Still courtesy Marco Porsia
This weekend, local arts boosters the Modern Music Movement and Uncomfortable Brunch host a one-off Florida screening of the newish music doc Swans: Where Does a Body End?
The fly-on-the-wall film takes on the formidable and complicated history of Swans, the monolithic ensemble led by Michael Gira and a shifting cast of collaborators over s decades-long non-career. The film is built around the twin poles of interviews with Gira and his fellow musical travelers — who fully cooperated with this undertaking — and an unseen cache of performance videos spanning dating back to the band's early years in the 1980s. Director Marco Porsia answered a few questions posed by Orlando Weekly
Where did the initial inspiration for this film come from?
Swans had been a huge influence on me growing up and I had travelled to see all the tours since I was 19, from the Burning World
tour onward (which I actually saw in Miami Beach of all places). I had even flown to NYC to see the final show there in ’97, never thinking that I'd still see Swans over 40 times after that day.
I originally wanted to do something for the final ’97 tour, to document it some way, but I just couldn't make it happen. Then, I got to meet Michael during the many Angels of Light tours he did in Toronto in the 2000s.
We became friends, and when I saw that he was reactivating Swans I knew right away that I needed to film this new chapter. I first started tagging along to various tour dates and filming as many live shows as I could. I made a couple of live tour films first, and then 2014, after experiencing so many incredible Swans shows firsthand up close … I realized I wanted to tell the whole story of Swans. So I told Michael about my idea to make a doc on the band's history, not knowing where it could lead us, and he agreed.
How were you able to gather up so much previously unseen archival footage and photography to use in the film?
Early on, before I had even started doing interviews, Jarboe told me that there was a huge box of VHS tapes, all live shows from the ’80s and ’90s, that had gone missing when Michael and her split up. Michael did not know where this box was. About a year later I get a call from Michael saying he had found it! So I raced down to New York where they were rehearsing and was entrusted with digitizing hundreds of hours of archival footage that had never been seen before!
The photography often was generously donated by a lot of photographers who were there at the time and were documenting the band back then, like Wim Van de Hulst, Beth B, Michael Cohen and many more. A lot of photos also came from Jarboe's personal collection and other band members.
How were you able to convince so many artists, musicians and past Swans members
— I was happily surprised to see that Jarboe participated in the project
— to be interviewed for the film? A lot of these folks are famously interview-averse.
I simply started asking everyone on my list, about 50 people, and surprisingly most people said yes right away. My first interviews were with J.G. Thirlwell, Thurston Moors and Lee Ranaldo, who share a big part of history with Michael and Swans. Jarboe was a huge help from the very beginning, offering her archive for use and her recollections and advice. I had to wait a while until I was able to interview Jarboe and Michael. They were the last ones to be interviewed, so I had to inject them into the film which I had already started editing. I did a six-hour interview with Michael. Afterwards, he told me he felt like he had read his own obituary.
What was the biggest challenge you encountered in getting the film completed?
The biggest challenge was getting the film down to a manageable length. my first cut was almost five hours long! I was able to get it down to just under three hours. But from there I then had to make a two-hour cut for festivals and for that I had to get a friend of mine to suggest the cuts, because I just couldn't do it. It was painful, but I did keep the two-hour-and-45-minute version for the BluRay and DVD versions. As well, there is a deluxe version with over two hours of bonus material of extra scenes and archive footage.
I'd say another challenge was financial. I ended up having to finish the film with my own money, putting many thousands of dollars on my credit cards. But i was determined to finish it and to make is as good both visually and aurally.
Since you, sadly, won't be there for the screening, what would you say to introduce this film to the Orlando audience?
[This film] was truly a labour of love. I wanted to do justice to my favorite band growing up through to the present day, and I feel I was in the right place at the right time to be able to do it. I often felt I was persevering through many difficulties to see it through, much like Michael has done throughout his artistic career with Swans. I hope you enjoy the film!
Swans: Where Does a Body End?
screens on Saturday, May 1
, at 8 p.m. at Will's Pub. Tickets are $10.
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