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Margaret Brown

Director of Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt

Dec 02, 2005 Margaret Brown
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In a scene during Margaret Brown’s ghostly, touching documentary Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, former Townes manager John Lomax III talks about a small classified ad in a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone that gave an address for the singer-songwriter’s fan club. Although Townes never enjoyed strong album sales, Lomax recalls how several hundred responses to the ad arrived within a month, many of them containing emotionally wrought accounts from fans who had been healed by Townes’ music—some were saved from suicide, others were comforted by his songs after the loss of a loved one. “I just thought, my Lord, the whole world needs to hear this,” Lomax says of Townes’ music.

One of the countless challenges facing Brown in making a film about the Texas native was how to share her and other fans’ ardor for his blues-folk-country songs without belying the sorrow and loneliness that they conveyed. Townes’ life, which ended when he was 52, was addled by depression, alcohol, drugs and a compulsion for reckless behavior. As a young adult, he intentionally fell back-first from a four-story height. To this, his mother checked him into a hospital that subjected him to shock therapy. Consequently, the treatment erased Townes’ childhood memories and perhaps ingrained a sense of detachment that allowed the troubadour to commit himself to his craft and a life on the road, at the expense of those who loved him.

Brown’s film captures all of this, mixing traditional music doc interviews and archival footage with phone recordings, home videos and impressionistic point-of-view (POV) shots from truck stops, hotels, bars and, most often, the road.

Early in the film, longtime Townes friend Guy Clark explains, “Some of the songs are very sparse and they don’t spell out everything to you. They allow you to use your imagination and be sucked in.” Brown constructed Be Here to Love Me much the same way. Conspicuously absent at times are titles to identify the songs on the soundtrack and dates to chronicle the trajectory of Townes’ recording career. An album cover first surfaces nearly 30 minutes into the film, and Brown refrains from distinguishing any release as his masterpiece or artistic peak.

I spoke with the Austin-based director days before the theatrical release of her film.

Under the Radar: What was your connection to Townes’ music before you started this project?

Margaret Brown: My dad’s a songwriter. I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, so I was always around a lot of music. It was just being around my dad from a young age. We had a studio in the house, and he and a ton of vinyl. That sort of started it. [Milton Brown’s songwriting credits include the hit single “Every Which Way But Loose,” from the 1978 Clint Eastwood-starring film of the same name.]

But then also, I had a roommate in New York, when I was in graduate school at NYU for film, and we used to play records at night, sort of competing, like who could play the coolest record that would just totally blow you away. And one night he played a Townes Van Zandt record that.… I had never heard him or I couldn’t remember hearing him. And he’s a kind of musician that I was receptive, at that moment, to the message from the feel of the music and also the words to the songs. And I just couldn’t get enough; I had to go out and really just buy everything. It wasn’t like I wanted to make a film. It was just like I had to hear all of it. Because it really struck me. It was a very emotional response, specifically the song “Waiting Around to Die.” And that was sort of what started it. But it wasn’t what really started a film.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this would be a really dramatic and interesting film. And it’s kind of a universal question, not just for artists, but I think a lot of artists-musicians relate to it, which is, how far do you go for your art and how much do you live it, and how much should it be something you sort of cull from books or watching things, or watching movies, or how much of it is something that you know from experience? I think Townes was someone who really believed you had to know it, you had to go to the depths of despair to know how to write about it. And I had a very romantic idea of that, which was quickly shifted as I started to make the film.

UTR: Do you think first hearing Townes while in New York conjured some images from your past or maybe a little nostalgia, or took you to another time and place?

Margaret: Yeah, there’s definitely something about his music that makes you think of another time and place. It made me think of… I feel like in our culture death is always something that gets avoided and you don’t really think about dying. But in Townes’ work, it’s very present in kind of a natural way, I think more in the way it should be. Death is a part of life. And I think because he was so depressive, he knew that. I think sometimes also there’s something really redemptive about his music. Like if you’re really sad, and you hear some of those songs, just knowing that they’re there can kind of bring you out of it. His stuff is really emotional. Michael Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, we interviewed him, he didn’t end up in the film, but he said to me, “People always ask us why our music is so sad,” and he said, “Is it so bad to try to make people feel? Why is it bad to feel? Isn’t that important?”

UTR: There’s that part in the film where Townes is in Amsterdam and he tries to convince the interviewer that blues is happy music.

Margaret: Yeah, that was really funny when he said some of his songs aren’t sad but hopeless. That was totally his sense of humor. I find that hysterical.

UTR: At what point did you know that you had enough in terms of either a story or just access to begin a project like this?

Margaret: I kind of didn’t know. I was just ignorant. I just thought, “This is an amazing story and I’m gonna start making it.”

UTR: When did you start shooting?

Margaret: I think it was 2000. And we sort of did three waves of shooting. We would raise money and then spend it all shooting, and then have to raise more.

UTR: It looked as though J.T. [Van Zandt, Townes’ first son] was sporting a couple of different looks in the film.

Margaret: Yeah, he grew a beard and then shaved it, and we shot him both ways.

UTR: Could you talk a little more about your background in filmmaking? Is this something you studied as an undergrad also?

Margaret: I went to Brown as an undergraduate, and I was studying poetry, and I got really interested in the limits of language, like what can images do that words can’t. It’s a really simple, experimental beginning, my interest in film. I didn’t really want to make Hollywood narratives. I was really interested in very basic questions about, in a way, translating poems into images. You feel a poem…a certain effect; how would you make the same effect but with images? That question.

UTR: How did Lee Daniel [Director of Photography] become involved in your film?

Margaret: I talked to Lee on the phone about a year before I started shooting, and I realized immediately when talking to him that he really was the right person to shoot the film. He had seen Townes play, and he knew. He had this intuitive knowledge. I felt connected.

Lee is a very special person, too. He is very passionately involved in the projects that he works on, and I think that’s why people like to work with him. I just knew immediately, without ever having laid eyes on him, that he was the person to shoot it. But then he would never call me back after that one conversation. And so I ended up hiring Frazer Bradshaw, who is a great DP, but didn’t live in Austin; it was a lot harder to get him to come down for the shoots. But then I was in Austin, and I secured this interview with The Flatlanders, and it was way before we were supposed to start shooting, and so the production manager Dawn said, “Well, you should go talk to Lee.” And I said, “Really? He never called me back.” And she was like, “No, no, he’s kind of that way. You should just go talk to him.”

So I went over to his house, and he was literally building another house. He had a chainsaw in his hands when I came over. And there was this guy named Eddie sitting on the porch, and he had these crazy blue eyes; he just looked insane. And he was holding this 8-track player on his shoulder and he was playing Frank Sinatra. I was a little bit shy because everyone knows who he [Lee Daniel] is, and he’s this great DP, so I was a little bit nervous. And so I introduced myself and I started talking to him about my ideas, and he goes, “This is Eddie.” And I reached out to shake Eddie’s hand and Eddie, instead of shaking my hand, looked at me and goes, “I like girls. I like girls. I like girls.” And he kept repeating it kind of like that woman does in Slacker: “You should never [traumatize a woman with sexual intercourse].” And I thought, “This is the weirdest thing.” And we just kept talking like none of that was happening, that it was normal that you show up at his house and this crazy guy would have this endless 10-minute rant that he likes girls. That’s sort of how I met Lee.

UTR: All the location shooting and stuff from moving vehicles, is that what he did?

Margaret: Yeah, did all of that.

UTR: There’s also this shot where there’s one of those encased claws grabbing for toys, then a couple shots later there’s a stuffed animal on the dashboard.

Margaret: Yeah! Lee did not want to shoot that animal grabber thing. He was like, “I don’t think it’s beautiful.” And I said, “It says a lot about being on the road. And there’s a futility there, and I have to shoot it.” And he said, “I’m not shooting that. If you want to shoot that, you have to shoot it.” I was like, “Fine!” So we were in this truck stop, and I set up the tripod, and I said, “Lee, just push the button.” And he was like, “Fine!” So he pushes the button and he shot it. And finally I actually got a toy out of it, ‘cause I had to play it over and over while he was shooting it. And so we ended up putting the toy on the dashboard, just to show that you actually got the toy. And a lot of people don’t get that. It’s kind of like a Townes joke, like hopeless or sad. It’s like this little inside joke and no one ever gets it. But I think it’s funny.

UTR: Were you just doing some location shooting at the truck stop?

Margaret: Yeah, there was this truck stop in Buda, Texas. It’s like 15 minutes south of Austin on I-35. There’s a lot of great characters that go there and eat. And we shot this whole sequence of people eating and smoking and sort of just looking out. We had this idea that a lot of the POV stuff would be the way Townes felt when he was on the road, and so we shot all these people, kinda from his point of view, or maybe this universal point of view that we would put with songs. And none of it really made it into the film except for that one shot he [Lee] thought was ugly.

UTR: In the press notes you talk about negative space and how your interview with Guy Clark influenced your approach. I was wondering if you’d gotten any curious feedback to the style of the film.

Margaret: I think a lot of my producers were worried that the film would be really elliptical and not a normal kind of music doc and it wouldn’t be received well. One of my producers, at Toronto when it opened, he gave me this whole speech beforehand about how I had to explain the film to the audience or they weren’t gonna be able to follow it. It seems like everyone kind of goes with it and they feel like they’re falling into it and they like it. But maybe people didn’t tell me because they know I’m the filmmaker and I might be fragile. I have no idea.
I wanted the film to feel like a tapestry. Like the way you meet somebody, you don’t hear about their birth and end with their death. Negative space is a different thing, but I wanted the film to feel like if you went on 10 dates with Townes and you were gradually revealed certain things. Sometimes it may be in order chronologically, but other times, the way things build on each other is not chronological. People don’t think that way. Why should films be structured that way? Writers are allowed a lot more flexibility with how they construct novels. I think film is a young form that people think you have to stick with these three-act structures and all these rules. I’m sure [with] my film, someone would be able to assign a three-act structure to it, but that certainly wasn’t the way I went about structuring it.

But negative space is different. I feel like, in terms of using that idea, the holes that you leave allow people to fill something in of their own. Like I said, I sort of started [by] studying poetry. There’s moments in the film, junctures in the editing, [where] two things that you wouldn’t necessarily put together create something in their meeting. And that’s sort of what I was going for.

UTR: What is the source of the recorded conversation that plays throughout the film? Is it an interview or a phone conversation?

Margaret: It’s both. It’s from this guy, William Hedgepeth. He was a writer (he still is a writer) for Look Magazine. He was like the youngest editor ever at Look Magazine. And he just loved Townes. And he was sort of his unofficial biographer. He was collecting material for a book for years, and I found a long article he’d written when I was researching early on. And it was so well written. So I decided I was going to find him. I found him in the phone book. He lives in Blue Ridge, Georgia, which is like in the mountains above Atlanta. And I called him and said, “You don’t know me from Adam, but you wrote this article about Townes Van Zandt in the ‘70s, and I just think it’s the best thing that’s ever been written about him.” And we talked, and I was driving from New York to Alabama home for the holidays, and I decided to stop by his house on the way and meet him.

We talked for a while and went out to this restaurant that’s sort of near his house that serves fresh fish; they catch fresh fish out of the lake you can see right outside of this cabin. And I didn’t think we hit it off at all. He kept correcting the way I was interviewing him. He was, you know, the master writer. And he [would say], “You’re not doing it right, young lady,” and would show me how to use the tape recorder. It was so embarrassing. And I just thought, “Oh, this guy hates me.” It was just awful and I’m such an amateur. But by the end he’d said, “You know, I have these tapes of Townes and, if you want, you can use them.” So he just gave me these tapes he’d made over a five-year period. Some of them were interviews he’d recorded in his house in Atlanta when he was in his twenties. And others were Townes calling him in the middle of the night drunk and just telling him what was on his mind and trying to connect with him or connect with anybody. It was a treasure trove, really.

UTR: And what about the footage from Austin, 1974?

Margaret: That is mostly from Heartworn Highways, a film that was released in ‘76 about outlaw country music. It’s pretty good! You should check it out. A lot of it is outtakes from that. There’s like two minutes [from the actual film] that we used. But most of it is outtakes that we either optically printed and slowed down on an old optical printer that Lee and I bought, or it was just outtakes that we somehow salvaged.

UTR: When the film delves into a discussion of Townes’ shock treatment, there’s a shot from a home movie where a baby is being held. Is that Townes and his mother?

Margaret: That’s Townes’ mother, but she’s holding his sister.

UTR: OK. ‘Cause she’s [Townes’ sister, Donna Spence] the one who’s talking.

Margaret: Yeah. I think it’s his sister, actually. I know it’s either Townes or his sister.

UTR: You answered this question before I asked it: Were there moments where you felt like you had discovered gold when collecting footage?

Margaret: There’s so little available of Townes, so every little archival piece we got was like, “Wow!” There’s the stuff with the magician, who runs this snow cone stand in Kentucky, this guy Jimmy Gingles. He gave me that crazy footage of Townes in that clown wig and playing that hand game. And I think that stuff is great. And he was like, “Well, I don’t know if I should give this to you. We were pretty drunk.” But he gave it to me, and I thought, “Oh my God, this stuff is incredible.” I had to use it.

UTR: There’s footage near the end of Townes performing “To Live Is to Fly.” Why did you choose that particular performance?

Margaret: ‘Cause he’s drunk, and they’re talking about him not being able to stay on stage, and I feel like in that performance he can barely stay on stage.

UTR: [I try to ask Margaret whether Townes’ performance deteriorates beyond what’s included in that scene, but she answers as if I’m asking whether there was more footage of Townes in a drunken state.]

Margaret: There’s that, there’s also when he’s singing “Mystery Train” and he’s totally fucked up. And then there’s the Jimmy Gingles footage. He’s pretty messed up; he’s not singing. We used the stuff that we thought showed it, as much as we could.

UTR: There’s also some audio…

Margaret: Like Steve Shelley, that audio at the end?

UTR: Yeah.

Margaret: Yeah, that’s from that recording session. [Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth produced sessions for Townes in Memphis shortly before the singer-songwriter’s death.] So I think that counts too. And there’s also some footage when J.T. was talking about how he could be really cruel to the people he loved. That footage where Townes says, “Lend me a quarter.” And he [J.T.] gives it to him, and J.T.’s kinda worshipful of him at that moment. And then Townes goes, “Never lend anybody anything.” I thought that was pretty telling as well.

UTR: It’s interesting because, for much of the film, Townes comes off as this soft-spoken guy with an easy smile on his face, and there are those shots at the end with him trying on all the hats, and he comes off as a friendly, gentle person. But then you hear these things. It’s not all…

Margaret: No, it’s not all… With alcoholics, it’s hard, you know? Even though they love their family or their friends, it’s just the addiction speaks.

UTR: Did you shoot the scene of Katie Belle singing to her dad’s song?

Margaret: Lee shot that. I mean, I was there.

UTR: How did that happen?

Margaret: We were shooting the family. They had just finished mastering this album of new songs by him, and she obviously heard so much that she knew all the words.

UTR: Wow.

Margaret: Yeah, it was a pretty powerful moment. That’s my favorite moment in the film. You see Townes talking about where he is in his career, and then it cuts to her and it reveals that, a) he has a daughter, b) that it’s Nashville 2002 and she’s singing a song and sort of shy looking at the camera. It just blew me away really.

UTR: Going back to the style of the film, were you ever tempted to do a really persuasive movie to convert people into becoming Townes Van Zandt fans?

Margaret: What do you mean, like say “He’s a genius!” over and over?

UTR: Yeah, having other artists saying that over and over.

Margaret: There was a very conscious choice not to do that. I wanted to make a film that showed it rather than had a million people telling you that. I feel like the film should show that; you shouldn’t have to repeat it. I just don’t like that approach. I feel like the film, if you were paying attention, if you’re ready to hear it, it’ll convert you.

UTR: I’m sort of apprehensive to admit this, but the first time I watched the movie, it wasn’t under the best circumstances. I watched it on DVD at home, and I had the press notes with me. So I’m watching the first 10 minutes, and then I totally cheated. I went immediately for the press notes and started reading his bio just because I wanted more. But I think if you’re in a theater, and you’re there to watch the movie, I think that’s a good thing that you want more.

Margaret: Yeah, that is true. Yeah, you cheated, but it’s OK, I forgive you.

UTR: What’s next for you?

Margaret: I think what’s next is a narrative or some kind of documentary-narrative hybrid that is about where I’m from in the South. Sort of what’s going on there right now. I don’t even know what the story would be yet. Actually, I do but I’m not ready to really talk about it. But again, I said the Townes Van Zandt film was going to be a documentary and a narrative and it ended up being a documentary. So maybe I’ll end up making another documentary.

Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt begins a series of theatrical runs on December 2.


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August 8th 2010

Ohh, yes.

August 26th 2010

Good Job, Man

January 10th 2011

The movie isn’t clear about many details in Townes life, its really just a portrait of the man as a person you might meet on the street, it doesn’t really give you any sense of what he did (other than write songs) or when he did it. He had some kids and he had some wives, but there isn’t really any attempt to sort that out, nor is there any attempt to give you any sense of what he did other than write songs (this is not a movie to see if you want dates and places) Its a good movie. Its not a great one. It does give you a sense of who this person was as if he were a random person, but it doesn’t really tell us why he is so important and so well loved. “Rolex Submariner

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