For the Sake of the Song
An Interview with Margaret Brown,
director of Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt
by Danielle McCarthy

The story of the artist unknown in his or her time and resurrected after death is by now a well-known archetype often passed along through word of mouth by faithful followers. Taking on a life of their own, these stories of the tormented artist dying young slowly trickle into the mainstream, causing said unknown artist to catapult onto the world’s stage, à la Vincent van Gogh. The music world has more than its fair share of “cult” figures—Nick Drake, Gram Parsons and Big Star just to name a few. But a singer-songwriter from Texas by the name of Townes Van Zandt, whose haunting and sparse songs toe the line between country, folk, and blues, remains largely unknown. I remember the first Townes song I heard, “Waiting Around to Die,” and being deeply touched simultaneously by the song’s simple beauty and grim outlook. Often focusing on a life on the road, lost men, tragic women, drugs, and alcohol, his music is inherently American in its sources (i.e. Texas songwriter Lightnin’ Hopkins and early Bob Dylan are two influences). His songs, though solemn, are ultimately life-affirming and contain immense wisdom and truth. And his allegiance of followers include such renowned musicians as Guy Clark, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Lyle Lovett, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Merle Haggard, just to name a few. Even still, he is not widely known, and his fascinating life and early tragic death are ripe for the telling.

Director Margaret Brown has passionately detailed Townes Van Zandt’s life in a documentary that breaks the insipid Behind the Music mold. A true fan, Brown truly inhabits the world of Van Zandt’s songs. Her film, Be Here to Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt, is both a revelation and vindication of one’s conviction in loving an artist that no one else seems to have ever heard of. While a lesser filmmaker would have reduced the man to myth, glorifying his legendary drug and alcohol addictions and tragic death, Brown presents a well-rounded portrait of a man who “blew off” his loved ones, his freedoms, his happiness for his art, and the consequences of those actions (interviews with his children are particularly sobering and heartbreaking). With fiction films like Ray and Walk the Line presenting the warts-and-all true-life stories of legendary musicians, Brown’s film reveals with searing honesty the price of becoming a legend. Elegiac and haunting, Be Here to Love Me transcends the music documentary genre to become bigger than its subject and his cult of admirers.

Reverse Shot: Why did you decide to make this film?

Margaret Brown: Well Sam [Brumbaugh, producer], who was my housemate in Brooklyn eight years ago, had this really extensive record collection, and sometimes at night when we first moved in together we would play records, and we would have sort of a mini competition of who could play the best thing that the other person had never heard of. My dad’s a songwriter, so I thought I knew a lot about music, but one night Sam played a Townes [Van Zandt] record. He played “Waiting Around to Die,” and it really struck me. So that started my interest in Townes’s music. But it wasn’t until I went down to Austin, Texas, where I now live, that I would hear stories about Townes, because down in Austin he’s sort of a mythic figure and people in bars would tell me stories. I read an article about him and people always talked about how he lived his life for his art, and everything else fell away.

So personally I was really interested in that idea because my dad was a songwriter too, and while I had a really stable childhood I knew that to be a great artist you really have to live your art. For me this film was a chance to explore that idea through his incredible music and his life and all the people around him.

RS: It’s hard to categorize Townes’s music. There are elements of country and folk and blues and some rock ’n’ roll. I think the same can be said of your film. It doesn’t neatly fit into that Behind the Music mold.

MB: Obviously, I wanted to showcase the music… Sam, who co-produced the film and went on this insane journey with me for five years, going on six, wanted to showcase the music. It’s so much fun to turn people on to it the way Sam turned me onto it, but I was also really interested in the idea of to what degree you have to live your art, or is it a choice, or do you have no choice and you just have to do it?

Those were the questions I had, and more specifically for me, how am I going to live my life. I wanted to make a film that was open enough so that listening to it and feeling it would make you think about your own life and the choices you’ve made. I wanted it to be a really active thing rather than an escapist, Hollywood, Christmas fare, although it is that as well since it’s coming out at Christmastime.

RS: I think the problem with those Behind the Music documentaries is that they glorify that decision to live your art and make minimal note that really living for your art has consequences on a person’s life and their family. I think you see that in this film, and it’s really heartbreaking. It’s a film about choices.

MB: Yeah, I wanted to make something that was about family, but I don’t think even if someone was paying me to do it I would make a Behind the Music kind of documentary. I wanted to make something that was more of a collage with stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily expect to fit together and you figure it out later on. There’s this moment when Townes is talking about his music, and then it cuts to Katie Belle and she’s singing one of his songs, and until that point in the movie you don’t even know he had a daughter, and it reveals in that moment that it’s 2002—when you saw him before it’s 1983. I cut so you would feel these things and the shifts in the narrative so the story builds but not in a chronological order.

RS: It’s very interesting how it jumps around in time. There’s also a lot of space in the film, and everyone is so open. It’s pretty remarkable—I don’t know how you managed to get them to be so candid. Did you just build a relationship with them?

MB: Honestly, sometimes I had a hard time believing that people were telling me the things they were telling me just because I asked them. There’s that Janet Malcolm book, The Journalist and the Murderer, about how much your subject trusts you, and in the book it’s about a murderer who becomes best friends with this journalist who ultimately betrays him, and it’s really about that quandary in any kind of journalism or documentary filmmaking. I’m not necessarily going to tell the story you want me to tell, and I’m definitely not going to tell the story you’re invested in or is your narrative so it’s amazing when people are so open—but maybe they just trusted me enough or intuited that I wasn’t going to somehow betray them. It’s quite a responsibility.

RS: I think it is a very even portrayal—there’s no real villain.

MB: Well, I think there are some villains.

RS: But you let us decide whether we think they’re a villain or not. You may have your opinions…

MB: I sure do!

RS: But you don’t manipulate us into thinking, well, I don’t want to name names…

MB: Well, there’s truth and there’s truth. I felt like so much of Townes is about myth that it’s almost like, do I always have to tell the truth? I mean there are some things in the film that I know aren’t true, and I’m not really going to say what those things are, but I felt like it’s better to overall service an emotional truth and that the story is truer with myth in it.

RS: Specifically the stuff with Guy and Susannah Clark is unbelievable. I couldn’t believe what they were saying.

MB: Well, with them it’s a little different because they were a little triumvirate: those three people spent a lot of time together, and they were all really close, and I think that Guy and Susannah sort of decided they were going to give what they have to me, and it was weird for me to receive that, but they put themselves in a place where they were able to do that. There was this one journalist who wrote a book about Townes and said that Guy did that knife game with your hands or put a knife in his hand, I can’t remember but it was some kind of story like that. Guy and Townes used to have this thing they called “Skinning a Yank,” where it’s basically how to take advantage of a Yankee.

RS: Well, maybe since you’re from Alabama they trust you more and maybe there’s something interesting about the way you approached it as a woman.

MB: Well, the family theme of the film was not added until the very end. I knew I wanted the film to feel like a collage and not have a typical three-act structure. I edited the film using orderly note cards, but the biggest, most important theme I put in at the end was the family, and that just wasn’t an element until the end of editing, and it is so hard to believe that because it would not have been as good without the emotional resonance of the family.

RS: I really like how you hold off introducing Townes in the beginning. You use people’s stories about Townes (like Joe Ely describing meeting Townes in Lubbock) and the majority of “Rake,” which is one of my favorite Townes songs, to really introduce to him.

MB: That song is very epic feeling.

RS: How did you decide to introduce him?

MB: He’s a mysterious character so I wanted there to be mystery before you see him. You do see glimpses of him, but we used optical printing to obscure him a bit, like by cutting the frame almost before you see his face.

RS: The first time you actually see him is on the television.

MB: I think the first intimate moment is when he’s playing live in 1974 and he’s playing “Pancho & Lefty,” and then it slowly moves in and you’re starting to get to know him at that moment.

RS: Well, because he’s now gone, the archival footage really has to tell the story. And all that archival footage is a goldmine to Townes’s fans because none of it has been seen before.

MB: The only stuff people have seen is the two minutes in the film that are in a film called Heartworn Highways [dir. James Szalapksi] that just got re-released on DVD and was originally released theatrically in 1976, but everything else has not really been seen before now.

RS: The “B” roll footage you shot is also amazing.

MB: Well that’s Lee [Daniel, cinematographer], and he’s such a great collaborator, because he really understood what the tone of the film should be. He listened to me about the way I wanted the film to feel and he suggested we do optical printing so we bought this old optical printer in Dallas. Lee is, in a way, familiar with some of the demons that Townes had, so I used a lot of his ideas.

RS: You also really capture the visual tone of Townes’s music in the footage you shot. I think a lot of people waste the creative opportunities when using talking heads in documentaries, but yours are staged so beautifully they feel more like stories and less like talking.

MB: I had another rule in my head as I was shooting (which I broke all the time) that I would only use a talking head if something else were going on, like at the end when Townes’s friend Bob Moore is talking about picking up Townes at the airport, and the look in his eyes is so profound, so it’s okay to use it for a while, because there’s something happening in him as he’s talking to you. And also there’s a tradition in the South of storytelling, so if someone’s telling a great story, I can watch them talk for hours. Most films squander that opportunity; it becomes something you just expect in documentaries, so it becomes boring. It’s too bad.

Top photo by David LaSpina