Henry Hills

Experimental Filmmaker

Henry Hills

Forms of Life

Editing has always been a large part of my filmmaking process. That involves a lot of sitting, and so, to save my back (and keep up my energy), my work process has always included lots of lap swimming, shiatsu, and yoga classes. Lately I’ve been working with a timer across the room and breaking to stretch every half hour. After too much chocolate and coffee, the editors’ drugs of choice, I go organic vegan for a few days. I tend to do rational organizing of material in the mornings, improvisational composing with a very narrow and precise focus in the late afternoons, and, after a couple of glasses of wine with supper, having a relaxed overall view of my project late in the evening, taking notes for the next days work. I also tend to wake up with a lot of ideas which I write down before I brush my teeth.

In April of 2008 John Zorn wrote me an e-mail inviting me to realize a “script” he had written in the 80’s, “Treatment for a Film in Fifteen Scenes” (published in the first Tzadik ARCANA anthology). I had just finished FAILED STATES and was living in Prague and pondering what to do next. This text consists of 254 numbered shots, mostly nouns; it starts like the cutaways from a classic Film Noir and then quickly becomes more abstract, apparently ordered like one of his “game pieces” or one of his index card compositions. It seemed to me that most of my films had consisted of one to three images which I shot and re-shot over time in a wide range of light and tone variations, and then cut together rhythmically. The enormous number of images here, and the scavenger hunt nature of their pursuit, appealed to me as a possible new direction. After Zorn’s e-mail I immediately went out and shot a number of rolls of 16mm color negative (which I telecined as 25fps PAL, one film frame per video frame), but I saw right off that this project had to be a hybrid by its very nature. I gave up my apartment in Prague and moved to Vienna. I started shooting the cooking sections with Martina's Sony PD100 PAL camcorder. I shot various footage on a wide range of video cameras, each with its own characteristics exploited, finishing the film with my JVC which shoots full HD XDCAM-EX output as Quicktimes for immediate editing, a primarily TV news camera (just like I shot MONEY on a retired TV news camera, but then single system mag-striped 16mm).

I tried numerous approaches to this list of Zorn's. I thought to put a quick version together just to figure out what the hell the score meant, downloading exotic stills and stock footage from the internet, mining my own films (for images with their accompanying audio)(I even once planned to use selects from MY films as soundtrack off-sync direction changers where all of the other sound track would be actual or fake-actual sync but always out of sync with its scene one directon or the other), leaving Text-only in the holes so I could hopefully see the shape of the whole score. Then I composed a sound-effects-only soundtrack. I had a pocket-sized camera for many years, a Canon Elura, on which I had shot footage more or less randomly and I systematically never looked at the tapes, a dozen rolls over 5 years; I mined this footage and found my centering shots here (Martina walking across the beach at Coney Island at the Mermaid Parade the year before we got married forms the very center; there are 5 unusually-long shots equally dividing the film--I used these as place markers to keep track of where I was--the helicoptor shot in Guatemala was also shot with the Elura). The film would finally be finished when I replaced all the text with image. Sometimes I would be editing and need a shot and just go in the next room and create it. I replaced numerous images numerous times until they were mine, although I left fragments of all the stray and rejected ideas as archaeology of construction traced within the project. I struggled with the list for so long, that I felt the viewer had to deal with it also. So I began the film with the list and a struggle with it.

I got diverted from this project many times, twice by Zorn even, for different more then time-pressing projects. I more or less gave up on it a couple of times. Left it in disgust at least once. While I was in America on my Guggenheim, even though this was the project I had applied with, I decided to work instead on an extremely hi-res abstract train oriented installation (for which I bought a bunch of equipment too heavy to carry back to Europe, and which I haven't finished yet). So when I came back to Vienna a year and a half ago, I decided to switch back to this project which I could finish quickly on my laptop. A week or so after I decided to finish it (and to include all 264 shots, finding that a strict adherence to this restricion created its own kind of freedom), I woke up one morning with the realization of the music for the soundtrack: THE BRIBE, which is basically the outtakes from Zorn's classic 80's album SPILLANE, although better because recorded freer a few days later with the same great band. It was so right, I was able to sync the music up in just a little over a week. Even though this seems like a totally music-diven piece, the music came very late in the project. Many of the titles Zorn had given to the tracks were virtually the same as the names of shots on the list, which he afterall wrote about the same time. I had made time from my teaching job to help Martina finish her Kubelka film, but then her mother had a stroke and that was delayed. This unexpectedly gave me some extra weeks at the end to tweak this film which made it a much richer piece.

I included a lot of friends in helping me make and finish this film, which was fun. I'm so often so in my own head I sometimes forget the wonderful and necessary social aspect of filmmaking. Especially my wife Martina, my studio mate Eve Heller, and a Slovakian/Jewish poet/philosopher friend in Prague, Robert Gal, who ate the forbidden fruit, descended into the Underworld, read from his newest book, and found me some great locations.

This was to me in a way an 80's nostalgia piece (my 80's work, especialy SSS and MONEY, has been getting a lot of attention lately, finally), but made mostly out of pieces from my current life, floating back and forth between Prague and Vienna, New York and Porter Springs. Cooking, swimming, walking around, downloading, teaching film history.

So here I am delivering this only a year late to you, my dear Franck.

(commissioned for the FORMS OF LIFE project by Franck Liebovici)

see: desformesdevie.org