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10 Years in the Making: Directing Duo on Stephin Merritt Doc “Strange Powers”

10 Years in the Making: Directing Duo on Stephin Merritt Doc "Strange Powers"

Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix’s portrait of cult songwriter Stephin Merritt opens at Film Forum this Wednesday, October 27. Both directors shared with indieWIRE how they came to be involved with the documentary, and where their fascination with Merritt stems from.

Songwriter Stephin Merritt always seems to have a Chihuahua on his lap. Performing with the Magnetic Fields since 1991, he has composed some of his generation’s most intellectually incisive, whimsical, witty and acerbic music (Merritt has been compared to Cole Porter for his sophisticated use of language). A dedicated, growing army of admirers flocks to the group’s concerts and makes Merritt an odd sort of anti-celebrity, one who is happiest not being recognized, whiling away the hours in gay bars on either coast (his favorite place for writing music) or spending a good part of the day soaking up obscure movie classics. Ten years in the making, the film follows the famously grumpy Merritt and explores his relationship with Claudia Gonson, his creative collaborator and the band’s manager. It paints a portrait of an artist whose music brilliantly holds up a mirror to the fears, joys, and insecurities of his time. [Synopsis courtesy of Film Forum]

Co-directors Gail O’Hara and Kerthy Fix on their backgrounds as filmmakers…

O’Hara: My background is in journalism and pop music. I started a fanzine in 1992 with my friend Pam Berry called chickfactor and over time it became one publication that covered the Magnetic Fields in depth. I also was Stephin’s photographer for many years, which evolved out of our friendship and working together (at Spin magazine and Time Out New York, where I was the Music Editor for many years), so eventually that became the reason I started shooting digital video of the bands in 1999. I got Kerthy involved in 2003 because I was leaving the country for a while and wanted her to carry on shooting in New York; also she had an avid editing suite in her home.

Fix: I’ve always been attracted to situations where I can collaborate with other artists. I went to film school in Austin in the early 1990s and met an amazing community of artists, musicians, writers and filmmakers who are still my closest friends. Film demands collaboration and community and I’ve taken my artistic grounding in Austin with me in all my work.

O’Hara and Fix on how they came around to directing this project, and the approach they took on making the film…

O’Hara: As I mentioned above, I had been documenting Merritt’s many projects and setting up shows since about 1992. The film came out of that – just being in the inner circle allowed me wonderful access to the players – and I wanted to make sure we had all the important shows on video. It didn’t really start becoming a more fully formed film until we started editing in 2008, and even now it stands as a collection of band experiences chosen from our 300 hours of footage.

Fix: When I moved to New York, Gail had been shooting Magnetic fields shows with a handicam. We looked at the footage together and decided to get more serious about shooting with wireless mics and a better camera. I was starting to produce documentaries for a living at the time and I saw tremendous potential in the music and the characters.

O’Hara: We started out documenting and went on to try to put things together in a way that made sense. The band is very private and was very involved in how they wanted this film to be, but in the end were much more free about what they let us show. I think ultimately we felt we had to demonstrate the characters in the band and especially the Stephin/Claudia relationship dynamic – and especially her role in getting him to where he is today – as well as his musical process.

Fix: Something I learned on this film, was treasuring my ignorance about the subjects. My curiosity drove me to ask questions and kept me from being intimidated. I wanted to know more about Stephin and Claudia and what made their relationship tick and this helped shape what I shot and what I worked out with Sarah Devorkin, the editor. I noticed that when I knew everything, I could overlook some of the most interesting things that were going on because I didn’t “see” them anymore. Not knowing was a kind of gift.

O’Hara and Fix on the biggest bumps they had on the road…

Fix: Finding a narrative. We kept expecting something big to happen with Stephin’s career. However, his tendency to produce great music at a steady, undramatic pace was very annoying – great for him probably. (Editor) Sarah (Devorkin) and I sat in a windowless room for over a year teasing out a flow from 300 hours of footage and interviews. Her organic style imposed a flow on the material. We wanted to paint a portrait of how Stephin’s mind works and instead of relying on action arcs; we ended up painting a portrait of his playful creativity and his milieu.

O’Hara: It’s very expensive to make an independent film and procuring the funds has been a challenge. Making something that would meet the band’s approval was also a challenge. For many years we weren’t sure if Stephin and Claudia would ever sign release forms, so it was a bit of a crapshoot to even go on with the project.

Co-Director Gail O’Hara. [Photo courtesy of the filmmaker]

O’Hara and Fix on what they hope audiences will take away from “Strange Powers”…

O’Hara: We’re really lucky to have such entertaining subjects. Even audience members who know little to nothing about them seem to find watching them interesting, even fascinating, and I think most people who appreciate art like to see the artist at work. We’ve seen many people emerge from the theater and immediately go and download a lot of Merritt songs, which is great of course. The folks who are already fans are usually pretty excited to see inside their private world. These are private people and we were really lucky to be given access to their lives.

Fix: People have been wildly enthusiastic at festivals around the world. It’s screened in South America, Australia and New Zealand, all over the US, in seven countries in Europe and we keep getting requests.

O’Hara and Fix on their inspirations…

Fix: Weird as it may sound; I was greatly inspired by Michel Gondry’s film with Dave Chappell, “Block Party.” It was shot near my house in Brooklyn, and the film captures an entire world and sensibility that Chappell brings to his humor. When he goes home to Ohio and spontaneously goes up to a college marching band that is practicing on the field and invites them to play in Brooklyn with Erykah Badu, The Fugees and The Roots, it really conveys his sense of play. The film is a picaresque adventure, which relies on the preparations for the show to create narrative structure. When I saw Block Party, I realized that making a film about a person’s process and community would be enough to drive a film. Stephin is a kind of anti-hero and I wanted the film to relish his resistance to the demands of pop culture celebrity. That his insistence on being himself was an eccentricity to which more of us should aspire.

O’Hara: I like the look of some woozy films like “Morvern Callar,” I love the imaginative work of Terry Gilliam and Peter Greenaway, and American oddballs like Wes Anderson and Whit Stillman. I also watch a lot of music docs, and some classics such as “Don’t Look Back” and “Mad Dogs and Englishmen” are among my favorites. I also just saw the Harry Nilsson doc, which I love, and am fond of ones in recent years about Townes Van Zandt, Daniel Johnston and Scott Walker. As a music fan I feel like I’d go see nearly any music doc as long as I’m in love with the subject’s music.

And on what they have in store for their futures…

Fix: I wrote a feature script with Craig Harwood about the first famous transsexual; Christine Jorgensen and we are producing it ourselves as a labour of love. Next year, we’ll start shooting some scenes. I also finished a doc this year about Le Tigre that has been showing as a work-in-progress at festivals and it should be released by Oscilloscope early next year. However, I’m really sort of casting around for my next big work project. It hasn’t shown up yet but they always appear when you’re ready.

O’Hara: I am putting together several photo books and working for Field Recordings, a company run by filmmaker Lance Bangs, which is working on films about Slint and Sonic Youth at the moment.

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