By Gregory Crofton
Chris Whitley was a blues artist who defied the conventions of the genre. In doing so, he created truly original music. He lived a hard life of addiction and endless traveling that often accompanies someone who plays music for a living.
Whitley, a heavy smoker, died from lung cancer in 2005 at the age of 45.
Thankfully, two people are breathing some life back into him by producing a documentary on his life called “Dust Radio: A Film About Chris Whitley.” Hopefully, the documentary makes its way to the general public soon.
What follows is an interview with a co-director of the film, Jonathan Mayor, and a trailer for the film. Mayor shot footage of Whitley near the end of his life, while fellow co-director Michael Borofsky filmed him much earlier in his career. A Sony music executive learned both men were working on separate films and got them together. They decided to team up and create one film. It has a running time of just under 90 minutes and contains a lot of Whitley’s music including live performances and unreleased material.
1. What is your primary goal, or intent, in making this film?
To show an honest and intimate portrait of an intensely honest and gifted (though struggling) artist through many of the phases of his life and career. To spread the brilliant music and the story of Chris Whitley. Chris is a huge influence on me. And someone who I believe could and should be a huge influence on others.
2. From what I’ve learned, it sounds like Sony brought you, two filmmakers, together, a collaboration that will likely greatly benefit the film. Was that sharing of resources problematic at first? Did either of you have to compromise a personal vision of the film?
More than compromising personal vision, I think we both needed to learn to open up to each other’s visions and trust each other and let that help interpret the entire vision of the film. The reason we were introduced in the first place was that we both had pieces of the story that the other didn’t, and were both around for different times and different experiences, and both knew or had contact with different characters in Chris’s life and story at different times, so for both of us I think it was more about opening our own stories up to the fuller truth and scope of things than a conflict or compromise of vision. Once we had a full handle on each other’s experiences and elements, it was more or less clear what kind of film we thought we needed to make.
3. The well-known music producer and artist Daniel Lanois was a big supporter of Whitley’s. Has he done anything to help get this film made?
Daniel was gracious enough to do an interview for the film very early on.
4. Chris Whitley was a complicated artist. How will the film’s style and feel reflect that, if at all?
For myself, at least, I think that sort of drove the level of experimentation and complication we felt comfortable with. Michael and I came from different backgrounds and I think both related very much to certain of Chris’s philosophies. I definitely wanted something that felt like the artist. That related with the audience of the film in much the same way as some of his shows and records related to audiences. Something that wasn’t essentially just an entertaining story, but that forced you a little deeper than that, even if that can be uncomfortable. We found that it definitely can be.
5. Making documentary films is a difficult job, and even that seems to be an understatement of the effort it takes to get a good one done. What have been the biggest challenges unique to making this one?
There are always unforeseen hold-ups. Scheduling takes awhile, as does everything else that needs to get done. I don’t know what other projects are like, but ours was a labor of love from the get-go and has always been a very small project with a very small group pushing it. That’s helped us a lot in many places, but also sometimes makes it hard to get as many things done as can add up on a project like this.
6. Raising money for documentary completion through sites like Kickstarter has become commonplace. Sometimes it is difficult, dangerous artistically, to ask for money from other people. How has the experience been?
Kickstarter was great and definitely helped us a lot. The amount of support was incredible and it was amazing to see all the pledges come in throughout and to get to meet many of the amazing backers and lovers of Chris. We were in contact with everyone throughout. It’s really wild and surreal to see money coming in and to be connecting with all these amazing backers. It was the first online fundraising experience for both of us and I don’t think either of us could have ever imagined we’d get the support we received. (Their Kickstarter campaign raised more than $68,000)
7. As you both have completed or nearly completed “Dust Radio,” what are your biggest concerns, or fears, related to the film and its release?
Independent and documentary films are a tough business and after you work on something so long, you want to find a good home for it, and hopefully have people beyond the immediate fanbase see it. This is always a challenge.
8. What do you most admire or like about Chris Whitley and his music?
Chris was a visionary and a searcher. Someone who always pushed himself and the way he expressed himself and did it in an incredible and imbued fashion. For me, he was an artist unlike almost any others, reserved on such a shortlist of brilliant expressionists. Immensely inherently talented and capable, and also forever an academic and art consumer, someone interested in all forms of great expression, and how they might merge to help make him a better artist.
9. Were Chris’s family and friends and musicians involved in making this film?
Many were and some weren’t. We certainly tried to include everyone that wanted to be included and people’s interests also sometimes changed. We tried to be flexible and respectful. We got some great interviews and definitely regret not being able to get a few others. Maybe down the road.
10. How do documentary filmmakers support themselves when they dedicate years, and most of their time, to making a film such as this one?
We both freelance doing other things and working on other projects to make it work. This film has taken a long time to make, and though it was a huge passion and priority for both of us, I don’t think either of us ever believed we’d have the luxury of working on it without the hassles and distractions of outside pressures and factors. We both had to fight hard and long to push it.
11. Sounds like the film is being sent off to film festivals, so it must be finished. Is it? If so, when might the general public have access to it, any thoughts on distribution yet?
We’ve got it to a place we’re happy with and have been submitting to some of the bigger festivals, attempting to come up with the best forum and plan to start to show the film to audiences. The general release will be sometime shortly after that, depending on the distributor and their plans for release. Our plan is to play festivals before distribution because it gives us a chance for some critical support and to reach the biggest potential long-term audience. We’re eager for those interested in the music and Chris Whitley to see and respond to the film, and spread the word about Chris’s incredible story.