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Musician and film composer Warren Ellis. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today
Arno Bitschy is a French documentary filmmaker whose latest film, This Train I Ride, can be seen at HIFF Love and Anarchy. In the film, Bitschy travels across America with several women who hop trains, an old hobo tradition that has begun to be taken on by women since the ’90s punk rock scene.
Bitschy collaborated with film composer and member of alt-rock group Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, Warren Ellis, who wrote the music for the film. Both artists visited Helsinki to present their film at the festival, and I caught up with them in a bar downtown.
Arno, what drew you to this particular subject? How did you meet the train hoppers in the film?
AB: That’s a long story, but I’ll try to make it short. I knew the hobo freight train subculture for a while, and I started to write when I saw the photographs of Mike Brody. He’s a kid who was riding trains and making pictures, with Polaroid in the beginning. I really liked those because they captured what happened in their eyes, they were very alive. So I started to write, and then I realized there were also girls who were riding trains, especially since the ’90s, when the punk rock kids started to ride trains, and there were a lot of girls with feminist ideas who were doing it also. It was very interesting to be more focused on that, with girls it’s way deeper and profound. And we never talk about women who are riding trains.
I got a bunch of contacts in the States in the punk rock community, so that was a start. And people gave me contacts of girls who were not riding trains anymore but used to, so that was a way to make some interviews and meet people. I met maybe 10 different girls. I also used a forum called Squat The Planet. It’s a forum for punks, squatters and train hoppers. So I contacted some girls and one agreed to meet me, and we started to ride trains together.
Did either of you ever hop a train? Well, Arno, you obviously did while shooting this film, but otherwise?
WE: No. I’ve caught a few trains, but no.
There’s a certain romanticism connected with train-hopping that seems to be ingrained in the American cultural milieu, probably since the Beatniks and the ’60s. But I guess you wanted to present a bit of a different take on it?
AB: Yeah, I wanted to avoid all the cliches linked to the hobo culture.
WE: But also, initially it was about trying to move between the cities during the depression. It didn’t start with the Beatniks, it was just a way of getting around because people didn’t have money. And it’s actually more back to this lifestyle now, where it’s about getting around with no money. So it’s like a necessity and a chosen way of life.
AB: There have always been vagabonds riding trains between the great depression and now, Beatnik or not. And in the ’90s, the punk kids rediscovered it, but it never stopped. But yeah, I wanted to avoid all the cliches—the folk music, the great images, you know. I didn’t want that.
WE (to Arno): There’s also something you made me realize. There’s actually something challenging and dangerous and physical about this. For instance, with hitchhiking there’s romanticism and it’s generally pretty easy to do. But hopping trains, to think about it is one thing, but to actually do it seems like another thing altogether because it’s terrifying and very dangerous.
A Brief List of Warren Ellis' Film Scores (with Nick Cave)
- The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)
- The Road (2009)
- Hell or High Water (2016)
- Wind River (2017)
- War Machine (2017)
Director Arno Bitschy. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today
If you close the door and there’s a bang, you know what you’re gonna get. But if you close the door and suddenly there’s a chorus of angels, what does that mean?
How did your collaboration come about?
WE: Arno contacted me in a way that we don’t really remember. He wrote to me somehow, he sent me a synopsis of what he was doing. And I thought it sounded really incredible that he was riding trains with these women and trying to work out why they did it, such a dangerous thing on their own. Then I started sending him material and asked why he wanted me to do it. And actually his answer to why he wanted me to do it was another reason I said yes. Because his answer showed he wanted me to do it and he taught what I do could bring something to his documentary. That was why, the subject and Arno’s response, which was so articulate and clear.
It’s much better having a person wanting you to do things for the right reason because then the work flows in a much better way. If somebody’s got you because someone suggested you’re good or whatever, it doesn’t generally work out. But Arno obviously wanted to work with me and that makes for a good exchange. And that’s actually all I’m interested in these days; work and good dialogue.
Warren, how do you usually go about composing music for film, and what was your process this time?
WE: It depends on the film. Mostly, and also in the case of this film, I didn’t want to see any images. I started sending him music after talking to him. Then he would tell me when he liked something. I sent him 20, 30 pieces and that gave us a dialogue. Then I saw a five-minute section that he’d put to music, and I really love what it did. And it was something that I wouldn’t have done. And I love this exchange with film; that an editor or director can make a choice that you’d never have thought of. And the director knows where they want it to go, so I’d rather leave that responsibility to them; I just kind of make stuff that hopefully surprises.
When I saw the whole thing, he’d already put the music in and then we worked on it. But the demos I sent we’re already in. So I made most of the score without seeing anything. A lot of the scores I do are like that, going back to Jesse James [The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007)]. Sixty percent of that was done without seeing the film. I’d read the script, but then I was just making music, we’d put it on and see what happens. Sometimes there’s this incredible serendipity that happens, where something just lands. I don’t know how to hit the frame if you know what I mean. But I can put something on, and then sometimes there’s this beautiful collision that happens, a dialogue between the image and the sound that kind of sets up a third theme. If you close the door and there’s a bang, you know what you’re gonna get. But if you close the door and suddenly there’s a chorus of angels, what does that mean?
I’m a big fan of John Hillcoat’s movies, The Proposition and Lawless, for both of which you, Warren, did the soundtrack. Was there the same kind of synergy there?
WE: Yeah, because of the background I come from. And I think it’s actually why I related to Arno. Because he comes from a musical background, a punk rock guy. Arno went into this fascinated with this aspect of the culture, and his filmmaking is done in a kind of rock and roll way. It’s a feel that he’s going for. And my approach to music is like that, too. I like chance, I like not really knowing what’s going to happen. And Arno spent four years making this, waiting for the film to come into place.
I haven’t really changed the way that I make music. But I always do it fast. The Proposition was, like, five days. The Road, maybe ten. I like to work hard and fast, and I like to just work until it’s done. I love working and watching things take shape. I guess that’s always been the same.
Arno, do you have any future projects?
AB: Yeah, I’m working on it. It’s only the beginning, but a project I want to do is about cockfighting in France. You know, there’s a part of France where cockfighting is allowed, and it’s a tradition. I’ve met a bunch of guys, I’ve been there, and it’s quite amazing. I really enjoyed it, it was like a jump into a century ago. Old guys watching the cocks fighting, the violence, the love for their animals. It’s like a big theatre of humankind. So there’s this one I need to do. And I’ve also met a coach of Thai boxing who is a great character, I think, and I want to do something with him. He lives close by my house. For once I need to do something close by, not on the other side of the world.
Now I did three documentaries about women, so I will try to make three documentaries about men.
WE: Oh, this documentary was the third film I’d done that was about women, too. That’s interesting.
AB: So yeah, that need of men to shape things with their hands, the need to control. Men need to control things—the animal, someone else when you are a Thai boxing coach. So that’s what I’m working on. With Warren.
WE: Yeah, I haven’t told him yet, but I’m doing it.
AB: Well, when you find someone and you work well together—because we met while working with the music—it’s interesting to continue the process because the next time you can go deeper.
WE: An interesting thing about working with Arno was also that there was no need to discuss anything else, really. When he answered my ‘why’ question, I knew there was no need to talk about stuff like, ‘what are you doing,’ I knew that he would get what was going on. So then the conversation really becomes about the work.
AB: He’s working a lot. (To Warren:) But you like to work, right?
WE: Yeah, I do like to work. I feel like I don’t exist if I don’t work. The work validates me in a way. And it’s similar to being an addict because you’re constantly seeking the high that you get from work.
So you have a lot of projects open at the moment, I’m guessing?
WE: Yeah, I’m booked up for the next three years. But I’ll still fit a couple of things in. And as I’ve gotten older it’s increased. I have a lot more things coming in now that I can’t do.
And I’d just like to add, on a personal note, that working on this has been one of the most enjoyable experiences for me, working on a project that feels so fabulous. I think it’s a really extraordinary documentary that Arno’s made and I just want to say that it’s been an absolute honor to work on it. It continues to resonate, and every time I’ve gone to work on it and people were there, it really resonates with people. And when you talk about it, people want to see it. And I hope people do see this because it’s such an extraordinary project and such an incredible look at this microcosm that’s so reflective of the whole world.