The Great Flood director Bill Morrison on collaborating with Bill Frisell
New York-based filmmaker Bill Morrison had already made two short films using Bill Frisell's pre-recorded music, but Morrison wanted to work with the well-known jazz guitarist on a longer project. That effort would become The Great Flood, a documentary that they started collaborating on a few years ago and released on DVD last year. Using film footage from the Fox Movietone News Collection and the National Archives of the Mississippi River Flood of 1927 (the most destructive flood in American history), Morrison assembled the eighty-minute film. There's not a word in the movie -- much less dialogue or narration -- just Frisell's score to accompany the visuals of the catastrophe.
Clayton James Cubitt Bill Morrison.
Westword: How did you initially meet Bill Frisell?
Bill Morrison: I was washing dishes at the Village Vanguard for the early part of the 1990s. I was like a barback. And Frisell was coming down there with some regularity -- a couple times a year. I just got really taken by his music then. I would come back even on the nights I was working to listen to him. Also, he was just such a straight-up guy. You know, there were some musicians who discounted me or whatever just because I was a dishwasher, and Bill always regarded me as a person -- and then he found out later that I was a filmmaker. But he was always very respectful and I always very touched by that.
More to the point, his music really started inspiring my work in the spaces that he used. So I was listening to a lot as I was making an early film -- a very important film for me, anyway -- called The Film of Her. I just decided I wanted the film to have the same kind of quality that his music did. So I ended up putting a pre-recorded track of his on that film.
Of course, I eventually gave it to him to listen to and watch, and some years later he asked me if I wanted to do another silent film that he could score for the New York Guitar Festival. He said, "Just do the same thing you did before. Use a pre-recorded track and then I'll write new music on top of that." I had this footage that I was waiting to do something with. It was an old, deteriorated print of a 1926 film called The Bells, directed by James Young. And I ended up making a film called The Mesmerist using a couple of tracks from Bill's record with Dave Holland and Elvin Jones, which is still one of my favorite records.
Then, after he heard that, he said, "Well, I wanted to write something new but this works so perfectly, I prefer just to play the tunes you chose in concert with the film. I'm totally fine with that." But we also sort of made a promise to one another that we would work on a new project from the ground up. So I had in my mind that I was looking for something like that to do with Bill, and then the idea of doing The Great Flood came to me, and it came to me from a couple of different sources. One was that I had started working with old footage showing floods and started realizing that a lot of it was from the '27 flood that probably a lot of people had not seen. And secondly, then [Hurricane] Katrina came and flooding became a national topic, even before we experienced our flood here [in New York] in 2012 or you guys had your floods last year. Just all over the world, in Bosnia and Serbia this year.
I think increasingly floods are going to become newsworthy every year. So the '27 flood sort of became something topical again, really, in the wake of Katrina. And also how it displaced so many sharecroppers. I understood that it played some role, however peripherally, in the migration of African-Americans from the south to the north. And, of course, just around the same time, the guitar was being imported and integrated into blues music. You can make this case that as the Delta blues and jazz were coming up from the south to the north, the music was becoming electrified, and the great melting pots in the northern cities of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and New York where R&B was being born of course led to rock and roll and electrified blues and became popular music as we know it today.
What initially drew you to the flood footage of 1927?
I was working on a different project in 2005 that was just about the topic rather abstractly of shelter. So I just had it in my mind that I wanted old aerial footage of flooded landscapes and flooded towns. There's an archive that I often hit up for old news footage and that's at the University of South Carolina. They have the old outtakes from the Fox Movietone newsreels, which aren't copyright-protected by anyone except the University of South Carolina. And also, instead of being edited newsreels, they have all this run-on footage -- just the raw camera rolls. They started making really nice scans for me and going back to original nitrate negative and scanning it in new HD resolution.
I sort of knew back from working in 2005 that that footage existed. Then I was in Baton Rouge showing some films a couple of years later in 2007, after Katrina. I was at a dinner party and the course of the conversation was in some way related to Katrina because it was just so impactful down there. They started talking about this book by John M. Barry -- it's a 1996 book called Rising Tide that's about the 1927 flood. [They talked about] the parallels between that flood and Katrina just because any flood will sort of expose the class differences in any community, or the weaknesses in any community will come out as soon as it's stressed by a trauma like that. Suddenly certain people are doing the work and certain people are getting preferential treatment to get out, and that become really painfully obvious to everyone.
That conversation was about how in some ways how little had changed. But I also understood, almost immediately, that was the book I wanted to read and maybe this was the project that I wanted to do with Bill because, of course, his music is not the Delta blues or anything you could necessarily classify as jazz. It's just something so uniquely hi, yet of course it comes from that. I thought it would be even more powerful to make the connection that this very unique and personal voice of a musician is sort of related like a far-off tributary into this great river.
Keep reading for more from Bill Morrison.