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Joerg Steineck: Getting Inside Scofield

Mike Jacobs By

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Film making is pretty similar to music itself. A good film has its own dynamics and rhythms and it needs to be tuned to the subject rather than structured around facts or restrictions that someone else has given you. —Joerg Steineck
Joerg Steineck is a German filmmaker who has made both documentary and fictional films. His latest project Inside Scofield is, as the title suggests, a look at guitar icon John Scofield's career and life on (and off) the road as a touring jazz musician. All About Jazz sat down to talk with Steineck about the making of the film.

All About Jazz: You have done a few music documentaries in the past -Lo Sound Desert (2012) and Truckfighters (2011)— covering mainly rock artists. What led you to jazz, John Scofield, and why was it important for you to make this film?

Joerg Steineck: First off, I don't see a big difference in genres, I don't believe in them at all really. I listen to every kind of music and I'm not too focused on one thing. At different phases of my life I've listened to different things such as electronic music, which I still listen to, but jazz I grew up with. My father was a huge jazz fan and jazz was always around the house so I think it became part of my DNA at some point. I guess if you want to talk about genres, it's really the one genre I still listen to probably every day. It's really inspiring music and that's important for my work. I'm also a painter and jazz inspires my work.

This film is a dedication to my father who's 83 now, so... . I'd really like to have him watching it while he's kicking and not from above. I guess that's my most personal reason why I want to finish this film as soon as possible.

AAJ: So why John Scofield?

JS: Well, it was actually my father who had brought me to him, music-wise. And just like music is about feeling and inspiration, I was watching Scofield on German television one day and I got inspired to make something with this guy with the long beard, making a helluva great music. It just clicked for me. Also there are no documentaries about him at all, so that was another aspect.

When I approached John about making the film, I wanted to convince him that I was the right guy to do this. I didn't want to make a film about one person only but about jazz and the life of a jazz musician in general. And I've always wanted to make a film about jazz since I started as a filmmaker and bring all the many aspects together. So [based on that], he decided to move forward [with the project].

AAJ: Are you a musician?

JS: I wouldn't call myself a musician. I do make electronic music on the computer but I don't play a classical instrument. I always wanted to play an instrument. That's probably why I'm so enthusiastic about instrumental music but I never had the patience to learn one. Plus I was always confronted with other ways of expressing myself—painting, making films and so forth. Later on I discovered making electronic music and it was pretty easy for me to approach and learn. Many people don't consider it real music, but it is.

AAJ: So what period of time does Inside Scofield cover?

JS: I started filming John and his band Combo 66 on tour in 2018. We shot about 40 hours of footage from his west coast dates, playing nine different cities. Add to that almost ten more hours of interviews and incidentals. It's pretty substantial and I think it's really good stuff mostly.

AAJ: Is it a retrospective at all or does it concentrate on Scofield's contemporary career?

JS: It's mainly a documentary about his current career and the life of a jazz musician in general but it also has historical aspects of his life as well. It's a nice mixture of everything. Yes, there are lots of nice anecdotes about his past with Miles [Davis]... (laughs). Everyone asks about that... .

AAJ: Who are some other other musicians in the film?

JS: Well we obviously have the other members of John's band Combo 66, [pianist] Gerald Clayton, [bassist] Vicente Archer and of course [drummer] Bill Stewart, who has been a part of many of John's projects. There's also guys like Bill Frisell, Steve Swallow, Jon Cleary, Joe Lovano and Dave Holland.

I filmed some shows from a solo tour John did in Germany. We also filmed a date that John did with Jon Cleary in an old church. That was very nice but... it wasn't sonically terrible but the acoustics were less than ideal. Awesome event though.

AAJ: During the making of the film, were there things you learned about the real life of a jazz musician that surprised you?

JS: I can't really say things surprised me, they rather confirmed my opinion. I think jazz musicians are way more specific about what they do, in terms of how they talk about what they do. They use a very different language to describe what they're trying to achieve through their instruments, probably even more technical terms than other musicians. Maybe because it's actually harder to characterize jazz, because of its abstractness. And because there's so much more individual expression involved, and it can turn into such an open and free form of nonverbal communication.

AAJ: Besides being the subject of the film, how big a role did Scofield play in the making of the documentary?

JS: John will have final approval for the film. Of course he's going to worry about me a little because I'm someone who came out of left field and is not part of his musical family. He's been making his musical career mostly by himself and his wife Susan as his manager, and if you're such a great artist, of course you're going to be a little protective about yourself. I think it's an added bonus for the film to have him as a musical advisor during the time of editing. That said, I also hope he has faith enough in my work as a filmmaker to let me do what I have to do to make this film a good one—a believable one as a documentary, not an "image" film or a commercial for himself. That's something I really wouldn't want.

AAJ: You mentioned earlier that as a listener you don't really make generic distinctions between rock and jazz but as a filmmaker, does jazz as a documentary subject change your approach or your visual style?

JS: I would say you change your narratives to fit different rhythmics and tonal structures. It's obvious to visualize a film about jazz differently than a film about punk rock for example. Punk rock has a totally different rhythm and attitude of course and a film about it would need to be more focused on its aggressive, performative aspects. Film making is pretty similar to music itself. A good film has its own dynamics and rhythms and it needs to be tuned to the subject rather than structured around facts or restrictions that someone else has given you. You have to assimilate yourself to the project and try to emerge with the essence of that project. That said, having done all my own shots it will be visually similar to my other works.

AAJ: You've done both documentary and fictional films in the past. Is there a sharp artistic divide in your approach to making one versus the other, or is it basically the same approach with different sets of requirements?

JS: For me, it's kind of the same because first I'm trying to make it my own, with my own visual approach—my own imaginative spin. This is somewhat of a hot topic because more and more, documentary and fiction film making have merged stylistically over time in film culture. And they have for me as well. If you look at "Breaking Bad" for example, it comes really close to reality, a little like a documentary in a way, but it's fictional so it's like a mixture. So for me as a filmmaker, it's like that as well. I don't make much stylistic distinction at all.

My film American Dirge—which is about a folk, country musician from Louisiana on a journey of self-discovery through the Southern parts of the US finding inner catharsis—is both fictional and documentary... a so-called fusion film. I really like the idea to mix up the formats. It's finished but I still have to figure out the best way to release it.

AAJ: An interesting thing with jazz is there are often a set of associative images already there in people's minds—the classic album cover styles, the black and white photographs, the smoky club settings. Does any of that seep in when you're addressing jazz as a subject?

JS: I think everyone is consuming culture and we're all influenced by pictures and images but that's something that might bring you to some other places as well.You have to put it through your own filter and make it your own. Going back to when jazz was born, there's always been some kind of imagery connected to the jazz scene. Actually with this film, I'm trying to get away from that a little bit by using a new approach to visualize things. The idea came to me to make the film feel more like witnessing John's inner thought process throughout and not just have him answer questions, you know? Different approaches. In a way it's like John himself and his music. It's a different music than what jazz musicians have been playing for the last 60 years so I'm also forced to improve it visually.

AAJ: At what stage are you in the production of Inside Scofield?

JS: It is in the beginning of the post-production phase. Nothing is edited so far. I'm depending on the [Kickstarter] campaign to get the necessities to actually finish work on this. It's 50 hours of footage that has to be edited and post-produced and I'd like to make a lot of animations as well. Then after we have the final version there's music rights to pay. So there's a whole list of upcoming costs to pay before I can release it. I know it's not a great time for all this but I actually think that there's a necessity to do it now. I really believe in the power of the crisis, if you know what I mean. Times are really tough and unforeseeable right now but there's also a great chance of making a good contribution to culture. I'm really motivated to bring this to the table and make it happen. We've been working to make this campaign happen for half a year now and it's overdue. I mean the pandemic came along and it's so tragic, what can we do but laugh about it?—Just do it!

I think it's going to be a really good film. Just by watching the material I shot I know it's going to be something special, with a different approach to making a documentary about jazz. I'm hoping that it will be a great submission to some major film festivals when they start happening again—and I think the chances of that are pretty good actually.

AAJ: Where can people contribute to the Kickstarter campaign for Inside Scofield?

JS: The Kickstarter campaign is here.

AAJ: Well, best of luck with the campaign and looking forward to seeing the film.

Photo courtesy of the John Scofield website.

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