‘Apocalypse’ is a documentary-come-road movie following Bill Callahan and his band during his Apocalypse tour. Featuring some stunning performances and fly-on-the-wall scenes with Bill as he moves across the American landscape, this truly is an insightful and inspiring experience. We asked the film’s director Hanly Banks everything we could think of about working with Bill, the live performances and noisy hard-drives.
Bowlegs: How did the film come about – were you always a Bill Callahan fan?
Hanly: I had been making short internet videos for a music magazine for a few years. It was great training and exposure to all sorts of music, but at the same time I was tired of the immediacy and overexposure that comes with internet life. I wanted to put time and thought into something with more longevity. Bill’s music and the way he conducts himself has always been a beacon of that sort of mentality, for me. There are so many artists who are so quick to give themselves away, but he is certainly not one of them. There is a timelessness to his music and I wanted to do it justice by not just showing up at a show and filming with my cell phone. It was a total shot in the dark – I had never met him before, but I sent him an email and he said “Hey, Ok.” A few weeks later I was on my way out to the desert with a lucky rock in my pocket and a camera in my hand.
Bowlegs: I really liked the intro and final scene where Bill is reading various snippets from the New York Times – what was that for as he’s talking to another camera?
Hanly: That happened in the Drag City offices – his label. He was reading reviews of himself as voiceover for a promo for the album that was going to be shown in a movie-theater or something. I don’t think they ended up using them.
Bowlegs: The recent albums really do have the feel of an expansive American landscape, a timeless and earthy feel – so the first live performance , which you intercut with moving imagery, works really well. Is that how you were feeling the music should be introduced in the film?
Hanly: Yeah, it seemed like the right place to start for a road movie, you know, on the road. Drover is the first song on the album for a reason. It has that plodding rhythm that ascends to a lope and crescendos almost violently. I love hearing the environment come alive in the sound-scape – the ticking of the city clock, the train whistle, the horse trotting along. It doesn’t even need a visual accompaniment, but I had all this footage from pointing my camera out the window, so…
Bowlegs: Bill offers real insight into his latest record – how he loves his country, and felt the need to talk his country – try and bring it back to its senses almost? This film seems like the perfect accompaniment – it enables us to see the Bill travelling the country, the scenery and everything around him?
Hanly: Yeah, it’s essentially just a slice of life. Trying to bring everything down to the most basic of senses really. I wanted to capture what was going on at this moment, in this place, with the album (that deals quite heavily with American themes) as the soundtrack. Bill is the lens. I guess I’m a lens too. Maybe there is a camera with multiple lenses…or the analogy is flawed.
Bowlegs: How many gigs did you actually film shoot during the making of the film, there seems to be quite a few?
Hanly: It is comprised of about twelve gigs – a real hodge-podge to edit. I tended to wander from one show to another and then back again in the same song, letting it go wherever it felt right or looked cool. I’m not trying to bring a whole lot of “reality” to the situation. My intention was to give the viewer the same experience that I had – a real trip.
Bowlegs: How did Bill feel about the whole experience, was he open to the cameras most of the time?
Hanly: Bill and his band were very welcoming. Still, I tried to stay out of the way. I might be the worst candidate for a documentary filmmaker because I hate making people feel uncomfortable. But it taught me to be brave, because this was something I believed in. I will be that person taking a million pictures of my kids on vacation when all they want to do is kick rocks into the Grand Canyon. They’ll thank me later!
Bowlegs: How much footage did you have to trawl through to reach the final cut? Can imagine there was a fair few hours?
Hanly: Two 1-Terrabyte drives of it – if that means anything to you – and one of the drives was making a lot of funny noises towards the end there.
Bowlegs: What scenes are most memorable for you? I love the late night badminton and firework scene, where was that at?
Hanly: We were at a house party in Chicago on the Fourth. I suck at badminton, but that was such a nice time. I think most memorable for me was the scene where Bill puts the suit on backstage. It was my one request at the beginning – to film that costume change. He finally let me and it felt like the greatest thing ever. I don’t know why I just love that goddamn suit.
Bowlegs: It is predominantly live performances which all sound and look really good. Which track is your personal highlight?
Hanly: Thanks! I will say that Riding For The Feeling has a special place in my heart. That song seemed to be about the intrinsic conundrum of a life that keeps moving forward, as lives are wont to do. When you’re traveling like that, it’s all happening in rapid fire. You just get quick glimpses of these strangers living their lives all over the country, and then it’s time to move on. I would wander around between sound check and the shows every night and film people. It can be a kind of a solitary experience for me, making something like this, and I think it’s a form of therapy – reminding myself that there are other people in the world. At the same time, they were showing me some of the best things in life, the beauty of being just a little person doing little things. I wanted to hold on to those moments. Guess I was riding for a feeling too.
Bowlegs: How many cameras were you using on the live performances, each has a different feel which keeps the film moving forward in an effective way?
Hanly: I couldn’t afford to take someone with me the whole time, so shot about half of the performances with a wingman, Smokey Nelson, and the other half by myself. I varied the way each song was edited using different effects and styles, depending on how I felt. The key for me was using those giant lenses, getting as close in as I could and following the action on a microscopic level. That, for me, keeps it moving forward. Every little action becomes so significant. When you’re filming it, you feel like you’re capturing a moment in time that will never be recreated. I get high off of that feeling. And it really tones your arms.
Bowlegs: Did Bill do the voice-overs specifically for the film or are they taken from an interview? He certainly has a great voice for them!
Hanly: The voice-overs are taken from a few different interviews. He likes answering questions about as much as I like asking them – which is not very much. But we experimented with multiple interviews in different ways and settings, to get the most natural result. I didn’t end up using most of it, but I tried to use the general ideas that came about in conversation as an invisible blue print for what I did include. They ended up being pretty short, but I think less is more, especially when Bill Callahan is saying it.
Bowlegs: Bill comes across as really peaceful soul who can turn on these incredible performances – I loved this film and haven’t stopped listening to his records since watching it!
Hanly: He is a peaceful soul who can turn on these incredible performances! What you see is what you get. That’s the best part.
Bowlegs: What do you take away from the experience of making this film? And what will your next project be?
Hanly: Right now I’m just concentrating on small stories of people around Texas – kind of a continuation of Riding for the Feeling. I’m interested in the oil situation down here and would love to cover that in some way. Kids, too. Any time I get the opportunity to film a kid, I take it, because they are the most honest. If I could find a story about an underground ring of children working on an oil field, man I’d be set. Re: the experience – I just feel lucky to be here, in life, in general. I took away so much. I gave some too. I am still taking and still giving, so I can’t even look back with perspective. Ask me in a few years. Better yet, ask me never – perspective is overrated.
Get more info on the film here
Confirmed screenings for the film are as follows:
August 2nd: Los Angeles @ Cinefamily, Don’t Knock the Rock Festival
August 3rd: Big Sur @ Henry Miller Library, presented by (((folkYEAH!)))
August 6th: San Francisco @ Vogue Theater presented by (((folkYEAH!)))
tbd screenings in Austin, Baltimore, NYC, Melbourne, Lisbon, and Winterhur, Switzerland.
tbd release date on Drag City.