INTERVIEW: Emma Franz (Producer/ Director of Bill Frisell: A Portrait. UK premiere screening with Q+A Sunday 5 Nov)

A still from Bill Frisell – A Portrait
Photo courtesy of Emma Franz

A new documentary film about BILL FRISELL will receive its UK premiere screening this Sunday 5 November (details and booking link below). In advance of the screening, we found out more from the film’s producer and director, the award-winning independent filmmaker EMMA FRANZ.

The film has been getting good reviews. Canadian critic John Kelman: Franz deserves recognition for capturing the guitarist so completely… It’s one of the most compelling, entertaining and informative films made about a living music legend.” Scroll down for a trailer. Interview by Sebastian:

LondonJazz News: We understand that Bill Frisell: A Portrait was not only premiered this year at South by South West Film Festival, it also won out in an extremely competitive process to get there. How did that all work? 

Emma Franz: SXSW receive a couple of thousand applications per year, out of which a hundred or so are selected to screen, and out of that, 10 fiction and 10 non-fiction feature films are selected as candidates for the Grand Jury’s award. It was a great honour for me to have the film premiere in competition.

LJN: Tell us about yourself? 

EF: I am a musician-turned-filmmaker. I studied classical piano to concert level, then moved into playing jazz and rhythm & blues in bands as a teenager. Piano took a side-line when I started singing with pianists far more accomplished at improvisation than I, and I subsequently spent about a decade travelling with my music, but without regular access to a piano. I worked in 35 countries and after a while, film-making was beckoning me as a coming together of my life experiences and skills – my interaction and artistic collaboration with a diverse range of people and cultures, my visual arts background, communication skills one develops performing, as well as negotiating and managing international contracts, and my deep interest in people and stories. One of the first things I wanted to do was try to make films that reflected my experiences of music and music practice.

LJN: What led you to want to make a film about Bill Frisell? 

EF: It was mostly an instinctive decision, motivated by the fact that I had long been moved by Bill’s music, and had seen him play in various contexts and styles to a broad range of audiences I would inevitably witness as completely absorbed by his magic. I was curious to see if I could create a layered portrait of character, ideas, approach and of course music, that might provide cinema audiences with a sense some of the elements that result in Bill’s very unique, high level music creation and sound, and of having ‘hung out’ with a great master.

LJN: And how did you first present him with the idea? 

EF: I just asked him after the gig during which I’d received my bolt of inspiration!

LJN: And how did he respond?!

EF: He put his hand on his chest and in his usual self-effacing manner said, “Oh, me? What’s so interesting about me?” Luckily he had enjoyed my last film Intangible Asset Number 82 and so agreed to participate.

LJN: What was he like to work with? 

EF: Gently humorous, friendly, self-effacing, and sometimes non-committal or tangential when speaking about what he does – which meant that trying to capture ‘moments’ and thoughts through which to write the film and express my themes was a long process. I wanted to access things that weren’t really already available in interviews online and in print.

LJN: In his music, Bill Frisell works with slow pulse. That must have an effect on the way you edit and present the film?

EF: Ha ha… yes, in the film Jason Moran refers to it as a “well-paced shred”. I think one of the beautiful aspects of Bill’s playing is that he’s not trying to impress with speed or chops, even though he has plenty of those. He is all about sound and melody and enhancing whatever context he is in. What comes out feels so close to how I experienced his personality and way of speaking and thinking. I tried to reflect that with the ebb and flow of the editing, and how I chose to contextualise things; so that the music in the film wasn’t about impressing anyone or anything, but an extension of Bill’s personality and mind, and in the hope that the experience of watching the film could be an intimate one.

LJN: Mike Gibbs is also in the picture. What was the context? 

EF: I filmed with Bill and Mike Gibbs in London as they prepared the BBC Symphony Orchestra for a concert of Bill and Mike’s music at the Barbican (in 2009 – reviewed), with Bill and Joey Baron joining the orchestra. Mike Gibbs is another gentle giant of music, and with his recent 80th birthday, is still composing and arranging wonderful music. Mike had been Bill’s principle teacher when he studied at Berklee, and so it felt very meaningful charting this project. It was wonderful hearing a lot of the history and stories (Mike is also a marvellous raconteur) over the couple of weeks, and I felt that shoot could have been another film in itself. There were about 40 additional minutes of that project in the first rough cut, which was about four hours long!

LJN: And there is some footage of Paul Motian

EF: Yes, Paul Motian was very important in Bill’s life and musical development, and I am also a great admirer of his music, so it was very important and a great pleasure to include him in the film. I filmed the Paul Motian Trio (with Frisell and Joe Lovano) at the Village Vanguard, where they had done a fortnight residency for over 30 years. Sadly, as most will know, Paul Motian has since passed away. No one knew at the time that the performance captured in the film would be the last ever performance of that trio.

LJN: But you also want it to appeal to a general/wider rather than a music-obsessed audience? 

EF: I hope the film will resonate deeply with musicians and music lovers, but I have had very nice feedback from creatives of many mediums and backgrounds.

Link to John Kelman’s full review
Bill Frisell Film Official Facebook page


This Sunday, November 5, 3pm followed by Q&A with Emma Franz
Curzon Cinema, SOHO, as part of Doc’n’Roll Film Festival

Categories: miscellaneous

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