Last year’s documentary, I Called Him Morgan, got a lot of positive critical press for its revealing portrait of brilliant jazz trumpeter Lee Morgan, who tragically died when he was just 33, dramatically shot by Helen Morgan, his common-law wife, in a club in the Village in Manhattan. Never mind that the film, which was nominated, didn’t win this week’s Outstanding Documentary at the NAACP Image Awards (Step won) or that it wasn’t a box office blockbuster. Still, a good number of documentary and jazz fans were able to see it and fortunately for those who missed it, you can check it out on Netflix or buy the DVD, which was recently released.
When I saw the film, I was particularly struck by Swedish director Kasper Collin’s use of archival footage and specifically how there’s only one bit of film footage of the main subject, Morgan, which doesn’t appear until about 50 minutes into the documentary. I asked Collin some questions and he provided some deep, extensive answers that took him a while—not surprising for a man who takes seven years to make a movie.
As it turns out, I Called Him Morgan and that Spartan use of subject footage is an incredible case study in the difficulty of making an archival film for which there just isn’t much archival material.
Can you explain the creative and technical decision you made to save that bit of actual Lee Morgan footage until the middle of the film?
This is a great question and the answer is rather complex. This film took about seven years to make and the editing process lasted for about three and a half years. I edited the film together with (in different stages) three brilliant editors: Eva Hillström, Hanna Lejonqvist and Dino Jonsäter. This particular scene with Lee teaching young people jazz at the Jazz Mobile Workshop in Harlem is a product of letting the editing take time. It is constructed of three sources of archival material. Two of the sources I found early in the research that was the actual film footage of Lee with the students, which is a short sequence of only about 20 seconds from a short film from called We Are Universal by Billy Jackson and then the remarkable still pictures by British photographer Val Wilmer. The third element is Lee’s own voice; something we tried hard to find for a long time but none of the interviews he gave were saved. But then later in the process, when we already had created the structure of the film in editing – and built the film much from Lee’s common law wife Helen’s voice – Val Wilmer, whom I know well since my previous film, found an audio cassette with her interview with Lee that she made for Melody Maker in October 1971 in Lee and Helen’s apartment in the Bronx.
In the film, something terrible happens in Lee’s life and because of his heroin addiction he is about to die in the mid 1960s. As a contrast to this darkness [. . .] it was a real gift to have his own voice to work with and it felt right to use it for the later part of his life, when Helen has helped him back to become a functional person again, and when he himself is reflecting on his present situation. To hear him talk shows him as an enormously well-spoken and intelligent person. It felt right to use that part where we did use it.
This scene, when Lee is teaching, added complexity and nuance to the situation in the late 1960s. It shows us how the great American art form jazz was transferred to a younger generation with the masters as teachers to kids in Harlem. In Lee’s life, it also shows how he was helped by friends to get a meaningful life again. It was bassist Paul West who brought him in to the workshop to teach. There was a special camaraderie among the musicians in New York. I wanted to show this earlier in the film too with all the amazing stills from the Blue Note photo archive, with the joy and communion among the musicians in the studio. But this scene with Lee teaching illuminated this further and I also liked the fact this workshop was something that was arranged by the musicians themselves.
I thought it also added something important to hear Lee talk about the youngsters looking at him as ancient; still, he was only 33 years old.
Was it simply a matter of keeping to the chronology of the story? Was it tempting to use it earlier, or twice?
My editors and I liked that position that we found for it. But there is another passage in the film, after this workshop scene, with Lee’s voice from the same 1971 Val Wilmer interview when he reflects [on] his age. . . and the interviewer says “That’s like a lifetime for some people.” And then he dies only a few months later. I remember that we at some point tried to place it earlier in the film, but it never felt right for this film.
In the initial research I found the recording of his common law wife Helen’s voice from 1996, where she was telling her story about her life and her time with Lee. I wanted to see what happened if we looked at this world, that I love so much, from a woman’s perspective and decided to use her voice as an important part in the film. In the first part of the film we follow her from Southern U.S. to New York City, and in New York City we meet Lee. But already in the very start of the film we meet Lee with his incredible music in Search For The New Land. We are in that music for about 2 minutes in the opening of the film with just a long shot of snow falling towards the camera. With Lee there isn’t much voice recordings available and his music, the sound of his trumpet is the foremost material that we use in order to get close to him in the film. And there is a lot of that in the film.
In addition to the bit where he introduces the band, is there any other film footage of him talking that exists?
No other film footage. The only source we managed to unearth was the audio interview Val Wilmer made for her interview in Melody Maker in Lee and Helen’s apartment in October of 1971. First, she said it didn’t exist anymore. But then suddenly three years into the project she found it. Unfortunately, there was an accident when she was going to copy her tape in a double cassette deck and one side was erased. Quite a trauma; to have nothing and then the euphoric feeling of knowing you have like more than an hour and then suddenly it was just 13 minutes. Well, this is part of making a film like this. Things like this are happening and when people see the film they have no idea.
The project had then navigated towards using, as an important part, the only interview that Helen gave one month before she died in 1996, 24 years after she shot Lee. So Lee’s voice, even if only a little of it existed, was welcomed to give nuance and to add layers. It was quite a challenge when you have that little to find the best places for it in the film.
Please explain the process of using the old New York archival material that appears throughout the film. Is there a wealth of that material that is easy to access? Was it expensive to acquire?
This was a fundament for the film and this I had access to from the beginning. It is part of my own archive I have of about 4 hours of 8mm films from the U.S. between 1957 and 1970. I found and purchased it while making my previous film My Name Is Albert Ayler. It was in 1999 when I put an ad in Dagens Nyheter, the largest daily newspaper in Sweden, saying I was looking for 8mm footage from the U.S. between 1955 and 1970. That very first day—8 a.m. a Saturday morning—a man called from a suburb outside of Stockholm saying his uncle died in the U.S. recently and that they had inherited a large box of 8mm films that were sent to them in Sweden. This guy worked as a cinematographer for a U.S. TV station and on his spare time he seemed to be very lonely and just walk around in New York City and doing trips all over the U.S. and documenting them with his 8mm camera. But everything is very well shot. We scanned it all to 2K. It took a while to find a proper way of doing this and most scanners only deal with super 8 which is slightly wider than standard 8mm. In the film we combine this with newly shot material that we shot on super 16mm with old Bolex cameras and pushed the film two stops. I had a chance to work with the brilliant cinematographer Bradford Young from start in the project and he set the moody tone visually in the film. The snowstorms were mainly shot in two severe New York City blizzards in December 2010 and January 2011. It was a challenge to find a way to visualize Helen’s part in the film that was based on the recording of her voice. I have some issues with reenactment, which is so overused today and ended up shooting with 16mm in something that was in-between snippets of home movies and more poetic footage.
How did you come about to making this documentary about this incredible moment in American jazz history?
I have a big passion for music and a certain kind of jazz has been very important in my life in for over 25 years now. My previous film was also about an American jazz musician Albert Ayler and focused on New York City in the 60s and early 70s. It took me seven years to finalize that film. Being a filmmaker, I was quite convinced that I would not make another jazz film set in this era, as it is very labor intensive. I worked on other projects for some years but then about 8 years ago I was watching YouTube and found this incredible clip with Lee playing the song Dat Dere with Art Blakey and Jazz Messengers from a TV broadcast in Tokyo in 1961. It was his solo here that was a knockout for me. I never heard anyone play trumpet like that before. I found many recordings with Lee I never really listened to and that I loved, like Search for The New Land. I realized there was another Lee that I didn’t know about, this searching artist beyond his hit The Sidewinder.
The love for this music made me want to explore if a film about Lee was possible. I met up with and started to talk with some of the people around him that were still alive and they almost immediately started to talk about the 4 last years in Lee’s life and about a woman named Helen and a relationship they had. They talked very lovingly about her and said she had saved Lee, helped him back from a terrible heroin addiction that they thought was about to kill him in the mid 1960s. I didn’t know about this when I started, I only knew the basics about Lee, that he was this wunderkind that was signed from Blue Note when he was a teenager in the second half of the 1950s and made all these albums for the label and then that he was shot in a club by a woman in the early 1970s. But I had no idea who she was. But now I realized this was the same woman that these people were telling me about. It was like being in the middle of a Greek tragedy. I then also found the tape with Helen’s voice from the only interview she gave, one month before she died in 1996. It is an incredible document recorded by a man called Larry Reni Thomas, when she is telling her life story and about her time with Lee up until she killed him during an intermission at his gig at a club on the Lower East Side in New York City. I wanted to see what happened if we looked at this world, this scene and era that I loved so much from a woman’s perspective and decided to use her voice as an important part in the film. But it was Lee’s music and my love for this music that brought me into this. The film developed to this love letter to both Lee and Helen and this fantastic music that brought them together.
Does this question of when to use choice archival material bring other documentaries to mind?
When making this film, I was mainly influenced by my own work as filmmaker and of the music that I love and to explore a new perspective. Other than that it’s a question of how to approach making films about the past. How to use the material that exists in a way that is okay for you as a director both on an artistic, ethical and political level. After my film was ready I saw one brilliant film made almost entirely out of archival material and that was Dawson City: Frozen Time by Bill Morrison. I love that it is as much about the archival material in itself as the story. I can relate to that. And that is a balance I myself am interested in, to both tell and explore a multi layered story but also to give space to explore a material that the film is built upon. Other than this it’s the exploration of relationships and to try and [create a] portrait of people as complex human beings that interests me. Plus of course to compose and craft the film in a way that relates to the music and that integrates the music in the narrative and to give space for the music so the beauty and power in it can be experienced. I have worked on two feature documentaries now, that both took seven years to make, and to develop an [individual] style, an [individual] approach. Much time is invested to work with the sound and visuals to develop a specific language for a certain film, and to try and integrate the music into the film’s narrative in an organic way. I wanted to avoid people talking about how great the music is and instead challenge myself to try and compose the film so an audience shall be able to feel the beauty and power in the music without anyone telling them what they shall think about it. It usually takes quite some time to get this right, but it’s something that I love to work with. In the end, you try to make a film that you want to see yourself and in this film I wanted to look at this world that I love partly from a woman’s perspective and in terms of the films storytelling I personally like a kind of combination of understated and layered narrative and that’s part of what I have explored in my films.
I remember right after the world premiere of this film in Venice last year I flew into Telluride for the first North American screenings. There I met the great opera director Peter Sellars who clearly loved the film. He embraced me and said “Ooh man, you’ve made a duet, the duet between Lee and Helen. Between his trumpet and her voice.” I liked that way of describing the film. That was close to how it felt when editing and composing the film.