Jim Brunzell and Richard Gill Q&A

November 11, 2019
Jim Brunzell and Richard Gill kick off the 20th year of legendary Minneapolis music-film festival Sound Unseen.

“The running joke Jim and I have is that if we ran the festival completely based on our tastes it would be all punk and metal films. But we make sure we have a diverse lineup that appeals to a wide range of people.”

Congratulations on your 20th year in programming with Sound Unseen. What is it about the Twin Cities that makes it so open to supporting it?

Jim Brunzell: We have a dedicated fan base here and folks who have been supporting Sound Unseen since the beginning. I see people every year who have been attending since 1999.

One of the many unique things about Sound Unseen is the year-round programming, including pop-up events and special screenings. Why has it been important to you to keep things active for more than just the festival window? 

JB: We wanted to do this so we could bring films in that would otherwise go unseen in the Twin Cities or films that were not available for us to screen during our festival. We love working with Trylon Cinema and Bryant Lake Bowl to bring specialty programming to the Twin Cities year-round.

Is Sound Unseen a volunteer-run organization? 

Richard Gill: Sound Unseen is 100 percent volunteer run. We are an LLC and have a fiscal sponsorship through FilmNorth. There is a group of four of us (myself, Jim, Kat Swenson and Cody Raisch) who work on it year-round and a handful of people who help out during the festival.

How do you go about curating the list of films for a festival? Are there are a handful of you who duke it out to make the final decisions? 

JB: I’ve been living in Austin, TX, for almost six years and SXSW is in my backyard. SXSW has some great music films that premiere there and it typically works out that many of them premiere at Sound Unseen either as a monthly or during the festival. I also go to Sundance, Rotterdam, Berlin, Tribeca, Frameline, and other festivals each year, so I’m always on the lookout for films in hopes of bringing them to town. Rich is also great at researching films that premiere at various festivals and we usually have a long list of films we want to screen or at least consider. We also receive submissions through Film Freeway and we have to go through hundreds of films to consider including in the festival, too. We do find some surprises and films through blind submissions, too, where filmmakers, producers, and distributors will email or call us and pitch films to screen. So it is a lot of work, a lot of watching and researching films, but it’s only about 25-30 percent of the work to put the festival together.

Is it tempting to choose films that mostly relate to one’s personal taste? How do you keep things diverse?

RG: The running joke that Jim and I have is that if we ran the festival completely based on our tastes it would be all punk and metal films. It’s hard when you’re choosing films because we want to make sure we have a diverse lineup that appeals to a wide range of people but we’re also at the mercy of what films are available.

Is there a music community in the Twin Cities that shows up in substantial numbers for films?

JB: Definitely the jazz community. Jazz films or films about classic rock artists/groups seem to bring in an audience. As Rich said, we both really like punk music and there is a great punk/hard rock community in the Twin Cities, too.

Has it happened where someone was inspired by a Sound Unseen film who later made a film that gets shown during Sound Unseen? 

JB: We always support alumni and hope they continue to make more music films to show at Sound Unseen in the future. Five years ago we showed Scott Crawford’s “Salad Days” on the DC punk scene in the mid-80s and this year we’re closing the festival with Crawford’s latest film, “Boy Howdy: The Story of Creem Magazine,” and Crawford is attending. He told me a few days ago he has never been to the Twin Cities and is excited to attend.

This seems to be a golden time for music films, at least as evidenced by the amount of titles introduced by such platforms as Netflix and Amazon. Is that a good thing for Sound Unseen? Are you finding that there’s more good material available than, say, 10 years ago?

RG: It’s good and bad. It’s good because there’s a platform for filmmakers to get their stuff seen that wasn’t available to them before. It gets frustrating for us when there’s a film we want to screen and have people experience in a theater but the turnaround is so quick on some of them showing up on streaming services that by the time we have a date available it’s already on Amazon or Hulu or Netflix.

What’s one title from this year’s festival that you think people will be talking about 20 years from now?

RG: This year for me it’s the David Bazan film. I was never a big Pedro The Lion fan or listened to much of his solo work, but “Strange Negotiations” is such a fascinating look at him, his career, faith, and life, that I just fell in love with him as an artist.

JB: I would say “All I Can Say,” a documentary shot by Blind Melon lead singer Shannon Hoon before he passed away in 2005. And having someone as legendary as John Doe attending the festival in support of the 1986 documentary, “X: The Unheard Music,” is sure to be memorable, too.