INTERVIEW GRAND CENTRAL HOTEL
Interview with Serge Garcia
In Grand Central Hotel , you examine the inner life of the American composer, writer, transgender activist, and avant-garde sound collagist Terre Thaemlitz, aka DJ Sprinkles. Where does this interest in this figure come from?
Terre is one of my favorite living feminist thinkers. She’s an identity jammer with a sharp and biting critique of culture, social issues, and traditional power structures. She challenges the messages to obey and conform and instead questions, engages, resists, and complicates. Her work is « a continual auditing of society and the self » as she puts it. I find a lot of meaning in it, and it sparked the idea to make a film with her to explore some of this stuff. I was working alone and with no budget. So the challenge was to find a strategy that could facilitate a narrative that touches on the personal in her work and life. But I wanted to do this in a way that avoids the cliche’s we often see in « artist » portraits that favor fluffy stories of an « underdog » or « outsider » and their journey of « becoming » or « making it ». I didn’t want to do that. Terre’s relationship with nihilism and pessimism (her rejection of round-the-clock optimism as a tool for critical thought) is something that interests me as well. I think seeing clearly is a good thing – especially when trying to make sense of social issues. Not to mention the absurd reality of our time and the illusions we buy into as we try and make our lives more livable. Her lucidity is spiced with a good bit of dark humor that I think a lot of people miss in her work – which is something I appreciate as well. At any rate, I’m directing an independent anthology film series called Subterraneans and Grand Central Hotel evolved from that project and also wanting to move towards a non-traditional documentary.
Terre Thaemlitz is credited as co-writer. Was there a precise script? What was her role in the conception of the film?
Terre is in control of her narrative at all times so her voice and words shape the content. We didn’t have a precise script – her VO is culled from a 2h off-camera interview I did where she improvised her answers. We also worked on the scenes together so it was a collaborative exchange. She was actually reluctant to participate when I first pitched the project to her but I think it helped that we had an opportunity to meet in person a few months before to discuss the possibility of doing something. She was adamant about not wanting to do a traditional documentary so we were on the same page. It made the process very fluid and open. Also, during our first meeting she made an offhanded joke about shooting a 20min scene where she’s waiting at a bus stop and eventually exits the frame. I think the idea for structuring the photography around static long takes came from that. As boring as a 20min long take of Terre sitting at a bus stop might sound, I was really into it because it conveys her resistance to notions of creativity and authenticity – important themes that she elaborates on in her practice as an audio producer. It all circles back to her troubled relationship to identity, gender constructs, and other important threads. I took it as a cue and the static long take approach evolved from there. I watched Trinh T. Minh-Ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, a lot of Taiwanese New Wave, and a lot of Chantal Akerman’s stuff – those references are in the film. Terre was active with notes and feedback once I had a fine cut of the film. It was a great exchange. Both of us are excited that it’s premiering at FID.
The encounter takes place in a hotel, as the title suggests it. What lead you to this choice?
It was a matter of convenience. Terre was in Berlin for one day during a two week DJ tour in Europe and that was the hotel she was staying at. I came prepared with a shot list that included a couple of exterior scenes but we quickly threw that out the window and focused on filming inside the hotel and her room at her request. I think it worked out perfectly in the end because the hotel also functions as a metaphor for loneliness, isolation, and alienation. These are contexts that run through a lot of Terre’s work and life so it feels fitting. The title of the film not only references a track off of Terre’s album Midtown 120 Blues, a contemporary classic in house music, it also references the seedy off radar underground clubs and hotels of Midtown Manhattan like Sally’s II where she started her music career in the early 90’s. Places like
Sally’s II have historical relationships to troubled queer life which is basically the heart of the film.
She appears on screen from the back or glimpsed from a partially open door. Could you enlighten us on this decision?
The less we see, the more it complicates the idea of visibility and the notion that visibility equals social mobility. The less we see the more it allows us so see and hear differently without the predicable bells and whistles of how films more often that not tell us to see/feel. So I used camera placement and composition in a way that could embellish the notion of secrecy and the closet. We’re able to hear Terre more clearly as a result.
There are some very intimate situations. Their necessity?
It wasn’t an elaborate plan to film Terre jerking off. It was a suggestion she made while we were at the hotel working out what scenes to shoot. Minutes prior I asked her to paint a picture of her daily routine so we could work out the scenes and masturbating was on that list. It’s meant to be a wry/deadpan moment to contrast the other mundane sequences. The tone of the scene also removes any kind of eroticism so it functions as a kind of « Fuck You! » to capitalism and patriarchy. But you never know, maybe some people will be turned on by it.
Even if the film is shot behind closed doors, the outside noises and life are very present. The meaning of this decision?
Sound design is really important for me. It’s a great tool that helps pull the audience into the world that’s on screen so it’s indispensable for creating a tone or mood. I played around with music to underscore the scenes in the editing process but it was creating a sentimental mood that wasn’t working for me and I slowly chiseled that away. In the end I chose to let the diegetic sound carry the sonic landscape of the film because it helps preserve the deadpan tone I was trying to achieve. The things Terre is discussing are already drenched in complex emotions and melancholy so it was important to not manipulate the audience into feeling a certain way with music cues. I wanted things to feel like they’re grounded in reality.
You shot the film in 16mm, using an unexpected very widescreen format, and you use exclusively her voice as a voice over. Can you comment on these choices?
I think I would have liked to shoot the film on 35mm but I didn’t have the budget for that so I was more than happy to rely on 16mm as the format. It also helps give the film a dusty low budget look that serves the narrative. I have a difficult relationship with digital cameras because they don’t offer the same restrictions as analogue film. These old school restrictions have helped my practice as a filmmaker evolve. I could only afford two cans of film so that restricted me to a 1:1 shooting ratio. It forced me to be more thoughtful about what to shoot and how to go about creating the tone of the film. The use of voice over as a narrative technique also boils down to economics. I wasn’t going to shoot sit down interviews on 16mm so Terre’s audio was recorded off-camera. It’s an approach rooted in the economics of low budget filmmaking.
Interview by Nicolas Feodoroff