Dancing about Lincoln: 'Bill T. Jones: A Good Man' Captures the Creative Process
"All I humbly ask is that I'm allowed to participate in a world of ideas," states dance artist Bill T. Jones in A Good Man, a new film that delves into the creative process of the legendary choreographer as he builds a commissioned work on the life, legacy and modern relevancy of America's 16th President, Abraham Lincoln.
Co-directors Gordon Quinn of Kartemquin Films and Bob Hercules of Media Process Group spent two years filming the project--from the moment the Highland Park, Illinois-based Ravinia Festival announced the commission in October 2007 through the world premiere in September 2009. An additional 18 months were spent editing the film, which fully documents Jones' process as he creates Fondly Do We Hope . . .Fervently Do We Pray. The film premieres November 11 on PBS' 25th anniversary season of American Masters as part of PBS' Arts Fall Festival.
"We felt that somehow, having to grapple with Lincoln, this was going to be his statement on the crisis in our democracy," says Quinn, of why the Jones-Lincoln combination felt rich for exploration from the beginning.
During an initial visit to Illinois that Jones took to research the man renowned as "The Great Emancipator," Quinn and Hercules capture the artist's emotional response to seeing Lincoln's trademark stovepipe hat. "There are two wear marks on the top of the hat," Hercules explains, the result of how often the president would tip his hat. "It's one of my single favorite images in the film."
A second critical image in the film was captured much later in the process and, in fact, almost eluded the filmmakers. "Not only did we not plan it, we were unprepared for it," laughs Quinn about the evening a freight train thundered past Jones and a gathering of Ravinia dignitaries during the final preparations leading to the premiere. "It just so happened that [Bill] saw the train. It became a key scene."
Quinn says that Jones was at a point in the late stages of his creative process where he was trying to get the finished piece to "land"--in a similar way to those final days in the editing room for documentarians. The rumbling steel of the railroad crystallized in that moment what Jones had been searching for--and the filmmakers captured it, albeit barely.
As revealed in the film, inspiration struck Jones as he recalled the legend of Lincoln's Ghost Train--the spectral appearance of the locomotive that carried the body of the assassinated president from Washington back to Illinois in 1865. Hearing, seeing and feeling the modern train prompted Jones to incorporate the Ghost Train motif in his creation to represent the perpetual forward drive of democracy that Lincoln had championed throughout the Civil War.
"I was scrambling to plug the mic into the camera because we could tell that something fantastic was happening," Hercules says. "Luckily, we had the common sense to bring the camera. I always say to young filmmakers, ‘Just shoot everything. Always be rolling.'"
The cinema vérité style utilized by the filmmakers requires such comprehensive coverage because, as Hercules states, "You don't know when lightning in a bottle strikes." Access to their subject and an intimate level of trust between Jones and the filmmakers was also critical for the unvarnished look at art being made that the filmmakers desired.
"A lot of things happened that were tense, but the creative process is a tense and conflict-oriented process sometimes," says Hercules. "[Bill] tends to thrive on this creative tension. That is part of what his process is, basically--creative tension that he seems to immerse himself with."
"These are not personality conflicts," adds Quinn. "They are conflicts that have to do with making. What are the struggles? What are the points of conflict? It's not the easy stuff that you pay attention to. It's the hard stuff."
Throughout the rigorous process of molding dancers, musicians, set-designers and others into a cohesive unit capable of communicating his vision, Jones pulls no punches with his collaborators. "Like many artists, he's always kind of treading the edge of various contradictions that he's trying to balance," observes Quinn. "I think art comes out of the artist having an experience with something. In this case with Bill, it's the musicians, it's the dancers, it's the material, it's Lincoln--all that stuff is pushing back at him. Their limitations are pushing back. I think that's true in all art-making."
During the countless hours Quinn and Hercules spent with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company while shooting the film, the seasoned veterans became aware of the vast similarities and parallels between the art of dance and the art of making films. "There are a lot of resonances when you make a film about an artist," says Quinn. "You can't help but have that reflexive response to look back at your own process of making art."
Jones, a Tony Award-winning choreographer for his work on Spring Awakening and Fela!, offered the filmmakers welcome input into the dramatic arc of the film during an advance screening in New York. "He had some very keen observations because he is a director," says Hercules. "Even to the point of advocating to put some scenes closer to the front--some of those tension scenes that frankly don't make him look so great. But he understands the dramatic nature of those scenes."
And although Quinn and Hercules are not dancers, they quickly grabbed as much of the dance vernacular as possible around which to craft their film. "We wanted to key in on certain ‘phrases'--what they call it in the dance world," says Hercules. "Our goal was to show a few phrases that would start out very rudimentary and then they would evolve into something that would appear as a finished dance phrase at the end of the film."
Production on the film coincided not only with Lincoln's bicentennial, but ran concurrently with the campaign, election, inauguration and bulk of the first term of President Barack Obama. Comparisons between the political climate of Lincoln's era and where we are today-- with another former US Senator from Illinois occupying the White House--ripple throughout Jones' dance piece and, subsequently, A Good Man.
"Throughout the whole process we were feeling the resonance with the Obama Administration and what he's being struggling with and what Lincoln was struggling with and what Bill was struggling with in trying to put this piece together," says Quinn. "Lincoln wanted to bring people together in a time when the country was pulling apart."
"Obviously it's not quite as extreme because we are not involved in a Civil War," Hercules adds. "But there is tremendous tension in our society now as there was then. Lincoln was able to somehow rise to the challenge. It took him a while."
Jones states in the film that when he was five years old, Lincoln was the only white man he was allowed to love unconditionally and that, as an adult, he finds himself a man with very few heroes. In the face of the myriad of challenges we face as a society and as a people, A Good Man shows Jones seemingly reassured by the hope offered by the rolling force of democracy embodied by Lincoln's Ghost Train.
"[Bill] comes back to the idea that we need heroes. We need leaders," Hercules says. "It's kind of interesting to see that whole arc that Bill goes through in this film."
Christopher R. C. Bosen is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn., where he lives with his wife and two children. Previous articles for IDA include last year's look at the TCM series, Movies & Moguls; an article on The Good Soldier; and a cover story on The Devil and Daniel Johnston.