Celluloid Phantoms: A Conversation with Bill Morrison

One of contemporary cinema’s most passionate archeologists, filmmaker Bill Morrison digs through rare archival material and decaying film stock to exhume the remains of cultural memory. From the visually abstract meditations on mortality in Decasia (2002) to the haunting exploration of a historic natural disaster in The Great Flood (2012), his found-footage films are anchored by an abiding fascination with the ephemerality of physical media and the beauty of its disintegration. In addition to its focus on the tactility of film, his work is infused with the influences of other art forms, including painting, which he studied in college, and music, which features prominently in his collaborations with celebrated composers such as John Adams, Jóhann Jóhannsson, and Steve Reich. His latest documentary, Dawson City: Frozen Time, is the perfect pairing of subject and artist, giving him the chance to explore the ghostlike qualities of cinema through the story of a small town in Canada’s Yukon Territory, where five hundred lost reels of nitrate film were buried in permafrost in a swimming pool. Set to the music of composer Alex Somers, the film uses these excavated artifacts—which include newsreels, silent films, and photographs—to examine how the town’s evolution intersects with larger forces in twentieth-century history.

Just before the theatrical premiere of Dawson City: Frozen Time at New York’s IFC Center, Morrison stopped by to chat about his archival obsessions and the process of bringing this story to the screen.

How did your experience studying painting in college inform your approach to filmmaking?

My relationship to filmmaking is very much like that of the painter to the canvas. I like to work alone as much as possible; I like to work at night; and I like to work very, very long hours. My idea of becoming a filmmaker really came after I was already enrolled in art school at Cooper Union, where I had the great animator Robert Breer as a teacher. This was in the mid-eighties in New York, where there was an incredibly overpriced art market that I didn’t understand. I liked some of the work, but for the most part I was mystified by how things were commanding such enormous prices. Breer, who came from painting and sculpture, represented something much more down-to-earth and real, something that I could relate to. I started to see how paintings could be ephemeral when there were twenty-four of them per second and there wasn’t monetary value placed on them.

The painting tradition includes collage and other ways of making the materials of your painting evident. That can be part of the subject. There isn’t a lot of that formalism in mainstream cinema. It’s traditionally been in the area of the avant-garde that you are made aware of sprocket holes and dust. There are stories to be told if you carefully examine what your relation to form is and why it matters. What does it say about physical media and what gets remembered and forgotten?

It never occurred to me that a film didn’t need to have a story until I saw Koyaanisqatsi a couple years after its release when I was in college. By that point I understood composition and that you could build meaning out of images in a nonliteral way. I was eighteen at the time, and this showed me a direction I could work in. I wanted to try film as an extension of painting, and to that degree I think I’m still working in the same way.

When did live performance become important to the way you conceive your films?

Very soon after art school I found this theater company that had a built-in community and used my films in their productions. Though they had a small budget, they had a structure that allowed me to make abstract films and gave me a context to screen them in. At that time, I quickly realized that I had a great affinity for editing to music—not like in a music video, but in a longer form. I started working with musicians and composers from the new classical community, and I was also working at the Village Vanguard, so I got to know a lot of jazz musicians. I began to see how, if these films weren’t going to play in a multiplex, they could exist as events and could have a life and gain a new meaning in the performance world.

What first attracted you to working with found footage and archival materials?

It goes back to this idea I had of film being twenty-four paintings per second. I tried my hand at building each second with twenty-four different paintings. I would scratch the emulsion as a way of having the film go through a process of me touching it. Somewhere along the way I saw [Peter Delpeut’s film] Lyrical Nitrate and realized that time could also do this, and that was much more of a compelling idea to me. I wanted to see what the oceans of time could wash up on the shore. And over the last twenty to twenty-five years, I’ve really been looking for that, because mostly what I’m using is detritus, the stuff that people don’t want to look at. It began with understanding that a moving image is not a continuous thing that exists in a black box but an artifice. Showing this is a way of cracking open our ideas of perception and highlighting the fact that, at any moment, the frame could be destroyed.

I think that’s why these images evoke such a melancholy, romantic feeling. You’re watching something beautiful slowly begin to disappear.

Yeah, and there’s the obvious fact that all these people are dead. They’re ghosts. But there’s also this idea that we’re finding this lost civilization, just as another civilization could find ours through these kinds of remnants. This is what it feels like to paw through what our civilization was.

The story of Dawson City seems like such a natural fit for your interests as an artist and storyteller. What led you there?

When I was in art school or soon after, I heard about these films that were buried in a swimming pool in the Yukon. I thought that it would be a cool thing to make a film about one day and that you could merge form and subject by using the collection of films to tell the story. But I wasn’t ready yet; there were several films I needed to make first. I needed to make The Film of Her, The Great Flood, The Miners’ Hymns, and Decasia, which are social histories as well as labor histories that helped me understand how to tell a story of a certain place within a parameter of time.

Part of the work I do as an independent filmmaker is going around to different venues and showing my films. The ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa had invited me up for their screening series the Lost Dominion. The programmer, a guy called Paul Gordon, mentioned that he was in charge of the digital migration at the Library and Archives Canada. I asked him if they had the Dawson City collection, and he said they had all of it and were getting a 4K scanner installed. A light bulb went off, and I realized that it was finally possible to make this film that I always thought I would make one day, and probably quickly and cheaply, and at a high level.

At what point did you know that this was not only an interesting story but also something that resonated with larger themes about the twentieth century?

That happened as I was writing the film and exploring what the footage was. I realized I was telling a much bigger story than I had set out to tell. At the heart of it was this letter typewritten by a bank manager. A smoking gun like that is unique to any archeological find—somebody saying, “I buried this film because of this, and this is why it’s here . . .” That became the script of the story I wanted to tell. I realized I had these two very strong and compelling bookends. I wanted to go back in time to explain what Dawson City is and why this town exists and why all of these films were left there. It was a clean starting point and happened to coincide with the beginning of commercial cinema. In the other direction, there was the story of how the films were exhumed in 1978 and then preserved.

I started to look at the footage, first for narrative cues—I would search the database for “swimming pool” or “gold” or “film.” Then I began to build scenes as if they were sentences, and these sentences were about baseball or indigenous people or labor or race relations. There emerged this whole story about the role of labor both in the establishment of the town and in its demise through mechanization and corporatization.

Can you tell me about how you begin your research process and how you go from having an idea to finding the materials to bring that vision to life?

You’ve got to be looking for something just to get into the archives to begin with, and you also have to have the flexibility to decide that something either works with a certain project or should be put in your back pocket. For The Great Flood, I had in my mind’s eye that there would be aerial flood footage. So I went to my favorite mid-twenties archive at the University of South Carolina Moving Image and Research collection, and I found exactly what I was looking for. When the film premiered, Hurricane Katrina had happened, so all of a sudden people were talking about the 1927 flood again, and it became something I wanted to explore more as a commentary on current events. That tends to be the way I work now—I like to make a discovery and then build the backstory, rather than be led to an archive and try to find a needle in a haystack.

Did you enjoy the fact that Dawson City required more narrative backbone than some of your previous work?

Yes. For one thing, I had a lot of respect for what the story was and wanted to tell it properly. There’s a lot of misinformation associated with the Gold Rush and Dawson City. As I started on the project, Ridley Scott’s Klondike series had just premiered and everybody was saying what an awful job of historical research he’d done. I was thinking this is really intimidating—if Ridley Scott can’t do a good job, what am I going to do? I felt like I had to tell this story well, and I thought that if I was as specific and detailed as I could be, that would speak to a larger truth and people would understand it as a metaphor. So I really got into this story and how this town reacted to the twentieth century. Once I got what my film was about, it was quite intoxicating to keep working on it and go deeper.

Where do you go for inspiration?

I look to museums; I look to music, travel; and I run, so that’s a big part of my process. I went to the Robert Rauschenberg exhibit at MoMA recently, and I thought that was incredibly inspiring. I go to the movies, but I don’t think a lot of what I see relates to what I make. Recently, I saw Stalker, which was pretty amazing, and I saw a print of The Maltese Falcon at the TCM Classic Film Festival that was just spectacular.

You have no items in your shopping cart