Under the Spell of Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt & the Magnetic Fields

photo by Shirley Simms

Earlier this summer, KEXP was proud to present the “Face the Music” series as part of the annual Seattle International Film Festival. We were especially excited about one film in particular, making its Northwest debut: Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt & the Magnetic Fields. Not only are the Magnetic Fields a favorite band of KEXP listeners, but footage of Stephin’s 2008 in-studio performance at the station is included in the movie! (You can even catch a tiny glimpse of yours truly and DJ El Toro during the short clip.)

El Toro and I were fortunate to be joined by Stephin, and directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara in-between screenings of the film and Stephin’s grand performance of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea at the Paramount.

El Toro: So, what were the unique challenges of making this particular film?

Stephin: They didn’t tell me that they were going to start shooting, so I wasn’t wearing make-up.

Kerthy: We kept having these sessions where we’d get together over tea and be like, “Nothing’s happening. What is this movie going to be about?” There was a lot of work occurring, but it wasn’t like, “Stephin refused to get dramatic plastic surgery,” or combust, in some way… Maybe that was the biggest challenge.

Gail: It took us a while to figure out what to do with all the footage. For a long time, we were just documenting. And then eventually, we came up with the “list idea,” so we had this list of things we wanted to include. And that did carry through, that we got a lot of the boxes ticked off. But it’s still a mishmash of things in the movie.

El Toro: Things you wanted to include? It’s a documentary, but you mean like plot points? Or specific performances? Or specific things that you love about the band and Stephin’s art that you wanted to make sure you touched on?

Gail: Well, the Claudia and Stephin relationship was a big part of it. The working process, the writing process, and all that.

Kerthy: …That Stephin works in a very organized fashion.

Stephin: [ grunting ]

Kerthy: [ laughing ] It may not feel that way on the inside, but I’ve never seen a songwriter who has such an encyclopedia of references, but you actually organize it. You organize your randomness? I don’t know, how would you describe that?

Stephin: Certainly not as order. I have a lot of notebooks. In the film, we throw the notebooks all together on the floor. It’s about how they’re organized on the shelf anyway, so it doesn’t make any difference.

Kerthy: Well, like we show in the film, the places in your notebooks where you were organizing yourself for writing 69 Love Songs. And you had the 12 musical styles, 12 melodic instruments, I’m forgetting the others…

El Toro: Oh, 12 favorite rhythmic patterns…

Gail: You plan it all out. More than some, probably a lot, of bands would.

Stephin: But you need to understand, those lists exist so that I’ll be able to connect randomly between the list of genres, the list of beats, and the list of vocal styles. So that the polka will have a cha-cha beat with an opera vocal style. That’s not order, that’s chance operations.

Gail: I also wanted to have the fans in the movie, that was a big thing. I think Claudia has a really intimate relationship with fans. She’s so accommodating, even now. Maybe too accommodating!

Stephin: Much too accommodating.

Gail: [ laughing ] And, just things like Daniel Handler — we really wanted him in the film, ’cause he’s so funny… The “Good Morning Atlanta” thing… Just things like that. I think we definitely got to a lot of the things that we had thought about including had made it in, but it took a while to piece it all together.

El Toro: To figure out what the shape of it was going to be. You were describing the process of moving the notecards around… It sounds like it went through a lot of permutations and combinations.

Kerthy: It did. For better or worse, three-act structure is the one that we’re working with in Western culture, and the end of Act II, something serious has to happen. And with greater gravity and weight, or drama of some kind.

El Toro: So, it was thoughtful of Stephin to move to California.

Stephin: I don’t know, I moved to New York before that and nobody made a movie about it.

El Toro: I know you started documenting things that Stephin and Claudia were doing fairly early on, but was it always with a goal in mind? Were you thinking in the back of your head, “Oh, someday we’ll compile this into a larger project” or were you simply doing it because you loved the music and the art, and you wanted to keep track of what was happening?

Gail: Originally, Stephin and I, when we worked at Spin — it’s a monthly magazine, and that means, everything gets turned in at the last minute, so we had about three and a half weeks where there was nothing to do.

Stephin: Ho-hum! Pity we can’t edit this William Vollmann article!

Gail: We would just walk around Chelsea and Flatiron and take photos. And eat huge comfort-food meals at the Chat n’ Chew, and stuff like that. And smoke cigarettes, I guess. So, we just took a lot of photos, that’s how it started. I think I got a little better as a photographer, but also, I got him to…

Stephin: Pose.

Gail: We just started getting good photos, even though we had to take 36 to get one good one, but that’s how photography works.

Stephin: Yeah, I think we both started the 1990s with the idea that the great way of taking a photo was to make it “spontaneous,” and friendly and nice. And actually, the way to make a good photo is to pose, and take lots and lots and lots of photos. And the great photographers are great because they take so many photos to choose from. The way to do that, of course, is to take 30 a second.

El Toro: And then you kick it up a notch, start filming an entire film, and just get everything!

Gail: Well, we tried, but some of the things, like at Lincoln Center, they wouldn’t let us film that show. But, we filmed a lot of stuff, and we still have all this great footage, and hopefully we can do things with it over time, if it’s allowed. A lot of good shows.

Stephin: I think the remake of this can be animated, then it doesn’t matter if the camera crew was at Lincoln Center, because it’s “artist interpretation.”

El Toro: I like it. Did the filmmaking process ever feel intrusive? Did you ever have to say, “Y’all need to back off for a while. I’m working on something. Please go away.”?

Stephin: Well, if people are filming for a long time, eventually someone with an audio pack has to go to the, uh… the “euphemism.” And when that happens, there’s always that uncomfortable question of whether to take it off or not. And… what was that documentary two or three years ago? Billy something? [editor’s note: Billy the Kid] Billy doesn’t take off his lavalier, and goes into the bathroom, and is heard to say, “Death!” and they just left it in the movie. After seeing that, I thought, there’s no way that I’m ever going into the “euphemism” with a lavalier on, but also it made me a lot more cautious about what I did. I think it’s important not to trust people with cameras. Don’t you?

Kerthy: There were times that you would ask us to turn off the camera. That’s just a natural part of the process. When they were recording, I might be there for 8 or 9 hours, just hanging out while they’re working. Stuff’s just gonna come up. But, it’s not in anyone’s interest to do something that the subject of the film doesn’t want in the film. So, it’s about mutual respect that way. We were all really clear, that it’s a film about your work, and your working process, and your working relationships, not about your personal life.

Stephin: Not an exposé. Right.

El Toro: Has Claudia seen the film?

Stephin: Sure.

El Toro: And her reaction?

Stephin: You’re going to have to ask her what her reaction is.

Gail: They watch a lot of films, and they both have film school in the background.

Stephin: And Claudia edited one and a half Ross McElwee documentaries.

Kerthy: I definitely think she has “Creative Producer” instincts. I mean, that’s a lot of her work with you, Stephin. And I think she has storyteller instincts. When she saw a cut, the piece she asked for us to add is the moment where she’s talking about the difference in the early recordings versus the live sound. She really wanted that distinction made clear. And I think it really helps the film. It was something that we hadn’t mapped out. So, it was helpful.

We showed it in Cambridge, and Claudia’s parents were there, and a lot of her friends and her sister and it was really well-received. Her mom was really happy, and her Dad gave me a hug. So, I assume that’s a thumb’s up. It’s horrible to have a film made about you, I think. It’s really hard. And these guys were really generous with us, so I think when you see your image on screen, it’s always a shock. And it takes you a while to adjust to that existing in the world.

Gail: She’s the Mom of the band, too, so she’s always just very protective of how it may look, what might be revealed, the relationships, and everything.

Stephin: She thinks of herself as the Mom of the band, but she’s not the only Mom in the band. And, I found myself feeling responsible for people who’d be on-screen, and didn’t necessarily think about the permanence of that, and do they really want to be wearing that t-shirt for the rest of their lives? If they really want “New Jersey is for Lovers” to be associated with them, for the rest of their lives. It’s like getting a tattoo by accident that you haven’t chosen, in bad lighting.

El Toro: Did the fact that Stephin and Claudia both have backgrounds in film shape anything you were doing in any particular way?

Stephin: [ snickering ] Um, yes. We never allowed the camera to be below our eye-level, knowing full well what it would look like. We never sat in front of the window, that sort-of thing. We really did think about what we were looking like. We just didn’t think very… We didn’t think like models, we thought like filmmakers, I guess. So. We didn’t look good, we just looked legible.

El Toro: How many people did you interview? ‘Cause I know there’s plenty of people that you did, who didn’t make the final cut.

Gail: A lot of them are thanked in the credits. Elisabeth Vincentelli, she was an early fan.

Kerthy: We did an amazing interview with Tim Page, and we hardly use any. We use one quote.

Gail: Irwin Chusid, and Gaylord [Fields] both. We did lengthy interviews with both of them, and there’s a little Gaylord, but…

Kerthy: I hope on the DVD extras we’ll have more of those.

El Toro: This is obviously part of filmmaking in the late 20th and now 21st century — Have you been thinking about things you’d like to include as DVD extras?

Kerthy: It’s to be discussed. We have some screening to do with Stephin and Claudia, but yeah, we would like to have more of, especially, the interviews. Just ’cause there’s just so many intelligent people around this.

I have a question for Stephin that I thought of the other day. Remember when we talked about all the albums, and you talked about songwriting. I never quite asked, because when we talked about it, you had made a distinction between some of the first records and how your songwriting evolved. You make a joke and say, “I decided what I was going to write about before I wrote the song.” Were there things that happened that shifted your songwriting from the earlier songs to like 69 Love Songs?

Stephin: I think the first record review I ever got, actually the second record review I ever got, the first one was positive. It describes the first Magnetic Fields album as “art pop.” And I thought, “That is not how I want to appear to people.” I don’t want it to be possible to construe it as intended to be “art pop.” So, I did a little soul searching, and yes, decided I was going to decide what I was going to write about before writing about it, rather than finding truths through juxtapositions, or whatever I thought I was doing.

El Toro: Did either of you have really firmly held convictions about the music of Stephin and the Magnetic Fields that changed in the course of making the film?

Stephin: Weren’t you shocked to discover that I speed up my voice? And you couldn’t therefore segue in-between live vocal takes and the record?

Kerthy: There’s some crazy editing that happens in “Papa Was a Rodeo.”

Gail: Shirley’s wearing a different shirt. And she has a slightly different hairstyle… but it looks great.

Kerthy: Our editor Sarah Devorkin took the visuals from L.A. and the sound from San Francisco. There’s slight slowing downs and speeding up, because the tempo sort of shifts around.

Stephin: A lot. Since there’s no steady beat.

Kerthy: But it’s interesting. I’m really glad we massaged that so intensely. More than probably four or five different people have come up to me after screenings and said at that moment in the film it makes them cry, and they’re never able to quite say why. But I think that’s really interesting that that’s the place that’s poignant for people.

One person did say that something about watching Stephin’s process reminded him that he needed to privilege his own creative process, and spend time with it, and give it attention. And the fact that Stephin, you do whatever weird thing it is you do, and that’s what you do, and I think that was inspiring.

El Toro: Do you have any plans for the music for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea? Are you contemplating recording it?

Stephin: No. It wouldn’t really mean anything without the visuals.

El Toro: Would you be interested in contributing it to a DVD if that opportunity arose?

Stephin: I think if the Criterion Collection begged me… Uh, sure. But actually, I think it probably wouldn’t work very well to not have it be live. It helps you understand what we’re doing to see that we have megaphones hanging on mic stands, and that there actually is a theater organist. And it probably helps to see the tuba being replaced with the flugelhorn every few minutes, to see that Daniel is not singing again when you hear something that you heard before exactly the same way you heard it before, and realize that the only that could be happening is a spooky way, which is that the megaphones record. And all that can’t possibly show up on a DVD. There’s a lot of certain uncanniness that we put into the score that wouldn’t come across if it weren’t live.

El Toro: Is there anything that you haven’t had an opportunity to talk about apropos of the film that you would like to address?

Gail: I can’t think of anything.

Stephin: I can. Back to that three-act structure… There’s plenty of other structures in Western society, including in documentary filmmaking. For example, there’s Isabella Rossellini’s stellar insect pornography.

Kerthy: But aren’t those shorts?

Stephin: Shorts that were originally distributed separately from each other, and then, I guess, put together, but it’s totally modular. And you could’ve done it that way. Why did you decide to make a feature film, as opposed to what everyone in Britain does, which is short-form documentaries? Isabella Rossellini and David Lynch are now making their careers really mostly in large numbers of short films.

Kerthy: I think, for me personally, it has to do with the fact that they are in a different position professionally where people are going to seek out their work. And because this was the first film we were directing, and because your work has a cult following, but isn’t like, U2 or something, we couldn’t count on people tolerating a structure.

I’m also sort-of conservative, I think, about structure in entertainment. And I think that if you’re going to make people sit there for a certain period in time, following that three-act structure and having characters that are compelling and that are not wasting people’s time is really important. I just made another film with Le Tigre that sort-of loosely follows a three-act structure, but it’s like a concert film, so it’s a much shorter timeframe we had with them.

El Toro: So, is that your most recent project?

Kerthy: Uh-huh.

El Toro: And do you guys have other things coming down the pike that you’re working on?

Gail: I don’t, film-wise. I’m working on a book of photos that I’m hoping to get out somehow.

El Toro: What’s the subject matter?

Gail: Portraits, mostly.

El Toro: From the chickfactor days to the present? [editor’s note: chickfactor was an enormously influential zine Gail edited in the 90’s]

Gail: Yeah, it might not all be pop stars, but we’ll see.

Stephin: Not pop stars? Who cares about people who aren’t even pop stars? Pop stars are boring enough without having to pay attention to other people as well! I probably asked you guys this question before, but do you agree with me that we’re living in the Golden Age of documentary filmmaking?

Kerthy: “The Golden Age”… How do you define that?

Stephin: You can have a camera without having a lot of money. And you can edit without being Busby Berkeley.

Kerthy: It’s really the hardest time that I’ve seen, personally, and older people say the same, to get documentaries distributed.

Stephin: Theatrically.

Kerthy: Not just theatrically. It’s about getting people’s attention, because it’s so diffused.

Gail: I think it’s kind of like music, too. Where there’s a lot of tools so you can make the stuff, but it’s not all necessarily good. So, you do see quite a few dull music documentaries, and things where they clearly haven’t spent enough time thinking about what they’re putting out there. Anybody who’s gone on tour with a band knows it can be really boring, and maybe that’s okay to show that, but… Yeah, I think it’s just that there’s too much of everything, and some of it’s not good. But it is a great time to have all the technology.

Kerthy: It is, but like… I’m 46. So, when I learned to shoot on a 16mm camera, the relationships between focus and depth of focus, and all that stuff, were different. Now these cameras allow you to do what you used to have to be a more sophisticated director of photography to do. I saw a short film that was just gorgeous, and it was shot with these cameras, and anybody can do it, and you don’t have to — Part of me is a little bit like, everything’s beautiful, but the essence of like, “Can you tell a story?” and “Does it mean something?” is still… I don’t know if it’s a Golden Age for that. I’m not sure actually. It’s a really good question. I feel really torn about that.

Stephin: You’re right, it’s simply bad distribution. We’re having a crisis of distribution. And probably in two or three years, we’ll solve this problem that everyone agrees is a problem. The good films aren’t necessarily the ones getting out. And films that people actually want to see are not necessarily the ones that they end up being able to see, which is a problem for everybody. And nobody likes that situation. But this is presumably a blip.

Kerthy: I hope so. Pretty much every festival we’ve had the film at, all the organizers say, this year attendance numbers are up, while Hollywood films, attendance is down in regular theaters. I mean, the internet is the biggest problem that’s gonna be the main delivery source for most people to get their entertainment in whatever form. I think we’re having a hard time getting out of our houses, too. So, that’s awkward for film as we’ve understood it to be projected.

Gail: And the audience is maybe used to a faster delivery of images now. So, when you’re used to seeing Slumdog Millionaire, it’s hard to sit through a film like ours, and kind-of take your time with it, ’cause it doesn’t have that kind of pace. You have to just relax and digest it.

Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt & the Magnetic Fields will open in select North American cities starting in November 2010. And, congratulations to directors Kerthy Fix and Gail O’Hara for winning the Grand Jury Prize for “Best Documentary Feature” at Outfest in Los Angeles.

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