It's been a very busy year for filmmaker Stephen Kijak. He's back home in NYC just long enough to oversee the weeklong IFC screenings of 30 Century Man, his 2007 documentary on 60's pop icon turned musical enigma Scott Walker. Anyone actively following the cutting edge of Modern music will be familiar with Scott Walker's creative evolution from his chart-topping days with the Walker Brothers to his mysterious chameleon-like turn as a highly perfectionistic singer-songwriter of dark, beautiful and challenging "operettas". Buried forever are the approachable lovelorn anthems such as the 1966 Walker Brothers hit "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore". The singer's current presence in music occupies a space in which only Walker resides. Few other composers can evoke such a polarity of emotional opinion as Scott Walker as he constructs sonic form out of punched meat sounds and bleating donkey calls. Few other working composers are as brilliant and uncompromising, leaving both David Bowie (executive producer of 30 Century Man) and Brian Eno speechless and grasping for superlatives on film when attempting to describe their awe of Walker's scope and talent.
30 Century Man has been winning praise at film festivals in Hong Kong, London, Sydney and Berlin (just to name a few!) while delighting Walker enthusiasts along the way with the gift of illuminating just what it might be like in the very private world of this musical enigma whose persona has been self- exiled in secrecy for decades.
Luckily, Stephen Kijak is more open to discussing his craft. It is clear that the documentarian seems drawn to telling the stories of idiosynchratic characters driven by their passion for the inexplicable. In the film Cinemania, from 2002, his camera follows five film buff enthusiasts all teetering on the edge of a neurotic need to claim the dubious achievement award for who can warm the most theatre seats in NYC within a lifetime. The film mines for gold and finds it. You just can't make this stuff up. Thinking about it, it becomes more clear why Kijak would take an interest in the Hotel Chelsea, "a vital and significant cultural spot", in his own words.
One can say firsthand that Stephen knows how to stir the interests of fans to his films similarly to the way a filmmaker controls the tension and release of action within a sequence. Intrigued by Walker's brooding compositions and psychology, I have attempted to purvey a preview copy of 30 Century Man for over a year now and Kijak is very good at controlling the time and place. "Like all things in Scott's world, it will be worth the wait."
I met up with Stephen on Wednesday at IFC for what was the first in a schedule of daily screenings up through December 23rd only. Among all the excitement of the free giveaways during the director Q and A following the film, I neglected to mention that I have rarely seen a documentary so seductive in it's approach and I felt I was genuinely led by the hand and taken inside the sometimes lovely sometimes harrowing Walker compositions. That night, Stephen confessed that his film had been held back for about a year in the U.S. due to miles of red tape: "lots of song copyright issues and American lawyers".
1."Why did you feel that a story on Scott Walker was important for you to tell at this time?"
On a practical level, he was about to make a new album, so the timing was perfect - and I had been such fan for such a long time and had always tried to spread the word about his music, it was, in a way, a chance to make a cinematic mix-tape of my favorite Scott tunes and have his work communicated to a lot of people. And there's a great story there as well, the story of the evolution of a songwriter, and in that, a lot of lessons that can be learned about the creative process and creative life.
2. "Scott Walker is still a bit of a mystery to his fans. Why has his mystique continued within the music industry for decades, even among his collaborators?"
Because he doesn't play the pop star game. He may not be as much of a mystery as people actually think, but we're so programmed to think that musicians naturally do interviews and appear on MTV (or at least they used to!), and have this desire to be public figures, that when someone pulls away from that, especially after having achieved the level of fame he did (in the 1960's) it throws us off. Fans are greedy, we want and sometimes expect too much of an artist - so he recedes, and lets the music speak for itself.
3. "You started out in journalism. 30CM and Cinemania can be looked at as psychological pursuits in a way. What do you think?"
I don't really see it as psychological - I never want to be seen to be pathologising a subject - especially not with Cinemania - I see film more in psychic terms, whether its documentary or narrative, you still have to try and enter that psychic, creative space, where you try to see the actual spirit of the film, and then you try to adhere to it and give it form. And on the other side of that is the craft, where it is more journalistic - documentary filmmaking has a long histories and many traditions, and I'm just still learning my way through that. At the end of the day its about finding some sort of truth, and I look for an emotional truth that I hope reflects the subjects in a true way.
4. "Besides Walker, who would be the other vocalists working today that you feel are "pushing it" or really exploring something new and authentic? "
That's a hard one, because Walker isn't just a "vocalist", he is a musician, a composer, the soundworld is total. I honestly can't think of one. I'm more inclined to look at an artist, like, say, Anselm Kiefer- someone working in the visual arts, making conceptually rigorous and seriously imposing pieces that carry a weight of myth and history in them. From Walker, I just spin off more into art like that. It's hard for me to find other music to connect to it now.
5. "Is there any one subject that you would never personally investigate via film?"
Myself. Filmmakers who turn the camera on themselves generally irritate the hell out of me. I don't want to be that confronted by ego.
6. "Do you have any words of advice for student filmmakers that might be reading this interview?"
Yes. Celebrity lasts for a minute. Art lasts for a lifetime. Trends come and go, but it's the story, vision and craft that make for good filmmaking.
7. " Lastly, I feel I should ask what is the largest misconception regarding making films today..."
That we make money doing it!
The IFC Center is located at 323 Avenue of the Americas, Manhattan. 30 Century Man shows daily through December 23rd only. Stephen Kijak in attendance for the 7:40pm shows this Friday and Saturday.