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SXSW Interview: “Trimpin” Director Peter Esmonde

SXSW Interview: "Trimpin" Director Peter Esmonde

Editor’s Note: This one of a series of interviews, conducted via email, with directors whose films will be screening at the 2009 SXSW Film Festival.

“Trimpin: The Sound of Invention”
Director: Peter Esmonde
Enter the amusing, enthralling world of the eccentric sonic alchemist Trimpin as he explores the mysteries, pitfalls, and unexpected joys of musical experiment, with the assistance of the Kronos Quartet. [Courtesy of SXSW]

“Trimpin: The Sound of Invention” will screen in the Documentary Feature Competition.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

Sitting in the Carnegie Cinema: the moment I saw Brigitte Bardot naked in Technicolor CinemaScope in Godard’s “Contempt,” I realized that I wanted – no, I needed to be a filmmaker.

Seriously: As a kid, I liked to write stories, and I went to college intending to major in literature. Freshman year, I took a film class with Michael Roemer (“Nothing But a Man,” “The Plot Against Harry”) – the first working artist I’d ever encountered. And (at the time) the narrative possibilities offered by film seemed so much greater than those of fiction.

How or what prompted the idea for your film and how did it evolve?

Well, I didn’t exactly fall out of the production van yesterday. After getting my MFA as a directing fellow at the AFI, I went through a long period of not wanting to be near movies and the sociopaths that seemed to be making them. So I spent some years in the corporate jungles of urban America; taught at NYU, Columbia, etc.; studied design methods, and so on… With my spouse’s help, I eventually recognized that I was damned to make films – that no other set of activities was going to leave me with as great a sense of meaning or fulfillment.

So the final choice of Trimpin as subject was quite deliberate: I needed to study someone with the tremendous courage and tenacity it takes not to compromise their own artistic vision and worldview. I needed to show that putting oneself through the challenges, pitfalls, and odd little joys of being a creative person in a market-driven society is a worthwhile endeavor — that there’s even something exemplary in it.

The premise of the film has been constant throughout. My views of documentary – of the strange cultural phenomenon it is, and the stranger things it might become – have certainly evolved.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making your film.

I was mostly interested in how Trimpin works: how he takes such delight in discovering new phenomena, how he generates and facilitates ongoing dialogues with materials and collaborators — then uses those discoveries and dialogues.

Well, Trimpin wasn’t exactly ecstatic about being filmed. He wouldn’t have tolerated more than two strangers in his studio while he worked – especially if one of them was trying to tell him what to do and how exactly to do it. I needed to stay out of his way. Plus I just didn’t have the money to hire a DP. So a cinema verite handheld approach – in which everything is immediate, everything is being discovered NOW – seemed to suit the hyperactive subject. The interviews we shot (and we shot way too many) just didn’t compare with the footage of Trimpin banging, building, breaking and boinging.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

By far the greatest hurdle was earning Trimpin’s trust. His previous experiences with crews had been mostly awful. Many seemed interested only in poking fun at the crazy artist. One TV station embellished a night exterior of his studio with a full moon and a wolf howl; another lugged a fog machine into his workshop, then told him to “act like he was working on something.’

At first, Trimpin and I talked by phone, discussing 20th century art and what I imagined were some of his key influences – Tinguely and Cage and especially Nancarrow. Then he suggested I talk with a curator he trusted. The first couple times I went to his studio, we just talked a bit more, and I observed him working. No camera, no audio. Over time, Trimpin realized that I wasn’t out to “do a job” on him.

Of course, it then took me months to learn how to shoot something resembling passable footage.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

If I can continue to explore the aesthetic and narrative issues I need to, then I’ll consider myself successful enough. God knows there’s a long enough list of projects I’d like to do; it’s just a question of limited time and very limited money.

What are your future projects?

I just finished shooting a short film about a remarkable composer/ performer named Ellen Fullman, who has spent more than two decades refining and perfecting her “long string instrument” – which is truly extraordinary. I had the privilege of working very closely with a gifted DP, Peter Strietmann, and a very able crew – very different from the cinema verite approach of the Trimpin film, and (I’d like to think) potentially much richer.

There are other projects – at least one feature, and a couple of shorts – that I’m not able to talk about just yet. Most (but not all) are films about artists negotiating/creating cultures. At this point, I’m just hoping I won’t go broke too fast or die too soon.

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