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Features / Music

In Search Of Bill Callahan: Hanly Banks tells us how she made a film about one of music’s shyest stars

First published in Printed Pages Spring 2013

Words by

Liv Siddall

Illustration by

Rose Blake

Last year one of the music industry’s most notoriously shy singers became the subject of a documentary which followed him across America on tour. That artist is Bill Callahan, and the girl who made this happen is Hanly Banks.

Chances are, if you traversed into puberty plugged into the likes of Leonard Cohen or Will Oldham, or tend to value lyrics above drumbeats, you will probably have heard of this man already. Known to some as that guy who dated Joanna Newsom and Cat Power (not simultaneously), Bill is, to others, a baritone-voiced poet whose matter-of-fact words placed tenderly against simple guitar strumming can transport you to ragged American hills, fields of cattle, deep rivers and vast valleys.

Hanly’s film, Apocalypse, was a huge success. Screened across the world at film festivals and concert halls – sometimes followed by a short set from Bill himself – the documentary was the toast of critics and fans alike. Bill’s devotees were finally treated to some previously unseen aspects of his personality, particularly when, in one scene, Bill stops the tour van to help a baby goat who has its head stuck in some railings.

So how did she do it? We wanted to find out how Hanly, a video producer for The Fader, managed to convince the normally interview-shy Bill Callahan to be shadowed, and what exactly drew her to him in the first place…

How much experience did you have in filmmaking before you approached Bill?

I went to film school at NYU and got the classical training. But the place where I really cut my teeth was at The Fader. I had to learn how to do everything myself, had to know how to shoot any given situation and make it look and sound good, and then figure out a way it could come together coherently. It was great practice for this movie, which was my first feature.

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When did you first come across Bill Callahan? Were you a fan before making the film?

I filmed him playing at Other Music in New York one time for The Fader where I was working as their videographer. It was my job to film live shows, and I was already a bit jaded by the whole experience. Like my feet would hurt and I’d get all paranoid of the people standing around and would rather have been watching the concert from my couch. But not with Bill. I remember walking away from it feeling I could film that show every night.

When did you decide that you wanted to tackle filming such a notoriously quiet singer?

I got really into the album when it came out. I was reaching a point in New York where I was very ready to leave. I’d put Apocalypse on over my headphones and ride the subway to work and visualise scenes that I’d imagine fitting in syncopation with the music. Eventually I just couldn’t shake it and I had to approach him.

Tell us about your first encounter with Bill. Where was it, and did you hit it off straight away?

I showed up for soundcheck in Phoenix, Arizona. We had never met. I gave him a rock and told him to go look at the moon. Afterwards I realised I probably seemed like the biggest weirdo. But it was a full moon eclipse – somebody had to look at it!

That’s great! How did that come about?

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I flew into Phoenix for the first leg of the tour where I immediately went to a weird trade show under a tent to people-watch and film things. It was about 100 degrees; the kind of hot where you have to wear a bandana around your neck to keep wiping the sweat off. There was this one vendor with a nice selection of rocks, and I bought a piece of amethyst for Bill that reminded me of the purplish mountain scene on the cover art for Apocalypse (you should always bring a gift).

So I gave him the rock and then later I told him to go look at the moon because it was really pretty and full. He didn’t say much. Later, when I realised that I probably came off as a giant weirdo I was like: “I’m not gonna try to talk to him for the rest of the trip – because every time I open my mouth something stupid comes out.” My main goal was to not get kicked off the tour.

The next day in LA, I had a similar freakout when I accompanied the band to dinner. I wasn’t sure if I should be filming it or not, so I picked up my camera and looked through the viewfinder and immediately was like “Wait, this is terrible!” Because who wants to see a movie about some guys eating Indian food? And who wants to have their dinner filmed?

So I split from the table. Later Bill and I had to have a talk about what exactly I was looking to film. It was an incentive for me to proverbially grow a pair and not be afraid to ask for the things I needed in order to make what I wanted to make. Looking back, this all seems funny, but I’m not sure I could have done it any other way.

Describe Bill…

I felt really lucky to be with Bill and his band, because there are a lot of people in the entertainment industry that are huge jerks. He has a sense of humour like you’d never believe and a fondness for stray kitties. I think journalists mistake his succinct communication for rudeness or something, but they’re only giving him a 30 minute window or something to summarise his entire being, which is a stupid idea in the first place – I gave him, like, 10 months to do it. But we didn’t interact a whole lot on tour. I was trying to focus on filming, and I can’t do two things at once. I just wanted to be a fly on the wall, or mouse in the corner.

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Did it take Bill and the guys a little while to get used to you (and the cameras) being around?

Yeah, but only the way that anyone would. I tried to make myself scarce when I could, tried not to overstay my welcome. There were a few times when I’d ghost on them and go off and shoot things on the street, environmental stuff. Because you don’t need to film somebody eating dinner, and you actually shouldn’t. The most important thing I’ve learned as a documentary filmmaker is knowing when to put the camera away.

He has the ability to say such concise, brilliant things when you are interviewing him in the film. How easy was it to get him to open up to you?

Well lucky for all of us, he chooses his words carefully. It made it easier on me not to have to wade through someone’s word vomit. The opening up part was hard though, for sure. He’s talked about these things a million times to a lot of different people. But he’d never talked to me about it, so I guess there’s the difference. Originally I was just going to keep the movie to concert footage, but I felt like it would give it more coherency to have Bill as this sort of disembodied voice through it all. I’m happy he was up for it.

How long was the tour and where did you get to follow him to?

I was along for the ride on two legs – one up the California coast and another from Chicago to NYC. A total of about two weeks. I was with a dude named Smokey Nelson with me on the first leg. He was my wingman and I am forever grateful that he helped me out. There were a couple other shooters in random cities where I happened to know someone. But most of the time, it was just lil’ ol’ me.

The film was a Kickstarter project, how did that come about?

The Kickstarter campaign was a great success. I have a lot of amazing friends who contributed and helped spread the word, and Bill has a lot of amazing fans who really wanted to see this get made. It was fully funded in less than 36 hours, and people continued to donate throughout the month. I had to put a notice up asking folks to stop, because I felt bad enough asking people for money, worse receiving more money than I needed. I liked giving the gifts though. There was one option where you could receive a picture of Bill holding a picture of you. I’d buy that.

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Can you also tell me about the film’s themes of travel and America and how that ties in to the album?

Apocalypse has some pretty clear American themes to it. It also has some pretty universal themes to it too – sort of an embracing quality, we’re-all-in-it-together type of thing. For me, the narrative of the album reads like a person who is setting out on the road in a hunt for certain meaning – regardless of whether it’s considered an unconventional lifestyle or if what he finds is disappointing. This is the narrative for so many Americans. It’s an ideal the country was founded on. We are constantly moving, constantly looking for a life that we feel we made. Whereas people in other countries tend to stay in the place where they were born and foster the known, we are compelled to wander – as if one day we’ll just drive through a town we’ve never been to and feel an inexplicable sense of home. I wish I could say I was above that compulsion, but I’m as American as they come. There is a line in Drover (the first track on Apocalypse) that really got me: “Anything less makes me feel like I’m wasting my time.” I’m an all-or-nothing kind of person, and it really hit home, jolted me out of my little New York City cocoon. I was searching for the real, and I had to hit the road to find it!

But it’s hard to talk about America without falling into a cliché. I think that’s something Bill really tries to avoid, too. I tried to do his avoidance justice by not using any “definitive” talk about the country. Rather I tried to just stick to his feelings about it. Because no one ever comes off as a know-it-all when they are talking about their feelings. Not that Bill is, but as he put it, so many people are ready to spout off a million statements and conclusions about things they don’t even truly know about. He’d rather just not say anything.

Tell us about the screenings where Bill actually played live, how did the audience react? What do you think that brought to the experience?

I loved having him play live after the screenings. The film is this big build-up of constructed, deliberate cuts with lights and close-ups and visual effects – and then there he is just standing on stage with a guitar, like the man behind the curtain. And then he opens his mouth and you’re captivated again. I think it all hinges on something he says in the film. The last line. He is the realest version of himself on stage. The performances make you feel something, and that’s nice and rare in the current culture of music.

You’ve made music videos and recorded some really fantastic musicians playing. What is it about documentary filming that you love? In particular the filming of people performing?

It’s like filming a game of baseball or something, where a bunch of people are working together to keep this ball in the air. Except that the ball is invisible and you have to listen if you want to know where to point the camera; I like how it challenges my senses like that. I also like knowing that every performance will only happen once, in a specific arena in a specific year with specific people. That feeling of “This will never happen again,” especially when what’s happening is really good, makes the act of documenting that much sweeter. It’s why people stick a flag on the moon or Mount Everest – that human need to say, “Look everyone, I was here!”