Stephen Kijak’s doc “Scott Walker: 30 Century Man” explores one of the most enigmatic figures in rock history. Scott Walker, a superstar in Britain’s 1960s pop scene as lead singer of the Walker Brothers who evolved into influential soundmakers of the last few decades. Kijak’s doc features interviews with David Bowie, Radiohead, Jarvis Cocker, Brian Eno, Damon Albarn, Alison Goldfrapp, Sting, Johnny Marr and Gavin Friday, among many others. “Walker” premiered at the London Film Festival on Hallowe’en, 2006, and has since screened at the Berlinale and SXSW. It finally opens in limited release today and New York City’s IFC Center.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I grew up in a small town on Cape Cod, and up to my teens the big films were of course, “Grease,” “Jaws” and “Star Wars.” The usual. Then this little video store opened on Main Street and one of us got our hands on that crazy NY indie “Liquid Sky” and that just blew my head off. We watched it every weekend and ran around singing “Me and my Rhythm Box”. Then I found “Urgh! A Music War” with that amazing Klaus Nomi performance. So music and movies were always linked very closely early on for me. Then I rented “Betty Blue” and my father thought I had rented a porno. I got in so much trouble! But I was continually drawn to these new subversive (i.e. European) images and ideas and sort of dreamed my way out of small town America and I guess, like the subject of my latest film, developed this “European imagination”.
I was very into music, and thought I wanted to be a music journalist. But in college, I felt more creative urges stirring and felt drawn to the film department and it was just a natural fit. But even then, my tastes were decidedly Euro. And my favorite professor was this dour Czechoslovakian who really let me develop a more poetic way of telling stories on film. The films I made in school were terrible, but it was a great time to experiment. I think I’ve always been looking for a way back to that early inspiration, to that sense of real shock and also creative freedom.
Please discuss how the idea for “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” came about.
The idea for “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” was brewing for years. A boyfriend had introduced me to his music in 1990 in SF. I had never really been into 60’s music before, I was such a child of the 80’s, but hearing Scott was a total revelation. It was like that first look into an alternative film universe I experienced when I was younger. It really messed with my head. That booming baritone, the swirling string arrangements, the surreal lyrics; it was epic orchestral pop, but it was cloaked in this grand melancholy. I was obsessed.
And as my filmmaking career progressed, the more it seemed that I would eventually have to contend with this obsession cinematically one day. His music is so wide-screen. And he’s writing very narrative songs, about Bergman films, aging transvestites, the velvet revolution, you name it – and then to emerge decades later with his current avant-garde stuff, it’s just a fascinating journey. So when I heard he was breaking yet another of his decade-long silences between albums, I figured, it was now or never. His story must be told!
There was also the desire to turn more people on to his music. I sometimes joke that the film is in some ways, the most expensive mix-tape ever made. I just want to sit people down and turn them on. He’s an American artist who found unparalleled fame in the UK but is very cult still here at home. So part of the urge was to bring him back home, so to speak.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
Once upon a time I had actually started writing a feature script, using his music to structure it, but that turned out badly. Then a friend lent me a VHS of Bruce Weber’s Chet Baker film “Let’s Get Lost” (it was out of print for a while and I hadn’t seen it in years.) That really made me think that I needed to make a documentary about Scott. I started conceiving of it in a more elliptical and slightly experimental way, more in tune with his current music, but over the years (and I mean YEARS), it really took on an almost completely linear shape.
He’s famously reclusive, and like I said before, vanishes for a decade between records (he’s made only three full length albums since 1984), so I was never going to get him to do the things Chet Baker did for Bruce Weber – it became more insular, fighting for access to his very private recording sessions, and then waiting until the very end of the process to film the main interview. Along the way, I interviewed many fans, friends, and collaborators, and slowly, the narrative was emerging. It really was the narrative of a man’s work, the evolution of his art form. His privacy is so well guarded, that to try and delve into his personal life was to destroy any trust I had built with him, so I just followed the music – and when you hear where he started and where he ended up, it really is a shocking, but not altogether unbelievable, evolution.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
One of the biggest challenges was simply dealing with the contradiction between the myth of Scott Walker and the reality of the very serious, polite and seemingly regular man who sat for an interview with me. People do tend to think of him as the Phantom of the Opera in a way, shrouded in mystery, living a cave somewhere. But it is that space between the reality of the man and the shock and awe of the current music that we travel through in the film. My editors and I settled on this introduction that presents both ends of his musical evolution at once, so you can instantly hear the gap that needs to be traversed, from the 60’s to today. And then in one instant, we allude to the myth of Orpheus, which some people find wildly pretentious, but then we introduce him sitting for an interview, relaxed and joking…so which is it? The trick was then not to dismantle the myth but just present him and his work and let the mystery be.
I had always intended this to be a theatrical film, and we wouldn’t have gotten his participation I don’t think, if we had just done an hour-long rock doc for the BBC or something like that. As for distribution, that was a huge challenge, because the BBC and the like had been trying to coax a feature documentary out of him for years and he just wouldn’t cooperate. So no one really believed we could do it.
Many were convinced that he would never even finish his last album, as it was 10 years in the making. So by design, this had to be a very independent project, that moved at its own pace (or the pace dictated by Scott). Luckily, my producer’s specialty was marketing and distribution, so we did secure a UK distributor pretty early on (Verve Pictures) who were ready and waiting when we finished the film (and did a fantastic job with it in the UK I must add). All the financing was private and I was more or less living out of a suitcase all over London for a few years while we were making it. But we really did move at his pace and a lot of the collaborators on the film, chief among them brilliant cinematographer/editor Grant Gee (dir. of “Joy Division” and “Meeting People is Easy”) were people Scott himself was a fan of, or were past collaborators, which also helped reinforce a level of trust with him as a subject and have the film a very specific feel. It’s meant to evolve stylistically as his music evolves.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
Both “Cinemania” and “Scott Walker – 30 Century Man” were very independent docs, very much labors-of-love done for very little, and I’m now at a place where I have to explore my own imagination again, get back to my writing, which has been on hold for about a decade. I have a new project I’m developing now with my good friend Holly Becker, who produced “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” It’s a very simple thriller, a bit of a desert-noir. After Scott I got hooked on Emmylou Harris and lots of old country music. So I’m keeping the music angle and fusing it with my love of film noir. The film will be called “White Cross” and we just attached Radha Mitchell to star.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I’m sometimes not sure how this definition serves us anymore. Is it about budget? Is it about concept? Is it about distribution? With so much changing now in media, I think this gets harder to answer. Can it simply be about the spirit of a film? I think the real challenge is getting independent ideas to a wider audience; stories, voices, images that change our perceptions of the world and actually move the medium into a new direction.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Well, I just clicked over to Yahoo and saw that some 9 year old kid just sold the movie rights to his book “How to Talk To Girls”, so I actually don’t know what to say… start early! General advice? Make friends. It’s a collaborative medium. Be a bridge-builder. Be a diplomat. Filmmaking is war. You have to have people in the trenches with you that you like, people that know what they’re doing and can fight as hard as you can. Buy a very good bullshit detector. People’s bullshit gets more refined every day. And just never forget the passion. The core of it. Why you started doing a thing. And just make better films.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Well, it would really have to be this film. It’s my third and the one where I think I’ve gotten the closest to the essence, the real spirit of the subject. Sure, there are some things I would change, what filmmaker wouldn’t keep editing into infinity? But I feel a real progression with each film and this was just one of those impossible projects that actually got done the right way as far as I’m concerned. (And I got to interview Bowie. That was a moment.)