t use memory in the same way. I think you’re broaching that subject in your films.

PH: The mass media freezes and packages history so when we think back, we think of what’s been documented. Why do we imagine the world before 1930 in black and white? Time should move on and it shouldn’t be pinned down. For everything that you’re doing in the present you have to remake or question the past. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in the film, by using personal experience, and reworking it. In some of the early works I dealt with home movies more and still photographs of the past, and tried to make a history that would sit well with me at the time of the making. Now maybe in ten years I don’t like that. I’m not really sure where it’s going, but Chris Marker, the maker of La Jetéeand Sans Soleil said that memory is the most important thing we have to deal with in the latter part of this century.

XX: The first film ?O Zoo! The Making of a Fiction Film was for me the most accessible in terms of… there’s a certain lightness to it, and even the camera and editing style was much more conservative and traditional. The other two passing through/torn formations and Kitchener-Berlin both used really interesting collage and superimpositions and almost rhythmic imaging that I found quite fascinating. But before we get into that, the whole idea of history which you brought up in the second film, torn formations, you’re dealing with a very personal subject; your family, your mother’s side of the family coming from Czechoslovakia. What I wonder is, this is you making a film, but is it also you working through a very personal thing, that you had to work through and this was the way you were doing it through the making of this film?

PH: I showed it out in Vancouver, and someone said it was an exorcism, which sort of struck me weirdly at first, but then I thought hmmm… if so it’s not over. I guess there’s a lot of things we put under the table and don’t want to look at, and this was something I wanted to look at, because I thought that it might be of value, firstly to the family and secondly the issues of immigration and the incredible pain that comes through that kind of movement which is amplified by my mother’s family coming from Czechoslovakia to Canada in the 1920’s… well it wasn’t Czechoslovakia then, it was the Austria-Hungarian Empire in the twenties… and how the pain echoed down the line through the children. So in that way I think it’s universal as well as my own personal thing of dealing with it.

XX: I felt that there was enough objectivity in the film, there were enough characters, there was enough scope in the film that it didn’t look like a self indulgent home movie. Obviously it goes much, much further than that, and even though everyone in it is your family, the way you approached it and also in the way you present it, the style never allows its viewer to sink into that reverie of just thinking about it as being one specific family, it’s swirled around so that any personage becomes a sort of universal person. The first image shows your Grandmother or an old woman and her daughter, would that be her daughter?

PH: Yes.

XX: I found myself immediately identifying them as family characters. Their particular identities didn’t matter, they were people on the family tree that were established and they would come back and more of their story would be revealed by having another person down the line. I found that fascinating.

PH: I’m glad it worked like that. The formal experiment is the thing with memory… [TAPE ENDS]

XX: …and with a lot of pop videos it’s almost as if they don’t think they can keep your attention with a shot longer than two seconds. They chop it up according to certain rhythms to make it seem dynamic and exciting but sometimes it’s totally exhausting. With your work on the other hand, I’m thinking of Kitchener-Berlin, a work in progress I believe, in which you show buildings, is it a town square or something like that…?

PH: Yes.

XX: It’s swirling. It gives you a sense that they’re swirling around a crowd. And then you also have the ground—the pavement of cobblestones—moving underneath that and at first it seems impenetrable when you’re first presented with it—plus you have the sounds of bells clanging along. At first I was bewildered and then I felt that I had to make a decision, visually, what I was going to do, because I couldn’t watch the thing spinning around—it was making me dizzy for one thing—and so I concentrated on the most immobile part, the crowd sitting there. But at the same time your peripheral vision knows; it’s almost as if you’ve set up contexts within contexts. They’re going at different speeds. They’re taking up different parameters, or sizes of your visual capacity. And I found that whichever one you looked at you were getting them all because there was this counterpoint going on.

PH: It’s new, you know. When it hits its peak four images are superimposing and I’m still getting to know its effect. The same thing happened to me last night when I was watching it and I saw things that I hadn’t seen. It was interesting that you could… well you would never really watch it so many times before you could pick out every little thing, but… it’s shifting. It lets the viewer participate in a way because you’re not hemmed down to looking at only the thing that the filmmaker’s saying you have to look at. It’s giving you choices.

XX: Definitely, even if it is a whirlwind viewing. And it was interesting too, just to see some of the people from our Layton colony group and how they were perceiving the films in different ways. We talked about that. Your films somehow shows us each of us how we look, it represents the way each person sees. There were certain points where there were ways of seeing where you just allow yourself to be taken and the composite images become a unified matter in which no one image is more or less than another. In Kitchener-Berlin, I think I got a sense of what you were trying to say about Germanic culture in Canada before the First World War and after the Second World War, the alienation of being in a country which isn’t your country any longer. That repeated spiral from the Berlin Wall moves upwards into the sky. At first they seem like images that go by and by and by but because you’re not bombarded, it’s not like a rock video where you’re bombarded. I found that you’re enticed and provoked into questioning, “Well why is this scene in there, and what is that?” Some are quite short. There are some scenes of a street in Kitchener, I guess, with the streetcars when they had Berlin on the side of them. You only see them for a moment but you know this is an old picture. You just have enough time to see the Berlin on the side and you don’t know whether it’s Germany or if it’s Kitchener… if it’s Canada. And the whole thing draws you along. The sense of alienation comes through, the ambiguity between it being Berlin one day and Kitchener the next.

PH: I’m from Kitchener in Ontario and before World War I, or on the crest of that, the name was changed from Berlin to Kitchener because of the war and what was happening inGermany. So I wanted to try to deal with that, but I was afraid that people were going to say, “Well this is not a film about Germany or the German heritage, because you’ve got these images off the TV of the Pope visiting the native people.” I just kept fighting this project of doing something about the German people in Kitchener so directly because my experience of Kitchener shared many different cultures, not just the German culture and that’s what happens with migration to the new world or to Canada. The game changes and what we end up with are stereotyped images of Germany, and German dances, colliding with Canadian culture.

XX: Now this work is still in progress. You didn’t show the second half of it, last night. What’s the subtitle of the first part?

PH: A Measured Dance.

XX: A Measured Dance. That in itself is a provocative title.

PH: Yes, when I screened it in David Rimmer’s class in Vancouver he said that as a country becomes fully controlled by the state, the dancing becomes more regular and measured. Now with the wall breaking down the dancing around East and West Germany is a little less measured. They’re pretty wild on the streets right now. The measured dance also pertains to the dance of technology and the repetition which I think is shown through the repetition of television imagery, the screen flashing through the TV bars.

I used a SteadiCam for its fluidly, though put it to a different use than usual, which is to follow a doggy to his dog food in some commercial. My operator was making circular motions and trying all kinds of things which she had never tried before with a SteadiCam and that’s what you’re speaking about at the end where everything’s spinning.

XX: It gives an incredible fluidity to the piece which I found extremely musical. The composer who wrote and performed the music for Zoo and passing through is Tucker Zimmerman?

Ph: Yes.

XX: Is he based in Toronto?

PH: No, he’s an American draft dodger who had a composer’s scholarship in Italy during Vietnam and didn’t come back so he wouldn’t have to go to the war in Vietnam. There he met this lovely woman Marie-Claire from Belgium, so now he lives in Belgium, he’s quite an amazing person.

XX: Did you meet him when you were in Holland doing ?O Zoo!?

PH: Yes, we had a mutual friend, Ton Maas, who was helping me out and when I told him about the type of music I was interested he said I should go see Tucker in Leiges. I had about five days and he was pretty laid back for the first four days. We just played baseball… he was still living sort of the American way…

XX: ..in Belgium.

PH: He got a baseball team going there. But anyway, on the night of the fourth day we looked at the film and it was amazing how he just… you know he wanted to get to know me as a person, he felt that was more important than seeing the film. And I can go for that kind of working relationship. He also did the music for passing through/torn formations a couple years after that. I was so impressed by the way he created a kind of… the repetition of… well, he uses a synthesizer and he mixes real instruments with it, but how he created that sort of… Philip Glass type music with a Czech quality to it.

XX: If you’d heard it without the film you wouldn’t say it was specifically Czechoslovakian, but it does have something about it… it’s almost the tonal quality, there’s a bit of an Eastern something in there. There’s one scene where the narration describes your uncle who was an accordion player and we see someone’s hands running over a keyboard and the music at that point is repetitive synthesizer which gradually blends into actual accordion sounds. It’s really quite brilliant. It’s almost imperceptible and suddenly you feel yourself drawn in by this real instrument.

PH: The image shows a piano, the sound is an accordion with a synthesizer behind it. So instead of the conventional master-slave relation between picture and sound, when you see someone’s finger hit a key then you have to hear the note we worked until the music playing with the image rather than following the image. Most films are allowed to be made because of the way words fall on a page, and not the sound in a scene. For me film is much closer to music than literature, because they are rhythm based and move in time.

XX: Light and time. Just one more question about the audio of the films; when you’re collecting shots is audio also something you’re thinking about or is it only when things start to come together in the lab that you deal with the oral dimension?

PH: The collecting of sound and images happen at the same time. In passing through/torn formations I had a rough cut of the film with all its sound except for the voice over, yet even the voice over was written during certain experiences in journal form and then once the images started coming together with the rest of the soundtrack, I started placing the narration that goes along with it and the voices collected of the family members telling their different stories. While I made ?O Zoo! I collected the voices that are in the background. When I got the images back I would write something, so there’s a big pot of soup and all these different ingredients in it and it gradually, hopefully tastes OK.

XX: Right. Little personal spice put on it in the end. I find the making of ?O Zoo! fascinating in that it’s a film made within a film- like Shakespeare’s play within a play. Were you actually working with Peter Greenaway as an assistant?

Ph: I would help out sometimes, but I had a camera and could go where I wanted. He was encouraging me to make more films because he had seen some early work that he liked. The film’s not really about him, it skirts along his feature film A Zed and Two Noughts as well as some of my side trips out in Holland.

XX: There’s a few scenes in ?O Zoo! that… I don’t know if the footage is from him or was it taken at the same time as he was filming?

Ph: The footage was shot while he was shooting as well, and I got access to all their sound. I worked in the same space they did while editing.

XX: It sounds like a really rare experience for a commercial film, although I guess this was the first big commercial feature he did.

Ph: Peter Greenaway made Draughtsman’s Contract before that, but even that was Super 16, it wasn’t 35 millimetre, and his previous short work had been done in 16mm. With A Zed and Two Noughts he was struggling with things, not always real happy on the set. And sometimes he would come up to me and say that he envied what I was doing… he has a Bolex. Actually he said after he’s starting to make a diary film.

XX: A Zed and Two Noughts is nonetheless a fascinating film and it’s definitely not mainstream. It’s quite…

Ph: Well, that was part of the reason I went over, I wanted to see how someone who has worked as an artist-he’s a painter as well, trained in art school-how he would work in the commercial industry. He has people around him, producers and that, who are interested in not so much in making money, but making films that are important for our cultures.

XX: It seems in every art right now the whole aspect of financing and support whether it be moral support, or financial support is such a big question, especially since so many art forms have integrated a certain array of technology so in order to make certain kinds of art you need an incredible amount of support and the film industry has certainly gone that way. To make so many films that are not good films and if you look at the budget it’s just astronomical.

PH: Filmmakers can really work another way. They can work like a still photographer if they want. I guess you need a grant to get the materials paid for because that’s where it gets expensive but if you can manage that then you can pick up a Bolex for five hundred bucks and you’ve got your camera that does anything. Images can be blown up to 35; I’ve seen some of my stuff blown up to 35 with the Bolex and it looks great. I mean, it’s not something that normally happens but… and just an editing bench and… You could transfer to tape if you want, there’s such a push and hype around video right now, not like in Europe, over here the attitude is let’s get all this video equipment and figure out what to do later.

XX: Yeah, figure out what to do later.

PH: Video will find its place if it hasn’t already, but it doesn’t mean film is dead. When photography arrived painting didn’t die, it changed. I think film should be an integral part of any art institute.

XX: You’ve been teaching at Sheridan College’s Media Arts Department for three years?

PH: I’ve been there about eight years part time along with doing my own work. Now I’ve taken a year off to do some other kinds of things and I’m enjoying it a lot.

XX: Great. I was just thinking of one scene in torn formations in which you show your mother through the video scanning lines. Instead of trying to clean that up, instead of looking at it as an impingement upon what you’re doing, you get these scan lines going and at one point you superimpose a fence or bars or something across it which transforms these scan lines into an iron grate.

PH: I’ve worked with video in quite a few of my last three, four films, but didn’t have the money to transfer the video to film, so when shooting the video I put the camera on its side, which places the scan lines vertically instead of horizontal, so that it would sort of match the shape of the human body, rather than cutting the head off. The reason the line is there is because I couldn’t afford getting it transferred professionally. I used an Éclair camera which allows you to change the shutter angle in order to minimize the flicker and scan lines. This way I could shoot a lot of video and decide what I wanted to use later. Once the film gets old you get scratches and it all looks like a scratch (laughs).

XX: I think we’re going to play some of the soundtrack. So for anyone that was at the screening last night you can remember the pictures, and for those who weren’t you can make your own. This is from ?O,Zoo!, and maybe it will catch your imagination and sometime in the near future you will get a chance to see some films by Philip Hoffman. You’re heading out to Edmonton tomorrow morning to show some films up there?

PH: Friday and Saturday in Edmonton, and then Tuesday in Regina.

XX: So this is the Philip Hoffman Western Canadian Tour.

PH: (laughs)Well  I was in Vancouver and Calgary… so it’s been great to talk to people who are dealing in film and video through the west. You get to looking at yourself in Toronto and you need to travel so I decided to make the trip.

XX: Great. Well, it’s been wonderful having you at the centre last week and wonderful to hear and see your work and to have you here this evening. Good luck.

PH: Thanks.

Somewhere Between interview with Phillip Hoffman (by Donnalee Downe 1984)

by Donnalee Downe
23 November 1984

DD: Can you tell me a bit about how you went about shooting and editing Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion?

PH: I had been reading some Haiku poetry at the time. Haiku is a Japanese form of poetry which is very simple, yet complex in its simplicity. In fact, when I went down to Colorado that was a poetry convention of sorts. So I decided what I wanted to do in Mexico was shoot in a similar fashion, borrowing from the form of Haiku poetry.  I tried to think of the Bolex camera’s twenty-eight second wind as a structure rather than a limitation. Most of the shots in the film are twenty-eight second takes: the “breath” of the Bolex camera.

I tried to make each shot sparse in its content: the coke sign, the donkey, the open road, the mother and child running, (c) simple, uncomplicated shots. In shooting The Road Ended at the Beach, I had a lot of expectations… about “the big trip”. I felt I had to make the film, it was my first since school. There was a lot of pressure and tension and not much fun.  So it was important with Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion to shoot when I felt like shooting so it would be more like writing poetry.

DD: But it wasn’t until you returned that you decided it would revolve around an image you didn’t have.

PH: Right. So in a way it was a lot of little poems. On the trip I kept a journal and I tried to write little phrases based on the haiku form. Not that it was at all like traditional haiku. I tried to develop a style, to let a form develop out of an idea. When I came back from the trip I didn’t know what the film would be about. I hadn’t shot that much film—about seventeen minutes—and the film is only six minutes long, so it was pretty economical. When I came back, the experience on the bus was still on my mind. I didn’t have the footage and didn’t regret not having it, it was something I just didn’t want to do at the time. I remember putting the camera down and thinking no, I don’t want to do this.

DD: The sparse images you described facilitate open interpretation. The emptiness opens to the missing image.

PH: They’re open but there are still some things that were on my mind while shooting. I kept going back to the churches.

DD: Are the religious images linked to the boy’s death?

PH: No, they’re a reflection on my own experience as a Catholic.  Religion is most visual in Mexico. I was interested in icons and in the beat people—beatific in the Kerouac sense—sympathy to humanity. I see more spirit in the people than in the icons, let’s put it that way.

DD: How do icons function in the film?  We talked earlier about film language. The meaning of the images is largely defined through the film itself through their relation to the death, and yet the icons have such strong connotations.

PH: Yes you can interpret an icon in many ways. For me it was a way of working through Catholicism. You’ll see more of it in my next film.

DD: Did you decide to tone the black and white footage to facilitate a less dramatic contrast with the colour footage?

PH: From a formal standpoint it helps blend the high-contrast shots with the colour. I also wanted it to look old—but not the way we are used to seeing representations of the past in film. Hollywood uses sepia. My first text states “looking through the lens/ at passing events,/ I recall what once was/ and consider what might be.” The first shot is of a black band. We hear the music of a saxophone and see a trumpet. There’s a sort of visual/aural pun there. We’re used to sync sound, but in the last line of the preceding text it’s clear that, well, with film we can do whatever we want.

DD: In the text you changed tenses. For example in the third text: “The white sheet is pulled over the dead boy’s body/ the children wept.”  It’s almost like looking at someone’s memory. The temporal connections are unclear but we’re content with ambiguity.

PH: I believe in an open form where you’re not told what to think. I suppose it is a metaphor for memory. I honestly didn’t think about the different tenses in the text, I went with what sounded good to my ear.  It jumps around and that’s in keeping with putting myself in the past while making, finding myself on the bus again, while I’m really at home in my Bathurst Street basement.

DD: The shot with the Coke sign and the donkey cart has temporal ambiguity too. The sign is obviously modern and the cart so primitive.

PH: Again, there are many ways this can be taken and the ambiguity is important. For example, the last text: “big trucks spit black smoke/ clouds hung/ the boy’s spirit left through its blue.” What is that blue? Is it blue smoke from the trucks? The blue of the brick wall?

DD: It brought me back to the wall.

PH: It did? That’s one of the things I liked about the line. It is ambiguous and I don’t profess to have an answer. To end on a line like this ” the boy’s spirit left through the blue” it’s almost like a traditional religious experience. I suppose this brings us back to my Catholic history and the icons in the film. The line is directly from the journal and was written on the bus. I suppose it was the blue sky that I saw at the time.

DD: I’m comfortable with ambiguity. I guess it’s partly because the second text tells me that there’s no footage of the central image. I don’t have expectations. I don’t wonder how the boy died.

PH: It was the second death I’d seen on the trip. The first was a terrible car accident in Colorado. I didn’t film that either. The windshield was the movie screen and the camera was right there, but no way.

DD: Do you remember deciding not to film the Mexican boy?

PH: I remember my hand on the camera and it would have just been a matter of leaning out. I guess all the media footage we see every day flashed through my head.

DD: I think the absence of the footage is more striking. We’re saturated with media-like images.

PH: Well, the media images are striking, but I think in this case actual footage wouldn’t leave any room for analysis of death and our feeling towards it. Media images are too overpowering. That’s why I put the camera down. I think it’s more successful as a meditation in its absence. There is another text which I think is awkward, yet perhaps one of the most important: “I should have a bible,/ you suppose I lent it to someone/or someone stole it.” Most people ask, “Is that poetry?” It brings us back to the first person that’s having this experience. For me, it symbolizes a loss of religious faith in the Word, in the icon, in what we’re taught in religious classes. Today the Bible seems irrelevant. People take whatever meaning they want and use it for their own cause… and yet the Bible (like the film) is an open form. Its ambiguity facilitates many interpretations.

DD: I guess it’s a question of how didactic one is about a particular interpretation.

PH: Perhaps that’s how it should be read. Let people read it and take out of it what relates to their experience… rather than Jim Baker and the P.T.L. Club saying what it means.

DD: For me, the music really helps define my proximity to the central image. When the tempo is upbeat, in the shots of the two bands for example, the boy is almost forgotten. When the music slows I feel closer to the tragic event. Can you explain how you and the musician decided upon the music?

PH: I showed Mike the film and we worked on it together. I left the film with him and he worked with it and soon certain riffs started to develop, and then it was just a matter of getting it right. We did six takes and I edited the first version which I wasn’t really happy with.  Because it was edited it didn’t seem continuous, it didn’t seem to flow, so we tried again. This recording went directly to 16mm magnetic tape. There were things that he did that, if he was three frames off, it would change the mood completely. We did seven new takes and finally we felt we had it. We were both really tired but decided to try one more and we got it. Only one section was edited, I took that whole section from the sixth take. I think it’s hard to write the music down, it’s certainly possible but perhaps it’s not as direct. I like to work in a way so that everything comes out of experience.

DD: The diarist of The Road Ended at the Beach expresses frustration and disappointment at the failure of events to live up to expectation. One has a strong sense that the camera comes between you and your fellow travelers, thatit distorts what you want to record.

PH: At one point in this film I state: “The best time for me is when I’m on my own with the camera.” Later there’s another reference to how the camera gets in the way. At this point the spectator realizes that the camera is part of the event. In the first part of the film we are painting the van, it’s very mysterious. The guys are preparing for the trip west. It’s very linear at first, setting up the form. I suppose one of the first references to the camera is in a shot in the cabin.  Rub Chan asks me if I want some whisky and starts to get up. Richard says, “No, No, No, don’t get up.” And I get out from behind the camera. It’s the first filmic reference to the  camera. There are a lot of problems with directly autobiographical films. It seems that when a film is too direct, too personal, you meet a lot of obstacles. I tried to use my personal experiences as a vehicle for something more universal. In Somewhere Between Jalostotitlan and Encarnacion the universal experience is death. It’s an analysis, not just of personal experience, but of how this experience is incorporated in a much larger context.

A Conversation with Robert Frank (1980)

May 1980
Mabou, Nova Scotia

JM: Jim McMurray
RK: Richard Kerr
PH: Phil Hoffman
JL: June Leaf

 

Jim McMurray: How did you happen to find a spot like this?

Robert Frank: Oh, it’s just an accident.

JM: You were just up here?

RF: Well it was on a bulletin board in Port Hood.  Yeah, it’s  pretty nice.

Richard Kerr: What are the winters like? Pretty severe.

RF: The wind is sometimes pretty rough but it’s not too bad. I  like it in the winter.

JM: Where’s the coal mines from here?

RF: Past this house here. See that house? There’s a hole going down, that’s where it used to be. It fell down the tower.

RK: Are they going to use it again do you think?

RF: No, it’s all under the water so it’s too expensive.

JM:  Too dangerous too, eh?

RF:  …it’s too expensive to come in here and you know look after the track here. It takes a long way to get it out from here.

JM: Can anybody come around here dig themselves and use it in  their fireplaces?

RF: People use to do it, use horses, get some chunks. Not anymore.

JM: I sometimes work with, you know like iron. Bending it in a furnace. I went down to the railway tracks and they were selling coal at places where an old railway car had tipped over. All free now.

RF: Where do you come from?

JM: Ann Arbour. I saw a picture in your book. I think The Americans, of someone laying in a park.

RF: Ann Arbour. Yeah that’s with all the cars. There’s a little lake outside Ann Arbour.  Not far from…

JM: Do you get away from here very much anymore or do you stick around home?

RF: Well, when I have got to go, I got to go. When you got to go, you got to go. I like it here.

RK: I just saw they had a display of your pictures at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto in the spring. Were you up there at all?

RF: No. No I didn’t go.

RK: Just send the pictures and let them do the talking.

RF: Yeah.

RK: I guess what you know were looking for and I guess it’s in the form of some sort of advice, is that, I imagine there’s no secret to it, but what frame of mind were you in when you did The Americans. And how conscious was it? The spontaneity, this sort of thing.

RF: Ah.

RK: Because you read so much stuff and a lot of it frankly is you know?

RF: I think spontaneity might be a way of not thinking you know. Maybe if I would define it. Spontaneity, I don’t think I thought a lot about it. It was more feeling than thinking.

RK: You just did it. What sort of line as far as equipment goes, were you outfitted with. The finest equipment of the time or were your tools just what you had?

RF: No, I had ordinary equipment. A couple of Leicas, one with a normal lens the other with a wide angle.

RK: Yeah.

RF: It helps with good equipment but I think it’s more important to have good equipment when you do carpentry. It’s more exact. When you’re out there working alone I think that. Then thinking about carpentry it’s not that you’re working together with someone. But doing The  Americans at the time, I think that it was wonderful to travel alone.

RK: That’s what we were talking about this morning. This is Phil’s project. I’m doing sound. Jim’s doing the driving and some other things. We were wondering, to do that he’s doing, to do it by himself, he’d be more mobile. He wouldn’t have to listen to our bitching and complaining you know.

RF: Well if it finally gels, what you do with the tape and what he does with picture. It’s an ongoing process.

RK:  Have you ever tried much team work as far as film.

RF:  Well with films I think you have to. It’s too hard to make films alone.

Philip Hoffman: How about Jack Kerouac and Pull My Daisy and films like that or that film. Did you shoot the film and then he did the narration?

RF: Right. He looked at the film and narrated as he looked at it.

PH: Was that a good way to work?

RF: That could be called spontaneity. I mean that certainly was a spontaneous piece of literature.

PH: Was there editing involved? I mean did you go to a third person again? After you had shot it and he had done the narration, anyone cut things out? Like, On The Road apparently has been butchered quite a bit and I was just wondering how much manipulation happens in something like this.

RF: There was very little taken out. We just had to fit it sometimes, it ran a little bit over or we wanted to put some music in, so some words were cut out, some  sentences. But it didn’t happen very often. Of the thirty minutes that he narrated maybe two or three minutes were cut out and that’s about it.

RK: Earlier we were down talking to Allen Ginsberg, doing some research at  Columbia, that he kept there, and I was wondering, is there… those people they seemed like such a close knit group at the time. Are they scattered now or do you have any contact with any of those people? Is it just a time and a place and now you’re in a different time and place.

RF:  Well Kerouac is dead… he’s away. Sometimes I see Allen. I never kept that close in contact with them. So, I don’t know. If, Corso’s living mostly in Italy. I think it pretty much goes apart after… years.

RK: Yeah, that’s what I find with my friends. We just drift I’m out here now and they’re all out in Calgary in the real estate boom. At the time, were the conditions right to work? Where things as free as they like. You know we were only two and three years old then but we had the image that it was free, that everything went and there were no problems. Did it have that feeling to it or is that something the media played upon. Grabbed.

RF: I don’t think that it gets freer. You know good people work. They work the same in 1980 as you would have worked in 1960. I don’t think you know its people. Maybe it was freer because you knew less and you were  moreinnocent. Now I wouldn’t be that free simply  because I know more about it. Much more.

RK: Are you familiar with the term zeitgeist?

RF: What?

RK: : Zeitgeist. It’s a German word for spirit of the times.

RF: Zeitgeist, zeitgeist. Yeah.

RK: I heard that word when I was in Switzerland about six  years ago. That was the word all the people were using. I didn’t know what the hell it meant. It could have been an amulet for all I know.

Frank:  Well I give you another.  How about Weltschmertz?

RK: Weltschmertz? We come from a German town so we get all this. A town in Ontario. It’s a rural German community, so you get osmosis over the years. It’s kind of interesting.

RF: I think this dog makes a good soundtrack.

RK: Yeah. I just did a film called Dogs Have Tales, about my other dog. I don’t go anywhere without a dog.

RF: So who is in charge of editing the film?

PH: I am. It’s a project where we all work together. I think one of the things that’s happening is in a way it’s just gone a week and things are kind of gelling… We all kind of got our separate jobs now, you know.

RK: A guy gave him a free truck. He went to  California and couldn’t take it with him. It was fifteen years old and did him a favour once and he said take care of  this for me it’s yours.

RF: It’s nice.

JM: It is nice.

RF: What kind of truck is it?

JM: It’s a Dodge. An old Dodge.

RF: Wonderful looking. Nice.

JM: Well we put new doors on it, but it was painted covered with flowers and beautiful things like that. But nowadays I guess you can get away with things like that. Is there anything we can help you with, any heavy lifting?

RF: No I can’t think. No, I don’t think there’s anything.

RF: How long have you been here, five, six years sort of a thing?

RF: No we’ve been here ten years. Eleven years. We came here  in 1969.

JM: Wow.

RF: We built this you know? Yeah, it’s satisfying to build something.

RK: You bet it is. That’s something I was never brought up to do but it’s something I want to do.

RF: It’s satisfying to look here, you know? See the water?

RK: Eat like a king out here there’s food. There’s seafood. Want to hit the road? I think that’s right appreciate  that.

RF: Well I mean it thought it would be more like having to look into the camera.

RK: No. We left the make-up girl at home. Make-up person.

RF: I always liked it when films you know had ? when you could move it around. When I was teaching in sometimes Super 8, I always liked that about Super 8 because I completely divorced it from the sound, and there’s so many possibilities then.

PH: It’s exciting… there’s always something being born,

RF: You always stumble on something that makes sense that enhances the picture itself.

PH: I think of a  saying… let the feeling find its own form. It’s a good thing for me to remember for this film. That’s what I’m trying to do and sometimes it’s really hard… travelling is hard enough …rather than just taking pictures. It’stwo jobs in a way.

RF: I use to think… how is the wind doing?

RK:  It’s kicking the hell out of this mic, but what can you do?

RF: Sometimes the wind sounds so beautiful. What kind of a  machine is that?

RK: It’s a Sony. A Sony cassette deck. It’s got little toys on it you know …too many gadgets.

RF: You always work with one mic?

RK: This can work with two.

RF: Yeah, but you do everything with one?

RK: As much as possible. I’m not a technical person so I got to find a simple machine. Don’t need a Nagra.

PH: We’re just using this thing with 3 or 4 different lenses.

RF: Is that a combination lens? I mean that’s just one lens.

PH: It’s just one, yes. That’s one thing I wouldn’t mind for this trip is maybe not changing lenses so much.

RF: You just work with that one lens?

PH: No.

RF: You have other ones but then you have to take it off.

PH: Yeah, but not for this one. It’s the only one I could  get a hold of, but  it works out.

RF: What do you shoot? Colour?

PH: Yeah, negative. We’ve shot for three or four years now west and east. This is our second time out east. I shot super-8 and collected sound when I first started a while back, and now what I’m going to do with the super-8 is blow it up to 16mm and use it sort of as a concrete form of memory. And so over the years we have been returning to places and people to see how they’ve changed. So hopefully the film will have some history to it.

RF: How long is it since you’ve done the super-8?

PH: 1976… about four years ago.

JM: We came out here last year and got some stuff, but the car kept breaking down. It was a newer one then this. Do you still go down to the School of Design in Halifax.

RF: No I haven’t been there since at least three or four or five years.

RK: I was thinking about going there back to school for the fourth time. Think it’s an alright place?

RF: School?

RK: That particular one. If you care maybe I shouldn’t ask you that.

RF: Well if you feel like you need to learn something and that’s the way you feel you can learn it. What would you take there.

RK: Art education or something like that. How about teaching I do some teaching now, but you don’t get paid well when you know the stuff but don’t have the letters behind you. They don’t pay you as well. But I don’t know, change my mind every day, that’s what I got one for I guess.

RF: Well if you can go to school that’s nice. It gives you place, not in the streets.

JM: Especially out here as opposed to Toronto. I just got out, been going for years. Got a Masters Degree in Fine  Arts and I finally realized that it’s not doing me much good at all. I wish I had worked all that time. The dog likes it here. He likes those cliffs, feels like  he’s climbing mountains.

RF: It’s your dog, eh?

JM: It’s Richard’s dog.

RF: Oh, yeah.

JM: It was his birthday two days ago, two years old. You getting pretty stuck to this place here? I mean hard to leave?

RF: Well I’m attached we put a lot of money into it. We’ve worked on this for a very long time.

JM: Nice to make something and have something there.

RF: It seems permanent. It doesn’t change. It’s nice to watch nature. Watch the water, the wind, the sea.

JM: That’s what I like. I didn’t really want to come on this trip. It was hard to break myself away. How are the people down here? Pretty nice?

RF: Very friendly, yeah. Well they’re very discreet. There’s a lot of room, nobody bugs you.

JM: This has got a lot of Scottish history to it or something like that. The highlanders or…

RF: Yeah, they’re mostly Scottish.

JM: A lot of ***Zeetans*** (?)

RF: Some of them speak Gaelic.

JM: Yeah? Wow.

RF: It’s a good place to live. I don’t know about working. I have a hard time working here but June works a lot. She works on the building. Why don’t we stop for a  while?

JM: How do you heat in the winter? Is it wood?

RF: Wood stove, coal.

JM: You just go down in your car or truck and pick it up?

RF: Yeah. When we just came here in 1969 coal was something like eleven, twelve dollars.

JM: A hundred weight?

RF: A ton. And now it’s forty and I guess that’s still cheap.

JM:  Yeah. It’s a lot more down in (?)

June Leaf: It’s good huh?

RF: Can they have some tea?

JL: OK. You want some tea?

RK: Get back to work.

RF: It’s a good day for working today.

RK: Yeah. Not too hot.

JL: Are you guys having tea?

JM: Phil you want some tea? A lot of people paint their shingles. But I guess that once you’ve painted it once you’ve got to paint it over and over again.

JL: Most people paint them. They do, they like to paint them. It makes the house look fresh every couple of years.

RF: With just oil on you know, seems to keep them pretty well.

JM: That’s a pretty colour though, silver.

JL: See these are old shingles, see we’re reusing them  they’re very strong. I mean, they’re just like new shingles. Look at that. That was already cracked when we took it off. See we took it off with a shingle puller. That way where you see we’re putting it back it varies.