MF = MAHMOOD FAZAL
AC-W = AMIEL COURTIN-WILSON
DX = DANIEL STEWART
MF: Welcome to Mont Icons. I’d like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we’ve produced this podcast. The Wurundjeri and Boon Wurrung people. I’d like to pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging. In this episode of Mont Icons, we speak to Amiel Courtin-Wilson, one of Australia’s last puritanical arthouse filmmakers.
MF: Amiel Courtin-Wilson, welcome.
AC-W: Hey there. Good to be here
MF: What have you been up to during these strange, prison-esque times in your beautiful apartment above a tattoo studio?
AC-W: Well, actually coming over to your guys studio over in Prahran, had some very strange memories walking down Greville St, because my sister was born in the front room of our block of flats on Greville St. And I spent the first eight years of my life seeing that street gentrified to the shit house. My dad used to work as part of a anarchist printing collective called Backyard Press on Greville St in the mid 70s, so walking down that street, got a lot of strange memories. Walked past where my sister was born.
That's what happened today.
MF: Well, what was Prahran like back then? Because it had a pretty wild reputation, even when I was growing up.
AC-W: Prahran was amazing back then. I mean, like my earliest memories, before the Station Hotel got done up, and when there was a whole bunch of- my dad was part of the music scene in the early 70’s here. So in the early 70s, there was a really big anti-Vietnam War student protest movement. So there was a part of the moratorium organisers, a lot of the bases were sort of coming out of Prahran.
And there was the old amazing Leggett's ballroom which in the 20s was this ballroom that the roof would actually retract, and you'd have open sky, like ballroom dancing, and so that was still a venue, I think, in the late 60s, Transylvanian restaurants, lots of great stuff.
But it was up until the 80s. It was still, it was still great, and then now, really, Greville St Records is like probably the last store that I can remember from back then. It’s the last place that's that's lasted.
DX: What can you tell us about the printing press?
AC-W: Yeah. Yeah, that's so that was run by a guy, he was ex-Carlton footballer called Ted Hopkins, who's also a poet, amazing guy, still kicking around. And they used to make their money doing rock posters. So they would do, you know, posters for Midnight Oil and Goanna and a bunch of, you know, sort of Australian rock and pop acts. But that was just to fund their more political stuff. So, they did- they did all kinds of things. A lot of, you know, obviously a lot of work for amnesty and human rights groups, and it was set up as a, yeah, as like an anarchist collective.
So there was a you know, it was a, it was a pretty amazing hotbed. It was right next door to- Ted also had an experimental music, kind of home venue out of his studio next to Backyard Press. So, and we lived right next door to that, sort of my earliest memories are going into see, you know, people like Rainer Linz, this German experimental keyboard player from the early 80s doing performances there and they'd be like, you know, music concrete stuff going on. And it was a it was an amazing time. But sadly, by around I would say like 88, most people were kind of either forced to move on.
Actually, I remember we had opposite our block of flats, we had this amazing ongoing feud with a bunch of bikers. Which ended in them throwing rocks through our front window. And and nearly Yeah, but um my-I’d out look at walk out the front doors are four or five year old and that always be this at least one naked guy pissing off the balcony of the terraces opposite ours. So it was a it was a loose, it was a loose but good party vibe on that street.
DX: Do you have any memories of having walked in on any committee meetings or just being witness to them kind of making decisions? Because I imagine as a child, that would have been quite fascinating.
AC-W: Yeah, it was it was there was a lot of like, Oh, I remember the smell of like pouches of tobacco, endless cups of tea and mixed with like the printing press chemicals. So this is very strong sense memory as a four or five year old. And there'd be you know, there'd be some like heated discussions because obviously, it was a that was a pretty finite resources because there was only so much money they could make from the rock poster work. So yeah, I remember they did once, there was a great subversive publication. They put out called Art and Texta which was a riff on Art and Text. So it was a, they were yeah, they were looking at, you know, trying to lampoon the art elite, or the intelligentsia here at the time there was a, it was still, I suppose it was mid to late 70s. So there was still that sense of being able to kind of topple certain structures.
I think it lasted till about 84 I think. Yeah, 84-85.
MF: Yeah that would have been wild, like, were there any- was there any kind of direct action, things that you kind of knew about that, that they were inspiring, or the actual violence that was coming, coming out of those out of those meetings that you, you could feel as a young child that kind of inspired you?
AC-W: Yeah, that's that's interesting. I mean, like, I remember, because my dad was heavily involved in some of the El Salvadorian like refugees that had come out in the middle of that whole, that whole terrible time. So he was doing a lot of like, relief work with those guys who were, you know, basically victims of torture and having to get them acclimatised to going to the dentist or just dealing with basic, you know, parts of life, having been through that kind of trauma.
So I remember, there was like, there were whispers of a few people who may or may not have gone over to El Salvador to may or may not have, yeah, fix up a couple of fascists over there. That was a, that was the one one story that circulated in the, in the mid 80s.
MF: That's fucking fascinating.
AC-W: It's pretty, it's pretty, uh, pretty amazing. It was a pretty amazing time. Yeah, he was he was really heavily involved from about 82 to 89. But the, but that whole, I mean, that whole scene it’s it's a fascinating part of a strike like, the the union movement as it relates to certain like overseas, yeah, shenanigans is it's pretty, pretty amazing stuff that was going down.
MF: You know a bit about this too, DX like these networks of anarchists that kind of take direct action and really inspiring ways hey.
DX: Yeah, this was basically my background, when I was a child was like, you know, teenager was sitting in on a lot of these meetings, where occasionally, they'd just hit the peak of what could be discussed, and then would have to break out off into kind of smaller cells and smaller kind of discussion. So you'd hear hints of like and, and kind of a bit of bravado around ideas that would happen, and then sensibly, people would kind of pull away into their separate groups to actually really prop-properly, kind of brew up these plans. But yeah, it's definitely kind of very important experience to go through these these like committee meetings where people are, like, deciding from like, strikes, marches to kind of more sabotage kind of related things, but never really kind of being too young to be invited into those kind of inner discussions, and then, later on being directly affected on a couple of occasions by plans that just weren't made properly, or they had fallen to pieces. So yeah, that definitely resonates with me.
MF: I'm really interested, like, what do you think about this Amiel because I have this sneaking suspicion that no one has the balls to pull this kind of shit off these days, you don't hear about these, like cells, you know, making the most of their ideas or turning their ideas into sacrifices, you know, sacrificing themselves for ideology or to for, you know, political change, in a very kind of, like, sure people sacrifice time and do a lot of things, like chain themselves to trees or whatever, but you don't, I don't really hear about people, like, you know, the Spanish terrorists or like, you know, the people that are really willing to face life imprisonment or treason for their for their beliefs politically.
AC-W: Yeah, it's a really interesting point. There's a there's an amazing guy. He just sent me his memoirs actually, he's a guy called Michael Hyde, who was definitely on the, the more militant end of the spectrum. Certainly, my father was, but he's, he had, you know, huge ASIO file on him, and they were part of, have to get this right, but they were definitely part of, about as close as you could get to-remember they were, publicly giving funds to the Vietcong during Vietnam War, and there was a big uproar around that. And, and, I mean, I think at that point, they still, you know, sincerely believed in being able to affect change with with that, and I suppose if, you know, I mean, not at all being well versed in in the in in this today, but I would, I would imagine that it's about a- not an apathy, but just I suppose a sense that this direct action won't necessarily if you know have enough impact, so therefore there's a erosion in people's sense of being able to, you know, yeah make an impact with relatively small groups of people.
DX: As a filmmaker, I'd like your kind of perspective on whether this stuff has been given it's due in Australian cinema, or whether it could be. Let's, let's get into movies and you. Let's hear about that.
MF: Yeah, because I think this this leads, leads to your films quite nicely, because a lot of your central figures and characters are willing to make deep sacrifices philosophically or personally for their way of life or their beliefs, thinking Jack Charles, even Chasing Buddha, Cecil, in many ways, you know, he could have had a very different career if he was to be a, you know, a classic, or jazz pianist or like a traditional jazz pianist. But, yeah, what do you make of all that and how it's kind of seeped and affected your work?
AC-W: Totally. Yeah, I think I mean, it comes from seeing, you know, as a kid, again, having two divorced artists, for parents, and as a six year old, seeing, you know, on a on a micro level seeing my mom worked as a waitress and as a cleaner, and then having to do her painting from 10pm, till two in the morning, and that being a very early memory, and that instilling in me this very strong sense of a work ethic, and, you know, and personal sacrifice and discipline. And I think that then fed into me searching for that later in life, and really being governed by a curiosity that led me towards people who, who had an urgency in their work, not only that I respected in terms of their artistic output, but for whom, if you had a very strong sense that if they didn't make this work, that they might not be around too long, or that, you know, it was it was a it was a fundamental to their existence, that they that they purge this or that they get this out into the world.
So I think that's been they’ve been the kind of writers artists, musicians that I've been really attracted to, or have, you know, have held up in high esteem to kind of look towards for my own, my own practice or filmmaking, I mean, that's whether that's like Artaud or Rainer Werner Fassbender or Simone Weil is a range of people who, keep keep coming back as a as a constellation of figures in that in that regard.
I know I mean, my own work, I suppose. I started very personally like my first documentary I made when I was 17, for the ABC was about my own family and about myself, and then subsequently worked in concentric circles kind of moving out from there.
So my second film Chasing Buddha was about my aunt Robina Courtin, who's a Buddhist nun teaching Buddhism to death row inmates and prison inmates around the United States. So I made a film about my auntie.
My third film was about my best friend this this guy, Vinnie, who's half Samoan and half German, who's whose dad had met his mom, after protesting the French nuclear testing in Moruroa Atolin the mid 70s. And, and then, after that, my following film was a, yeah, I filmed that took up most of my 20s, a film called Bastardy, which is about Aboriginal elder and the first person to start an Indigenous Theatre Company in the early 70s, with Bob Mazza and, so I made a film about a gentleman called Jack Charles.
MF: I mean, to me, in many regards, he is a countercultural icon in Melbourne, I think many would agree. Many might just think he's an icon more generally, but definitely the way he's lived his life. I mean, let you speak about it.
AC-W: Yeah, no, I mean, I was I remember very clearly it was, it was 2000. And I was looking for another film to make sort of looking doing just, as you do, a bunch of research into possible stories and, and reading a bunch of, you know, articles and books and just talking to people and having a conversation with my uncle Ian. So Ian had done some writing with the Prahran Factory, a theatre company in the late 60s, and written a couple of pieces for Jack Charles and Jack was always a kind of a mythical figure. Growing up, he was a family friend. So my mom met him when she was I think, 16. He wasn't around very much, but he was always just someone you'd sort of hear stories about or you know, occasionally his stories of this
MF: What stories were you hearing?
AC-W: The stories were that there was this you know, pretty chaotic, but remarkably talented figure, who was not only a cat burglar, but also an amazing stage performer and you know, actor for screen, who had, you know, very tragically developed a pretty heavy heroin addiction and had become homeless really, and spend a lot of time in prison. So I asked my uncle and aunt to try to help me track him down. At that point Jack was actually living up in Sydney, he was living in a squat with that, remember that serial pest who was going around, you know, doing a whole bunch of public events?
AC-W: That's right. Yes.
DX: What’s his surname? We'll figure it out.
AC-W: But yeah, so somehow Jack Charles
DX: The horse race? Yep, yep. Yep.
AC-W: So Jack jealous found himself living in a squat with this guy.
DX: I've never heard this story. That's such a wonderful combination of people.
AC-W: Apparently, this guy was just like rubbing everyone the absolute fucking wrong way in this squat. And something. Something went very pear shaped. I don't know the exact details, but the squat ended up being firebombed because of either Peter or maybe someone else. So anyway, Jack had just kind of escaped to Sydney and had come back down to Melbourne. So it was perfect timing we organized, I don't know how it even happened because Jack certainly didn't have a mobile phone or a house, so I think we somehow got a message to him organized a meeting in a cafe on Brunswick Street. I remember bringing my camera.
I didn't quite know what was going to happen. I remember being quite nervous. I was only 21 at the time, and Jack was 58, and we sat down, bought Jack a coffee. You he started speaking straightaway launching into his life story, just you know, just starting pretty much from the beginning. So from that, you know, story of him being taken at, you know, 10 weeks old from his mother.
MF: So just for those that don't know, can you just illustrate what he looked like when you first saw him? How did that marry with with your, the myth that you'd constructed in your head?
AC-W: So, Jack is a diminutive and yet somehow larger than life figure all at once? He's, I would say. How tall is he? He's, he's quite he's quite a small gentleman. But that's like, outweighed by his enormous great Afro and enormous enormous beard and he sort of he he just- I remember that the first thing that really struck me about him was even in that that first meeting, there was a there was an an affability and an openness, and a kind of a leaning into even the smallest of human interactions that I would learn later, was really such a key part of his personality that and the thing that in some ways influenced me the most about Jack, which is his equanimity. And whether it was him dealing with, you know, his closest oldest friend who he had known for 40 years or a bus driver that he just met that afternoon, there was the same degree of warmth, of willingness to connect. And I, I over the years that we worked together, in some ways that more than anything else is really what I took on board, you know, as just as a human being just just that, that endless ability to lean into any interaction and see the good in it and the potential in it. And, and the the worth and and for that reason, you I think Jack has probably has more friends and knows more people as a 70, nearly 78? 78 year old than anyone I've ever met.
So, yeah, so basically, he was, he just started talking, and after about three minutes, he's like ‘Are you going to start filming me? Or are we going to start this?’ Okay, fine. I took my camera out, we started recording, like, did a 40 minute interview then and there. And then he at the end of the interview, you know, sort of he was kind of um-ing and ah-ing for a second and wasn't quite sure what was going on at all, he said ‘you know, if you could maybe spot me a 50 that'd be great. You know, just need to get a few things. I'm just running a bit short at this moment.’ So I was like, yeah, it's fine, here’s 50 bucks. And from the outset, he was really really adamant about wanting this film to be as in his words are “warts and all” portrayal of what his life was at that point in time, which was you know, he was sleeping under bridges, in laundries occasionally crashing with friends and family, but that was like very occasional, and he had a- he was homeless, and basically, he was on a he was on a pretty hot streak of committing these burglaries. So he would basically, yeah, he targeted prominently the eastern suburbs ,so the inner east. He'd do Kew, Hawthorn, Toorak, South Yarra and he’d been, basically as he would call it collecting the rent from these houses and mansions.
DX: For that people that don't live in Melbourne can you just talk about like, the significance of that area and why he targeted that area?
AC-W: Yeah, so so basically, you know, in the south side or across the the Yarra, there's an amazing story actually, Sheldon Lee this poet friend of Jacks told me that during the Depression in Melbourne, there were plans afoot, very serious plans, to actually blow up the bridges connecting the north and the south because there was this very real fear that the working class in suburbs like Richmond that, which is still populating the, you know, from the turn of the century, the workers cottages and that part of Melbourne, though, that the you know, the the unwashed hordes we're gonna cross the Yarra and and invade the, the wealthy neck of the woods being South Yarra, Hawthorn, Kew, so it's really way it's where you get the, the most, you know, ridiculously obscene mansions in Melbourne, to put it bluntly, and Jack had walked those streets and robbed literally, I would say, you know, that like, some houses had robbed like 10 or 12 times.
So to say that he'd committed thousands of robberies sounds absurd, but over a 20-30 year period, it's like, probably and, you know, a pretty conservative estimate. Just- he was arrested about a year into us filming together and even on that single arrest, I think they they had him on upwards of 100 robberies, but sometimes the cops would, and you know, for better or worse, that they would just clean up their books with Jack so they’d arrest him, and he would basically just say yes to anything they threw at him, knowing that it helped them, and they would kind of be, you know, somewhat lenient on him as a result, but sometimes he'd be he'd, you know, he'd cop charge 150, either straight burglaries and then occasionally, he would get charges of aggravated burglary, which would be obviously a bit more serious, but he would, he would, he really was like an old school cat burglar, though. So one of the specialties was breaking into people's houses when they were asleep and in the house.
He used to tell me these amazing stories of synchronizing his breath with the breath of the people sleeping in the bedroom that he was in, and it would sometimes take him 20 minutes to crawl across the floor to get to a jewelry bowl or, you know, chest of drawers, and would take him sometimes up to an hour to get in and out of a single room. So he actually saw it as sometimes as a as a performance of sorts. So he, yeah, he he really loved it.
He loved robbing people.
MF: I think, for for me, the most beautiful part of that documentary that kind of just brought me to absolute tears was, was when he steals from you and he steals that diamond ring, and you just know, it's this, it's just become, it's just taken hold of him, you know, that, that identity of being a thief and that, you know, when the struggle to survive is just so overwhelming, it becomes your only instinct or something.
AC-W: Totally, and and I think, you know, up until that point, even though my parents are artists, and we're involved in, you know, whatever you want to call the Bohemian end of the street and but, you know, I still hadn't really had too many interactions with Indigenous Australians and hadn't really had proper, you know, certainly had never developed a friendship with with, you know, part of the Koori community, so I was really mindful from the get go, I'd seen around me, a well-intentioned but, you know, quite frustrating tendency with, you know, certain parts of the white-leftist community to, to go go to great lengths to try to identify with, with, you know, indigenous parts of the community and then in doing so, actually, you know, put their foot in it by- Yeah, there's a, there's a real- I was just very, I was very adamant to, to be absolutely upfront about how naive I was, and that I knew absolutely nothing. And I didn't pretend to be an expert on on the suffering of, of people who I had, you know, no personal lived experience. And so my job was to, was to really just be as a blank slate as possible. And I think, even though it probably took, and rightly so, you know, close to three or four years of filming and and for people like Gary Foley who's a another remarkable iconic figure in in Australian indigenous political scene, you know, it took about four or five years of him looking on and saying this young, you know, middle class white kid make a film about his one of his oldest friends, and actually develop any degree of trust and to see that, you know, my motivations were actually sound and that I wasn't sort of, in and out for a hatchet job, because obviously, Jack was very, very vulnerable at that time.
I mean, being, you know, addicted to smack and also homeless and so it was, it wasn't really until he he did his first prison sentence and I would send him socks and underwear, and I remember he was a big fan of espionage novels, so I'd send him a lot of espionage novels in prison and, and went to visit him a few times, and it was really only after that trip, that I think a few of his friends started to see that I you know, that I was that I wasn't just a fly by night filmmaker in for you know, for for for what I could get, that it wasn't a transaction as transactional thing as I think they had maybe assumed initially.
MF: That's a really interesting point. A lot of people have this image in their head that anybody who makes films makes loads of money, like because it's a it's a medium that is so reliant on money and there's so much fanfare and celebrity and prestige that comes with you know, cinema but your, I was talking to Nick this weekend, like we did, we I don't think we, you, we know anyone that sacrificed as much as maybe you have for your artwork. And I know you're gonna be too humble or modest to talk about this, but you, you definitely the product in the, and the experience that we see on screen is definitely something you personally have sacrificed a lot for. And I think that like, the question is it would you make a big blockbuster film, if if you are asked by say, Marvel, even if you had no control of the back end? Or how would, how would you treat that experience? Cuz to me, you're the last puritanical art filmmaker in Australia, really.
AC-W: Look, it's funny you bring this up at this exact moment. I caught up with a cinematographer friend yesterday, who's who's just been offered the newest Star Wars, like series, which is like, amazing, and, you know, remarkable, remarkable for them, and you do you do think about what that experience would be like.
I think it's funny that there's a filmmaker Chloé Zhao, who just made a film called Nomadland, just won the, the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and she's also just finished a Marvel film. I'm friends with her cinematographer, we were going to work together in Oklahoma a few years back, so I've sort of been in touch with him about her process and how she can juggle her, her, you know, more pure art films with this, you know, much larger commercial enterprise.
I think if the story was was right, and there was something in there that I could justify it in terms of communicating something to a much larger audience that there was some kernel of some kind of purity in there. Which I think is you know, very very rarely the case but if you could find something, I do feel that it would be worth worth trying it out for the experience. I wouldn't say no, you know?
MF: Yeah, but what is it that keeps you going in this space, man? Like I've been with you, you slept outside libraries together, we you know, we lived in warehouses and done at all like you you're really willing to sacrifice, you know, a comfortable life which you've been offered many times to make these beautiful, difficult philosophical films like what what drives you in that way?
AC-W: It's, it sounds really funny but it's actually Eddie Martin's film, Jisoe, there's a, there's a quote from that where the main character of that documentary talks about how he's a, he's a he's a writer, so he does graffiti and he's talking about all he cares about is having a fat album, that he can show his grandkids. And somehow, for some reason, I often think of those words, and it's kind of like, rather than the more highfalutin kind of answer or it's something that it just it just very simple terms, like, again, having two parents as painters, and seeing the sacrifices they made and seeing what they weren't able to achieve by having to take, you know, full time work and support and raise kids.
Like, I'm just, you know, it's, it's, it's a, it's partly driven by fear, you know, you because if you allow one degree of compromise into your work willingly, that doesn't come, you know, from outside and, and then that one degree, in the words of Danny Jones and other collaborator, if you work, you know, you you travel far enough, you know, one degree Southwest, 10-15 years down the track, you're gonna end up in a very fucking different place. So, I, my, my, my philosophy has always been just, just never compromise because compromise is inevitable anyway. But you know, things are always gonna descend upon a process to make something take three times as long or alter the way in which you can tell a certain story.
So why, why willingly introduce or dilute a concept at the outset, when those kind of things, you know, the the world takes care of that, in natural, you know, in due process.
MF: Yeah, like what you're talking about, earlier about the photo photo album, spoke to a lot of graffiti artists who, you know, really care about that sort of thing, and graffiti is interesting, because it lives in a space for a moment in time and disappears, you know, and that seems to be kind of what's happening with cinema, with the new distribution models online or whatever. But, legacy is kind of a theme in a lot of your work, like capturing the legacy of these larger than life characters.
And that just leads me to Cecil Taylor, like, what amazing experience you had with that, maybe you could talk a bit about, about that, and how that plays into these ideas.
AC-W: Yeah, I, I had, I'd finished making Bastardy which is a portrait of Jack. So that was that was an eight year process. And I think with each, with each documentary I make I try to kind of spin the compass and find a different entry point into, to find a different way into the form, I suppose. So whether there's a different methodology, or a different point on the spectrum between say drama, or between fiction and documentary, the length of a shoot, subject matter always trying to find something to, to, to challenge my own sense of what filmmaking is, and also to try to find a real degree of risk in the work as well.
So I was researching again, sort of was doing, doing a bunch of writing and just finished a feature film called Ruin that I co-directed with a guy Michael Cody in Cambodia, and was looking for a new film and had just made two narrative feature films, so I was looking to return to documentary and this was 2014, and seven years prior, I'd seen Cecil Taylor in New York perform. And it had really just changed my life as a reorganized my, my-
MF: Illustrate that experience for us.
AC-W: So, yeah, so the I was in New York with my girlfriend working on another film. And we wanted to go out and see some music. There were two people playing, there was Public Enemy and Cecil Taylor. And I'd always wanted to say Public Enemy, and to see them in New York would have been fucking amazing. But I knew somehow that I wouldn't get another chance to see Cecil, anytime soon anyway, so splurged on the most expensive tickets I could afford, and went to see this show. It was, he was supported by John Zorn. And I remember he, when he-
MF: What did you know about Cecil Taylor prior to this?
AC-W: Yeah, so my dad had been not not like a huge fan of Cecil, but he had, he's sort of more iconic albums, so he had Conquistador and he had Unit Structures, he's sort of these two like breakthrough, late mid-late 60s records. And, and so I knew I knew him, you know, in a, in a, only in a, in a fairly nominal fashion. You know, I just knew a little bit about him. But I knew that he was someone really important to check out.
But when he, when his set started, and he appeared on the side of stage, doing what appeared to be some kind of ritualistic dance. And it took him I think, 15 minutes to get from the side of stage to his grand piano to sit down to then launch into the most aggressive, and this is a man who, at that point, was in his late 70s, he was 78 years old. He then launched into the most physical, aggressive, relentless piece of piano music I think I'd ever heard.
And, it’s at the Lincoln Center, which is, you know, kind of, it's like a large hall in New York, and it's, uh, it's, you know, in Midtown, and, you know, traditionally is the kind of jazz that gets programmed there. There's a bit of a split between, like the Downtown scene and the Midtown scene. So for Cecil to be playing at that kind of venue was, especially with John Zorn was a little bit unusual, and I think they made the most of it by basically, after that hour, almost two thirds of the entire audience had cleared out of the venue. So he just, leaving only the, the, like, poorer students and the musicians who are sitting up in the stalls.
MF: And for those that don't, don't know my man, he's, his playing and music’s fucking out there. It's like nothing you've ever heard someone do with a piano.
AC-W: Yeah, I mean, he's his music, to call it free jazz even is it feels like it's doing it a disservice. It is really like nothing else you've ever heard. I mean, he, someone once commented that his piano playing style is like playing 88 tuned drums. So it's unbelievably percussive, it's unbelievably fast. Cecil obviously, being really influenced by, a lover of pianists like Thelonious Monk. And he, you know, he, he talked about the “tone of Monk”, like every note being like a bell, being this. And so, Cecil wanted to create that kind of tone. But in this unbelievably muscular, over-driven maximalist kind of overload of sound. It was beautifully described, when he performed- it was at a jazz festival in like, 58, so this is when his, his music was still really misunderstood. And, and, and, you know, quite reviled by by a lot of a lot of, you know, jazz players, and critics.
They described him starting his set, and so when Cecil started playing piano, the audience started uncomfortably shifting on their feet as if the ground beneath them had become suddenly unbelievably hot. And there is this, there is this period where people talk about it. Well, you need to kind of break through a certain pain barrier in unlocking the joys of his music because it's, it's very, very, it's difficult stuff.
DX: So, you witnessed the pain threshold be unbearable for the majority of the audience, and then you witnessed him kind of knowingly look towards the people who had managed to bear it, and what happened next?
AC-W: Yeah, so he, so you, you're left with basically, you know, a 30% full venue and Cecil looks around smiles, stops playing invites the people who had the you know, the cheaper tickets up in the stores to come up to the front, so suddenly you've got what was a huge kind of hall concert suddenly becomes this very intimate almost like a club style sized audience, and just as a as a “fuck you” he, he then performs the most beautiful 15 minute rendition of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’. Totally delicate, gentle, like as lyrical, and as gorgeous as- and I just looked around, and I've never seen so many people simultaneously weeping at a show. It was just all these grown men and women just like sobbing.
And so that experience in 2007 was really, yeah, it had reorganized my cellular structure. Honestly, I'd never seen a piece of music performed like it.
MF: DX as a musician, have you- do you recall when you've experienced a moment like that, like where you've seen someone perform live in there? It's just rearranged your nervous system?
DX: Yeah, definitely a couple come to mind but nothing of the power you've just described.
Like, generally, it'll be a band who's designed like, to make that kind of noise and obliterate you. But something for something delicate, as you've described it, to have that impact. I can't think of anything. That sounds as, as much as you've put into this description. It does sound formative.
AC-W: Yeah, it was it was it was something about the the combination of the two aspects and so fast forward seven years and it was 2014, and I was just listening to some Cecil music and, and brought up an interview with him on YouTube. And had never heard him speak. And there's something about the tone of his voice. He sounded like he was about 3000 years old, like he was immortal. And as soon as I heard his voice, the idea of this project that I subsequently went to New York to track him down for hatched, which is the idea of using the narrative conceit of time travel the idea of him as a time traveler. So basically making a science fiction free jazz biopic about Cecil.
So laying a fictional skin over the top of his his remarkable life story. So I wrote a treatment, managed to get a small grant to get over to New York, had no way of tracking him down at this, at this point, he was already 85 years old, he had no manager had no record label to speak of. There was no certainly no website or any, any way of emailing anyone to get in touch. So the only way I realized I could find him was just by going to pretty much like free jazz shows and poetry readings, and looking for the oldest person in the room and saying “Hey, I'm a filmmaker. I'm looking for Cecil Taylor. Do you know him? Do you know where he lives? Do you have any information?”. And I did that for probably like two months, and ended up meeting, finally, at a venue called The Stone which is amazing shopfront venue that is no longer there down Alphabet City, which has started by John Zorn and met a guy called Steve Dalachinsky, who's a sadly passed away now but remarkable poet in the downtown scene, and, and he knew Cecil's address. So any, you know, being the true New Yorker he was like “make sure you fucking give me a credit for passing on these details.”
His address was in Fort Greene in Brooklyn, borrowed a friend's camera really had didn't quite know what was going to happen other than I just knew I had to get through to him. And at one, one meeting, so we, I would camp outside his house sometimes for 12-14 hours a day, and did that for like a week. I remember I was reading HG Wells ‘Time Machine’, because it seemed like a good text to like, prime the vibe.
And after seven days, this very again, diminutive gentleman opened the door and said, “What's your name? I've been watching you” and I introduced myself and he said, “Well, well, you seem very, very patient. So would you like to have dinner tonight?” And we went had Italian food that evening. I, you know, I basically pitched the idea of the film to him then and there. And he was like, strangely really, really into it. We hit it off, like really quickly. And, and within about two weeks, I was living at his house. So living in this, the ground floor of this amazing four story brownstone that he lived in since the mid 80s.
And it was kind of perfect timing because he'd had a friend who had just moved out who was kind of like a living carer, slash archivist slash personal assistant.
And so struck a deal with Cecil whereby I became that person for him. So would you know, cook him food and bring in the New York Times and his you know, pack of cigarettes every day and his goat cheese on toast and his, you know, his class of champagne with lemon gelato in it, which is his favorite drink that a opera singer in the mid 60s had introduced into and, and basically lived with him on and off for the next 18 months and and just became unbelievably close. We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours just, you know, a lot of that time was not shooting or recording anything was just like listening to him regale me with his sort of endless, remarkable, sometimes quite fractious, looping stories.
DX: Was he tying into that? Was he receptive to the science fiction aspect of the film? And and what was his take on that?
AC-W: It's funny, I actually I have that I have his response recorded, because I just wanted to, you know, again, not dissimilar to Jack, you know, to see, so I had a lot of people around him who, again, you're rightly so, a little bit suspicious of this person who was suddenly living with him and, you know, cooking for him, and they, you know, they wanted to, to, to make sure that I was I was legit. So I wanted to have a conversation with Cecil on camera about the film itself, just to get a sense that he was, you know, really on board. And so I was like, you I remember saying “So Cecil, you know, you realize that this film is not going to be a straight biopic, it's really looking at you as a, as a time traveler”. And remember, he, his response was, “well, I am a fucking time traveler. So there's, there's no fiction there whatsoever.” And that was, that was all I needed.
I remember I showed him a rough cut of a just a short kind of mood reel we cut together, and there's a lot of slow motion throughout the film, and a lot of, you know, a lot of like, macro close ups of Cecil. And I remember him, his response was “Oh I thought you were talking about time, but this film is actually about time”.
Which sums up Cecil, like pretty well.
MF: I love the story of you going with him to Ornette Coleman’s funeral, right?
MF: Can you can you just recount that? Because it's, I mean, as grim as it sounds, I
would have loved to be in attendance. But yeah, it's such a tragic, I mean, listening to Ornette records and Cecil records really go hand in hand, so I imagine him then attending his friend and kind of the person who was so emblematic of his scene passing away did how did that affect him? And what was that experience like?
AC-W: Yeah, I mean, Cecil was really, he was highly competitive, you know, and, and really, really driven. Getting back to what we were talking about the start of the chat, I mean, musicians that he collaborated with, again, and again, they talk about just being absolutely obliterated by his work ethic, like he would practice 18 hours a day, you know, when he was at Antioch University in the early 70s, there are stories about him not leaving his studio for days on end. And even at age 85, he would often just outlast me in terms of his stamina of an evening, you know, we'd be out at a bar, and he'd be up until 10 o'clock in the morning, just drinking champagne, smoking cigarettes, wanting to keep shooting the shit and be like, I have to I have to crash man, I can't keep up, you know.
So he's, his stamina was, was really, really unbelievable. But I think that that was really born of a deeply kind of competitive spirit because he wasn't accepted in the way maybe that you know, Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman, or other co-luminaries in the free jazz scene were. I mean, he, he was certainly like he's considered now, you know, one of the four or five kind of key iconic figures responsible for the coining of the term. But comparatively, it was, it was quite late in coming to him. So as a result he had, not misgivings, but he had mixed feelings about a lot of his peers and would sometimes like playfully kind of rib them, he had kind of these somewhat, this kind of admonishing series of nicknames for for different players in the space. Like, Miles Davis was MD, the Mean Devil and you know, Ornette Coleman was Ornettie Poo and like he had this like, but we were there the day that he got the news that Ornette had died. And it clearly affected him very, very, very deeply. I mean, he was just speechless and then spoke really eloquently about, you know, how he was really the last one left at that point.
And so he was invited to play at Ornette’s funeral, which is held at a very, very iconic church again in Uptown. And, and because I was still his carer at that point, I was in charge of getting him dressed and getting him to the to the gig, you know, and that was an unbelievably frightening prospect because there's just there's no rushing Cecil, quite often he would take four to five hours to get ready to go anywhere. And-
MF: And just talk a bit about how he dresses for people that don't know.
AC-W: So Cecil has the most remarkable sense of style, like to give you a sense of, he had a series of outfits designed by Issey Miyake and he did a lot of Missoni he was like doing he had this amazing- Most of his wardrobe was, hadn't really changed since like the, he had a lot of stuff in the 70s right through to the the 80s and 90s. But this is, he’s called a Kiawah and Cherokee. So he had this part Native American influenced, spent a lot of time Japan so he had this like, Japanese sort of thing going on. Yeah, he cut a mean silhouette on the street, you know.He was, even up until I think it was like when he's 87, like GQ did a did a photoshoot about his sense of style.
There's an amazing photo which they used at his his funeral, which was part of a part of a GQ feature on on the the, the the icons of free jazz and their their fashion sense. But um, yeah, getting into this, this funeral was was unbelievably stressful. We were about 45 minutes late. And I remember on the bill was Pharoah Sanders, there was Yoko Ono, there was this really amazing lineup of people paying their respects and doing short performances in this, this really beautiful, beautiful, huge church. And Cecil, I remember, arrived, and just started, I arrived at the church and just started walking down the middle of the aisle towards the front of the stage.
MF: And, and you're standing next to him
AC-W: Yeah, and I'm realizing that oh fuck, he's gonna just go to the fr-, like, someone was talking, someone was giving their you know, their own words on at this point. So wildly kind of signal to the person organizing the service. And the person talking was asked to then sort of wrap up. And someone quickly got on the mic and said ‘Okay, and now we have Cecil Taylor, he's just walked into the building’ and everyone turned and started applauding and he just walked, walked up to the piano did this amazing, very, very minimal, unbelievably delicate, eight minute performance, recited a poem and then just turned around and walked out again, didn't wait for anyone else to perform. I was like, I was desperately excited to see Pharoah Sanders, I hadn't seen play in about, like 12 years and and Yoko as well, but all Cecil interested in doing was going to get a chocolate milkshake.
So we were there for 15 minutes and then we're out, we're out again and found ourselves at a Midtown diner yet drinking a chocolate malted.
MF: Fuck me, that’s like the concert of your life and you're forced to leave.
AC-W: It was a it was a fucker, it was a good it was a good chocolate milkshake. Cecil loved chocolate milkshakes and, and, and butter pecan ice cream. He had this amazing- because he's his father was a cook and he also had this amazing taste in food, sort of like this great like Soul Food thing infused in his, in his love of Italian and Japanese and but he did love a- he did love a malted milk.
MF: What do you what do you take away from from all these figures like Cecil, Jack Charles, Danny Jones. What mark have they left on you, imparted- or have they all been kind of different?
AC-W:I think the common thread is they've managed to transform a certain degree of adversity in their lives into an unbelievably pure output, whether it's Jack Charles on stage or Cecil's music, or Danny Jones’ poetry or storytelling or his his skills as an actor as well.
I'm constantly drawn to people who have had to learn to flourish and thrive under extraordinarily difficult circumstances and have managed to take, you know, trauma that would have crushed other people and somehow, you know, transform that into into something that has allowed them not only to just survive, but to really, to flourish.
MF: Yeah, and I think I think that bleeds through in your work, you kind of distill these lives into an expression on screen. And yeah, it leaves you leaves you with that kind of fermenting in your own life. And, yeah, when you walk- as you approach different situations, you can't help but think of the way they might have thought about things. And yeah.
AC-W: I mean, I, I think between I literally, I mean, I talked about, you know, I think between Danny, Jack and Cecil, their words would be you know, echoing in my head 15-20 times a week easily. You know, there's, there's, there's, whether it's the way Jack treats a bus driver, in that in that equanimity, or the way that Cecil would, he was dealing with, you know, in his mid 80s, there's a very extreme hip pain, and we'd have to walk up to three flights of stairs to get to his, you know, his bedroom on the top floor of his brownstone. And he had this this inimitable way of laughing whenever he was in great pain. And I've taken you know, that from him his work ethic, Danny's, I mean, he's his unbelievable generosity for, yeah, I mean, the, there's a, there's a really conscious decision in a lot of these relationships, to just seek out people who you want to basically kind of kneel at the feet of, really and listen to and be be taught by, you know, I mean, and in that, in that regard, I think, the film, the films are, in some way secondary to the to, what I would hope would be a series of friendships, you know, and the films are really a relatively small part of what these 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 year journeys are, you know, with these with these human beings.
MF: Yeah, I think that's exactly the kind of, well, they're the kind of people that DX and I want to be speaking to, because we see them existing outside of society, and they become countercultural in their very way of being. And yeah, I think that that that succinctly ties up what it is we're trying to achieve with this is is kind of echoed in your, in your films.
AC-W: But that's a really good point. I mean, I think, you know, there's a there's a quote that we were banding about when we were making Hail, which is a McLuhan quotes talks about the artists like the criminal is a social explorer. And this idea certainly from Jack and then again from Danny who'd also spent a lot of time in prison, and Cecil in his in his own way, because, you know, he was Native-American Black gay, and also making this unbelievably difficult music at a time when, you know, no one wanted to hear it. So I'm really interested in people who are afforded a certain perspective born of their, to say they’re outsiders, I suppose is, in some ways not the best summation of their lives, but it afforded a perspective born of this, this moving between the lanes, and this, this mercurial ability to you know, Jack is just as comfortable, you know, in a room full of, you know, ex heroin addicts or heroin addicts, or, you know, talking to a group of, you know, young guys in prison as he is at a, you know, a fundraising event for Sydney Theatre Company or talking to Cate Blanchett and Neil Armfield about whatever the, you know, the next adaptation of Shakespeare that they're planning for the following season, and I was, but again, you know, that he's, he's always as generous and as present, and as willing to, to learn, you know, and I think that's also a big a big part of what's drawn me to these people is their- they don't become hardened in their own sort of sense of themselves. There's, there's even into their 70s and 80s, there's this very humble adherence to an idea of still being a student very much.