A raft on a river replaces the open highway in Flood Tide, a verite-style road film that incorporates a fictional narrative alongside a real-life flotilla excursion. During the summer of 2008, the artist Swoon and a band of eccentric craftsmen sailed seven sculpture vessels, elaborately constructed out of garbage, down the Hudson River; the project was called The Swimming Cities of the Switchback Sea. The film was shot in Troy, New York, while director Todd Chandler was living and filming on the boats—encasing expensive equipment in waterproof sleeves and scouting scenes 20 miles down the river. Chandler, also the film’s narrator, is a member of the bands Dark Dark Dark and Fall Harbor, who star in the film and score the soundtrack. Flood Tide opens at the San Jose Biennial this fall; tonight, Rooftop Films will screen Flood Tide: Remixed, 50 minutes of footage not included in the full-length feature, set to a live soundtrack by Dark Dark Dark, at Socrates Sculpture Park in Long Island City. Recently, I spoke with Chandler about his “weird, lyrical and meandering art film.”
The L: Tell me about Flood Tide.
Todd Chandler: Flood Tide is a film about four musicians who craft extraordinary boats out of whatever junk they can find and set out for open water.
The L: Did you have a script?
TC: There wasn’t a script. We would improvise a scene and shoot it like a documentary. None of the people in the film are actors. Everyone’s a performer so everyone felt very comfortable being on camera. But I wasn’t trying to get naturalistic actor performances out of them. Just be yourself. That might come across as totally awkward [and] as bad acting, but [when] people are being themselves in this way, I think it is lovely even though it’s awkward [and] strange. I didn’t want [the film] just to be a dream world.
The L:And in portraying that dream world, how do you balance what might come across as cliché versus something that’s contemplative?
TC: Part of it is being really careful about not romanticizing the boats, the experience of being on the river, and the collapse that’s going on in the towns along the river. In many ways some of the voiceover narration gives it a little bit more context; that’s my character’s role. It’s not just this group of starry-eyed kids who are setting out on this mission to nowhere. For example, General Electric has been dumping PCBs into the Hudson River for generations. The cancer rates are really high in some towns along the Hudson, north of Troy. I wanted that to be another through-line of the film.
The L: What was the role of the Swimming Cities project in the film? And what was it like being a part of that experience?
TC: Flood Tide was shot as it was being built and during the journey down river. The film is not a documentary, but it is a document of the Swimming Cities.
Being part of the project (as a musician) and trying to shoot a film was challenging at times. There were 7 boats and over 30 people. We didn’t have any control—we couldn’t just say, “Hey, can you turn these boats around and go back about a hundred yards? We really need to get another take of that shot.” We were working with our friends and generally they were excited about participating in the film and let us stick a camera in their faces as they were building, eating, sleeping… swimming.
The L: How did you connect the Swimming Cities project to the possibility of making a film?
TC: The rafts contain so many stories. Both in terms of the incredible community of artists behind them and the stories that people project onto the rafts themselves. The rafts are so visually evocative. In certain light, if you glance out of the corner of your eye you might think you’re seeing a kind of traveling circus, a floating city, or a post-flood caravan. Rather than try to tell some kind of authoritative story, I wanted to add more stories to the mix.
The L: What do you think makes Flood Tide unique as a road film?
TC: You mean besides it being shot aboard a fleet of boats built from trash on a real journey down a river? I think Flood Tide is part road movie, part cinema verité, part fairy tale and part environmental essay. Cinematographer Ava Berkofsky has an eye for poetic detail and finding the magic in everyday moments. At each step along the voyage she shot portraits of the towns, the boats and the river—those details are what bring the film to life and make the journey a very tactile one.