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The Arts

Creative Proof

Documentarian Steven Fischer pushes artists to talk about what makes them make art

Michelle Gienow
Steve Fischer searches for the source of creativity.

By John Barry | Posted 7/14/2010

For more information, visit stevenfischer.net.

The air conditioner has automatically switched on at the empty Blue Note Jazz Club in Greenwich Village, and 38-year-old director Steve Fischer lifts his hand up, asking the cameramen to halt. "The air conditioner? That wasn't on before," he says. The cameraman shouts back at the greeter, who is on the phone trying to convince someone that they do not, in fact, have a $65 dollar table reserved for a Dave Brubeck three-night stand.

At 2 p.m. on Friday afternoon, the club is slowly getting ready for the long weekend, and the filming of a Baltimore-based director's documentary on creativity--Old School, New School--isn't high on the club's priority list. Someone's bass player--maybe Brubeck's--has already deposited a huge white upright bass case covered with airport stickers in the middle of the floor next to a set of snare drums and several upended chairs. Fischer is going to have to deal with background noise.

McCoy Tyner, the 71-year-old jazz legend best known as John Coltrane's pianist on his Impulse! recordings, is seated in a chair Fischer has set out next to the tiny stage, straightening out his pants. Both poised and relaxed, he is waiting like a dinner guest for the cameras to turn back on. He's a veteran of hundreds of interviews, and it's not his last for the day: There's a New York jazz deejay waiting at the bar with recording equipment. There's a brief silence, broken by this reporter, who--while not interviewing Tyner--felt he had to say something.

"Nice shoes."

Tyner turns his full attention toward the speaker and then looks at the shoes as if for the first time. They're shiny leather loafers, with three braided silver threads across each tongue. He smiles.

"You like them?" he asks genially. "I can tell you where you can get them. I got them a few blocks from here."

Fischer, meanwhile, is scribbling on a notepad. This is his 14th shoot for a documentary that he's been shooting for more than two years. He has already directed two shoots this afternoon. The first was with Scottish actor Brian Cox in the backyard of his Manhattan apartment; Cox went into the depths of an actor's creative energy. After Cox, earlier in the day at an then-empty Blue Note, Fischer talked about artistic "risk taking" with Francisco Mela, a youthful Cuban-born jazz drummer.

It's not, actually, an interview, though. "It's a conversation," he whispers to this reporter. And that conversation is about personal creativity--one of those topics that gets many artists, even the actors, to zip up. "I get them comfortable," Fischer says. Then he guides them out of their zone. "I see where it can go," he says.

Tyner is waiting before the camera, and Fischer has about 50 minutes to see where he can go. Fischer hands him a disclaimer. Tyner pulls his reading glasses out of his pocket and inspects the paper. "Can you get me a copy of this," he asks his agent. Then pauses. He looks back. "That doesn't have my bank account on it?" Then he turns toward Fischer.

"So is this for television?"

"No, it's independent," Fischer says. "Out of my own pocket."

He claps, and the shoot begins. Fischer first reads Tyner the project's mission statement: "This is for high schools, colleges, conservatories, and private sale. This is a study of creativity and how young people, starting out in their profession, in their early twenties, how these people are tapping into their personal creative brilliance. How can you be the best you can be in the arts."

Tyner nods. Fischer continues: "So I'd like to know what the best definition is for success in the arts."

Tyner chuckles softly. "I wish I could answer that." He still appears good-natured, but unsure what Fischer wants. "I'll attempt to say a few things that might be relevant . . .

"All I know is I had a lot of support from my mother in the piano," he continues. "She loved piano. I know whenever we'd go to somebody's house with a piano, she'd tinkle it. She never studied. And she was a beautician, and some of her clients had pianos. So I took an interest in the piano, and . . . I could always ask them, 'Do you mind, if I come over and play piano?' They said, 'No, no problem.'"

He laughs. "They never said no," he says. "They wouldn't say that to me." He looks around the room. "Just joking. They were so nice. Lovely, lovely people."

Fischer, however, sticks to the big issues: Do you have to suffer? "Well, you don't have to suffer," Tyner says. "There's a reason for everything. There's a meaning . . . it's good to have somebody who's willing to support you. You need somebody to support you, not asking, 'Why you making that noise?'" Tyner talks a little bit about the early days in Philadelphia, before his days with Coltrane, when he played in a slightly noisy R&B band.

Fischer persists: Young people today? Do they expect instant success?

Tyner mulls it over. "I know they grew up in a different environment," he says. "But I can't speak for everybody." He talks a little about his granddaughter, who likes to go shopping. "You can enter their world without being domineering," he says. "You need to show them that you're interested."

Fischer keeps pushing: If you want to draw all the things you want to you, what do you do?

"God," Tyner says, laughing. "You're talking to a minister."

Fischer again: There's got to be a way! Meditate? Or what?

Tyner looks puzzled. "Meditate?"

Fischer: Pray? I want that record deal! I want that record deal!

Tyner breaks down suddenly laughing. "I like that new car!" he offers, then pauses. "Sometimes things come to us. It's destiny. It's a triumph. It's good for you." He pauses. "I'm not saying everything's great. . . ."

Fischer keeps going after the big ideas. You bring up destiny. I'm glad you did. That's a big deal. The whole concept of destiny and fate.

Tyner stops for a moment. "That's a big word," he says. "I wouldn't necessarily rely on your concept of what they're saying is."

Can you manipulate it?

Once again, Tyner laughs. "I didn't grow up in a monastery," he says. "I'm not a prophet. It's hard to answer that. You're really putting me to the test. Can you manipulate life? There are some things you can do that may be interpreted as changing and altering. But that doesn't mean . . ."

So do we have control over our life? "Control," Tyner says. "That's a big word too. Things can happen because you did them. You can say that, 'I didn't know that was going to happen. But it did happen.'"

So what's the key to being creative? "You be yourself," Tyner says. "Why are you getting so deep about it?"

Because that's exactly what Fisher's documentary is after. A few hours later Fischer sits in a small café around the corner from the Blue Note, drinking espresso. At first glimpse, Fischer appears to drip with the slick professionalism of a young director who, at least so far, has racked up awards quickly. Born in Baltimore and educated at UMBC, Fischer was shooting industrials by 22 and in the Directors Guild in 1996. The animated cartoon "Steve and Bluey" brought him attention as an animator. He's been nominated for two Emmy Awards, for 2000's "Silence of the Falling Leaves" and 2007's "Now and Forever Yours: Letters to an Old Soldier." His documentary 2007 Freedom Dance is an animated account of the Hungarian Revolution.

But as he talks, the inner enthusiast starts to reveal itself. With his latest project there's a sense of having crossed the Rubicon. "I mean, to a studio it's nothing," he says of Old School, New School. "To me it's a fortune."

It's also a risk. The idea evolved six years ago in a conversation with playwright Sam McCready, who was teaching at UMBC while Fischer was majoring in film. "We just started talking about creativity, and that's when I decided to make a documentary about it."

Fischer cites Louis Malle's 1974 documentary Place de la république, which is driven by discussions and conversation, or Jim Jarmusch's Coffee and Cigarettes as an inspiration. "This is about as anti-narrative as you can get," he says of Old School. But he's feels that the investment will pay off. "This can get screened in art centers, it can be used to back up panel discussions. I know there are people who are going to say, 'One hour of talking, what the hell is that?' But I have faith that there are people who are going to get a lot out of a conversation about creative self development."

And he adds the kicker: If anyone wants to contribute to it--now that it's being financed by the International Documentary Association--it's tax deductible.

In the last two years, he's interviewed 14 people: McCready, actor/former U.S. Rep. Ben Jones, cinematographer William Fraker, dancer Kirstie Simpson, and more.

At the moment, Fischer mulls over the latest interview. "With McCoy, there was this idea of being in a popular quartet, then leaving them to follow his own voice"--and that's where Fischer thinks he broke through to understanding what Tyner was talking about.

"I've never laughed so much during a conversation," Fischer says. "He's such a fun-loving person. Even in his 70s. He's very playful, very easygoing, and very light-hearted. And whenever I'd approach him with a deep question, he'd kind of laugh and say, 'What are you getting so deep for?' His answer is always, go out and be yourself. For him, it's that simple. I wasn't expecting that. But it's refreshing."

He's not sure when he'll complete Old School, New School, although most of the interviews have been completed. (He shares a list of people he's still trying to get: Francis Ford Coppola, George Martin, Meryl Streep, Philip Glass, Robert De Niro. No responses yet.)

He admits that, with Tyner, or anyone else, the results aren't easy to predict, especially when the questions are so big. "It surprises me that so many people observe that," he says. "They say it as though it's shocking."

And he says that frustration has, at least partly, motivated him. "These films, with three-second shots on the face . . . I don't know, I mean do people really have conversations anymore? Do they talk about what they really think?"

He looks out the window across the street. "But I keep hammering away at it, eventually," he says. "If they don't get annoyed, you break through."

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