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Q&A: Sam Green on A Thousand Thoughts

by Melissa Starker, creative content & PR manager

Tue, Jan 16, 2018

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We're thrilled to welcome filmmaker Sam Green and the iconic Kronos Quartet back to the Wex this week with their Artist Residency Award-supported "live documentary" A Thousand Thoughts. On the eve of presenting the work at the Sundance Film Festival before heading to Columbus for a performance at Mershon Auditorium, Sam spoke with me about it—how he connected with the string quartet, gave up on the idea of never doing a music documentary, and in the process got to work with some of the finest talents in independent film.

Sam Green

Are you excited for Sundance? And how many times is this for you?
Oh! I am very excited, and how many times? That’s a good question. 1842, I think, was the first year I was there, so…

[Laughs] Back when Robert Redford was just a pup…
Yeah, well the Lumière Brothers back then. You know, people don’t remember that.

How and when did you connect with the Kronos Quartet, and had you been a fan before that?
It’s a funny sort of story of just happenstance, in a way. About four years ago, their manager called me out of the blue and asked if I would be interested in making a video about them, a short video for the 40th anniversary concert at Carnegie hall

I had known who they were but I wouldn’t consider myself a huge fan or even that knowledgeable. But Janet [Cowperthwaite, Kronos’ Managing Director], said, “We have all this stuff we’ve saved and you can go through it,” and I love that kind of thing. So I went through their huge archive and I listened to all their 50-plus records and was just knocked out by them. I made that short video and then this project came out of that. There’s much about them that really moves me, or impresses me, or thrills me in a way.

Is there anything about the group and its work that you felt lent itself to your work with live documentary?
Well, it’s funny. I made the short video and then we were at Carnegie Hall after the show and I liked the video and they liked the video and Janet said, “Hey! If you ever wanna do anything longer, let’s talk.” And I said, “Oh God, Janet, the truth is I hate music documentaries,” because it’s true. Most music documentaries are so formulaic and also, it’s usually like, ten seconds of music and that’s it. In that form, it’s not really about music; it’s about the story of the group. And so I was like, “Aw, I don’t wanna....” There are so many bad versions of a documentary about Kronos Quartet I could imagine.

So, I just sort of thought, forget it. But I kept thinking about it because I did really. I was really taken with them. And I had been making these live documentaries. At some point I thought, God, why don’t I do a live cinema-portrait of them, with them playing music? It’s the perfect idea because that way, the music could really be at the heart of it… So this could flip that on its head. And it’s a weird form so people don’t have a lot of expectations, you can do different things. I just thought, wow—I don’t usually say this about my own ideas but I thought, that’s a great idea—and I approached them about it. To their credit, they didn’t quite understand it but they said, “Sure, that sounds fun.” It’s one of the things I love about them. They’ve been doing it for 40-plus years and they’re still experimental, take chances, do weird stuff, you know? Which is a delight, I think.

How did the collaboration work with the group in comparison to previous musicians who simply provided you with a soundtrack?
This was weird because it was taking what I had done and sort of making it more meta and more inward. I made a piece about Buckminster Fuller with Yo la Tengo but they did the music. I don’t want to say they were incidental because they were central to the piece but with Kronos, it’s about them and they’re playing the music so it’s this sort of odd layer of overlap. They were very involved. I’ve had breakfast with David Harrington, like, 25 times over the past few years and I make films that are very research-intensive so I’ve spent a lot of time with all of them. I’ve followed them around, I’ve watched them rehearse, so it’s weird to then do a piece about them. There’ve been little awkward moments here and there but in general, it’s been fine.

For me it was important not to make a tribute film. That was something I wanted to avoid. It’s a portrait of them but it uses a portrait of them to explore bigger ideas, which I think was a good solution.

Kirsten Johnson and Joe Bini

In your Kickstarter campaign for this project, you mentioned wanting a “dream team” of collaborators, like cinematographer [and Cameraperson director] Kirsten Johnson (pictured above with editor Joe Bini). Was there a reason you went for the dream team this time? Was working with them what you dreamed it would be?
Well, I never set out deliberately to work with this person or that person, and Kirsten—KJ—is an old friend of mine. I was thinking about who I could work with because I’d just moved to New York and I wanted to work with someone here. I talked to her at some point, and then I saw Cameraperson and I was so knocked out. It’s one of my favorite movies ever. Just the sophisticated way it traffics in ideas, the elegance of it; it’s just one of the great films. I thought, goddammit, I would love to work with the person who made this. That was terrific because we did shoots together but she had lots of input. It’s not just, ‘Can you make it look like this?' When you make a film, it’s a big deal who you bring to a shoot. Their energy and presence shapes what you get and hers is so good. That was an important part of why we got the material we got.

Joe Bini’s somebody I met a couple years ago and who I hugely admire. He’s edited Herzog’s stuff for 25 years and he’s great. I asked him if he’d want to work on this and he was intrigued, and we developed a kind of organic collaboration. We call [this work] directed, written and edited by both of us, because it really was. I always think collaborations are successful when you make something that is better than what you would’ve made yourself, and I definitely know that’s true with this.

And then Josh Penn who produced it produced Beasts of the Southern Wild and he’s a pretty great person in terms of helping to raise all the money, and then Kronos Quartet. It’s a pretty cool group of collaborators. I feel very lucky.

You’ve said that there’s a political element to this work and to your chosen way of telling stories. Could you expand on that?
I think there’s a lot of things that interest me about this form and some of them are more filmmaker-y. It allows you to use images and sound at their most powerful. I like that, as opposed to somebody watching something on a phone or computer. But there’s also another thing that really draws me to it and that’s political. I don’t want to sound shrill with this, but we’re living in a time in which so much of our media and technology encourages us to be home, alone, in front of a device. The internet’s great—I’m not a luddite, I use it all the time—but I think there’s something important about people getting together and I think there’s something wonderful about sharing an experience with a group of strangers in a room. There’s a magic of cinema that comes from that. Nobody calls watching a movie on your iPhone the magic of cinema (laughs). The magic of cinema is being in a room with other people, and the lights go down, and you’re transported to another time and place and you have this sort of magical experience. That’s valuable today more than ever, because of that idea that we’re being isolated through the media we consume and the devices we use. And I know Kronos feels a reall mission around their touring and their building of community, and their sharing the experience of other cultures and kinds of people through music. They tour all the time. I feel in that sense our interests intertwine.

Do you feel like the audience feeds your performance? 
Of course. I made normal films for a bunch of years and then got into this performance stuff. All these things that any performer—anyone, like, from high school musicals—knows was a huge revelation to me. I would say to a friend, 'Wow, did you know when you’re up in front of an audience you can feel their energy?' And anyone who’s a performer is like, duh, that’s the essence of performing. But it’s super interesting to me to have that direct feedback. You know what’s working and what’s not. You know when people are tuning out a little bit. It’s acutally great. I lived in San Francisco for a long time so I’m always self conscious about sounding like a hippy, but that kind of energy exchange is powerful. Anyone who’s seen a great performer knows what that’s like.

Images: 2011 Polaroid portrait of Sam Green in the Wexner Center Film/Video Studio; cinematographer Kirsten Johnson and editor Joe Bini, photo: Sam Green via Instagram.