“Serendipitous” is how Sufjan Stevens describes his introduction to the 100-year-old Oregon tradition known as the Pendleton Round-Up. Stevens collaborated with DPs Aaron and Alex Craig to film the round-up in 2013 and turn it into a five-minute short that he could share online. But after collecting 60 hours of footage, the Craig brothers told Stevens that their shortest edit was thirty minutes, and even that left good footage on the cutting room floor. After a year in production, the trio will debut “Round-Up,” an hour-and-fifteen-minute documentary/performance, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, featuring Stevens on electronics and Yarn/Wire performing piano and percussion.
Today, the first trailer for “Round-Up” has arrived, and the trio answered some questions about the film.
How did you find the Pendleton Round-Up?
Sufjan Stevens: It was serendipitous. I was on a road trip and found it listed in a newspaper. I went for two days and felt like a voyeur or anthropologist. I felt like an outsider, and was one of the few people not wearing a cowboy hat. Everyone there was dressed quite traditionally with boots and everything. I felt like I was encountering this as an alien.
How did you (Craig brothers) get involved in this project?
Craig brothers: We got an email from Sufjan that asked if we ever filmed a rodeo before. We hadn’t, but we told him we were from Texas so we think we could handle it. He asked us to capture everything at Pendleton in slow motion and as close as we could possibly get. We used a 200 mm lens, with a 2x extender, and filming at 300fps crops it in twice more to equal an 800 mm lens, so we got super close. We collected 60 hours of footage. We showed it to Sufjan and didn’t know what to do with it, and it became apparent that BAM would be the natural place to show this because of his existing relationship with them. We edited it for over a year.
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What did you learn from the 60 hours of footage?
Stevens: I spent 2 days at the rodeo and months pouring over the footage. The round-up is an aggressive tradition. I’m trying to objectively be a steward of the tradition and what it means in its choreography. Round-ups are steeped in a lifestyle of cattle ranchers, and they take place on these grounds — it’s a way of life that still exists. The film is part of a much bigger argument about the domestication of plants and animals and man’s relationship to the earth. It’s an existential issue that I think is crucial to have conversation about: man in modern society. We live in a world that is cruel to the earth itself. Man is a biological terrorist.
Craig brothers: Sufjan asked for a five-minute video, but the shortest we could do was thirty minutes long. Sufjan said after watching it he felt like he watched a thirty-minute trailer for a really epic documentary. The one-[hour]-fifteen-[minute] length seemed like a good amount of time to sit down and watch a movie. We didn’t want to make it too long, we only wanted the best of the best.
What should people expect from the live performance?
Stevens: I’m friends with Yarn/Wire. I’ve seen them play a few times over the last few years in loft spaces. I was drawn to their intensity of performance and the intimacy they have together. Half of the music is scored for them and large parts are electronic and soundscapes from my computer. I’m going to be part of their ensemble. I’m not doing a solo performance, it’s all instrumental.
Much like Godard’s recent film, “Round-Up” doesn’t have a traditional narrative, and you’re not a director. How do you explain this piece?
Stevens: I’m a songwriter at heart. The production of “Round-Up” is sort of loosely affiliated with my interest in design and art photography. This and my first film are more related to photography and visual display. I would never consider myself a filmmaker because a true film is a much larger and sophisticated art form that requires a different, much broader perspective. I’m more interested in simple rudimentary elements of style and composition. I’ve always been a visual person, I’m formerly a graphic designer. I’ve always seen myself as an observer. I like to maintain objectivity and don’t get too intimately involved in my subjects.
Craig brothers: We’re calling this a cinematic portrait. Think of going to a gallery and you’re looking at portraits from a rodeo and you have a good understanding it’s history, that’s kind of what this is. There’s no dialogue but we’re taking a look at the history of rodeo and where we are now.
“Round-Up” feature the same hula hoopers from “The BQE.” Are these two pieces related?
Sufjan: “Round-Up” is a companion piece. They’re shot in a similar style — silent images capturing the events. They’re both non-narrative; purely aesthetic and conceptual images set to music. But they’re polar opposites. “The BQE” was a visual investigation of modern industry on the east coast, the effects of modernism on urban living. The second is man immersed in nature, and our film is a manifestation of a performance (the round-up) based in agricultural society. If it’s about anything at all, it has to do with man in nature.
Craig brothers: We shot these hula hoopers who also used lassos in Brooklyn and on a farm in upstate New York. They’re the same three hoopers from ‘BQE.’ After we decided to make it an hour plus, Sufjan decided to make a second cut and start from scratch. The second time is when he got the idea to include the hula hoopers. Though it does tell a story because we got access to be closer than any cameras in the stadium. Sometimes the camera is in the cowboy’s face right before he gets thrown in the stadium with a bucking bull. You can see the fear in his eyes, and that these are normal humans doing really crazy things. When you go to a rodeo you don’t see that, from a distance they look like manly men, but when you’re in the pit you see the fear in their eyes and it looks like they have something to prove.
This is the second time you worked with the Craig brothers as your DPs. What is it like working with them?
Sufjan: They’re such a great team, they have such a natural camaraderie. They are really open to direction and criticism and they also perform really well in the moment with their cinematography. They know everything about the equipment. Their footage is immaculate and it’s surprising because they were filming under compromised situations. They had to lean over stalls with large cameras and work outside with a lot of dirt and dust.
Giddy up on over to BAM January 20-25 to see Sufjan and Yarn/Wire perform the soundtrack to “Round-Up.” See it while you can because there are no further dates planned.