Claudia Heuermann had found herself in a dilemma. The filmmaker was in the midst of making a self-funded documentary on John Zorn when her subject fell off the map. Calls were no longer returned and planned interviews weren't happening. She seemed to have nowhere to turn.
Nowhere to turn, that is, except to herself. During her onscreen interviews with the saxophonist, composer and avant entrepreneur, Zorn suggested that she put herself into the project, that she make the film her own. Halfway through production, he had left her with no other choice.
"Zorn suggested taking something that has to do with me, and I took that very literally," Heuermann said. In order to complete the project, she created a series of flashbacks that told the story of her own discovery of Zorn's music and of creating the film. "Somehow that put so many pieces in place. It took care of it all. That was quite a good tip I got from Zorn."
A Bookshelf On Top of the Sky: 12 Stories About John Zorn offers unique glimpses into the workings of one of the most prolific and influential musicians to come out of New York's downtown scene. Before he cut her off, Zorn granted Heuermann access to rehearsals and allowed her to film concerts. Scenes showing preparation for a performance of his complex game-piece Cobra especially offer a rare chance to see the enigmatic and often cloistered artist at work. She also managed to dig up some old Naked City live footage to include. But it's as much a film about a young German woman's arrival in New York, discovery of the overlapping Jewish and downtown improv scenes, and her move from listening to pure punk to punk-infused improvisational music. And despite the break in communications, Heuermann said Zorn had seen the movie and gave it a green light. "He was the first to get a copy," she said. "I asked him about edits, he said no changes have to be made."
Heuermann was a fan of classical music and hardcore punk and had studied violin when she moved to New York City in 1997. Her first exposure to Zorn's music was the brutal, extended Naked City piece Leng T'che (one of the scenes reenacted in the film). Although she was new to his work, the music felt "very, very, very familiar," she said. Despite the genre with which Zorn is most often associated, "jazz" wasn't a connection for her. "I do not listen really often to classic jazz," she said. "I'm not a jazz fan, which explains why there's not really an historical context in the film. I wasn't interested in that."
The film is also missing any voices other than her own and Zorn's; it's a very personal project, but limited by being so insular. Those wishing for the "definitive" documentary on Zorn's community and working methods will have to wait. But the 12 Stories does chart one person's musical explorations as guided by Zorn's work, a path many viewers will no doubt find familiar.
While speaking with frequent collaborators would have made for a more rounded documentary, Heuermann had already done that route. Her first film, Sabbath in Paradise was a broader project about Jewish music in New York City and included interviews with Roy Nathanson, Marc Ribot, Andy Statman, David Krakauer, Frank London and Michael Alpert. The film received the Prix du Long M?trage award at the Nyon documentary festival in 1997.
"When I made my first film, many people talked about Zorn, but it was what everybody knew already," she said. "I had the idea that I could not find out anything interesting by talking to them. Then I talked to Zorn and he also suggested I not talk to anyone else, so I thought I didn't need to talk anyone else because the music was there."
Prior to the New York premiere of 12 Stories in December 2002, the film received a dozen screenings in Europe, including showings in Switzerland, Munich, Portugal, Italy and three in Germany, and received the "Young Lion" award at the 2002 Munich Film Festival for best documentary. In 2003, the film has shown at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic and the Toronto International Documentary Festival. Showings at the Leeds International Film Festival in England and a screening in Quebec are also in the works and Tzadik is planning to release the film on DVD next year.
Heuermann, 37, studied Art and Design at the FH Trier in Germany from 1985-1989 and Media Art and Film at the Academy of Media Arts in Cologne from 1990-1993. Her work in films also includes experimental video installations, several short films and documentaries and a self-produced video for Zorn's Leng T'che
She is currently developing plans for her next film, while continuing her work as an editor for German television, which is how she has funded her previous films. But next time, she said, she hopes to find some backing.
"I cannot do a project like that again, with all the self-financing," she said. "It's too difficult. My next film will not be a music film, and it will probably have to do with New York." She said she is considering a project about New Yorkers and their relationships with rats. "I'm curious about the meaning of rats in history. It's going to be a horror documentary."