Conor Masterson works as a photographer in London, and that artistic background makes The Frames: In the Deep Shade much different than your typical concert film. He's been shooting them since 1999, and this connection led to the origins of this movie. It follows Dublin's The Frames during their 20th anniversary tour and includes many of their greatest songs. Masterson's black-and-white photography gives us a unique perspective on Glen Hansard, Rob Bochnik, Joseph Doyle, Graham Hopkins, and Colm MacConiomare. He was kind enough to provide detailed answers to my questions about the film. I highly recommend it even if you aren't that familiar with The Frames. I expect it will create a lot of new fans. You can also check out more of Materson's photography on his site through this link.
How did you become involved with The Frames to direct this film?
I have been a photographer with the band, on and off, for years, since 1999. I shot the images for The Swell Season's second album Strict Joy too. When The Swell Season's three years of touring was winding down in 2010 and The Frames' 20th anniversary gigs were looming, I suggested filming at one of the gigs in Dublin for posterity. I had no intention of making a longer film or documentary, but Glen had seen some of my short films in Paris and at The Crane Bar in Galway and he mooted the idea of making an art film about The Frames. I was less sure but encouraged by this invitation. I put some thought into what could be done, and I decided it could be interesting if it was more abstract. I took a look at them as a band of creative people who have supported each other for years.
You describe In the Deep Shade on your blog as an “art film”. How did you try to make it different than a normal documentary? Do you feel that you succeeded?
I had seen a lot of music documentaries and have since seen a lot more! We wanted to avoid it being entirely comprised of talking interviews for the fans to get an insight. That type of film is a one-off viewing experience, and it can also be a bit dull for those outside of the band. So, my imaginary viewer was a stranger who knew nothing about the band. Some critics say it's aimed at fans and its lack of a back story and exposition is a fault, but I disagree. The history of The Frames, Glen Hansard, Once, The Oscars, The Swell Season, etc. was all irrelevant when it came to the story I had in mind. I wanted to make it a series of textures that introduce the band as creative people. The music of the band features heavily but it is also used in an abstract way; some of the key tracks are instrumentals.
The title of the film is taken from an instrumental that they all play on. I was looking to be as fresh as possible and to approach everything from a point of view that questions formality. If you know nothing about these guys, I'd say you are more likely to get an insight into what they do. In fact, I might argue that the more you know, the more disadvantaged you are. The band themselves are probably the least objective because they are in it. Glen thinks it's more about me than The Frames, and I see his point. But when you realize I was making a film about creative people and their process, as a creative person myself, there is of course a lot of overlap. I am fascinated by how others go about their craft and that, for me, was my entrance into this as a puzzle. I felt they are such a powerful band, particularly live, that the performances speak a lot for them and the snippets of interviews were used as layers of texture. I wanted to give the viewer the ultimate respect and to restrain from repetition and over labouring any detail. Because of that, I think it stands up to repeated viewing. There are important details that fly by, blink and you will miss them but that's okay; the whole is more important. It should wash over you as a great song or performance. I was reaching as far as I could and not worried if it failed either!
I can't say at all whether it has succeeded. There seems to be a lot of very happy Frames fans and I know that creative people have been very receptive to the film, and I've had some intensely positive responses. I feel that it does push buttons and it champions a very creative band. Let's be honest; musicians only make full sense when they practice their craft. Everyone in the band were great to interview, but it's when the band performs that the portrait is completed. It is categorically not a definitive documentary of The Frames but because of the narrow sound bytes required to promote a film, it falls into that category most easily. Of course it is a documentary about creativity, about a creative band who are very supportive of each other as individuals and artists. If you want the boring bits about the history of The Frames, well you can find plenty of that on the Internet.
How much did your background as a photographer affect this approach?
As a photographer for more than 20 years, you have bag of tricks, techniques, and approaches. Some more canny first-time film makers avoid those in an effort to be a "serious film maker", but I decided to embrace them. They guys are ultimately attracted to my images, and I used them as a weapon. Sometimes I drew out the editing to slow down moments for as long as possible in an effort to hypnotize people and to control the rhythm of the film. The first third of the film is slower, more considered, and has a lot of scenes that are effectively still images. The middle third has more talking, and the final third has a more fluid approach combining both. I feel like I used every approach possible to make the film as interesting as it could be. Just when I felt the viewer knew where they were, I changed direction and I wasn't afraid to use an abstract diversion to do this.
Often documentaries are made by directors whose forte is the considered narrative and the words and ideas they want to get across. Using a deeply romantic still image, beauty for beauty's sake can run against that. When those clashes happened, I personally questioned it and tried to make them work. I hope it has kept it more interesting. The still observations all have a logic, nature being a big element. It had to be visually strong, or I would have considered it a failure. I wanted to reach beyond the obvious whilst tickling the viewer as much as possible. I believe that if you are not pushing hard to break new ground as a creative person then I think you are failing; it's good to overreach as often as you can. The mistakes are often the magic. That is something I see The Frames doing, and it gave me the confidence to do that. At the end of the day, whenever I work with these guys I do some of my best work, and that was something which says an awful lot about them.
Why did you choose to shoot the film in black-and-white?
It's beautiful, and a lot of the film was indoors and in the wintertime or at night so it suited the subject. It's also considered romantic and old-fashioned. But I used it as a sugar rush for all of its beautiful qualities. A lot of what I do as an image maker is to make shapes and to craft compositions to lead the viewer, and the graphic nature of black-and-white imagery suited my approach. Colour is a strong element in photography and if its ugly, as it can be indoors, then it's a distraction. Of course, when it looked amazing in colour I used that too!
How long did you accompany The Frames on tour?
I filmed across three sessions over a year for about 20 days in total. I was on tour for nine days and joined them again in Dublin when they played "For The Birds". I joined them finally at The Mick Christopher night in Dublin and at Other Voices in Kerry where I wrapped up my filming with a shoot down by the Atlantic Ocean at dusk. It was near the wreck of the Santa Maria and close to where they had recorded "For The Birds".
The guys seem very comfortable in front of the camera, especially Glen. Were there any challenges with getting access?
I think because we all knew each other well at this stage after years of working together, it made it possible to be invisible and to observe from within their circle a little bit. I was able to disappear quite easily; they were relaxed so I became invisible. It would be a different film if I was a stranger. I am very grateful for the trust they showed me with their honesty.
What is it about their music that attracts you? What are your favorite Frames songs?
Glen always was and always will be a fantastic songwriter. And as a front man he is right up there with the best of them. Their busking background allows him to win most rooms. He put The Frames together in the first place, and the blend of them as a band and the tensions of a band has created some incredible music. I truly love them live because they take a lot of risks as musicians. Some of my favourite songs are "Santa Maria", "Turbit", "Fitzcarraldo", and "Star Star".. lots of them are in the film! I have plenty more, and to be honest some of my favourite Frames moments were as The Swell Season too. When Marketa played with them with Graham on drums they were a mighty force.
Now that the film is behind me, I can consider their future a little. During the editing I was looking at a band that no longer records but now that you ask me about it, I think they could have their best work ahead of them. However, I can guarantee you that I have no idea about that and certainly no inside information. They live in the moment and make no plans for the future. Glen is on tour now and he still uses The Frames as his band, so its an ongoing and fascinating story. I'd like to see him back in the band as the guitar player again and I've said it to him before; I'd love to see them do an album of instrumentals! That's with my tongue slightly in cheek. But I honestly believe I'd like to see them tackle music again as a collaboration because I think they are better as musicians now than they have ever been.
How did you choose the tracks for the film? I expect it wasn’t an easy decision.
There certainly was a lot of really good material. They were playing really well on the tour, and the full show at Vicar Street when they played For The Birds in full was phenomenal. I was only able to make my final decisions when I decided that I was making a portrait of a band of creative people, and I took a step back to see them as archetypes. i.e., a singer, a musician, a drummer, a bass player, a songwriter, a friend, a collaborator, a band member. I used this as a way of distancing myself from it all, and then I saw that I would use elements of the music that supported descriptive moments in the film to make a point. For example I almost had the entire version of "Fitzcarraldo" in there, but in the end the climax and Colm's solo said everything that the song needed to say at that moment in the film. I used parts of songs to illustrate elements of the portrait. "Santa Maria" is in there in full because it's a stunning performance and it's also a statement. At this stage on the film, it presents The Frames at the very height of their powers, building to a climax with a stunning piece of music and songwriting. It says it all in terms of showing The Frames.
The segment on The Swell Season and Marketa is fascinating. Was it difficult for Glen to open up about that time period?
It came out in a natural flow of conversation. Glen talking about Marketa was a moment when he is talking about a singer being tired with his place in a band after a few albums and looking to branch out. A lot of bands break up when the songwriter feels like that, but Glen accidentally made a film and won an Oscar. It's a huge story but also well talked about elsewhere, and it wasn't a part of the portrait I was making. It's only in this film to show how a songwriter can feel. Its an age-old story in all bands with the songwriter feeling too much pressure, and it's to their credit that they all still collaborate.
What challenges did you encounter in the editing? Did the band provide feedback?
I had some nice feedback when I presented the early cuts and no major changes. I actually edited things out that they were okay about, but I wanted the film to be leaner. It could have easily been two-and-a-half hours long. I'm sure they would have preferred to have no talking at all in the film but to give them their dues, I think they allowed me space to make the film with a lot of freedom.
Do you plan to direct more films? Are there other projects that you’d like to mention?
Nothing longer is planned right now, but I definitely will be making more. I've got a short fashion film coming out in August featuring the Autumn Winter collection for High in 2013/14 designed by Claire Campbell, and I'm working on a couple of short films that I'll get out towards the end of the year. Both are more traditional fiction narratives.
Notes: You can check out Conor Masterson's photography at his official website.