Regularly mythologized in rock history as a sphinx-like recluse and influential cult icon, singer-songwriter Scott Walker has led a peculiar career, from his days as a heartthrob crooner with ’60s Britpop sensation the Walker Brothers to his increasingly sporadic solo work as a bleak experimentalist whose anxious, atonal nightmares make Lou Reed’s notorious Metal Machine Music sound like a chart-topper. Cinemaniadirector Stephen Kijak hopes to introduce his eclectic genius to fresh ears with the rock-doc Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, making its New York premiere at Tribeca. Executive-produced by longtime fan David Bowie, the film’s coup de grâce is the man himself. I recently talked to Kijak about the notoriously camera-shy Walker, who allowed the director to shoot him while hard at work on 2006’s sinister masterpiece The Drift.
Once you scored access to Walker, were you ever worried that he might clam up and give you nothing? We had the film pretty much finished and nearly edited before we had his interview, so that was scary. We only got one face-to-face, but we crammed a lot in there.
Did you stumble upon any taboo topics? Trying to get into specific personal politics, and how they relate to the songs and him personally, was hard. It’s commonly known that a good part of the reason the Walker Brothers didn’t break in America is because they couldn’t bring him over to tour. He and John [Maus] were Vietnam draft dodgers, so that’s an issue that was really off-limits, even though he’s talked about it in interviews a decade ago.
What were you most surprised to learn? The most intimate stuff was watching him work. But in conversation, if you read enough of the press, there’s not a lot new in what he’s saying. I think the revelation is just seeing the way he communicates in the flesh, because it’s a rarity to get him to sit down and talk. I was amazed we got him to trip back down memory lane about the Sunset Strip, but when I tried to push into the earlier days—when he was 14, he was on Broadway in Rodgers and Hammerstein plays, and I’m like, “My God, I live in New York and I have this terrible nostalgia for a time I never knew, and wasn’t it amazing being here in the ’50s as a teenager?”—he says, “I really have no recollection of that.” Yet what’s most mysterious is how relatively normal he comes across . . . and then you hear him say, “Well, my life and my work are the same thing.” That opens up a lot of questions and contradictions between that nice gentleman on the sofa and the earsplitting, audacious, and terrifying music coming out of his brain. I think the enigma remains intact, in a lot of ways.
So, why didn’t you include any Walker naysayers? I couldn’t find anyone to say anything bad. Screw it, y’know? Someone wrote that I had built a little cinematic shrine, and yeah, I did. It isn’t like we set out to do a critical study of the man or music. For someone who is that unknown, the main urge is to make a film of discovery, really.
What’s the compromise between understanding him and keeping the legend alive? There’s a deal you strike: If you go after the tabloid details of his life like some typical Behind the Music thing, you won’t have him. It’s not like Nick Broomfield, going in there looking for an illegitimate child or something. On the flip side, I wanted to spend another hour or two talking about modernist literature, movies, or anything to circle around to what might be happening in his head. One of his favorite books is Hunger by Knut Hamsun. It wasn’t a compromise, but more a failure on my part to push further: “Oh really, is that so? Let’s talk about Knut Hamsun for 20 minutes.” Knowing that the clock is ticking and there are probably bigger issues, it’s really hard, man. He’s not one of these guys you can follow around for three weeks. You get one shot.