Jandek on Corwood: A Q&A With Director Chad Freidrichs

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What we got blew us away. So, no, no reservations.

 

On the eve of his 26th birthday, Wentzville native Chad Freidrichs completed his first film, an 89-minute documentary about a musician that never performs live, never grants interviews, and that very few people have even heard of.

“It had been a goal of mine since high school to finish a film when or before I was 25,” said Freidrichs. “ I figured if Orson Welles had made Citizen Kane when he was 25, I could at least complete a feature.”

It’s highly doubtful that Jandek on Corwood, Freidrich’s compelling look at the non-career and cult phenomenon of Texas musical enigma Jandek, will do for him what Citizen Kane did for Welles, and yet the young director, who was born in Minnesota but spent his high school years in Wentzville (as well as graduating from the University of Missouri – Columbia) has reason to be proud. His cinematic exploration of Jandek is a well-crafted, thoroughly watchable film that reveals Freidrichs to be a patient, sensitive director with an eye for detail and an ability to draw memorable insights from his participants. Freidrichs interviewed scores of individuals for Jandek on Corwood, including DJs, music journalists, and fans, all of whom had something to say about the “outsider” oddball at the heart of the film.

“They were all very knowledgeable fans—we wouldn’t have interviewed them if they weren’t,” said Freidrichs. “The really good interviews, the ones that we ended up using the most, were those that we did toward the end of shooting. You have to realize that we shot this film over the course of a year. We oscillated between themes and topics of interest a lot. And I edited the footage that we already had. So, by the time we came to the final four interviews in San Francisco and Boston, we knew what gaps we had to fill and what parts needed emphasis. We had our interviewees just fill in the holes. These were very efficient shoots.”

Freidrichs and his co-producer, Paul Fehler, met in gym class at Wentzville High School. For a senior English class project, they did a rudimentary adaptation of Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale, which became their first official collaboration. A film school stint at New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts was cut short by financial difficulties, so Freidrichs was forced to return home, doing blue collar jobs for awhile until he and Fehler both ended up going to UMC. There, Freidrichs met his future wife Jaime Elliott, who also ended up being a co-producer on the film. After graduating, Freidrichs spent some time working for local Fox and ABC affiliates shooting commercials, while making failed attempts in his free time to get a film of his own off the ground.

In late 2001, Fehler told him about the Jandek enigma, which was gaining momentum partially because of Seth Tisue’s well-regarded Web site and partially because of Irwin Chusid’s excellent volume, Songs in the Key of Z, about the “outsider music” universe (Chusid devotes an entire chapter to Jandek in his book). Jandek, who’d released 34 albums in total obscurity, starting with 1978’s Ready for the House, seemed a stirring subject for a film. And so Freidrichs, armed with a new digital video camera purchased with Jaime’s student loan money, set about making the first substantive film on an outsider musician. Somehow, he managed to convert 60 hours of footage of a musician that only a fraction of the population would care about into a 90-minute film that a much larger percentage should find fascinating. I caught up with the director a few weeks before his scheduled appearance at the premiere of his film at Webster University.

How did Jandek first come to your attention? And what was your response the first time you heard his music?

Paul actually introduced me to Jandek. We were seeking a subject for a film (not necessarily a documentary), and Paul gave me a call from California, very excited, saying I had to check this Jandek guy out. Paul had discovered an amazingly detailed Web site [www.tisue.net/jandek] about the music and myth of Jandek. I went there and was immediately hooked by several listeners’ impressions and the idea that this guy was such a huge non-presence. After all that buildup, I got to listen to Jandek’s music for the first time about a week later. And, to tell the truth, I was pretty disappointed. I suppose I was expecting something other than music, and it turned out to be music. Well, of course it did. But everything I read made me expect that I would hear something transcendently weird and potentially scary. That’s the experience I wanted. And it took a while to sink in, because it’s a lot more subtle than people give it credit for in descriptions. Slowly, after many listenings, I began to develop an appreciation for the artist and eventually got to that point of transcendently weird and scary.

At one point did you decide that the subject warranted a full-length documentary? And weren’t you concerned about the limited appeal of such a project, since the majority of people still have no idea who this guy is?

At what point? Instantly. The subject was so captivating, the field of speculation so rich, that we knew we could get a feature out of it. But we waited until after our first round of interviews in Olympia, Washington to fully commit. We decided that if nobody had anything interesting to say, we’d abandon the project. But if we came back with good interviews, we’d devote ourselves to its completion… I don’t think it ever crossed our minds that, just because people hadn’t heard of Jandek, they wouldn’t be interested in him. We always thought that there was a really good mystery here that, if properly promoted, couldn’t fail to capture peoples’ interest.

Not so, at least with distributors. Despite good attendance at our festival screenings, and some really good reviews in major press outlets, no distributors have picked us up. They always say that Jandek’s limited fan base doesn’t warrant their company releasing the film theatrically or on DVD. They’d rather run something that people have seen a million times before and is safe. Safeness is not something that we were thinking about when we made this film. I’m glad we didn’t.

Did you make any sort of effort to contact Jandek, or did you decide early on to concentrate more on the phenomenon itself? Was Jandek aware that the film was being made?

Corwood was aware that the film was being made—in fact, when we wrote Corwood for permission to use the music, they sent us the entire catalog on CD. Very helpful throughout. But we ruled out the Hard Copy approach pretty early on. We figured it was better to just focus on and build the mystery. That’s what would get those who had never heard of Jandek interested.

A major revelation of the film for me was that taped interview with Jandek near the end. I couldn’t believe that interview even existed. And having those long pauses left in there when Jandek didn’t want to answer a question was unforgettable. Clearly, this will be big news to many Jandek fans: that this audio interview appears in the film. Any reservation at all about including it? After all, Jandek does sound relatively normal in that interview—clearly an intelligent guy—contrasted with the complete mystery one gets from his music.

No reservations whatsoever. As soon as we heard that John Trubee had Jandek on tape, we were licking our chops. We were just expecting a sentence or two that we could use. We always figured it would’ve been a good payoff to the mystery story, without dispelling the mystery. What we got blew us away. So, no, no reservations.

What kind of response have you gotten to the film so far? In particular, what have Jandek aficionados said to you about it?

Very positive reviews. Most people who have seen it at festivals have stuck around for the Q&A afterwards, a good sign that people enjoyed it and are intrigued. And they ask very good questions. We were in the top ten [placed seventh] in the audience voting at the Leeds International Film Festival, our world premiere. Fans who have given us input have all been positive. However, with a small film like this, there is a sample bias in the reactions. Why would you come up to a filmmaker and tell them you thought their film sucked? And why would a critic write a review of a small film if it sucked? They like to beat up the big boys and praise the indies.

What do you think about the whole “outsider music” phenomenon, which Irwin Chusid helped bring attention to? And do you think it’s fair to say that the Internet is pretty much responsible for allowing more people to hear some of this obscure music?

Well, I think there’s a general condescension in some—certainly not all and possibly not a majority of—“outsider music” listeners approach. “Look at how weird and funny this is,” you know? Certainly with Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, The Shaggs, and Jandek. But that doesn’t really bother me. I’m sure Wesley and Daniel and Jandek would be happy to have people listening to them no matter what the reason. And then I think that that condescension is just an introductory phase. The true “fans” get beyond that and really start to focus on the music.

As far as the Internet, yes, certainly it—and especially Seth Tisue’s site—have greatly increased these musicians’ ability to reach an interested audience. We interviewed the founders of OP magazine in Olympia; they were writing about Jandek in the early ’80s. This and a small handful of tiny publications were the only way for people to hear about Jandek back then. Now, of course, it’s a lot different.

What would you say to people who call Jandek’s music “unlistenable” and say that the phenomenon is just attaching too much importance to annoying, self-indulgent music?

I don’t agree, but I can see how someone on the outside could say that. In fact, there probably is a portion of people who listen to Jandek for the “unlistenability” (whatever that could mean) of it. But most fans do truly gain pleasure from listening to Jandek. I do, and I wouldn’t even count myself as a real fan. So, yes, there is some of that, but generally it doesn’t account for the phenomenon. It’s certainly not for everyone’s taste, but if people approach it with an open mind I think a few might find something in there that’s, in a word, beautiful.

What was the most personally satisfying part of making the film for you, and what did you learn about your own abilities or creative impulses?

The best part was finishing the film a day before my 26th birthday. I worked obsessively on JOC the months before to meet that high schooler’s deadline. Also, traveling around meeting all the interviewees. Jandek fans are some of the most interesting people around. And we got to meet and hang out with 27 of them. It was wonderful. I guess the thing I really learned creatively was that, despite all prior evidence pointing toward the contrary, I have a flair for the minimalist. Before making JOC, I always pictured myself as having a very flamboyant sensibility: quick pacing with lots of cranes, quick cuts and tracking shots, etc. But, obviously, we had to go with our subject matter on this one, and Jandek didn’t call for excessive show-offiness. The Jandek phenomenon evolved very slowly; it took a lot of time for people to catch on, and it took a lot of patience for Corwood to keep on releasing those albums over the course of 25 years. There came a point when I realized that Jandek called for slow, almost static. And one of the things I’m most proud of in the film is the pacing. It is slow. And yet, people always seem surprised when they hear that the film is actually 89 minutes long. They always think it’s about 70 minutes. That’s the best compliment I get.


For more information on Chad Freidrichs and Jandek on Corwood, log onto www.jandekoncorwood.com.
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