Alison Bagnall (Funny Bunny) Talks Adam Bhala Lough’s Hot Sugar’s Cold World

A documentary about a music producer with some Willy Wonka magic casts a spell over a filmmaker with experience of supernatural recordings.

Nick Koenig, I think I have something you might be interested in: an honest-to-goodness recording of a ghost. Maybe two ghosts.

You see, I recently met a film student at the Citizen Jane Film Festival who unintentionally recorded some ghosts’ voices on her iPhone while filming in a decommissioned prison in Missouri. She couldn’t hear the ghosts while she was in the prison; she only heard them when she got home and played back the recording! The student emailed me this recording after the festival and I was like, “What the hell, it’s true – ghosts are real!” Subsequently obsessed with ghosts and trawling the Internet, I came across a factoid that when you see your cat staring fixedly at some random point, they’re actually staring at a ghost in the room you can’t see.

Music producer Koenig – the subject of Hot Sugar’s Cold World – wears a perpetual stare like that. He has the “kitty ghost stare.”

Adam Bhala Lough, can I just tell you, I really liked your movie. And I watch so few movies anymore because there are so few that blow my skirt up, though I used to eat three movies for dinner. This film was so fun and so interesting, I loved it. Did you choose the palate of the film – that nice desaturated pastel palate – from the Ty beanie baby chameleon that Nick strokes for a full minute toward the end? (That was my filmmaker guess.) And did you come up with all that imagery that crystallizes the essence of Life Spent Online? It felt to me like the definitive portrait of contemporary life as we know it – or don’t know it, because we’re on our computers. You captured with deft brushstrokes what it is like to inhabit our Internet-soaked world.

Nick Koenig (aka Hot Sugar) is a Willy Wonka of music, gathering found sounds like Wonka gathers ingredients for a wondrous new chocolate bar. He also has a bit of a devilish, slightly criminal streak. Just like Wonka was willing to blow up a little girl into a giant blueberry or send a spoiled German fatty down a tight chute, Nick is ready to break into an elementary school gymnasium at night to record illegal fireworks that he bought off nefarious characters from Craigslist in a dark parking lot. He lies to funeral parlor directors to try to get a recording of the sound of a silent room containing a dead body. He’ll stop at nothing to get a sound that is poetic to him. Koenig then takes these found sounds and recordings of unusual places (catacombs under the streets of Paris, desert caves) and samples them into his own songs. The process is brilliant and magical. After watching him for 85 minutes, I wanted to just follow him around like a puppy dog, be his acolyte, his Oompa-Loompa. Koenig is German for king. This guy feels like royalty. He wears women’s clothes as effortlessly as men’s. He speaks perfect French. Can I say he has a cute butt? (Is that weird?)

The older I get, the more I am trying to get back to some childlike state. Of wonder, of intense joy. Nick Koenig exists in that state of wonder and inquisitive, hungry exploration. He seems to find exquisite joy (and pain) in recording sounds that the average person ignores. What he’s most interested in capturing, we don’t even hear. He is a soldier fighting a war against a “visual and human-centric” world. He challenges our world which denigrates the aural. Nick asks, “Why, when I was a child, did I know how to draw a rhino but I didn’t know what a rhino sounded like?” “Why do we assign value to human sounds over all other kinds of sounds?”

Koenig says early in Hot Sugar’s Cold World that actual instruments should be relegated to being a novelty. This made me think that he must be unable to play them. But then, after all the MIDI and keystrokes, he suddenly picks up an electric guitar (improvising over a found sound beat track he had laid down) and it turns out he is a superb musician. The music made me catch my breath. We later see him at a real piano, alone, in the lonely corner of a European airport, playing music that left me with the sweetest ache.

You made such a lovely film, Adam. (Didn’t we speak on the phone once, like, 15 years ago? Did you call me as a reference for an editor?!) Well anyway, your movie had me in its spell. I’m going to knock an old bone against a skull now. (See the movie.) I’m going to go to a party and not talk to anyone and feel just fine. (See the movie.) I’m going to make mischief. Because life is short and Nick Koenig is a king. And Nick, if you ever need a recorded sound of a ghost talking, get in touch.

Alison Bagnall is the writer/director of New York Times Critics’ Pick The Dish & the Spoon, starring Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander (from the band Years & Years), which premiered at SXSW in 2012. She returned to SXSW this year with Funny Bunny, starring Alexander, Kentucker Audley (Christmas, Again) and Joslyn Jensen (Without). Her first feature as co-writer, Buffalo 66, is still an indie favorite.