Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Flowing Outside of Time: An Interview with Stephen Kijak

From time to time, I'll
be excavating unedited
versions of interviews that aren't otherwise available online. To that end, here's the first draft of my conversation with director Stephen Kijak. The finished edition, tit-
led "Great Scott," appear-
ed in the 9/07 issue of
Resonance, which ceas-
ed publication in 2/08.

In the 1960s, a good looking Ohio-bred baritone named Scott Engel fronted the chart-topping UK baroque pop outfit the Walk-
er Brothers. (Yes, the unrelated trio preceded the Ramones in tak-
ing the same surname.) In Stephen Kijak’s eye-opening docu-
mentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, tour mate Lulu confesses, “Let's be honest, I had the biggest crush on him. First
of all, the voice resonates with you, but he was so gorgeous.”

Click here for the trailer

Times have changed a lot since then. Now the reclusive Walk-
er only emerges every decade or so to release eerie albums like 1995’s Tilt or last year’s inscrutable Drift. In the film, Brian Eno claims, "He really should be recognized as, not only one of our great composers, but one of our great poets, as well.” Pulp's Jar-
vis Cocker muses, "It's like an intrepid explorer...somebody who goes to a part of the world that nobody's ever been to before.”

Resonance spoke with Kijak while he was in Texas for the US premiere at SXSW. The goal was to find out how he discover-
ed Scott Walker and why he made such unusual choices, like filming fans listening and responding to his music in real time.

Kijak clearly remembers the first time he heard the man’s expres-
sive voice. It was during a late afternoon in San Francisco in 1991. He explains, “You know how it is—the way it happens with anything you discover—music geeks get together to play stuff for each other. Fontana had just put out Scott One through Four for the first time on CD. And then there was the Boy Child compilation. So there was that. It was very basic. The song was ‘The Old Man's Back Again.’ I heard it
out of these gargantuan speakers, and it blew me away. It was
one of those moments when you hear everything that you're influenced by and you're into in this music. And I didn't peg it
for 1960s music. It was this thing that seemed to be flowing outside of time in a way. And that was the beginning. I just collected everything I could get my hands on from then on in.”

In 2001, the New York-based, Boston University-educated filmmaker began work on 30 Century Man. Seven years lat-
er, he was finished. Along the way, he convinced David Bowie
and actor Gale Harold (Queer as Folk) to produce and Michael Winterbottom cinematographer Mat Whitecross (The Road
to Guantánamo
) to provide a portion of the camera work.

In working on the film, Kijak learned as much about the Scott
of the past as the Scott of today. As he acknowledges, “I didn't know that this was some guy who was famous in England and had throngs of female fans chasing him around. I didn't know about any of that. So, he was very much in isolation. It was a voice, it was a persona, and it was a songwriter, and that was really what pulled me through. So when you see the film, you're seeing the point of view of someone interested in the songwriting, and I wanted to make it about the journey of a songwriter and yes,
of course, create a history and try to communicate the grand-
eur of his fame for people to see what effect that had on him.”

Until Kijak got ahold of him, Walker, who relocated to Great Britain in 1965 during the height of Walkermania, had kept his secrets to himself. Kijak respects that decision and accomplish-
es a neat trick with his impressionistic portrait. First, he encour-
aged the infamous enigma to open up about his career and to al-
low cameras into the studio during the making of Drift. This was
a first for Walker, and 30 Century Man will surely stand as
the definitive document of the man’s working methods—
which are unconventional, to say the least.

At the same time, Kijak lets his subject retain the air of mystery that’s long been part of his allure. Walker’s on-cam-
era commentary stems from two different conversations, but there’s precious little a-
bout his personal life—and that’s by design. As far as Walker is concerned, it’s “all about the music,” and Kijak takes the same approach. Granted, he does allude to a drinking problem, but doesn’t go into detail. Regarding Walker’s private life, Kijak says, “If you're a little intuitive, you can read between the lines, but I don't want to spell it out. At the end of the day, it's not real-
ly that interesting to me, but maybe it is to some people. I mean, there are obviously people who want more of it, but is it because we're trained to want more by some of the crap television we see?”

Instead, he traces Walker’s career from the 1960s to the pres-
ent and gives numerous admirers the chance to have their say, including Marc Almond, Gavin Friday, Alison Goldfrapp, and members of Radiohead. Though some viewers may be disappointed that Kijak doesn’t delve deeper into Walker’s childhood or intimate relationships, the director emphasizes,
“I didn't want to do a 'Behind the Music.’ I didn't want to do the boring sex, drugs, and rock and roll bullshit. I mean, I'm sure he went through it, but...” He concludes that he finds those kinds of biographies “invasive” and that too many artists buy into them.

So Kijak honors Walker’s iconoclastic nature with a few unusual moves of his own. Consequently, he captures several musicians listening to and sharing their thoughts about Walker's music. It was, he agrees, a response to his own feeling about hearing Walk-
er for the first time. As he puts it, “I wanted to replicate the ex-
perience for people. For anyone in the audience who was being introduced to him by the film, it's like you're sitting there with [Blur's] Damon Albarn, and you're listening to tunes. And a lot
of the time, we had records. I had vinyl with me and a turntab-
le, or I shot in my friend's apartment with a DJ deck in the liv-
ing room. It can be tricky when you have live music, because
you are synched to it, but the emotion—the real authenticity
of the moment—was great. It wasn't some mind-blowing in-
novation, but it's something people really respond to.”

It’s a risk, but Kijak pulls it off. As director Atom Egoyan
(The Sweet Hereafter) remarked about the film at the Berlin International Film Festival, “I have rarely seen a biographic-
al documentary that is able to make the viewer experience the perspective of a devoted fan, a concerned friend, and a complete stranger at the same time.” And everyone on screen responds differently, honing in on different aspects of Walker’s work.

Kijak elucidates, “A lot of
it was led by their favorite songs, for the most part. Sometimes they would say, 'I'll let you pick.' And I would say, 'Let me play this for you,' but a lot of times they would just go for the vinyl and say, 'Ooh, play this' or 'Play that.' It was to replicate that exper-
ience and get back to the core of how I discovered it, because the foundation of my obsession was the groovy 1960s stuff, and spec-
ifically because it was coming off of that Boy Child compilation, it was his own writing. That's really what formed my point of view. I didn't hear him and then go buy a bunch of Walker Brothers rec-
ords, and then being a young American at the time—I was in my early-20s, coming out of college—I had no knowledge of all that.”

Already the filmmaker’s labor of love is off to a strong start
with sold-out screenings from London to Austin. It isn’t his first festival hit. Kijak is also responsible for the cult classic Cineman-
(2002), in which he and co-director Angela Christlieb profile a group of New York-based filmgoers who do nothing but watch movies all day. Just as they’re obsessed with movies, Scott Walker is obsessed with music—and so is Stephen Kijak.

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man will be making its way
to other US film festivals throughout the summer with plans
to open the film in limited release later in the year.

Endnote: The film didn't actually begin its run until 2008, but better late than never! 30 Century Man opens in the Bay Area on 1/23 and LA on 2/27, while a DVD is in the works for the spring. (For more information, please see the official website). Interview assistance by former Resonance editor and current IMDb impresario Arno Kazarian, who helped to interrogate Kijak.

Click here for my Slog post about the movie, here for Stev-
en Fried's Siffblog entry, and here and here for my Resonance interviews with the Brothers Quay and David Lynch. Incidental-
ly, I first encountered the title track, "30 Century Man," through the soundtrack for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Images from Plexifilm, Andrew "Filmbrain" Grant, and Sight & Sound.

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