Scott Walker: Far from Drifting

By Stephen Kijak

scott-walker-30th-century-man-grant-gee-1.jpgScott Walker: 30 Century Man, 2006

Stephen Kijak and Grant Gee on time spent filming a sonic visionary 

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man
is the new film by New York-based director Stephen Kijak. Filmed primarily in Britain and made independently with very little money, it is the follow-up to 2002’s Cinemania, his collaborative documentary which followed film buffs around New York City as they attempted to see five films a day. Alongside Bob Dylan and (to a lesser extent) the late Syd Barrett, Scott Walker is perhaps the most high profile musical enigma of the rock generation. When, after two years of preparation, Kijak was eventually granted access to film the studio sessions for his most recent album, The Drift, he saw it as a unique opportunity to examine the thought processes and working methods of an iconoclast in the purest sense.

Unlike the MOR crooning that colours his early work with The Walker Brothers, Scott’s The Drift is an altogether different beast, building on sounds and ideas first explored on 1984’s Climate of Hunter and later on 1995’s Tilt. When describing The Drift, Walker says, “Like Beckett, we just kept honing things down. There were no real arrangements, just blocks of sound’. Village Voice critic Dennis Lim quite rightly compared the result to David Lynch’s film Inland Empire, citing that each “shatters the complacency of its audience and venture to the far shores of dissonance and abstraction”. Kijak’s documentary is a portrait of an artist in a more universal sense, perfectly capturing a man in a period of unfettered creative transcendence.

David Jenkins: What drew you to Scott as a subject?

Stephen Kijak: It was in 1990 when Fontana reissued the Boy Child compilation. At this point, you couldn’t get his solo albums on CD and I had never heard him before. I heard The Old Man’s Back Again from Scott 4 and everything in it was what I was into musically, so I started to trawl back through the back catalogue and became a collector.

DJ: When did you first see Scott in a cinematic light?

SK: The idea to do the film came a decade or so later after Tilt came out. It had always been very cinematic music for me so it seemed a very logical step to take. I always knew I had to do something with this music but could never quite come up with the form. I started to write a screenplay at one point that was structured with his songs, but nothing ever quite worked. It was going to be a road movie. It was ridiculous, so I chucked it out. Then I heard that he was about to go into the studio to make a new record and it just seemed like the perfect opportunity: Someone should document this process.

scott-walker-30th-century-man-grant-gee-2.jpgScott Walker: 30 Century Man, 2006

DJ: Photographers had never been allowed in the studio to film Scott recording before. How were you able to swing it?

SK: It was a real miracle. It was a really long process of building a relationship with the mangers and then, via them, with Scott. We only used collaborators that jived with his creative world. Grant Gee, who is an incredible director in his own right, had filmed Scott’s Meltdown at the South Bank Centre in 2000. Scott had experience of Grant and a camera following him around, so that really helped. It was a case of building up the project in a way that would make him comfortable given that we were trying to pay attention to his creative likes and dislikes.

DJ: There’s a scene where he’s recording the sound of someone punching a side of pork for the track Clara. Is that something he suggested you film or was it just a very lucky day?

SK: No, it was planned. At one point his managers were holding us back, saying that they wanted to wait until something good came up for the cameras. You get frustrated and start to think ‘well, we’re the filmmakers; why not let us decide that?’ Then you go in and see that maybe they do know best. In the end they provided us with so many gems.

DJ: Scenes like that do tend to offset the serious side of Scott that comes through his music, especially on The Drift.

SK: Absolutely. Someone told us that he’s actually ten times funnier than he is in our film. I’ve sat in on several screenings during festivals and people just chuckle their way through it. As he says at one point, ‘there is humour laced through everything I do’. He’s a very dry and funny man. The pork was almost like a practical joke. It’s a deadly serious piece of music and there’s no compromising on the idea, but injecting some kind of morbid humour into it all was the only way he could get through the sessions.

DJ: The element that made the film quite unconventional with respect to other music documentaries – of which there are now quite a number – was the fact that it focused on the lyrics just as much as the music.

SK: That was really part of “the pitch” from the outset. The essential idea was that we looked at the evolution of a man and his work. It’s not really about his life, but you could say that by looking at the work, his life does emerge. I read an article about Tilt where he said, ‘I want the lyrics to stand out like soldiers on a field.’ He’s sending the lyrics off into battle with the music. Conceptually it’s just great stuff. That was a motif we wanted to be working on from the off, given that this is the central way in which he constructs his music.

DJ: The link between this film and your previous, Cinemania seems to be the theme of obsessive personalities. What attracts you to that subject?

SK: Cinemania was interesting because it was a study of other people’s obsessions. The collector who features at the beginning of the Scott Walker film is a deliberate homage to our lovely cinemaniacs. The real connection between the two is that Walker is also obsessed with cinema. I think it was the sympathetic portrait of real outsiders that made a lot of sense to him. He must have seen something in that. The bottom line is that people who are middle of the road are boring. It’s the people on the extremes who make fascinating subjects.

Motion Capture: Grant Gee in conversation

scott-walker-30th-century-man-grant-gee-3.jpgScott Walker: 30 Century Man, 2006

David Jenkins: What was your role on the film?

Grant Gee: I shot most of it, but there were a few interviews in the US that I didn’t do. I also edited a lot of it, although I’m not a professional editor so we got to a point where I had reached the limit of my technical tidiness and Stephen finished off the edit with a guy called Matt Wheatcroft.

DJ: The film experiments with different ways of presenting Scott’s music on screen. Did you come up with those ideas?

GG: Stephen had already commissioned a guy called Graham Woods to do some motion graphics that could be played underneath the music. By the time we started on the film, he had only done one or maybe two of those. There’s one little sequence which I did quite quickly for the track Farmer In the City off of Tilt where the lyrics all rise upwards from the screen. It’s born of necessity really as there is next-to-no performance footage in existence. What there is tends to have a documentary feel to it and doesn’t really give you the sense of how he feels. If you haven’t got anything to look at and have to make something quickly with little in the way of resources, then that tends to be motion graphics.

DJ: What was your experience of shooting in Scott’s studio? Were there restrictions?

GG: Once we got into the studio, there were no actual restrictions, but I did start playing this very strange game of cat and mouse with Scott. You quickly realise how much of a stalked pop star he was in the day, because he had this incredible ability to hide his face with the tiniest gesture to avoid the camera. One of the things I’m very good at is fly-on-the-wall stuff, being very discreet in a room and just picking out little shots. He was far too fucking good for me. I’d be hiding round a corner thinking, ‘ok, here he comes’ and he’d just give a dip of his head and all of a sudden you didn’t have the shot anymore. The hat is key. The first day in the studio he kept the hat on the whole time. We just hung back and didn’t stick cameras in his face. It was a bit like wildlife photography – capturing this rare creature without disturbing it. By the time we’d done a couple of little sessions in the studio and a few interviews, the hat was off and he was very relaxed. It’s hard to convey what an enigma Scott Walker is. Say Robbie Williams disappeared off of your mental map for twenty years, then he comes back and makes his Drift of the future. It’s just baffling, but essentially that’s what Scott Walker is.

Scott Walker: 30 Century Man is released imminently in the UK by Verve. For more information about the film go to the blog.

David Jenkins contributes to the film pages of Time Out London and is deputy film editor of Little White Lies.