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April 26, 2010 | by  | in Film |
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Ashes to Ashes

An Interview With Christoph Green, director of Wilco documentary Ashes of American Flags.

Ashes of American Flags is a film that features songs performed by Chicago alt-country sextet Wilco, on five select dates from their 2008 US tour. Edited and directed by Christoph Green alongside Brendan Canty (drummer for Fugazi), it was released on Record Store Day 2009, to much critical acclaim. Leading up to Wilco’s 2010 New Zealand tour dates, Salient caught up with Green to discuss the Wilco DVD, and his work with Canty for their company, TrixieDVD.

“I had been doing graphic design for a long time, and some animation and film work; a dozen or so commercials. Then I started working with Brendan on the John Kerry campaign. He was doing music, and I was doing design for the campaign. We’d met before, but that’s when we started to actually hang out. He had the idea to do something with this house that a friend was giving him, so Trixie slowly evolved from there.”

This idea developed into the Burn To Shine series, which is a continuing project for the two filmmakers. The concept of the series is clearly defined in a manifesto available on the TrixieDVD website which outlines that they “gather bands on one day in a house that will be destroyed”. Each band is given the opportunity to perform one song a maximum of twice, with no overdubs. It then becomes Green and Canty’s task to film the ensuing destruction, edit and then display the results in chronological order. Already the pair have worked with a number of prolific artists, including Eddie Vedder, Minus The Bear, Sleater-Kinney, The Decemberists, and of course Wilco. Green explains how this led to himself and Canty being approached to film the Ashes of American Flags DVD.

“The second Burn To Shine was in Chicago. We asked Wilco to be involved and they agreed to do it, which was great. What happened is, I think they had just paid someone to do a concert film and they weren’t very happy with it. We gave them the Burn To Shine DVD on the same day, so I think they were like; ‘Oh! Let’s give these guys a go’, for whatever reason. I guess we had a different style that fit them better. Then we got asked to do the (Wilco vocalist) Jeff Tweedy solo tour, and film that for DVD, and it went from there.”

Ashes of American Flags isn’t the first film about Wilco. Filmmaker Sam Jones shot the dramatic recording of the Yankee Hotel Foxtrot album in 2001, in a movie that followed the recording process and associated drama that saw the late multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett fired, the group dropped from Reprise Records, and then subsequently picked up by Nonesuch, both Warner Music subsidiaries. The resulting film, presented entirely in black and white, was beautifully presented and powerful, earning it critical acclaim across the board. In light of the success of that film, the challenge presented in filming a follow-up DVD would be understandably daunting, but Green believes the two didn’t feel any pressure.

“In the end, we went for a totally different thing. There was never any idea of trying to make some drama out of it. We really just tried to make a film about music. The Sam Jones film was really great, but it is what it is. It’s not really about music, but more about the drama around the music.”

What Green and Canty have achieved with Ashes of American Flags is just that. Rather than painting Wilco as rock stars of any description, with lives mired by drama, the consistent close-ups of each individual player throughout the performances, sparsely interjected with small pieces of behind-the-scenes footage allow the audience to see a band of seemingly normal personalities who excel in their musicianship through little more than hard work.

When asked about the highlights of working with Wilco, Green is quick to comment on how unobtrusive the band were. Wilco worked with Green and Canty on choosing the quintessentially American venues which they felt might work with the Americana theme of the film, but beyond that, as Green explains, the two filmmakers were largely left to their own devices, throughout the filming and editing phases of the process.

“The only real conversations we had were around talking about what places would be good to film in, and they pretty much gave us free reign on everything else. They really just let it run and trusted us. It’s kind of amazing.”

As for future projects, Green reveals “We are currently knee-deep in editing a Death Cab For Cutie concert we filmed. We also have a few projects beyond that, but it’s nothing I can talk about for the time being.” At least for now, you can see Wilco in the flesh this week, playing Wellington on Wednesday 28 April.

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