Greek filmmaker/ musician Costa Botes talks about New Zealand Blues scene, Nepal, Muddy Waters, and his films

"Trying to do anything good inevitably means it is difficult. If something is easy, then inevitably someone else has already done it."

Costa Botes: Lone Pine Blues

Costa (Κώστας) was born in Turkey to Greek parents, 1958. Costa Botes grew up in New Zealand. An early love of cinema led to experiments with filmmaking at high school, and then to studying film at Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch.
After graduating, Botes made several short films - including ambitious parallel worlds piece The Godel Sentence - before becoming a full time filmmaker in 1985. In between freelance assignments, he has continues to write and direct original work for film and television.
In January 2010 Botes' documentary Candyman premiered to a standing ovation after being selected for both indie film festival Slamdance, and Canadian fest Hot Docs. The film, which chronicles the life of American jelly bean pioneer David Klein, later played at the Wellington Film Festival.
Botes has concentrated on documentary work since then, directing Struggle No More (2006), about New Zealand's greatest unknown band, the music film about the blues festival in Kathmandu, and the biography documentary Yes That's Me (2008), about Dave Murphy, a New Zealand blues musician.
Botes is best known in New Zealand for Forgotten Silver (1995), a documentary he co-wrote and co-directed with Peter Jackson. About a fictional pioneer of the film industry, Forgotten Silver promoted considerable discussion and was proclaimed by Guinness World Records as the greatest film hoax in history.


Interview by Michael Limnios

 

Costa, when was your first desire to become involved in the music & what does the blues mean to you?
I first became aware of enjoying music when I was very young. Maybe at 7? I went to see a Beatles movie double feature (A Hard Day’s Night and Help), and remember feeling so excited I picked up my mother’s mandolin and jumped around shaking my head in front of a mirror. Later my parents forced me to take piano lessons, which I hated, so I rebelled and taught myself guitar instead. In my early teens I caught the blues bug, mainly from English artists like Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones. But through them I quickly discovered many of the great black blues artists – especially Muddy Waters and Howling Wolf. It would take me a very long time to figure out what they were doing, however. I am still learning.
The thing I respond to in blues music is the feel. It’s so simple, yet incredibly expressive. Nothing is ever straight, or exactly on the beat. There’s real excitement and tension in it, and yet it can be tender or incredibly emotional too. I love the guitar as an instrument too, and I think this instrument speaks no more eloquently than it does in the hands of a master blues musician.

 

 

What do you think is the main characteristic of your personality that made you a filmmaker?
I grew up a poor immigrant kid in a foreign culture. I felt displaced. An outsider or observer. I think that gives me great empathy. I found both solace and inspiration in stories – in books, and films – so it was a very natural progression for me to want to be a storyteller myself.

 

Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
Right now. I have come through a crisis of sorts – personally, professionally, and in terms of my health. Everything hit me at once. When that happens you start questioning everything, and you learn what you’re made of. But I don’t really know … “interesting” is a relative term. I often think of that ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times”. I live my life in constant tension. I dread boredom, yet when things get really interesting I often crave a bit of stability and dullness!

 

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?
No single musician. I have listened to lots of people and tried to learn things along the way. I play a bit of guitar every day. I like to improvise, and so I stumble over ideas that sometimes stick. Other times when I am feeling more patient, I work through transcriptions and learn pieces properly. I must admit, that is how I have learned most of the more meaningful or useful techniques in my playing. Building your repertoire, and playing with other musicians is the best way to learn. I miss playing in a band, but I am just too busy to make that kind of commitment.

 

What is your “secret” DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
My secret dream is to never have to work again and retire to a warm tropical island with my beautiful partner and collection of vintage guitars. I do have a beautiful partner, and some very nice instruments, albeit not vintage, so I am pretty happy already.

 

Are you Greek? Do you have a message for the Greek blues fans?
Yes, I’m 100% Greek, although I have grown up 95% outside the Greek culture. To blues fans in Greece, I would say, it’s okay to be in a minority. The Bouzouki rules in Greece, but that does not mean blues is not cool too. It has become a universal language.

 

Are there any memories of Himalaya Blues Festival which you’d like to share with us?
Well, they are all in the movie. I loved Nepal. It was a very exciting, colorful, and strange place for me. Listening to blues artists from all around the world performing in such a setting was very special.

 

Tell me a few things about the story of “Kathmandu Blues” how did this idea come about?
Mike Garner is a veteran blues singer here in New Zealand. He called me up and said his band had been invited to perform at the Himalayan Blues Festival, and asked if I’d be interested in making some kind of film about the experience. I figured I could do it for very little money, almost as a kind of glorified home movie, and that’s what I did. What attracted me was the sheer improbability of it – blues music in Kathmandu? It seemed silly. Yet, as I found, many people love the music there as much as anywhere.

 

Which memory from “Kathmandu Blues” makes you smile?
One legged US blues artist, Austin “Walkin’ Cane”. He was interrupted on stage by a guy who leaped out of the audience to offer him a gigantic marijuana cigarette. Austin did not bat an eye. He stopped playing, took a great big puff, thanked the dude, then resumed his song! The audience loved it, and I actually captured the whole thing on tape.

 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from your film “Struggle No More”?
Probably going away with the band to a primitive little shack on a mountain where they went to write songs. I remember it was freezing, and very dark. And every night giant trains would thunder past and the shack would almost fall down. I felt like I was sleeping in a sharecropper’s house in Mississippi. Very appropriate for a blues band I suppose.

 

How do you describe the Windy City Strugglers philosophy for the music and life?
Andrew Delahunty, harmonica and mandolin layer with the band put it very well – “music is too important to take seriously”.

 

 

What characterize the life of Nigel Gavin?
Nigel is dedicated to music. He’s constantly composing or performing, either solo, or with one of the many collaborative groups he works with. He does a lot of teaching too.

 

Tell me a few things about your meet & work with Dave Murphy.
Dave is the humblest, most down to earth person. He really knows his blues. He has traveled to the Mississippi Delta, and met and played with musicians there. I came into his orbit thanks to a mutual friend, Carol Bean, whose idea it was to get Dave into a studio and record an album. It seemed like a good opportunity to make a quick film too. The whole project only took a week from start to finish. Very fast for a movie.

 

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory of Dave Murphy?
The faces Dave makes when he plays and sings are quite remarkable. He performs with a lot of emotional and physical energy.

 

Why did you think that Blues continues to generate such a devoted following?
It’s the most moving music there is – in both senses of the word; the blues tugs at your heart, but it also makes you want to move your hips and your feet too. It’s music that’s very sexy, sad, and ecstatic, sometimes all at the same time.

 

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
Muddy Waters. He seems like he would have been a nice guy, but an absolutely killer musician. So intense, a volcano. He had the respect of a long list of incredible players who stuck with him a long time.

 

Make an account of the case for the Blues in New Zealand?
For the last 25 years, the blues has been more of an interest for older people here – baby boomers primarily. So the artists and their fans have all aged and gone grey. But that is changing now, as it has around the world, with a new generation of artists appearing who are inspired by traditional blues, and looking to take it in fresh directions. Rap or Hip Hop is the dominant roots based music here, especially amongst Maori and Pacific Island people, but there is a definite upswing in the fortunes of folk and blues performers going on. The young musicians have a lot to learn from our established blues artists. New Zealand has some extremely good performers here. Dave Murphy, Midge Marsden, Hammond Gamble, the Windy City Strugglers, and several others are all world class.

 

Of the entire list of projects you made, what were your favorites? What is the word "seal" of your work?
Of all my films, the most personally satisfying, and I think probably the best, would be Forgotten Silver, Struggle No More, and my latest one, The Last Dogs of Winter.  It’s the combination of personal experiences during production, and the way each film works with an audience. These are the ones that seem to make me, and audiences most happy.
Not sure what you mean by word “seal”. Do you mean, how would I describe my work? Other people have used words like “wry, gentle, eloquent …”, I’d be happy with that.

 

 

What are the secrets to make a good music film/ documentary?
I don’t know. Maybe it depends on who is watching. But I think, always, it is important to have characters that are interesting in some way, that is if the film has a story component, then the main character should take an audience to some point of meaning and hopefully inspiration. If it’s more of a performance piece, then I believe the film maker has to reveal things to an audience about the music while making their own craft as invisible as possible. I hate concert films where the cameras are swooshing all over the place, and the editing is going crazy. That can be exciting, of course, but not if it is imposed. The film maker has to feel the music, and present it honestly and sympathetically. The style should always fit the content. There are some very bad film-makers doing music documentaries. I that kind of show-off approach.

 

What you should keep or forget of the “MUSIC WORLD”? Give one wish for the blues
Music is like any art. IN the end, what matters is emotional connection. Everything else is either fashion or bullshit. I don’t have to wish anything for the blues. It is what it is. The truth, in 12 bars. The blues is the root of all popular music so it’ll be around in some form for a long time to come.
Of all the people you’ve meeting with, who do you admire the most and why?
Oh, hard to pick out one person. Peter Jackson is the one person who has had the biggest impact on my life. But I think I’m heading in a very different direction. Artistically, two people I have never met, but I really would like to, are Jeff Beck and Ry Cooder. I find them both incredibly inspirational in the way they have stayed true to their inspirations, and constantly evolved over many years. They demonstrate that age should be no barrier to innovation and creative growth.

 


If you go back to the past what things you would do better and what things you would avoid to do again?
Ha ha. Cruel question. I have made some big mistakes, yes. But every time, those are the things that taught me the biggest lessons. What have I learned? To be honest – with myself and with other people.
You have been traveling all around the world. What are your conclusions?
The world is a big place, and I have seen far too little of it. But people are the same everywhere.

 

What MOTTO of yours you would like to stay forever?
Trying to do anything good inevitably means it is difficult. If something is easy, then inevitably someone else has already done it.

 


Tell me about the beginning of "Lone Pine". How did you get the idea and how did it start?
I worked on Lord of the Rings for 5 years, shooting most of the ‘behind the scenes’ video. When that was over I decided to keep the company going, specializing in documentaries, but I wanted a different name. The name Lone Pine is significant for two reasons. Firstly, it indicates that I am a one man operation. The stuff I do makes me a bit of a maverick in this industry – not because I want to be lonely, but because I value my creative independence. Secondly, the name relates to a war memorial at Gallipoli where many New Zealanders died during World War 1. If you stand at that graveyard on the Gallipoli peninsula and look west across the ocean, the island of Imbroz where I was born is clearly visible. So, in a sense, this name symbolically unites the place where I came from and the two cultures I grew up in.


Costa Botes & Lone Pine Films' Website

 

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