Joseph Clement’s Integral Man was a hit at this year’s Hot Docs Festival. The documentary, filmed over several years, was a passion project for Clement who ended up spending a lot of time with James “Jim” Stewart, the owner of Integral House in Toronto, up until his death in 2014. Not so much a biography of Jim, but more a piece of moving art, Integral Man is a look at how one man lived his life passionately and with no regrets.
Jim Stewart was the most published mathematician after Euclid and his calculus textbooks quickly became a staple in schools across the world. A concert level violinist, Jim wanted to create a space that would allow for some of the best musical performances. After considering Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, Jim hired Shim-Sutcliffe Architects to build his dream home – Integral House, which is now one of the most renowned pieces of architecture in North America.
I spoke to Clement, who graduated from the University of Guelph with a Bachelor in Landscape Architecture, about the film, how Jim impacted him, Jim’s legacy, and some of his cinematic inspirations (he credits Stanley Kubrick as a huge influence). I also embarrassed myself by tripping over Measha Brueggergosman’s last name. (For the record, I know how to pronounce it in my head, but there are just so many syllables that it’s basically a tongue twister.)
Integral Man is an absolutely beautiful film. One thing that I loved was not only was the House the setting of the film, but it also became a character in the documentary as well. Was that your original intention for the film? Did you start off wanting the film to be more about Jim, but then it ended up being more of a balance about both?
It’s really interesting. It’s been five years that went into making this film, so there’s been a lot of time spent on it. But very quickly it became obvious that Jim and the House were inextricably linked – there was no Integral House without Jim and there was no Jim without Integral House. So, within the first few months of just interviewing Jim it became clear that it was going to be a film about Integral House as character, but also about Jim and how the two were interrelated.
What was really important to be was that it wasn’t just a biography on Jim Stewart, which was totally not the point. And it wasn’t also going to be an architecture documentary with some points about Jim. The intent was really to invoke a sensibility of both Jim and the House and that kind of interconnected relationship.
Jim was, and you briefly alluded to this at the end of the film, a big LGBT activist. It’s something I thought about how it was such an important part of who he was, but it wasn’t really otherwise discussed in the film. And it makes sense now that I think about it, because the film really is more about Jim’s relationship with the House and not just about Jim.
Yeah. Some people were critical as and asked why wasn’t there more about Jim’s activism? Or why wasn’t there more about his math career? Well, there were certain elements that kind of brought the House together. It was Jim’s writing about calculus that was able to provide the funds that were able to support his passion of music, which was the reason for constructing the House. So the House got a lot of attention. And then the musical side got more attention. And then the math side, in kind of a decreasing order because it was in that sort of way that the House came to be built.
I mean, if I were to do a biography on Jim, I clearly would have put way more about not just the House. We actually had a version of the film where we included a lot more about Jim and his gay rights activism, but then the film seemed fragmented. It didn’t feel like a cohesive piece about the House and him. You know what I mean?
So it was actually a very conscious choice to have these steps of Jim’s life shown. And Jim was aware of this. Before he passed away he saw a version of the film and he actually thought it was a thoughtful way of doing it.
I really liked how there’s one point in the film where someone says that movement is built into the how you understand the House. You can kind of get a sense of that in the way you shot the film with all of these long, continuous shots. Because of that, even if someone never steps foot in the House, they can imagine that feeling and what it’d might be like to be in that space. How did you feel when you first stepped into the House?
It took four years of shooting in the House until I stopped noticing things. I was constantly seeing things and discovering things and moments. The way the light would move and how it would highlight something. The fact that the integral symbol in integrated all over the place in the House and you don’t really even notice it. But it’s there, everywhere.
So when I first stepped into the House there was this feeling of “Oh my God!” You know, my background is in Landscape Architecture and I’m a designer and an artist, so I really have an eye for detail. I was seeing all of these things and details and it was really just an awe-inspiring piece of architecture. One thing I noticed quite quickly was that there are no doors in the Integral House. You can go from the fifth floor all the way down to the pool level without encountering a single door. So there’s this ability to have this continuous, uninterrupted flow. And that was what inspired this film.
And as a filmmaker, there were some films that inspired movement such as Russian Ark, which is an entire feature-length film shot in the Hermitage in one take. The camera moves in and out of the entire building in one shot. The Shining was also a huge influence in the way that Stanley Kubrick shot that film. Those two films were very powerful influences on me and in the way those were shot.
Oh, and also the work of Mark Lewis, who is a Canadian artist, and who works with camera movement and film. I saw his work at Daniel Faria Gallery in Toronto and it just blew my mind. Every opening of his I would go to and watch his stuff. So all those things really built into the idea of movement through the space of the House. It really is an incredibly powerful space and I really wanted to convey that feeling when I first arrived at Integral House.
In the film we see how the light hits Integral House at all of these different angles. How did you choose which shots you wanted to use?
All of the architecture in the film was shot on 35mm. So we’d set up shoots during all four seasons because every single day the light is different. Just by being in the House for so many years, we started to understand how the light moves through the space. Then we began to really pay attention. I spent a lot of time in the House – I’d just watch and observe. I would just stay in the House for days at a time and just walk around.
Working with my DP, Jackson Parrell, we would go and say let’s frame this moment or let’s frame that moment and then figure out the composition like a photographer might compose a still. Once we composed the shot, then we would bring in the cameras. It was an incredibly rigorous process.
There’s one moment in the film where you are taking a phone call where you seem to be learning about Jim’s sickness. How emotional was that and how emotional was it to be at Jim’s own wake that he himself was hosting? Which, by the way, I thought was kind of funny, but also very Jim.
You know, the thing about Jim was that he was an atheist and a scientist. Death, for him, was just a matter of fact. It wasn’t this religious thing. It was, “This is going to happen. I’m going to die and c’est la vie.” So he was planning his wake and then it was a kind of realization like, “Wait a minute! All these amazing musicians are going to be here and I’m not going to be here to see it? No – I’m attending my own wake.” Imagine your favourite musician was going to be at your wake and you weren’t going to be there to see it!
About a year before, a very, very close friend of mine died just 10 days before her 29th birthday after a year and a half long battle with cancer. So I had just gone through watching somebody go through that. It was really an amazing experience, in a way, to see somebody like Jim, who was so pragmatic, understand…
OH MY GOD! Somebody’s about to drive into my car.
OH MY GOD!
They just missed me by inches! Anyways, I guess that’s why we have cameras now to catch this stuff for people to see…
Yeah, so, it was kind through watching Jim go through it and being pragmatic that it became less emotional, for me, as a sad sort of thing, as it was an amazing experience to watch somebody who was so understanding and appreciative of life. To see someone go into it so boldly and understand what they were confronting was, in a way, very inspirational and not just a sad, depressing situation.
You definitely capture that in the film. When Measha Bruggergosman finishes performing at the wake you see her smiling, but she’s also tearing up. That particular moment was very powerful to me because it kind of represents Jim’s final moments with the House and everything that he every stood for – all his accomplishments, and his passions. I felt like I knew exactly who Jim was through watching the film.
I’m glad you felt so connected to it.
Jim wasn’t able to build the house without writing all those calculus textbooks, and we can get into some really boring mathematics and talk about Euclid’s algorithm, but what are your thoughts on what makes mathematicians innately good musicians?
I talked to Jim about it. I think to be a successful mathematician, you think in this sort of way about the world and you see things in a different way than a person who might not be as deeply involved in the practice of mathematics. We had so many conversations about this and I don’t think there’s any real, clear answer other than there are these relationships in the brain, and how our brain operates. And some minds can just operate in other realms. Music is all broken down into math if you really look at it. I guess it’s not really a clear answer.
That’s okay. I guess there’s not really supposed to be one, but it’s just something that always interested me. Because Einstein was also a really great musician and he was obviously a great mathematician, just like Jim, so I was just curious to see what you thought.
These people are all just brilliant individuals. They seem to all be polymaths in a way. They all have three or four things that they’re really good at.
As you spent more time with Jim, did you pick up any of his ways of thinking or ways of rationalizing things? Did any of it translate into the film somehow?
No, not really. He was just such a pragmatic, logical person about everything. He was very concise about everything, which is really interesting because the House is anything but concise. It’s really eloquent in its thoughtfulness. It’s not really over the top, but it’s just very exuberant in its design.
There was something about the score that was just very calming and added to the entire ambiance of the film.
We were deeply involved in the back and forth with the composers (Dan Goldman and Shaun Brodie) who are in Los Angeles. I’ve actually worked with them before on several other things and know them personally quite well. So we have a really good knowledge of each other in terms of who each other are as artists, which is a great starting point. They were incredible to work with. They actually recorded the sounds of Integral House – the silences and the reverberations – and used it as a basis for the entire score.
The score sounds so simple, but obviously so much thought was put into it.
It’s a really incredible thing that happens when all of these details come together on a film. All of these subtleties we don’t notice. And I think that’s just like a lot of things in life – the subtleties make the difference. It’s like cooking. Tomatoes are just tomatoes, but with a little salt they turn into something completely different. A very few grains of salt make a very big difference. It’s the things we don’t quite see that can have the biggest impact.
At the beginning of the film, you shoot a scene that’s completely silent, but it’s of Jim talking very animatedly. Can you tell us what he was talking about and why you chose to use silence in that moment?
That was actually a momentous moment. Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, the architects of Integral House, and the House itself had received the Governor General Medal for excellence in architecture. Instead of them receiving the award, they asked Jim to come to Ottawa and be a part of the event. Jim would be the one who would speak about Integral House.
The idea with using that scene silent was more so to show the relationship between Jim, Howard, and Brigitte and this closeness between them. We thought it was a nice way to show this relationship and that it wasn’t just a client-architect relationship, but that there was actually a deeper bond there.
We also used it as a really subtle way of introducing everybody, because there are no titles in the film at all. It drove some people nuts because they were like, “You got the Director of of the Museum of Modern Art saying what an important house it is!” But it was never about who’s saying it. It’s about what they talk about – the movement of the House, and how the House makes you feel. It doesn’t matter if it’s Glenn Lowry saying it to you because it’s a matter of fact thing – it’s not a thing that needs qualification.
Have you been back to the House since it sold to it’s new owners?
When the film premiered at Hot Docs, we contacted the new owners and asked if it would be possible to have a wine-and-cheese event at Integral House and he was more than happy to do it. He came to the screening and was completely blown away by the film. He came out to the bar with us afterwards and told us that he felt so moved and how appreciates the House even more. He said his intention was to keep the House exactly as it was designed, to maintain it, to honour it, and to honour Jim’s legacies and wishes.
I think Jim would be really happy right now.
Yes, I think he would.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed.