I was honored to speak with award-winning filmmaker Roger Sherman – whose documentaries range from music to art to history to beer! He’s received an Emmy, a Peabody and TWO Academy Award nominations. One of his latest projects has been making The Rhythm of My Soul: Kentucky Roots Music, examining the Commonwealth’s Country, Gospel, Bluegrass and Mountain music. The film features our friends, Rob McNurlin and the Beatnik Cowboys, and has aired on PBS.
Sherman creates under the auspices of Florentine Films, along with filmmaker Ken Burns – his former roommate at Hampshire College.
How did you get involved in filming Rhythm of My Soul?
I produced the film for the Southern and Eastern Kentucky Tourism Association. They wanted to do a film showing how incredible the music is there. They asked for four 10-minute films, for the different styles of music. They wanted it to be historical, too. We worked it out – you can’t do a history of anything in 10 minutes! I proposed that we do the people who live the music now, the people who drive hundreds and hundreds of miles for very little pay, just for the passion of the music.
After the four sections were filmed, I made it into a PBS documentary. I did it on my own dime; I thought it deserves a wider audience.
What did you learn about the people of Eastern Kentucky?
I’d never been to Kentucky at all! I was far from being an expert – which was of great benefit to my film. I represent my audience, who might not know the subject, might not even be music afictionados. But I can pick out the cool and interesting things that they would want to see. I went on two visits, once in the Fall for foliage shots. We stayed in motels and I ate BBQ! Rob McNurlin quotes Hank Williams when he says, “To play that kind of music, you have to stand behind a mule a while.”
Generally, what are you trying to convey in your documentary?
One message? No. My process is organic: the subject, the pacing, the style. I really hope you can’t tell a Roger Sherman film in the first 5 minutes.
All of my films change as I create them. I say, “Take me for a ride!” For instance, Rob McNurlin’s dad came out and invited me to a horse auction. That’s a piece of America that’s disappearing.
How would you describe your cinematography style?
I think that’s for the viewer to decide. I come from a very traditional background, straight documentary. I’m not in front of the camera, you don’t hear my voice. It’s not MTV or Court TV. I don’t want to lose you for a second. I don’t want to call attention to trickery. That being said, I want it to look gorgeous, gorgeous countryside. I want seamless editing: I really don’t do fade outs or dissolves.
What’s a documentary subject you’d like to cover in the future?
I’ve always wanted to do another music film. I’ve been working on doing a Little Feat concert film. It’s interesting; they lost Lowell George 30 years ago and they kept on going. When I do a concert film, I don’t want to see a lot of crane shots and cutting away from the guitarist to the sax to someone in the audience. I don’t play instruments, so I want to watch the guitar solo and so does the viewer.
What’s your favorite film of all time?
Roman Polansky’s Chinatown! I’ve watched it many, many times. I also love Francois Truffaut. Also, Seven Samurai. My 14 year old son watches with me; we tie him down and have family movie night!