The strange powers Magnetic Fields leadman Stephin Merritt wield include the ability to radically divide people; to craft complex and heartbreakingly beautiful ditties; to appear dolorous at all times; and to inspire a coterie of creatively-inclined fans. One such fan is Gail O’Hara, ex-chickfactor fanzine creator and Spin writer, who has now turned her talents to directing and producing the documentary Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields, which you can see at a special one-off screening at the Chauvel on Wednesday August 4. From her home in Portland, Oregon, O’Hara takes the time to tell us a little more about the film and man himself …
Did the genesis for this film come out of being a fan?
Sure. I never would have been spending so much time with a band whose music I didn’t adore, but I was also friend, colleague, editor, driver, photographer, etc. Kerthy Fix [also Producer/Director] and I were fascinated by Stephin’s effect on people – they LOVE him or they HATE him. There’s a lot of diversity in the TMF fanbase – toddlers and octogenarians are listening to them. I’m also very interested in the relationship between Stephin and his fans – it’s almost seems like they enjoy his abuse! I think it helps to already know and love the music before you see the film, but we’ve been seeing a lot of folks who know nothing coming out of the theatre and immediately going to download their music, so who knows!
Commentators include Sarah Silverman, Neil Gaiman, Daniel Handler (author of Lemony Snicket) … What guided you in your selection?
Sarah Silverman and Jimmy Kimmel came to the TMFs show in LA in 2008 at the Henry Fonda Theatre. We tried to interview her then but it didn’t happen. Eventually I got James McNew from Yo La Tengo to forward my email to Todd Barry who forwarded it to Sarah and she agreed to be interviewed. She even sang us a TMF song, which will be a DVD extra we hope. Neil Gaiman was an obvious choice – he was around because he often opened for TMF. Daniel Handler played accordion on 69 Love Songs and did the interview for its liner notes and he just cracks me up. We had always planned for him to be one of the funny stars in the film.
There is a great scene where Stephin is sitting in a dark gay bar, writing his slow tunes to thumping disco. It seems distinctly New York. Can you give us a sense of the scene at the time?
In New York, the East Village was grungier and edgier and the West Village was fancy. When I met Stephin he was living in a tiny studio in the East Village and he recorded 69 Love Songs in this tiny room! In those days he spent every single day in an Irish bar drinking tea, feeding his Chihuahua and talking about projects with Daniel. Then in the evening he’d be at Dick’s Bar (now gone) or the Phoenix. LD (Beghtol) and Dudley (Klute) were there (both of whom sing on 69 Love Songs) and sometimes Claudia (Gonson, bandmember) and a few others. We’d program the jukebox and talk about music for hours. He moved to a larger place on the West Side after the 69LS success and changed bars. That era was quite funny because he was transitioning from being a fairly big drinker and cigarette smoker to being a non-smoking, um, sugar addict.
And stepping back a bit, the experience of growing up in the 80s amidst ‘skinheads’?
I didn’t know Stephin in the 80s, but as someone who grew up then I can say that if you looked ‘different’, you took a lot of crap from all kinds of people, skinheads or not.
You and Stephin met through Spin magazine, later Time Out New York. What was it like working together? How did you move from writing into producing/directing?
We met because The Magnetic Fields played at a party I set up (chickfactor hosted it). Working together was fun. At Spin we made fun of the copy, had a lot of downtime (when we were waiting for people to turn in copy), so we’d just go off and take photos, eat comfort food, walk around, smoke cigarettes. That’s kind of how we got to know each other. Time Out NY was also fun but hard work. We’d drive around in Stephin’s car reviewing restaurants – I remember one week we had to review vegan places and we just couldn’t eat any more legumes! He doesn’t always make a great first impression, but he is better at getting to know people over time. I guess being a director/producer has a lot in common with being a writer/editor, organising, planning, facilitating, coordinating, editing. It seemed like a natural progression to me, but I still have a lot to learn.
At the beginning, Stephin describes his music as being that of ‘beauty and interest’ vs. convention and gritty realism. Can you appreciate this dilemma as director? On what side did you fall when approaching the creation of this documentary?
I can definitely appreciate this dilemma! I guess I’d like the film to mirror Stephin’s idea of his music, but it doesn’t always. In my dreams the whole thing would look like a cross between Wong Kar Wai and Breathless styled by Cecil Beaton, but it didn’t turn out that way! If only we’d had a budget for makeup, set design, wardrobe, etc.
Many say Stephin doesn’t do off-the-cuff – there is always an ‘inaudible pause’ as he thinks of what to say. Was it difficult to get out and show the ‘real’ Stephin Merritt?
Patience is good. The Magnetic Fields are private people. They never wanted this kind of thing to be done. They’ve been generous with what they allowed to be seen but it was a collaborative project. He doesn’t want you to see his love life, so you don’t. Only so much was allowed. Variety reviewed the film this week and said that the segment about racist accusations was pointless, but I think it says a lot about how others perceive and vilify him.
The footage spans years. What told you it was time to stop?
By the middle of 2008 we had checked most people to interview off our wish list and started editing. In early 2009 we had Stephin’s mom and Sarah Silverman, so it was time to stop! We had 300 hours of footage. Kerthy came up with the necessary funding to finish the project and it was just time. You could go on forever.
Do you think this is a documentary about music, or something more?
One of my favourite documentaries is called Spellbound, about spelling competitions in the US. Without trying to, it examines a number of different American families and reveals how people live in this country. Strange Powers does a bit of that – you see Americans who are not like the ones most people around the world are used to seeing. So it is about music, the creative process, this major partnership between Stephin and Claudia that is going to outlast most of their other relationships, complex and dysfunctional. It’s about their balance and her belief in him. So it’s kind of about life.
Weds Aug 4, Chauvel Cinema, cnr Oatley Rd & Oxford St, Paddington, $12-18, popfrenzy.com.au