The Reeler


September 5, 2007

All in a Day's Work

Reeler Interview: Musician filmmaker Kraus on his stunning portrait of the artist as a working man

Phoning it in: Jazz workhorse Ken Vandermark in Musician (Photos: Amanda Kraus)

The second film in Chicago director Daniel Kraus' Work Series of documentaries, Musician expands a deceptively simple premise -- film a jazz musician at work writing, performing, recording and booking shows -- into a nuanced drama that is one of the best films of the year. The ratios of magic are hard to calculate; Kraus rigorously composes frames while all but stalking his subject, the legendary avant-jazz workaholic Ken Vandermark, himself an overwhelming force of nature who barely slows up between sessions and rehearsals. The verite dance that follows yields a succession of haunting realities, none more so than a map of the shattered line between so many of our personal and professional lives.

The New York engagement of Musician begins tonight at the Pioneer Theater, where Vandermark will perform a solo set before each show. While the film no doubt looks better than its Work Series predecessor Sheriff, Kraus' riveting 2006 glimpse of glad-handing, gambling-ring-busting North Carolina lawman Ronald Hewett, taken together the films augur an extraordinary run of documentaries that theoretically --hopefully, even -- can continue for years. The Reeler recently caught up with Kraus about Musician, the Work Series and what his own job might look like onscreen.

THE REELER: The Work Series is about as straightforward as it gets, isn't it? Film people doing their jobs?

DANIEL KRAUS: Essentially it boils down to a thought I had that these days, there are so many documentaries being made and so many reality shows out there, so we have video being shot constantly. If you were to look back in time, you'd have a really good idea of what it's like to be an attractive 20-something in a contrived situation on TV, or a famous person or infamous person or a hot political concept. But I would assume we spend 75 to 80 percent of our lives doing something, and ironically, that's the thing that's not being taped anywhere. No one's capturing how we spend our lives.

R: But there are so many different ways it could go from there; how did you control that overlap or bleed-through between time spent on and off the clock?

DK: I think a way to do it is to only show the job and never go beyond the boundaries of their work hours. But if you show a glimpse of what they're working for, it enriches everything you've seen that comes before it. It also informs it. For example, if you see the person wake up in the morning and they're living in a very small, cramped apartment, that tells you something about their work history and how much they make -- or what they're putting away. You don't want to do too much of that, either, because it takes away from what the Work Films are supposed to be.

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I just got back from shooting a new one last week -- Professor -- and there was much more home stuff for that one than there has been for any of the other ones yet. But that's because that job is more of an intellectual job. It involves thinking, essentially -- rumination, cogitation. Those are things that are ongoing; while he's eating dinner, he's still thinking.

R: Which came first: The idea of documenting a musician or the idea of documenting Ken Vandermark?

DK: A musician, definitely. It was even broader than that; it was the idea of doing an artist of some sort. In the first 10 movies, I wanted to do one artist, but I was wide open to the kind of artist it could have been. It could have been a sculptor for all I cared. But around the time that I was trying to settle on the next few movies, I was starting to listen to Ken a little bit. I read a couple of interviews with him and saw that he had not only this unbelievable body of work for somebody who's only 42, but he had really interesting things to say about the work. So he had an unbelievable work ethic, one, and two, he looked at it as a job. He didn't view his art as a lot of other artists view theirs -- at least as they express it. It wasn't the sort of fuzzy, let's-talk-about-our-craft-over-dinner kind of thing. It was a 9 to 5 job -- or, in his case, probably a noon to midnight job.

R: Part of what makes Sheriff so compelling are its depictions of the moral and political ambiguities of Hewett's job. Dramatically, anyhow, you lose those dynamics when taking on a guy like Vandermark. What replaces them, if anything?

DK: It's something I don't think about, because it's all inherent in the job. In Musician, you're right -- Vandermark doesn't have these kinds of sweeping, larger moral concerns and political concerns. But that doesn't make it bigger or smaller. I'm interested in it on a very human level; I'm not really interested in Hewett's politics. In fact, I don't think it's clear at all what his politics are in the film. You could take some guesses, but I'd bet you're probably wrong. There's a murder investigation in Sheriff, but I don't explain who does it. All I'm concerned about are the tiny changes and emotions and conflicts that go on in any individual moment -- completely unrelated to the larger ideas that surround them. I'm not concerned about what moral road the sheriff chooses when he finds himself at a crossroads. I'm just concerned that he makes a choice.

R: How well do you have to know someone personally before being able to accurately depict him or her professionally?

Filmmaker Daniel Kraus

DK: In theory, I don't think you need to know them that well. It helps in the sense that it loosens them up; if they have a profession where your presence is very blatant and might throw them off in some way, then yeah -- the more you're around them, the more it'll put them at ease. But in theory, I should be able to step into any situation and capture it whether or not I know the person.

R: What would people see if they were to watch you at work?

DK: If I made Filmmaker, it'd be a lot like watching Musician. My work ethic is sort of similar to Vandermark's. I don't think I'll shoot anyone else who's work ethic is as close to mine. I saw a lot of similarities there: we both work very hard and sort of control large projects almost completely by ourselves, and we prefer to do things that way. There's a quality control in that we don't have to rely on other people.

R: You've made two of these films, with a third and likely more on the way. As you observe people working, are you more or less convinced that the individual is actually inseparable from his or her job?

DK: I'm more convinced, definitely. Everyone brings their work with them everywhere. It affects them in really visceral ways. Just observe the way Vandermark walks in Musician. He looks like he's always carrying 100 pounds of equipment, even if he's just walking across the kitchen. There's a sort of physical weariness to the way he moves. I think that's because of his job. Everyone is completely affected almost every minute of their life by what they've done all day. I think there are probably some who can turn it off better than others. Certainly at some point I'll probably do a factory worker; when the whistle blows at 5 p.m., he's able to completely shut it off and change personalities. But I think it's rare.

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