How director David Wexler made the new William Basinski documentary Disintegration Loops
In what’s been a year of turbulence, many of us have found ourselves drawn to ambient music more than ever.
It’s felt necessary these past 12 months, with ambient releases providing us with a suitable soundtrack for periods of deep reflection and comfort. There’s one release in particular that inadvertently captures both the uneasy nature of recent months and the defining event to which it’s forever linked to. Of course, we’re talking about ambient pioneer William Basinski‘s The Disintegration Loops, which was released in 2001 as an elegiac tribute to the tragic events of 9/11.
Ahead of its 20th anniversary, William Basinski reflects on the legacy of The Disintegration Loops in a new documentary directed by New York-born filmmaker David Wexler. The film draws comparisons between New York’s post-9/11 landscape and the eerie emptiness of spaces during the first wave of lockdowns across the world. Entitled Disintegration Loops, Wexler was inspired to create the film after returning home to Manhattan from a trip, only to find himself lost in an unsettling scene not too dissimilar to what he’d experienced in the city after 9/11. That very same day, he came across a news story detailing a new William Basinski release. A lightbulb moment occurred, and the film was set in motion.
Following its premiere at SXSW back in March, and a recent screening and virtual Q&A hosted as part of our Supporters Week programme, we catch up with Wexler to discuss his work, the challenges that come with making films over Zoom and his relationship with Basinski.
Firstly, introduce yourself and tell us what you do?
I’m a filmmaker, writer, director and producer. Also, it sounds a little crazy but I’m in the toy industry. There’s an interesting overlap that I’ve noticed these past couple of years where a toy could become a cartoon show, and a movie could become a toy line – look at something like The Walking Dead. Normally, it’s one day with one hat on and then the hat comes off, and the other hat comes on. But recently, I’ve been in film mode with Disintegration Loops, which has luckily been doing very well. We were just in SXSW, now we’re in Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival.
What were you working on prior to the documentary?
Film-wise, I was much more into narratives. I’d done about five narrative features, a television show for MTV, and tons of commercial work in the interim between those projects. My first documentary was a project with the Guardian Angels: these crime fighters from New York City led by Curtis Sliwa. They started in the late 70s and kind of protected Manhattan, which was inundated with crime and drugs. They did vigilante justice, kind of the basis of movies like Watchmen. When I met Curtis, we got on real well. I tried to pitch his story in Hollywood for about two, three years. I trying to do a scripted TV show or a narrative feature. People were intrigued, but time was ticking. So I said, “Let’s not lose the opportunity and just do a doc.” That started my documentary work, which then was followed up by a movie about Third Eye Blind, and then Disintegration Loops.
© William Basinski
In our recent Supporters Week Q&A, you mentioned that the inspiration behind the documentary came after you read a news story about Basinski releasing new music. Talk us through that moment.
It was a total lightbulb moment. I think the best things that I’ve worked on in my career have been like that, like, literally waking up in the middle of the night from a dream, or something happens, and it just seems so obvious and so simple. That’s the best basis for anything creative – for me, at least. Anyway, I’d come home from a cruise, of all horrible places to be at the outset of a pandemic! Getting to Manhattan, where I’m born and raised, was very strange and very eerie. I woke up and I felt the way that I did when I was much younger, right after 9/11. Curiously enough, I pulled up Pitchfork and Billy was there. He was a beacon for so many people around that time, the early aughts, you know, going through and digesting 9/11, and then he was kind of here now. I looked at it as an opportunity to create a catharsis not only for the pandemic, but also for 9/11.
What was your prior experience of Basinski and The Disintegration Loops before filming?
There are some pieces of art that are so connected to a time or a feeling that it’s hard to rewatch them, as brilliant as they are. A Clockwork Orange, for example, is not a movie you can watch on a cosy Sunday afternoon. You watch it maybe once every 15 years and it’s more than enough. The Disintegration Loops was kind of that to me, just because it was so stuck to that time. I’m a big fan of Billy’s, but I’d listened to some of the other stuff. I would rarely listen to The Disintegration Loops, just because it was so much to take in. Now that I’ve gone through all this with him, I can listen to it more as background music, and I find it very soothing and comforting. I appreciate him as a musician, but I also appreciate his perseverance. He was someone who was well into his life as an artist and released a lot of great stuff, and finally got recognition later in life. And I think that’s really tough. As an artist, to have that perseverance is extraordinary.
© Cinema 59 Productions
What kind of conversations did you have prior to filming? Did you discuss what direction you might want to go in?
No. Some people appreciate this about my docs, and some people don’t, but I have no agenda – in the best way possible. I don’t want to make a comment on the film. I want the subject, the person or the theme that it’s about, to just come through for better or for worse. So, I purposely don’t do any prep work. I mean, I personally do, but I don’t do it with him. I don’t even think we spoke on the phone. I think it was an email or two of what I was thinking, maybe a very brief conversation. And he just trusted me, for some reason. Then we went right into it on Zoom. I’ve had very few conversations other than what everyone’s seeing.
In the Q&A, you also said that you embraced the restrictions of the times by recording the documentary via Zoom, and that the rawness of it, and the fact that Zoom sometimes disintegrates much like Basinski’s music, aligned with the context of the film. Would you still say that?
Absolutely, yeah. My show that I did for MTV was called College Life. When I needed to shoot a sizzle reel, or a tape, the aesthetic was ‘Let’s have the kids run around college with camcorders and turn them on themselves and remove the crew.’ That’s how I sold it to MTV before there was a selfie culture. I tried to do the same thing here. I knew that I couldn’t be physically with Billy and I knew that the interviews would be clunky and awkward at times. I also knew that the technology – I mean, it was horrifying, because what if it didn’t download! We were talking about 9/11, for example, some of the darkest stuff. Billy was topless and we had horrible internet connection. I was like, do I redo this scene? Or, is there something raw and so poignant about it? I spoke with my editor and co-producer, aka my partner in crime, Brad Coleman. We work on a lot of films together, we grew up together, and now we’re making our movies together. And I kind of said, “I think this should be the aesthetic, we have to leave all these bits in.”
I’ve noticed from a journalist perspective that people seem to be a lot more open, and let you into their lives far quicker over Zoom because they are already in their home; a place where they’re comfortable and familiar. Do you feel like that’s made it easier to forge a sense of camaraderie with Basinski?
I think that’s brilliant and very interesting. You’re absolutely right. It was uncomfortable for me in that you have to be very empathetic as a documentarian. If you want people to go to these places, you have to be there with them. There has to be something tactile about it. Whether it’s just eye contact, or physically [being there] in the room. Absent of that, I almost felt like a voyeur at times. And like, am I asking an inappropriate question? I’m 3,000 miles away, do I have the audacity to ask such a question? Whereas if I’m three feet away, it feels more natural. But I think what you said is really smart. And I think that’s really interesting. Right, we’re in our homes, and we’re comfortable to begin with.
Why did it feel important to embed yourself into the documentary? Both contextually, and style-wise?
It was very conscious. At first, it was a happy accident. I had said something during Zoom and the way that Zoom records is that if you speak, it activates the camera and actually cuts the camera from the other person. So, I spoke on top of his words which I shouldn’t have done. Much to my editor’s dismay, it cut to me. We couldn’t cut around it. It wouldn’t work and so I popped up in it. So then, it would be weird if there was a movie where 0.001% of the time I was in it, so we did it a little bit more. I thought it was a nice way to connect the two of us. It just made it make more sense and felt more natural for the time. I liked it so much that I’m actually thinking about using that technique in my next film. There’s something about documentarians who put themselves in the film. There’s something interesting about that. We might play around with it. It also lets the subject open up a little more if they know that you’re a character with them.
© Cinema 59 Productions
How were you able to build director-subject trust without meeting in real life? Did you have to employ any new techniques?
I think it was embracing the strangeness – both of us. Everything was just so strange. He was very different every other day, because, I think, everyone was very different every other day during pandemic. I was! So, we were both going through this and it was just so strange to be filming like this and doing this. We didn’t know when it was going to end and there were so many questions that maybe in that it just brought on some immediate trust. I was lucky because Billy had seen the Guardian Angel documentary, which is called Vigilante, and I think he was living in New York right around that time. He was a fan of Curtis – as so many people in New York are – and he had watched it and really liked the movie. That was very helpful.
And how did you approach the score given that music plays such a vital part in what it is you’re trying to present?
Yeah, that we totally lucked out [with]. It’s shockingly different than what you would think when you hear The Disintegration Loops. The movie used to be much longer. The length we have it now is perfect, but it was longer and the length was actually almost exactly as long as The Disintegration Loops. I thought, how interesting would be if we play that underneath the whole thing, and that’s the whole loop we’re creating? I thought I had just struck gold. However, it’s so droning and so repetitive, In a beautiful way, but it does not work at all to propel a narrative. So I didn’t know what we were gonna do. And then Billy was like, “I have this new thing called Sparkle Division.” I’m like, “That seems like a crazy name for the music that I’m used to.” I listened to it and it was this kind of pool party going on; jazz, Billy’s playing the sax and it’s got some great beats. So we put in a different order, but it’s all Sparkle Division.
Would this film have come together outside of the pandemic?
No, I don’t think so. Well, the spark wouldn’t have been there for me. Maybe I would have done a movie about Billy for some other reason. I mean, he’s such a great character and I want to throw him in a narrative as soon as I can. But, I think if I could do it again, and do it in a well-lit studio without the pops and buzzes, I don’t think the film would be as successful.
Do you have any plans to meet up?
As soon as I can, I’m going to go to LA and visit him. Yeah, we’re looking forward to that. Maybe we’ll even film it and throw it on the end of the movie.
Are there any specific moments from the documentary that you’re especially proud of?
There’s a transition that is very emotional for me. Billy says something like, “It became an elegy and there you have it.” He takes a breath, and we fade right into the footage that he captured on 9/11. I didn’t want to play it out in its length because it was almost an hour long, but I wanted to show it. We worked really hard – even though it seems very simple – on how to fade and how much to show [of] each part of the daylight fading in the city. It plays for maybe a minute or so and that part chokes me up. It’s very hard for me to watch any of my movies, take myself out of it, not remember being there on set and just watch it. This movie, at that point, is the closest I’ve ever felt to not thinking that I had anything to do with this. I think that speaks to Billy’s work.
CPH:DOX runs from April 21-12 May. The festival’s film schedule will be revealed soon.