How AI Persuaded Brian Eno to Participate in Gary Hustwit’s Documentary About His Life

The life and accomplishments of Brian Eno are prodigious enough to fill several films, but until hearing the pitch for “Eno,” the composer, producer, self-professed “non-musician” and visual artist associated with groups including Roxy Music and U2 was resistant to be the focus of even one. “I usually can’t stand docu-bios of artists because they are so hagiographic,” Eno says.

Rather than charting a chronological path through Eno’s career, documentarian Gary Hustwit proposed using generative artificial intelligence to create a film that would literally be different for every audience that screened it. “The use of randomness to pattern the layout of the film seemed likely to override any hagiographic impulses,” Eno says.

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Hustwit and Eno had collaborated before; Eno scored the filmmaker’s 2018 documentary “Rams,” about German industrial designer Dieter Rams. By the time he turned his attention to “Eno,” however, Hustwit had grown restless with the traditional creative process — especially at the exhibition stage. “I was basically getting bored of showing films, because they’re the same every time you show them,” Hustwit says. “My background is, before films, in the music industry. I just was dreaming of a way for film to be more performative, where even if you’re playing the same song every night in a band, you can change it so it’s always a little bit different.”

Unsurprisingly, Eno had been long familiar with generative AI; “It’s been something that is totally organic to his process,” says the filmmaker. Eno’s 2017 album “Reflection” was accompanied by an iOS app allowing users to experience generative music. “The app showcased my interest in creating immersive and interactive musical experiences that changed in time,” Eno explains.

Capturing Eno’s achievements was always going to be a moving target, because his creative exploration was always as philosophical as it was performative. “The kind of music I wanted to hear came out of thinking about the kind of world I wanted to be in,” Eno says. “Music is a way of discovering answers to the question, ‘What kind of world do I want—or not want—to live in?’” Even so, he says there were some phases of his life that he thought had been visited enough not to dwell too heavily upon in Hustwit’s film.

“I don’t want to be remembered primarily as a 25-year-old in makeup when I feel there are other parts of my life just as worthy of attention,” Eno says, referring to his glam rock days.

Armed with interviews with his contemporaries (among them Laurie Anderson and David Byrne) as well as hundreds of hours of video from Eno’s own archive, Hustwit assembled a “modular” film which shuffles unpredictably between time periods and mediums while offer- ing a composite portrait of his subject. “It took me a while to come to grips with the fact that you could watch the whole film about Brian and not hear him talk in depth about ambient music or Roxy or any of these things,” he says. “[But] I just thought this was an interesting way to present a ton of information about one person.”

Though one of the core tenets of his approach is actively surrendering to the process of creat- ing, Eno himself indicates that the documentary shouldn’t be mistaken as a sign that he’s slowing his output. “Working on making art is still where much of my thinking originates and is tried out.” In fact, he hopes that “Eno” inspires artists.

“I really don’t like being ‘mythic,’ ” says Eno. “I’d be much happier if people seeing or hearing my work thought, ‘I could do that!’ ”

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