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Gabriel Gomez & Julien Melendez on Robert Black and Possessed

Twenty years ago I spent a week with a Boy Scout troop riding a horse through the canyons of Moab in southeast Utah, feeling like young Indiana Jones in the opening sequence of The Last Crusade. Still, the red rocks, the brush, and the steep cliff walls created an ambiance unlike anywhere else, even the better-known national parks in the area like Arches and Zion and Bryce Canyon.

While I was riding around half naively admiring the views, cutting edge musicians like Robert Black, a bassist and founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, were discovering Moab’s acoustic appeal, which equals its visual beauty. Now, 21 years after he first performed there, Black has returned to create Possessed, a multimedia project that combines his own improvisations on the double bass, an album of the performance, a 4K video on a DVD, and a book of art and photographs created by artist Elliott Fredouelle. Moab has a long history of filmmaking — John Ford’s Wagon Master and Rio Grande plus numerous other westerns like Warlock and The Comancheros, as well as The Greatest Story Ever Told and Thelma and Louise, where the heroines put one of the cliffs to much different use–but now it would play host to an experimental piece of avant-garde music and video art unlike anything made there before.

For the video portion of Possessed, Black reached out to Gabriel Gomez and Julien Melendez, a duo of artists behind Crooked Letter Films on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Production wrapped a few days ago in Utah and now the various team members have returned to New York for their respective postproduction endeavors. To accomplish this Black is running a crowdfunding campaign that has three weeks left to go.

Gomez and Melendez jointly answered some questions for Filmmaker via email. In addition to their website, Crooked Letter Films is available on Vimeo, Facebook, and Twitter.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? How did you come together to form Crooked Letter Films?

Gomez & Melendez: We started brainstorming a pilot for a bizarre television series outside of the laundry room at SUNY Purchase. We both recognized a certain vulnerability in one another; the flow, the unfiltered nature of that one conversation certainly laid some sort of foundation. We were playing racquet ball with every silly and unrealistic idea that passed through our brains. It felt right. So we both left school. Despite the pressure and scrutiny that came, it felt necessary for us as individuals to really feel and see, firsthand, everything the world – the industry, what our brains had to offer… We want to always keep up with the times, whether we agree with them or not. We wanted to test ourselves. We’re both too emotional and neurotic to settle for a report card.

So we moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side and brought our original pilot idea to life in a matter of months; All Of The Above was creative catharsis. So messy and necessary. But really stimuli-driven. We’ve been working and collaborating ever since.

Filmmaker: Having a permanent collaborator brings up certain challenges along with its advantages. What kind of working relationship have you developed?

Gomez & Melendez: Long-term business partnerships are definitely intimidating, but we’ve found the key is constant clarification and openness. We usually spend hours just simply talking about what we’re going to undertake before even meeting with any other project members. It allows us to be distracted, paranoid, insecure, giddy…it keeps us human; paving the way to staying open and susceptible to ideas the entire way through. When we work together, we resign our own confident artistic principles, filtering those ideas that don’t have a common denominator – and what comes out is often the purest synthesis of our creative abilities. That’s what we strive for, anyway.

We’re both in the first quarter of our 20’s; it’d be a lie to say we understand everything…anything, really. We try to never stop reinventing ourselves and what we’re working on. Coming from acting and musical backgrounds, our attention is grabbed by a lot. “Genre-less” is definitely a term that gets thrown around a lot.

Filmmaker: Can you tell me a bit about some of your past projects?

Gomez & Melendez: All Of The Above was our first major project; a collection of six short films that ranged in species and proverbial nature. It was our fucked up “visual short-story book.” One second a happy family is recreationally bludgeoning a woman in a public park, the next a man of paranoid Eeyore-complexities is struggling to find his place in the modern world. We really just wanted to trust our audience; to have them find the humor, the sadness…to individually relate to an ever-changing body of work.

That being said, we try and appreciate simplicity. Genuinity. We’ve taken on some music video and commercial work that spoke to us and allowed for total creativity. We both grew up in Brooklyn. Our best friends are all musicians, writers, actors; artists of some kind. Our interests lie in many different places. There’s such an interested and communal nature that comes with that kind of environment that it makes it impossible for us to ignore the impulse and pleasure of collaboration.

Filmmaker: How did you get involved with Robert Black?

Gomez: Having my step-dad in the Bang On A Can All-stars, I always considered them a part of a superior and beyond-admirable world. Being so young, with the dynamics of the familial relationship, I was definitely intimidated to approach anyone with my ideas. But last year in Australia, Robert approached me with the idea of Possessed and everything clicked. It was risky and personal, qualities Julien and I are always trying to lend our work. The project just made sense to us.

And what filmmaker doesn’t want to shoot something in a desert?

Filmmaker: It might be easy to think of Possessed as a concert film, but it seems that there’s more to it than that. Can you describe what it is and how your video work fits in with his bass playing and the live experience viewers had there in Moab?

Gomez & Melendez: There weren’t any live viewers during Robert’s improvisations at Moab. You could say the viewers (besides the crew) were the gargantuan sheer cliffs that surrounded us.

What Possessed offers as a recording is an opportunity to see how a place as magically immeasurable and otherworldly as Moab can stimulate a musician in countless ways. It’s not a concert film or a studio session because those kinds of locations try to remove themselves from the process, featuring just the music without place and present; Possessed is just as much a spotlight on Robert as it is on the Moab desert. It’s about the symbiotic relationship between the two.

Filmmaker: What was production like?

Gomez & Melendez: It was beautiful and unique. There was always a certain level of peace and quiet when on location, whether we were rolling or not; partly out of necessity to let Joel [Gordon, the sound designer] find the perfect placement for Robert and the mics but also, mentally and spiritually, everything followed suit. We all trusted one another to such a high degree. We were letting the space direct us.

On the video front, it was just us two; we didn’t have any PAs or technical assistance of any kind. Working with three cameras, a jib, slider…sand and rock dust everywhere…there was a lot to think about. We were also using the Canon 1DC and shooting on 4K for the first time. Along with capturing Robert, we wanted to convey the textures and details that surrounded each location. To really give the audience a sense of space in all its sonic glory. We hiked up a lot of rock, with the gear on our backs, to capture the images that we saw fit.

It was awesome having everyone on our small team coexisting and cocreating while randomly clapping or singing or yelling “MOWWWWWW!” to test the acoustics and resonance of each location. It was a testament to the free and ethereal nature of the project as a whole.

Filmmaker: Part of the purpose behind the entire project is to exploit the acoustics of the natural environment. While recreating that aural ambience with complete fidelity is obviously impossible, it makes the film’s audio particularly important. Can you talk about your collaboration with Joel Gordon and the sound team producing the album–what kind of equipment you used and how you’re creating the sound mix for your finished film?

Gomez & Melendez: The project’s main purpose is the audio, and so we often had to spare knockout shots for appropriate mic placement, which forced us to be clever or out of the box with our filming of the improvisation. Joel Gordon was an incredible sound designer and truly understood the complex delays and reverbs the sheer cliffs provided – it proved to be quite a challenge for us to figure out how to shoot it while maintaining truth to the landscape.  For us, the difficulty lay in how we would translate and graphically match Robert’s playing with the environment – for example, the textures of both the bass and the mountains were parallel in many ways.

Filmmaker: So what will your finished product look like? How much of Robert’s performance are you including on the DVD?

Gomez & Melendez: We’re not exactly sure quite yet. This project is continuing to grow and take form every step of the way. Having just gotten back yesterday, we feel like we’re still in Moab. To think about editing and cutting that experience into little pieces of Quicktime will take a little bit of adjustment.

That being said said, the thing that fundamentally makes this different from any other “nature” or “location” film is Robert and his bass. Even just the simple image of those two amidst two million-year-old sediment is powerful, let alone what they musically conjured up. They’re the co-stars.

Filmmaker: I’m also curious about the DVD existing as one component of a larger work. Have you had to envision it as a stand-alone piece or is it more of a juxtaposition with/complement to the album and Elliott Fredouelle’s book of artwork?

Gomez & Melendez: Naturally, in pre and post-production, you’re focusing on your role. But while shooting, we were all working as a collective to make something beautiful happen. It was communal; really, really connected.

Despite everyone’s respective medium, this has been a collaboration from day one. In post, we definitely foresee all of the mediums colliding to create one fluid and complete body of work. The project is called Possessed, not Possessed: The Film or Possessed: The Photo Book. While each collaborator excels in a specific skill, we’re working together to honor this project to the fullest and bring it to the public.

Filmmaker: So what’s next for Crooked Letter Films?

Gomez & Melendez: We have a few micro-documentaries lined up in the next couple of months; some commissioned, some out of our obsession with trying to convey these sub-cultures and real-life characters that surround us in a visual way. We’ve also been reaching out to our favorite bands from time to time; some really exciting collaborations and contributions are in the works.

We’re both writers. And are slightly bashful about it. But our main goal for the end of 2013 is to write and direct our next narrative and really cut out some time to commit to the festival circuit. There are so many brilliant artists out there right now, it’s hard to feel like we’re keeping up. We see some no-budget films being thrown up on Vimeo and our minds are absolutely blown; good art is literally everywhere now and it’s easy to feel totally insignificant. But we process that as inspiration. Really, we just want to do more of what we strive to do on a daily basis; to tell good stories.

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