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INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL DWASS
Series curator Kathy High conducted this telephone interview with Michael Dwass in May, 1997.
the process of making this film. At the
beginning of the film, one of the first things you hear on the soundtrack
is that it's 6:20 AM. So can you describe the process of exactly where
you started and how this came about?
Well, we actually started at the Bronx; there is a Broadway Bridge across from the Bronx to Manhattan. But the idea was that we were going to cover the entire length of Broadway in Manhattan. So we actually drove up there at I think 5:00 or 5:30 in the morning, because we knew that we had to start early if we wanted to do it all in one day, which really was the idea. We didn't want to get halfway through and the sun was gone. We went up there pretty early in the morning, and so when you hear that on the soundtrack we really were trying at least to make a reference to the time as it actually was. So probably that was shot at about 6:20 in the morning, that one little piece.
Throughout the film you see images of clocks, which may or may not be that evident, which were given as a clue -- maybe subliminally -- to the passing of time. But I guess that was another little audio cue that it was the beginning of the morning and there are other little cues in the soundtrack: the alarm clock going, and there is a coffee machine. We tried to give on the soundtrack an impression of going from these nocturnal sounds into factory and normal sounds that you hear when you're waking up and then gradually the intensity and noise starts building up. In any case, we went up there at 5:30 in the morning. The idea was that we were going to walk the entire length and we were going to film it all on Broadway. It wasn't that specific to shoot certain things and it was fairly improvisational in a way, the actual photography of it. I think it's 225th Street -- I was just looking at my notes -- I think 225th Street is the Bronx and it goes over the bridge and you're in Manhattan.
It's the very top of Manhattan. And it took us ten hours to go all the way down to Battery Park. And I actually had expected it would take longer, and maybe I started getting nervous that we weren't going to make it, and so I went faster towards the end, and you sort of percieve that in the film, I think: that it speeds up, which I guess works as part of the aesthetic.
I have a partner I work with, her name is Alba Rosso. She's my wife, and we were just talking about how the overall impression of the film is that it starts out very slow-like in the morning -- how things start out slow and it gradually starts rushing towards the end, faster and faster.
Hmm, the lizard.
I always have a problem describing the lizard. Maybe it's a cliché, but there is always the idea of the city as a jungle and also the part of the city that's like underground culture. And the subway is coming from underneath the ground, so I guess the lizard was sort of a reference to all these things, underground aspects.
There's the subway -- which actually is above ground there -- but it is going into a tunnel eventually. And I guess it's also another naive kind of image, even though you don't really have lizards in New York. But there's the river there and you are coming from more of a rural area, coming down that way. People always ask me about that, and I'm not sure what to say.
. . . Black and white video images.
Well, it's funny, because we tried to intersperse those black and white images as much as we could where they actually belonged in the geographics. They were shot simultaneously with the color footage and so when we were editing we really attempted to say, "OK this is the spot where that belongs." When you're editing, you always have to decide, "Where am I going to put this?" It's not a perfect thing. Some things just didn't work or for whatever reason, we cut a few things out. But we really tried to edit those in as much as possible where they actually belonged.
We cut the whole picture silent originally. It originally was a completely silent film. We had an idea of what the sound would be like but we created the silent film and from that we conceived the soundtrack, which may or may not be obvious. I don't know. And the composer is Gordon Gano. He is leader of the Violent Femmes rock band. It's a pretty big pop-rock band. And I had shown it to him and asked him if he would be interested in doing something, if he had any ideas. He composed this three-chord guitar piece with various variations that get played over and over again. I'm not sure if he conceived it to go over the black and white video, but I think that was his inspiration. He actually timed it out so that they would go over certain of those and it worked out very nicely. I think he really understood the rhythm of the film and it really worked out great. Because, in the end, that's what we did. We tried to use it in another way, but it just didn't work. And we sort of played with that, where you start to expect to hear that guitar every time you see the black and white image -- and all of a sudden it's not there. I think when you reach Canal Street there is the sound of someone pushing a cart. It's very silent.
Right at that point we try to really mix to throw off the sound quite a bit. There is another musician that you hear and then you see him playing a saxophone and you hear sort of a premonition of the water sounds. I don't know how obvious it is.
Right, so that's sort of how we try to throw it off at that point.
Yes, that's for sure. Otherwise you'd go crazy.
Well, we actually did script the sound. We had this silent film, and we went through painstakingly with a Steinbeck and we made these notes. We looked for visual cues. We had certain ideas of things that we wanted, but we could have done anything. I mean, there are so many possibilities with the sounds. We went through and we looked for visual cues that could give us ideas of different sound effects or just basic ideas of what to use in certain areas. And it was really amazing, the things we picked up on. So we ended up with this script basically of sound effects, and then we wrote a few things. A lot of the voices we actually wrote. There is a mixture of things that we wrote and we recorded with actors or people, and then stuff that was recorded in the street more like ambient noise of the city. And we recorded a lot of sound effects. Some of the sound effects we picked up from libraries. There are sounds of animals that are mixed in that are obviously off of sound effects records.
There is a wolf at one point. There's an elephant. There's one of those little children's mechanical rides that you hear. There's the sound of a bat flying. There's a bee or some kind of an insect buzzing. Of course, it's all mixed together so sometimes it's not that evident, depending on how closely you're listening. So we had a lot of these very specific cues that we went looking for and we also wanted to give an idea of the many languages that you hear in the city. And we asked a lot of people that we know to record just simple sentences giving the idea of when you're walking down the street and you hear just a piece of the conversation in passing, trying to really give that impression but in as many languages as we could find from people we knew. That was all scripted out. Even if they are just ridiculous things like ordering a coffee or something like that.
Right, I think it worked. We spent quite a bit of time editing and being very careful about which piece we took. And editing sometimes works, sometimes it doesn't, and you have to throw it away.
Oh, I think we had at least eight stereo tracks or more. I'm not sure. We did the sound editing at Harvestworks. They have this artist-in-residence program there and fortunately, they chose this project. It was really, I think, perfect for them because at that point, the work that had to be done was a real audio collage. Unfortunately, we only had 40 hours to do it. So we had to do a lot of pre-editing before we went there. It's digital editing, so you load everything into a computer and once it's in there it's really easy to move around; but still you're working in real time, and we were pretty rushed to get that done in 40 hours. Actually I'm surprised we made it. I was really happy that they chose this project. I don't know what I would have done if they hadn't . . . Maybe it would still be a silent film. I don't know.
At that point, yeah. The sound came together in a very funny way and it completely changed the movie. When it was silent it was really difficult to watch it. It was really an intense experience watching it with no sound. And for some reason the sounds really makes it much more -- I don't know why -- but it really alters the way you perceive the film and which parts you really pay attention to. And before when I would watch it silent, it was a much different thing. And now when it has this dense soundtrack, I perceive the film in a very different way. Strange. Yeah, and it's much more interesting to me now with the sound than it ever was silent. It's great.
Yeah, well I guess for me most of the areas that we photographed I had never seen. I had actually scouted out a lot of the parts that I hadn't seen before but I didn't walk, I drove. Someone drove me, so it really was a discovery for me, most of it -- until I reach downtown, really. I'm not that familiar with most of those uptown areas at all. So to me it was like being in a new place which is part of the idea of the film, as if you are traveling somewhere and discovering a new place. Alba is saying that there are many things that you don't know where they begin and end and that you're very familiar with but you don't know where they're coming from or where there're going to. And maybe that was part of the conception of the film: trying to discover where is this thing coming from and where does it lead to. In one day.
The neighborhood thing . . . I tried not to be too stereotypical or clichéd, I hope. Maybe that is inevitable, I'm not sure. But I really tried to look at everything with the same point of view and stylistically apply the same technique. I didn't want to overemphasize one neighborhood or place. I really tried to give my impression of the entirety of the trip, the journey, with the same style. I didn't want to say, OK now I'm in this neighborhood and I'm going to film it in a certain way, you know, make it more evident with the style or something. I really wanted to do the opposite in that regard. And hopefully it was successful, as you do perceive whatever is actually there, and not because of what I did. Per se I made certain choices of what I was photographing or avoiding, but I think it still comes through as characteristics of the different neighborhoods.
Yeah, well that's what it is. It really is a journey.
Yeah, Alba wants to add one more thing. About the titles: She is reminding me about the titles and the colors that are used in them. My father did the titles for us. He was a painter and the colors are very unnatural and unreal. And that was another sort of reference to the color of the film itself, which is not a perfect rendering of reality, but it's this altered vision. That was another reference.
Yeah, they are very funny.
I guess that's it.
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