Friday, February 6, 2009

Delta Rising filmmaker Michael Afendakis

I talk with Michael Afendakis, filmmaker of Delta Rising, a story about blues in Clarksdale, Mississippi, about inspiration, Morgan Freeman and future projects.

Delta Rising is a Big Sky Official Selection and makes its Northwest premiere at 3pm on Monday, February 16th at the Wilma.

T: How did you come upon the small town and its claim of blues ownership?

AF: Delta Rising grew out of a story about a musician named Chris Cotton, an incredibly talented San Francisco bluesman that plays in a style that hasn't really been done in 40 or 50 years. Chris was introduced to me by one of the producers - Matthew Goff back in 2003. Well Chris went to Clarksdale, MS to record an album entitled "I watched Devil Die" and we went along to document that process. It was an eye opening, wildly pleasurable experience and we spent a lot of time in juke joints and at front porch parties getting to know the local folks and musicians in that town. This is a place where folks like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, BB King, Ike Turner, Sam Cooke, Son House and many others reign from - it is definitely ground zero for the delta blues scene.

T: What inspired you to research the topic?

AF: I wasn't really a blues fan at the time I agreed to do the film, but I definitely am now. Chris was really the inspiration for doing the film but it was experiencing this place, Clarksdale, MS and the people and history of the place that really took us to the next level. It was during this exploration that we discovered Morgan Freeman owned a blues club, called Ground Zero there and we began to see if we might have him engaged in the film. It took about 9 months but our schedules finally aligned and we got to interview him about what the area means to him, what this music means to him - it was really terrific. He has a great quote - The Blues is America's Classical Music - and I agree.

T: How long did it take you to shoot and complete the film?

AF: Most of the shooting happened in 2006-2008 though, some of it in 2003/4. It doesn't seem like 6 years, and the interesting thing about documentaries, at least this one for sure is - you could do it forever, there is always more to get, but at some point though you know you have your story down and it is complete.

We didn't really plan, shoot, edit in that order, we kind of shot, plan, edit, edit, edit, shoot, plan, plan edit edit. It was an iterative process and I think gave us something that feels like a tapestry or a collage about the delta blues rather than a story about one particular thing.

T: How has the making of this film changed you?

AF: I'm a much better filmmaker now than I was when I started, I have an appreciation for the south, especially Mississippi, that I didn't have before which I really cherish. The real truth is - that most of the people I spend time with now all came out of this project, they are my friends and associates - this is an entire cast of folks that I never would have met otherwise. My life feels so much richer because of this project because of all these terrific relationships that have come out of it.

T: What other sorts of projects have you worked on?

Delta Rising introduced me to Morgan Freeman and his business partner Bill Luckett. Bill, an amazing Renaissance kind of man, introduced me to Laura Bernieri (Next Stop Wonderland, Kettle of Fish) who is now one of my producer partners in this project, both Laura and Bill have really helped open a lot of doors for me.

We are currently working on a television show with Rob Long (writer/producer - Cheers) and Morgan about this town and the people that live there and how the history of place and time can influence the present. As for other projects we are in production on another music documentary called ToTimbuktu which is about Vieux Farka Toure (talented son of musical legend Ali Farka Toure) and his journey from Mali Africa (Timbuktu) to the US. We have also initiated a project called "Men in Green" about the Boston Celtics. Both of these projects I am working on with Laura Bernieri.

T: How was your film received at the Victoria Film Festival, where it was last played?

AF: The film screened there on February 1st to a sold out audience of 400 which was thrilling. I actually have a short 4 minute video that captures some of that feeling that is on the blog for the Big Sky Festival hosted by b-side. It is always nerve racking and thrilling to screen your own work in front of strangers and get the reaction. It was very positive and if you like documentary, and music you'll have a really good time with the film and that is what we tend to find.

The audiences really seem to like the film and what they pick up from it, you get your toe tapping and get to experience a place many people don't know too well. One comment a person made that I really appreciated was how much they enjoyed the intimate performances people gave us. That is particularly satisfying to me because that was something we purposely did - getting these amazing musicians to play us a song or two in their home, on their porch, on the street - we have a lot of blues club performance too but folks seem to like that intimate experience with the musicians up close and personal. It has been a really amazing journey and I hope that people at the festival enjoy it too.

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