Phil Harder talks 'Low Movie' and Sound Unseen Duluth

Minnesota-bred filmmaker Phil Harder has directed music videos for everyone from Prince to Hilary Duff, but his heart lies with the local legends who helped bring his talents to the eyes of many. An early career that spawned videos for iconic acts such as The Jayhawks, Soul Asylum,

Rifle Sport, Babes in Toyland, and, of course, Low, Harder's keen eye and creative concepts have made a tangible impact in the local scene and beyond. The now-big shot has since gone on to direct commercials for giants such as Apple (yes, the dancing ipod silhouettes!), the NHL and HP, among many others, but this weekend at the Duluth edition of the Sound Unseen Music & Film Festival, he returns to his roots with LOW MOVIE, a yet-unnamed cinematic masterpiece that is neither music video or documentary. Gems from the early days of the Duluth-based band have been unearthed from Harder's collection of raw, unedited material and --  with the help of over a dozen colorists and editors -- an artistic musical mashup has been created. The film is a mixed bag of rare, never-before-seen footage and music video clips set to the backdrop of Low's minimalist sound. It's an homage, an ode, a what-ever-you-want-to-call-it -- just don't call it a "documentary."The short film will make its debut as the finale of Sound Unseen Duluth, and will be followed by an awesome closing night gala. Harder and members of Low will be in attendance. The festival -- the first edition of Sound Unseen in Duluth -- celebrates the art of music-based films; documentaries, music videos, and the undefined. Peppered with cool special events, meet and greets with directors and of course, lots and lots of artsy flicks -- this weekend is really the perfect excuse for a little road trip action.

This week, filmmaker Phil Harder chatted with the Dressing Room about the LOW MOVIE, Sound Unseen Duluth and what he's up to these days!

DRESSING ROOM: I love the idea that the "Low Movie" is neither music video or documentary, but more of an undefined visual/musical retrospective of the band's collaborations with you since 1994. What is your most memorable behind-the-scenes story from this collection of unearthed footage?

PHIL HARDER: In Feb '94 Rick Fuller, Andy Grund and I went to Duluth to meet Low. We met at a record store. The band just stared at their shoes and wouldn't look at me. I asked Alan a few questions and he sort of mumbled "yeah, ok..." The idea was to push a boat around on frozen Lake Superior - minimal like their music. The next morning we woke to minus twenty windchill. All I had was my 16mm camera but no boat.  I think Alan came up with the idea to steal a boat. We went to some stranger's back yard and thieved an old wooden boat and drove to the banks of Lake Superior. We started shooting but my camera wasn't made for the cold. The camera would roll slower and slower until it ground to a halt. When I changed the first roll the emulsion poured out of the camera like dust. - Alan slipped on the ice and was knocked out. Everything that could go wrong for a film maker did. I left Duluth thinking this shoot was a disaster. Fortunately colorist  Lynn Worley at Crash and Sues dug into my overexposed negative. She darkened it and discovered this super grainy miserable footage, scratched, blasting out...the distant lake and blowing snow came into view. It looked like Nanook of the North. It melded perfectly with the minimal song.

After the "Words"  video was completed I came up with the idea of using the out takes from the boat footage for a short film. Low played an instrumental while watching my film on a TV. We showed it at the first SXSW film festival. This is what the Low Movie is all about, reinventing all the 16mm footage from 1994 to 2010 and coming up with something new. We found full takes of songs that I never used. Unfinished videos that were shot but not edited, in camera sounds, just a lot of weird Low material that never saw the light of day. All the music videos that have now been reedited to weave into the movie as conceptual shorts.

It's clear Low is a local band near and dear to you. As someone that's worked so intimately with them, how do you see them evolving, and how has working with them evolved you as a filmmaker?

Low's music works perfect with cinema. Slow motion, dreamy images are made for Low's sound. After "Words" I kept going with their minimal style. We came up with one small concept for each clip: All Star Wrestling icon Baron Von Raschke walking around with balloons, a room falling apart. I started to bring back themes from earlier clips, balloons, a boat and so on. I wasn't sure why we did this at the time but I thought it was interesting to put little odes to the early Low videos in the later work. Now it works in the film as reoccurring themes. Eventually Low started to turn up the volume, at least Alan's guitar was getting louder, and there was an undercurrent of violence in the lyrics. The images followed the songs, getting a more and more wicked yet trying to remain true to the minimal ideas we started with. Some clips were too violent to be aired so I shelved a few along the way. I brought those out of the archive for the film. Meanwhile I was shooting major label music videos and commercials, then every few years Low would call and we would get to do these cool indie clips. I started adding natural sounds and on-camera spoken bits from the band to go beyond the music video. The band even acted a little. Eventually the videos became more like short films.

Phil Harder talks 'Low Movie' and Sound Unseen Duluth
courtesy of Phil Harder

This new Duluth edition of the Sound Unseen Festival has a pretty awesome lineup. How has Sound Unseen and festivals like it impacted the landscape of music-based film making?

I'm sure Sound Unseen is why this film exists. This music/film festival is a great motivation to make this type of film. I heard about the Sound Unseen Duluth from Rick Hanson in September. I brought up the idea of the Low Movie. They booked it for closing night without seeing a frame. I didn't have anything edited yet and more to shoot. Producer Tracy Tabery-Weller called on several Minneapolis post houses, 12 editors, a couple animators, colorists and sound people to make it happen. With a week to the screening all the clips are coming in and we are assembling the "Movie" (title TBD). JoLynn Garnes is weaving all the films together. I'm letting all the talent go where the clips take them. As of now there's about 18 pieces to the puzzle. There's also a brand new Baron Von Raschke short featuring Jim Raschke, the man behind The Claw! I shot it to add to the unfinished Cue The Strings video from 2005. It all ties into the Low Movie as the Baron was featured in the 1995 video "Shame".

Phil Harder talks 'Low Movie' and Sound Unseen Duluth
courtesy of Phil Harder

How do you think the festival will be received in a community like Duluth?

I started The Low Movie in Duluth in 1994 so it makes sense to show the film for the first time in Low's hometown. Last month I went to Duluth with my 16mm Bolex and shot a couple intimate performances: one of Alan and one of Mimi. Duluth is a little off the map but I think that's what makes it special for this festival - reminds me of the Telluride film festival. All the parties and films and people will be mixed together in a few blocks. After the Low Movie we close the festival with an after party. I'll be showing archival Low film loops and working with artist Joseph Belk and his collective to turn my film loops into an installation. The Honey Dogs perform at the party. It's all part of the Duluth/Low experience for closing night. I hope folks can make the trip. Should be a fun weekend and it's not February!

Phil Harder talks 'Low Movie' and Sound Unseen Duluth
courtesy of Phil Harder

Have you ever considered doing something similar to the Low Movie with your old Minneapolis rock scene footage? That would be pretty epic.

I would have to dig into Rick Fuller's basement and my garage for all the 16mm film negatives. Perhaps there's a local music  film in there. Soul Asylum, Babes in Toyland, Magnolias, The Jayhawks... It's hard to say what exists. I was amazed by what I discovered in the Low films. It's interesting to see what I passed up years ago, or how a new edit changes things. And its always fun to get out the 16mm Bolex and revisit some of these stories with more shooting.

Phil Harder talks 'Low Movie' and Sound Unseen Duluth
courtesy of Phil Harder

Aside from the Low Movie, what's new with Phil Harder? Are you working on anything particularly cool that you can dish about?

Besides my commercial gigs, I'm working with The Baron Von Raschke's son, Karl to consider a surreal film about "The Claw". Like the Low Movie this is not a documentary. We shot one scene this month which is now woven into the Low Movie. Jim Raschke is a great performer who supports artists.  I think the film will be a mix between punk rock and all star wrestling. I'm also working with Brazilian choreographers in New York, Chamecki-Lerner. We've made several films together. The short film FLYING LESSON won several awards, continues to play the international festival circuit, and has been sold to art collectors and galleries. Jackie & Judy, our latest experimental dance short just had its Twin Cities premier at the Mpls St. Paul Film Fest and begins international fest circuit starting at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles June 5. We are also editing two new dance films from a residency at Robert Wilson's Watermill Center with funding by the Guggenheim Foundation.

What are your five favorite things about Minnesota?

Boating on the Mississippi, Northeast Minneapolis bars, progressive politics, tons of art, a nice place to hang my hat between travels.

The Sound Unseen Duluth festival happens June 2nd-June 6th at Various locations in Duluth. For more info and to purchase tickets visit

The Low Film premieres on June 6th at the Sacred Heart Music Center (201 W. 4th Street, Duluth). Click HERE to purchase tickets.

For more info on Phil Harder click HERE

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