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In Conversation with Bill Morrison

Posted on: April 16, 2021

"let me come in" premieres in just about two weeks, and in anticipation of this world premiere project, we got to chat with filmmaker Bill Morrison who lent his artistic eye to this incredibly unique project. Read on to learn more about Bill, the project, and how it all came together.

Can you please introduce yourself? 

My name is Bill Morrison. I am a filmmaker who primarily works with older found footage, in collaboration with contemporary composers. I am probably best known for two films: Decasia (2002) and Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). 

When did you first start making films? 

I first started making animated films in high school in Chicago in the early 1980s, and continued by studying under the great animated filmmaker Robert Breer at the Cooper Union School of Art in NYC in the latter part of that decade. 

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A scene from "let me come in"

Have you ever produced or directed any works within opera? 
Yes. A big part of my career has been making films to be projected during musical and theatrical performances. Among these, there have been a number of films produced for specifically for opera, including two previous productions with LA Opera - David Lang and Mark Dion’s Anatomy Theater at REDCAT in 2016 and David T. Little’s Soldier Songs at Ford Theater in 2018. 

How did “let me come in” come about? What about this project was most interesting to you? 
Over the past 20 years, David Lang and I have collaborated on six theatrical and music projects for which I have made films to accompany his music, including The Carbon Copy Building (1999), Shelter (2005), How To Pray (2005), The Difficulty of Crossing the Field (2006), Back to the Soil (2014), and LA Opera’s own Anatomy Theater (2016). Most recently David scored my new film, The Village Detective: a song cycle (2021), the soundtrack to which Cantaloupe has just released. Kino Lorber will release the film theatrically in the Fall. By my count, "let me come in" is our eighth project together. 

At the end of last year, David and I had just finished working on The Village Detective together, and he wrote me about this new project: "LA Opera commissioned a few composers to do little opera scenes and their idea is to animate them or put film to them. I wrote one of these and then I thought of you.” 

I am always eager to work on anything David has written. And the sensuality and semi-consciousness implied by the verse seemed like it could work with my aesthetic of re-using old deteriorated film. But it wasn’t until LA Opera sent me the master recording of Angel Blue performing the piece that I thought of this scene from the lost German silent film Pawns of Passion (1928) which I had scanned years before. Then I immediately saw the connection between the verse and the imagery, and it was very exciting to see how quickly it came together and how perfectly the image, words, and sound meshed. 

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Nitrate film set aside for filmmaker Bill Morrison

Can you speak about the footage? Where did it come from, why is it unique? 
In the nitrate film vaults of the Library of Congress’ Audio Visual Conservation Center on the Packard Campus in Culpeper, VA, there is a shelf that sometimes has a sticky note bearing my name attached to it. This means that a film on that shelf has gone past the point where it could be considered worth saving for preservation purposes, and perhaps its only use moving forward would be if I chose to have a digital scan made to incorporate into one of my films. I am always grateful that goopy, sticky films that have been deemed not worth saving are sometimes dismissively described as having “gone all ‘Bill Morrison’ on us” at the Library. 

In 2012 the nitrate vault manager, George Willeman, alerted me to such a film. It was a few reels from Pawns of Passion (1928), a silent German production known as “Liebeshölle” in its original language, which translates as “Love Hell”. It was directed by Wiktor Biegnaski and Camine Gallone, and features Olga Tschechowa and Hans Stüwe. 

The film had been donated to the Library by film historian and preservationist Bruce Lawton, who in turn had acquired it from the late David P. Adamitis in a cache of 35mm nitrate films that had been stored for the better part of the century in a barn in Pennsylvania. While another copy could possibly be stored elsewhere, IMDb lists this as a lost film. 

I had the 35mm film scanned at Colorlab, MD, a film lab that has been scanning deteriorated nitrate for me for the past 10 years. 

It then sat on a hard drive in my studio for another decade, waiting for the perfect project to come along. 

What is the footage about? In your eyes, why is this footage so well-suited for this project? 
The backstory of Pawns of Passion involves a Russian ballerina who after having been separated from her young son in 1917, throws herself into the Seine in Paris one night, whereupon she is rescued by an artist. The action begins in “let me come in” as he is bringing her into his house after having fished her out of the river. 

Correspondingly, the song begins with a woman singing about her wet hair and headIn the film, a man is carrying a woman inside and up the stairs of a house, clearly semi-conscious, her clothing soaked. So there is a quite literal representation of the libretto in the onscreen imagery. 

But additionally, the deterioration of the emulsion corresponds to the narrator’s foggy state of mind.  

As the film sat in that barn for decades, through hot summers and cold winters, the nitrate base eventually dried up, becoming more brittle over time. The images recorded in the emulsion were pushed and pulled with the film’s tidal expansion and contraction, which is the reason they appear altered. This is the organic aging process of nitrate film. The result is imagery which seems to be pulled from a state of semi-consciousness, asleep but dreaming. 

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A scene from "let me come in"

Do you think the meaning of the footage changes with the addition of David Lang’s piece? 
Without context, it is not immediately clear what the relationship is between the two characters. The entreaty “let me come in” may be the exhausted woman seeking protection. It then appears that he may be taking advantage of her in her compromised state, as he carries her upstairs and then disrobes her. But he proceeds to tend to her. In the end, he may have been a dream or fantasy of hers as she waited for her lover to return home. 

What has it been like to work with David Lang and Angel Blue on this piece? 
As always, it is a great pleasure and a great honor to work with my old friend David Lang. He is one of our most supremely gifted composers. He is able to pack such emotional force in everything he writes, but especially with opera and choral music. 

I have not met the soprano, Angel Blue, the conductor Bryan Wagorn, nor any of the other members of the ensemble. But Angel’s reputation, of course, precedes her. And her beautiful interpretation of David’s words helped me understand and shape the piece as a fever dream. 

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A scene from "let me come in"

What do you hope audiences take away from this digital short? 
I’m really proud to be a part of this project. I think it is a truly transportive piece of art. The words, the music, the performance and the film all mesh to create a singular 11 minutes of visual music or aural imagery, the likes of which you won’t see or hear anywhere else. I am very excited to share this piece with the world. I expect it will puzzle some viewers. But for others it will strike a deep chord. My hope is that the ancient, rotting film, re-animated by the visceral emotions expressed in David’s song, will remind people that love doesn’t die. 

Anything else you’d like to add? 
The actress who appears in the film is Olga Tschechowa. She was a Russian actress who took the Chekov name after marrying the actor Michael Chekov (the first cousin of the playwright Anton Chekov). They divorced and she went on to build her film career in Germany, ultimately appearing in 138 roles, including the titular role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mary (1931). She became a favorite of the Third Reich, and of Joseph Goebbels in particular. It has been rumored that she was pressured by the Stalin to report sensitive German information back to the Soviets during the war in a plot to assassinate Hitler.