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Vancouver International Film Festival 2010 Interview – Strange Powers co-director Gail O’Hara

Strainge Powers - At VIFF 2010
by Jason Whyte

“Ten years in the making, Strange Powers is an intimate documentary portrait of songwriter Stephin Merritt and his band the Magnetic Fields. With his unique gift for memorable melodies, lovelorn lyrics and wry musical stylings that blend classic Tin Pan Alley with modern sounds, Stephin Merritt has distinguished himself as one of contemporary pops most beloved and influential artists. Both a prolific recording artist and composer of theater and film scores, he performs most famously as the Magnetic Fields, whose 1999 three-disc opus 69 Love Songs is widely considered a masterpiece of traditional songcraft and irresistible synthpop. Strange Powers explores Merritt’s songwriting and recording process, and focuses on his relationships with his bandmates and longtime manager Claudia Gonson, revealing an artist who has produced one of the most engaging and confounding bodies of work in the contemporary American songbook.” Co-director Gail O’Hara on the film “Strange Powers” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend Vancouver for the screenings?

Yes, it is our first film in VIFF. I don’t believe we have plans to attend but would definitely consider coming if invited and if it fits into our schedule. Strange Powers: Stephin Merritt and the Magnetic Fields had its world premiere at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and also showed at Full Frame in Durham, NC, Irish Film Institutes’ Stranger Than Fiction Fest in Dublin, Florida International Film Festival, BAFICI in Buenos Aires, IFF Boston, IndieLisboa, Toronto Hot Docs, Seattle International Film Festival, Sled Island Calgary, Outfest LA, NZFF in Auckland and Wellington, Melbourne International Film Festival, Starigrad Paklenica Film Festival in Croatia, and will go on this autumn to show at London Film Festival, Brisbane Underground Film Festival, In-Edit in Barcelona and Chile, Oslo and Bergen Film Festivals, Athens among others.

Could you give me a little look into your background and what led
you to the desire to want to make film?

I have always wanted to make films, but mostly worked as a journalist, writer, editor and photographer. Film was a natural progression from those things and I felt having the access to Merritt and the Magnetic Fields was obviously important -- I wanted to take advantage of my close proximity to the band. It was clear from the beginning that this was no ordinary act and one that needed its every move documented.

Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I
grow up I want to be a …”

I can’t speak for (co-director) Kerthy Fix, but filmmaker works for me. Actually it works for both of us. Filmmaker who makes a living wage would be nice.

How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide
me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.

I was a fan starting in 1992 when I first heard The Magnetic Fields. I met them and became Stephin’s boss in 1994 (first at SPIN, and later Time Out New York). That led to me taking still photographs for years and interviewing them often for my zine chickfactor. I started filming digital video in 1999 when “69 Love Songs” came out and basically just started documenting major shows and tours. I moved to London in 2003 and I asked Kerthy Fix to take over filming. I came back to the US in 2007 and we spent a few more years ticking people off the list and figuring out what to do with our 300 hours of footage.

What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production? What was your favourite moment of the process?

Figuring out what our story was. Also getting the band to agree to sign releases; we never thought that would happen. Stephin Merritt and Claudia Gonson both have film in their backgrounds and were very interested in seeing where we were going with the story. In the end they did a lot less picking apart than we imagined.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the filmʼs
cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided
to be photographed this way.

Kerthy found Paul Kloss as they are very close. Paul is a cinematographer of 20 years experience. He has shot features, series, reality, documentary, and music videos.

Talk a bit about the experiences that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?

Mostly they have been good. People mostly want to talk to Stephin or find out about Stephin. People often ask questions about things he doesn’t want to discuss -- such as the accusations of racism -- and he isn’t very tactful about moving on. My favorite quotes are when people ask him if he’s seen the film and he says, “I found it really boring. I didn’t learn anything new.” I would put that on the movie poster if it were entirely up to me.

Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?

Personally I like the look of “Morvern Callar” and I would have liked our film to look like that. I work for a filmmaker named Lance Bangs and I like the look of his footage. I love music docs and am inspired by Paul Kelly (who has made docs on Laurence from Felt and the Dolly Mixture), Jeff Feuerzeig (who has made docs on Daniel Johnston and Half Japanese) and many others.

If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you
would be interested in?

We are both working in film these days. I have been a journalist, editor and photographer, among other things. I would also like to be an eco designer, a TV vegan chef, and a nightclub hostess. I also believe Annie Leibowitz should be fired and I should take over at Vanity Fair as chief photographer.

Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work
with, even if money was no object.

I would love to work with Wes Anderson, Terry Gilliam, Lynne Ramsay, Jean Luc Godard, Whit Stillman, and Spike Jonze. In what capacity I have no idea.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

It certainly helps to build a buzz. We haven’t really had many real reviews yet, so I can’t comment.

If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one
would you choose?

Film Forum in New York City and NFT1 in London, England. My dream has come true because both theaters will show Strange Powers in October. Kerthy and I also went to school in Richmond, Virginia and would love to see the film show at the Byrd Theater.

What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?

I don’t think we stand a chance of competing with “Inception”. That’s okay. The people who matter will see, and have seen, our film. Hopefully people will continue to discover it as they discover the band.

No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start, and especially for those with films in the festival circuit?

Be patient. And learn how to get money. Put a celebrity in your film.

And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
Gail: Brazil by Terry Gilliam. Pure imagination.

This is one of the official selections in this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival lineup. For more information on films screening at this year’s fest, showtimes, updates and other general info, point your browser to

Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF ’10 on my Twitter account @jasonwhyte, including mini-reviews of films, comments on festival action and even a Tweetphoto or two. #viff10 is the official hashtag.

Jason Whyte,

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originally posted: 10/06/10 09:05:01
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