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Interview with Les Blank

Tom Davenport interviews Les Blank on Filmmaking and Dry Wood

Interviewer: How did you get involved in filmmaking and traditional culture or folklore films?

Les Blank: When I went to do graduate work, I had the desire to be a film director of fiction films. I didn't have any camera skills. I didn't actually pick up the camera until I got out of Tulane and into USC in Los Angeles. There, I started learning about still and film photography.

When I got out of film school, I had a hard time getting into the show business end of the media in Hollywood. I wasn't a very good fit. I also had a wife who was pregnant and needed to be fed. So I got a job doing industrial films and learned how to put together non-fiction film projects for industries and corporations and training films for the military.

Also, when I had been at film school, I saw some ethnographic films that got me very interested - Nanook of the North and a film called The Hunters by John Marshall. He came to the classroom, to talk about his work and I thought that was a very interesting way to use one's time and interests and talent - to go live with people, especially those so different from us, and then, to take the film around and show it and talk to audiences.

These things stuck in my mind.

After getting out of school, I was knocking around with some friends who were doing independent films, and I offered to go along and help out. I ended up doing camera work on one film about an outlaw motorcycle gang and another about the drag racing scene at Long Beach, where legal drag racing started happening to get the kids off the streets with their souped-up cars.

I liked the theory of making non-fiction films and working with people with different backgrounds and different cultures. Also at the same time, I was taken by the folk revival. There was a club in Los Angeles called the Ash Grove that had all these great musicians coming through and I would go there and catch every act and get friendly with some of the musicians. One of them was Lightnin' Hopkins.

I had an assistant at the time who was also interested in doing more film work that was more independent, more creative and more artistic than the drudge work we were then doing..

Interviewer: Was this Maureen?

Les Blank: This is Skip Gerson. He had connections in Houston where he had been living for five years, working on a children's TV show as a clown. He was in with the hippie community there, the alternative generation - whatever you want to call it. They were all fans of Lightnin' Hopkins. He knew someone who knew John Lomax (the brother of Alan Lomax), who was the only white man that Lightnin' would trust. So Lomax offered to help us out with Lightnin', and he agreed to be in our film. And Skip's father loaned us $5000 because the father was interested in getting the son into respectable work. He didn't like him being a clown on a TV show and hanging around with hippies. That's how I got started on that film. I had made a couple films before this that led to the making of the Lightnin' film.

I used my boss's camera to shoot the alternative lifestyle celebration called a Love-In in Los Angeles. On Easter Sunday, 1967, they had a huge one in Los Angeles. I made a deal with the local PBS station to shoot it for them if I could then own the negative and do what I wanted with it after they had done their program. They agreed.

Having edited that film, God Respects Us When We Work, But Loves Us When We Dance, into something of artistic merit and getting it accepted in the New York Film festival and the prestigious Locarno festival in Switzerland, we both saw that this had some meaning and value. You go out and find some interesting people, you get to know them and you film them, and you make something that says something about who they are and people want to see it, and you get invited to go places and learn to make movies that have some meaning. It was this that inspired Skip to hit up his father for a loan to do the Lightnin' film. And to show Lightnin' that I could make a film about African-American music, I showed him a film I had made, on Dizzy Gillespie.

Someone else had started it, but the cameraman screwed up, and I was asked to help salvage it, and that worked out pretty well, as it convinced Lightnin' to let us come to make a film on him.

The Lightnin' Hopkins film was shown in a regular movie theatre as a short subject for Jean Luc Goddard's Weekend, which became very popular. The two ones together played for some six weeks to large audiences, and it was in several festivals and theatres up in the Bay Area.

Having done those films and seeing that there was an interest in them, I thought I could sell the prints to the public libraries and get invited to schools and film societies. I thought I could keep on doing this, and that's what I did.

Interviewer: How did you start working on Dry Wood?

Les Blank: When I was doing Spend It All, my original intention was to do an encompassing film of the whole culture down there that speaks French and has this common heritage and language. I met Bois Sec and Canray Fontenot and heard their music and saw how hospitable and friendly they were.

When I got down there with the camera, with a minimum amount of money and time to stay there, I found that the white people kept inviting me to their suppers. Every time I'd go to one of their suppers, I'd meet some guy who wanted me to go to his supper or he had someone he wanted me to film.

The racism was pretty heavy in those days, and they didn't really like white people hanging around with black people. This was 1972. Before I realized it, I had spent all my money and shot all my film on just the white people. I felt badly about that.

Interviewer: But you came back to Dry Wood

Les Blank: I went to a blues festival in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Lightnin' Hopkins had come up there and had Clifton Chenier in tow with him. He's considered the king of zydeco. I got chummy with Clifton Chenier, and I thought this guy is really a great subject, a natural for a film. So I applied for a grant to do a film on the black French-speaking people in Southwestern Louisiana, thinking I'd just do one simple film on Clifton and his lifestyle and Bois Sec and his music and community and way of life. After six weeks, we found that it was like two different worlds, the world that Dry Wood was in and the world of Clifton .

I lived in two different towns. When I was shooting Clifton, I stayed in a black rooming house by the railroad tracks. When I was filming Bois Sec, I lived in his home. I ate at the table with them. It was a complete switch - going from one to the other and the two areas are less than 50 miles apart.

Interviewer: It was pretty unusual in those days to live with a black man in Louisiana.

Les Blank: Very unusual. And the police gave me a very hard time. I had the good fortune, or the bad fortune, to have been arrested in the area a year before. I had finished Spend It All and had brought it back to show the people down there who were in it. I ended up going to jail. I had a tiny amount of pot on me, and the police found it. To get out of jail, I had to find a bail bondsman.

I had to show my film Spend It All to the bail bondsman to get him to consent to getting me out, and to the sheriff, too, to determine how badly to punish me. They liked the film so much, they helped me get on my way with as little sentence as possible. The bail bondsman's brother was my lawyer, and their third brother became the first Cajun governor of Louisiana - the infamous Edwin Edwards. They all liked Spend It All, and asked for a 16mm copy in lieu of cash for the lawyer's fee.

When the police started getting on me for living in a black rooming house, I called up the bail bondsman friend. I said, "Look, I'm in some trouble. Can you help me out?" He said, "Sure, just tell me what you want us to say, and I'll tell the governor to write it on his letterhead and sign it."

He wrote me a most impressive letter that I composed myself.. It said what a great friend of the Cajun people I was, and asked that any law officer that came across me should render all aid possible. Whenever I flashed that letter, it served as a free pass to go wherever I wanted.

Interviewer: Why did you choose Dry Wood for the title of the movie?

Les Blank: We ended up with two films - one was about Clifton Chenier and the people who go to his dances. His music, as you may know, is a lot different than that of Bois Sec. There's more punch to it. It's more sophisticated, more wild and lively. People dress fancier to go to a zydeco dance.

A friend of mine who was along on the trip wrote me a letter later, while I was editing the project and looking for a catchy title. He asked, "How is Dry Wood and Hot Pepper?" That pair of names just stuck with me. They seemed like nice film titles. Poetically the names just appealed to me. I planned to release the two as a feature length film - Dry Wood being part one, Hot Pepper being part two.

Interviewer: How did that go?

Les Blank: It didn't, except for a terrific showing at a conference on visual anthropology at the Smithsonian and at a nightclub in Austin. After that, the films mostly showed by themselves or combined with other titles of mine.

Interviewer: In the film, I notice you follow the seasons and the way food functions in the culture. Is that a theme you deal with a lot?

Les Blank: Food is sensual. It keeps bodies alive. And people together. I learned early on that people like to eat and like to see what other people are eating. They always get interested when they see food being prepared.

Interviewer: Do you get any flak about the pig-killing scene? That scene now is probably very shocking to people.

Les Blank: Very shocking. I stupidly showed it in Egypt, not realizing where I was and what was going on. It didn't go over very well there at all. There, for Muslims, pork is like the devil.

In Spend It All, I had originally edited the film to show the poor pig being bludgeoned to death with the blunt end of an axe. It squealed horribly, and I found that people just can't deal with this. So I went back to my negative and cut in a picture of a child reacting to the killing rather than showing the killing. You can still hear the pig squealing, but now it's more palpable to people I guess.

When the pig in Dry Wood is shot, people cringe now. If I had to do it over again, I'd probably eliminate that part.

Interviewer: You played around with little jokes in the film like with the calf trying to stand up and the music starting.

Les Blank: It was Maureen Gosling's first attempt at sound recording, and she forgot to hit the little switch to make the recorder play at the right speed until the scene was already being recorded. When I was editing, I saw that the calf getting up on its legs for the first time seemed to play well with the music that stars off low and slow, then picks up speed and pitch… there was just something about the goofy humor of the people down there that made it a fit..

Interviewer: How did the scene where they guys were getting drunk and throwing the turtle around occur?

Les Blank: As I would be with the people, I would try to find out what they were up to, what would be something interesting to film. They'd say, "Once a week, we have a men's supper. You ought to come to the men's supper. We'll get one of the guys to run the tape recorder for you because you can't bring your female sound recordist." So I took them up on it and went to the men's supper.

You see what I saw. They sit around and tell jokes and drink and eat and do their own cooking. Then they offered to cut up with the camera. I didn't ask. They said, "We're going to have fun together. You can shoot it if you want." So they started dancing around, falling down like they were drunk, playing around like they were going to shoot someone. One guy is playing the sheriff. I had shot something like this before on the Lightnin' film, that didn't make it into the finished film, but it seemed quite similar in spirit and wild creativity.

There was an old guy, Porter Houston, the main barbeque specialist in town, who didn't have a lot of teeth, who was Lightnin's cousin, I believe. He was a leader of the group activities. Back in the days when no one had a television and they couldn't afford to go to the movies, they had to entertain themselves. They had improvised theater, called skits. They would put on a whole elaborate scene of someone being tried in court or they would imitate the white guy who was mean to his workers. It was folk theater. The men's supper scene was the same kind of thing.

Interviewer: How about the long take of the little girl at the dance?

Les Blank: I was just shooting cutaways and seeing what I could see. Her face was beautiful to look at, and I just kept looking at it. I found her so extraordinary, I just stayed on it the shot as long as I had film running through the camera.

Interviewer: And Maureen went along with you?

Les Blank: Yeah, but Maureen gave me a hard time when I was shooting the young woman on the porch with the short shorts on. Again, the camera just kept running. I just liked what I saw. And this doesn't just happen when filming pretty, young females. I was equally fascinated with the back-lit blades of young rice plants and the old photo on the wall of Bois Sec's mother's room, the one with the beautiful, expressive faces from long ago. I still get shivers when I see it, especially as it's coupled with Bois Sec and band's version of "Home Sweet Home".

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