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SXSW 09 Interview: "Intangible Asset Number 82" Director Emma Franz

by David Cornelius

The South by Southwest rundown on “Intangible Asset Number 82”: When Australian drummer Simon Barker hears a rare recording of Korean shaman Kim Seok-Chul - a grand master in his seventies playing with immense energy and complex technique - he knows immediately he must find and learn from the enigmatic shaman officially recognized as South Korea's 82nd Intangible Asset. Undeterred by years of setbacks and obstacles, and with the elusive Kim Seok-Chul now in his eighties, Simon returns to Korea for a seventeenth time. The journey becomes a rite of passage, as meaningful encounters with engaging and exotic characters prepare Simon for a fortuitous meeting with the shaman. Personal transformations result, and Simon and the artists who have become immersed in his search move naturally to collaboration, a testimony to the universal language of music.

Just what is "Intangible Asset Number 82"?

“Intangible Asset Number 82” refers to the honorary title given to Shaman Kim Seok-Chul by the Korean Government. It means he was officially designated as the pre-eminent practitioner, or “grand-master”, and keeper/protector of this art form. It’s a system similar to world heritage sites, but the value in this case is placed on non-material, intangible things. When one holder of the title passes, it is handed down to the next in line.

I liked it as a title for the film not only because it refers to the shaman and because it has an element of intrigue, but mostly because I like the concept of valuing the intangible, and that is in a sense one of the main themes of the film; the integral value of non-material aspects of our lives including music and culture, philosophy... it can be easy to lose sight of that.

I also thought that, as a title, it had a nice quirkiness about it - a paradox between the enigmatic idea of an intangible asset and the idea that it can be given a specific number. I found a lot of those paradoxes in the (unfortunately limited) time I spent in Korea.

How did you come across the drummer's story, and what made you decide to document his journey?

In my previous life I was a jazz singer. I played music and performed with Simon (the drummer) for many years. In 2005 Simon Barker and I were both in Hong Kong to record an album for an audiophile company. I had flown there from Australia, but Simon had come straight from Korea. I asked him what he had been doing there and he replied that he had been looking for a shaman. I was immediately intrigued by his story, and I probably don't need to explain why! But I had also, because of my own experiences traveling with music, been wanting my first film to be something that expressed music as a universal language that can connect people. People with no common language whatsoever can form quite deep relationships through music, and that to me is a beautiful thing.

I knew if people with two such disparate lives - a thirty-something jazz musician and an eighty-year-old Korean shaman met, something great would happen. And at the same time this particular story had all the added potential of an exotic road movie. I had traveled a lot but knew very little of Korea. As I followed Simon I also became absorbed in the experience and the ideas that he was exploring and were being shown to us.

The film's website states a soundtrack is in the works. How's that coming along? And for those not familiar with the movie, how would you describe the music used in the film?

The soundtrack will be a compilation of the tracks used in the film which were sourced from pre-existing albums of two of Simon's groups, Band of Five Names and Showa44, as well as solo tracks of Simon’s. The plan is to release the soundtrack with the DVD, but meanwhile all the tracks and complete albums are available on iTunes or through Simon’s independent label Kimnara Records.

There was other music in the film that occurred as I was filming and when I was selecting music for scenes I was also trying to create seamless interweaving between sourced tracks and live ones, sometimes with the effect of a new piece of music. Sometimes there were serendipitous moments in the edit where two tracks just sounded great together quite by accident.

I also took music recorded during concerts that happened in the course of the filming and used it in other scenes.

Describing the music as opposed to describing the music’s use is difficult because it is varied, but I’ll try… Firstly, I’d say fantastic. I have such respect for all of those musicians and just love what they do, how they play, how they approach music. When I try to describe it, each word feels like I’m pigeon-holing them into something they’re not… Simon is a unique, dynamic drummer with great technique and great sensitivity, yet somehow accessible because of the great grooves he creates. His solo material often sounds like a group of drummers and is almost melodic in approach. His duo, Showa44, with guitarist Carl Dewhurst, moves from extremist improvisation with some frighteningly powerful rhythms to subtle grooves, incorporating a sort of ‘out-there’ rock’n’roll sensibility with loads of skill and finesse.

The group, Band of Five Names, consists of Simon, Matt McMahon on piano and keyboards, and Philip Slater on trumpet and computer. They play and respond to each other with an incredible cohesion of intent, despite the spontaneity involved, creating these long-form, spacious, textural pieces full of contrast and mood shifts that crescendo and ebb and flow into these modern soundscapes. It’s very filmic… by weird way of explanation, when I’m driving I like to listen to their music as it makes me feel as if I’m floating through these weird and wonderful dream-like landscapes - if that makes sense!

A combination of all the musicians above plus the Korean guide and the singer they met on the mountain is “Daorum”; a fusion of Korean traditional rhythms and vocals with contemporary spontaneous creations that develop in an improvised manner from mere sketches of ideas to create intense atmospheric and high-energy “suites”. I used bits and pieces from some of their concerts within the film.

The IMDB credits page makes this look like a very small production. How small was the crew, and did that help or hurt production?

It was basically me. For three of the shooting weeks, I took along sound engineer Matthew Ferris and we lugged a huge multi-track desk and laptop with ProTools, mics and long heavy cables and stands, in expectation of huge noisy set-ups of drums and gongs and cymbals. We did find the huge noisy set ups, but no opportunity to do set-ups of our own.

As it turned out, when Dong-Won took us to meet master musicians and artists, I wasn't allowed to pull out the camera until we had knelt and explained our intentions. Then I was suddenly given permission to film, and they would start talking to Simon then and there and it was all go. I would be madly pulling out the camera and fixing settings and Mash (Matthew) plugging in mic cables and setting levels, both of us trying not to miss anything whilst also trying not to distract from what was happening. Even when we went to meet the singer on the mountain, Mash tramped through the mud and jungle in the rain with the full box of equipment as Dong-Won hacked through the foliage ahead with a machete, and I had two cameras with a stand to set up one as a static shot leaving me the freedom to move around…. but as soon as we arrived at the rock where he lived, Il-Dong (the singer) ran into the waterfall started praying, started singing, screaming… I pulled out a camera as Simon held an umbrella over me and filmed as we all crammed onto the small rocky outcrop that had been the singer’s home for seven years… Mash couldn’t pull out any equipment and I couldn’t film Simon because we were both squished under the umbrella. That is probably my biggest regret of the whole shoot not being able to film Simon, who had tears streaming down his face from the intensity and heartfelt spontaneity of the singing. But then again it was such a magical moment for all of us, it couldn’t have happened any other way.

To get back to your question, it soon became apparent we weren't ever going to have the opportunity to set up equipment and not long after that it just became me doing camera and sound on the fly. It was pretty intense trying to follow the action ‘observationally’ with a camera in one hand and producing the film booking taxis and hotels and so on with a mobile phone in the other. In the end though, working alone or with only one other definitely gave us the access we otherwise wouldn’t have had.

I went back on a short trip to capture some incidental shots (time-lapse landscapes, some super 8 nature footage etc) that I had been unable to capture in the flurry of Simon’s journey. On that trip I also took along cinematographer Adam Arkapaw and I did some mountain driving with Adam hanging out of the window with our interpreter Song-Hee holding onto his legs and that was about as big and high tech as the production ever got.

This is your first feature. What got you started making movies?

This is my first film, feature or otherwise. When I was in high school I went to a specialist visual art school. The visual arts were always important in my life, but music was my greater passion and what I moved into in a professional capacity. Many of my friends went on to careers in the visual arts fields, and though I’d dabble in a very hobby capacity, I always felt a little that that side of my life was missing. When I started traveling a lot with music and meeting great people with fascinating stories, having wonderful and sometimes heart-wrenching experiences, I started to feel I should be documenting some of it. Ultimately it made sense that film could be a great medium for me to express my different interests and background and experience.

Documentary was naturally a good place to start, and something I thought I could do whilst traveling with my singing. Although I’d heard, I generally don’t like to listen to nay-sayers, so I didn’t quite grasp just how all-consuming it would be on my time and resources and life… but as the story developed in Korea I became really passionate about making the film and giving it the full length I felt it needed for the material to breathe. So I was learning and doing on the fly. It was definitely a baptism of fire and singing had to take a back seat.

Any lessons learned while making this movie?

Lots. I know that any future project I take on in the capacity of director or producer I will have to be passionate about. It absorbs your life and time and energy and is a long-term commitment. There have been a lot of personal lessons about finding (and planning) balance between work and other elements in my life, and about working with like-minded people whom you can trust. It can be a harsh industry full of a desperation that I hope never to be caught in the maelstrom of. And of course there have been a multitude of lessons learned craft and business-wise that I look forward to applying to my next project! It’s all good…

Are you nervous about coming to South by Southwest?

No. Should I be...?(!) I'm really looking forward to it. I’m sure it will be busy, but I intend to have a good time, see lots of films and hear lots of music and meet interesting people (sounds like a dating ad!). Festivals of any sort are always a springboard to new ideas and potential, and I’ve always wanted to visit Austin just from a musical sense as well…

Would you like to continue working with documentaries, or do you plan to jump to fiction? (In other words, what's next for you?)

I would love to do a fictional film one day, but in the meantime I have ideas for new documentaries that I’m developing, and am excited about exploring further with new styles and approaches in documentary. I certainly wouldn’t say no if I was presented the opportunity to direct a good work of fiction now though!

Finish this sentence: If I weren't a filmmaker, I'd probably be...

…a better musician.

Rock, paper, or scissors?


Of the other 81 intangible assets, which one's your favorite?

Ha ha. I have no idea. I am not an expert by any means, and there are more than 82 of them…

In ten words or less, convince the average moviegoer to watch your film.

Incredible drummer and soundtrack. Untold stories. Insight into creative processes.

“Intangible Asset Number 82” has its North American premiere as part of the SXSW 24 Beats Per Second series. It screens 9:15 PM March 14, 8:30 PM March 17, and 9:00 PM March 21.

link directly to this feature at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/feature.php?feature=2698
originally posted: 03/06/09 06:18:40
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