I met the photographer Julius Shulman by chance in the spring of 1999. I will never forget the day I walked into his studio; it was like walking into a glass-walled treasure vault filled with photos, books, magazines, sculptures and an 89-year-old (at the time) wizard of sorts that, unbeknownst to me, would open an unknown portal to Los Angeles, forever altering the course of my life.
The initial inspiration for the film Visual Acoustics occurred sometime in 2001, out of the desire of wanting to see the photography, Julius, and the larger story of modern architecture on the big screen in an informative yet entertaining feature-length documentary. The photos speak for themselves; they are cinematic works of art quite deserving of large screen real estate. So, too, was the story of Julius, along with the stories of the many architects and designers that Julius has worked with since 1936. Figures like Richard Neutra, Rudolf Schindler, Frank Lloyd Wright, John Lautner, and Pierre Koenig; these individuals were deep thinkers whose primary intention, in my opinion, was to not only foster greater architecture but also the evolution of humanity.
The overall question for the film was this: how does one create a compelling documentary whose leading man is 94 (at the time) and whose supporting actors are still photographs of even stiller buildings? The answer I came up with was that the film must always stay ahead of the viewer through the interweaving of three different story strands; verité (which I called "Uncle Julius"), the larger story of Modernism (done through both Julius and third party interviews), and finally, expressionistic sequences of various photos, sites, or themes which I collectively refer to as "visual symphonies." By taking this approach, I feel I was able to unmask the linear aspect of the story by providing needed pauses and twists, giving the viewer more of a ride through the material.
I ended up with over 165 hours comprised of events in Julius' life and our interviews. In addition to that, we also had nearly 5 hours of archival footage and animations that we created for the film.
I have been asked what it was like to introduce a camera into my relationship with Julius. It was actually quite easy, as Julius is equally comfortable in front of a camera as he is behind. One of the major obstacles, however, was that Julius, while in front of a camera, is unable to let go of his hold from behind. All of us received countless scoldings by him, harsh enough to induce tears to an uninitiated crew member who didn't see it coming. Looking back, those scoldings were deeper than just that; they were doses of wisdom masked in a bullet. By learning to "dodge the bullets" I have been able to find the kernel of wisdom inside each and every assault. I was tested over the years by a true master; not only a master photographer but also a master at the art of life. Having the opportunity to "study" with such a master has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.
Julius saw the film as a vehicle capable of traveling the world, extolling the virtues of the Modernist approach to not only architecture, but life as well. Julius saw the film seven times and on the seventh, when I asked him, "Aren't you tired of it yet?" his reply was " Never!" Some would interpret this as conceited, as the film is seemingly about him. I don't think this is the case. I think what he is commenting on are the overall messages of the entire film. These are messages of how life can be lived to its fullest through planning, simplicity, connection and spirit.
Visual Acoustics (Arthouse Films) opens theatrically in New York on October 9 with a national release to follow.