There are many challenges to making documentary films, but the hardest one has to be when your subject matter tragically dies midway through shooting. In the case of Stephen Walker’s new documentary Young@Heart, death added another layer to his movie as he followed the Young@Heart Chorus of Northampton, Mass., a musical group comprised of men and women in their 70s or older, much older, as they create their own unique take on rock and punk classics as chosen by Bob Cilman, who has been the director of the group for 25 years.
It’s a really wonderful film that has won audiences over at the L.A. Film Festival and at Sundance with its joyous look at life and how music gives these older people a reason to live longer as well as with how they deal with the tragic deaths of fellow members. There also must be more than a little irony with the movie opening just a few days after the Rolling Stones concert film, Shine a Light.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with Stephen Walker and musical director Bob Cilman to talk about making the movie. The tension between the two of them was fairly palpable and prevalent as Walker dominated the conversation, answering the burning question we’ve often had about the relationship between documentary filmmaker and subject matter. Walker joined us after a few minutes of talking with Cilman.
ComingSoon.net: I read that another documentary was done about the choir that you weren’t happy about, so how did Stephen and Sally approach you about doing their movie?
Bob Cilman: We were in London performing a show that we called “Road to Nowhere” and they came to see the show. He was convinced by his wife to come see it–he wasn’t thrilled about the idea about seeing a group of older people performing rock and roll. That wasn’t really interesting to him, but she convinced him that it might be a good thing to see because they were interested in doing a film about aging. They came to it, and like a lot of people they found a lot more in it than they thought they were going to find when they saw it. They approached Diane, who I work with, the night of the premiere and asked if we could get together and just have a chat about films. At the time, we had about nine or ten of those requests and for some reason the only ones we met with were Steve and Sally. I wasn’t that interested, you know, for all the reasons you may have read. One is that we had done one before, and in that case, it was really frustrating because funding became a real issue for the people. We wound up feeling bad and guilty about things that really had nothing to do with us, and its production values weren’t that high. I mean now I’m glad it’s there because it’s a great document for me to see people who are no longer here, who went on this really interesting trip, but it’s not something I would want people to see as a real document of how we sound. It was problematic that way, and then the Belgians did a film that was just a half-hour little thing, and they understood really early on that they didn’t have the ability to get the music right, so it wasn’t about the music at all, it was just about two of the people in the chorus. I liked the film a lot.
(At this point, director Stephen Walker walks in and joins the conversation.)
Stephen Walker: It was a nice film actually, I’ve seen that film, it was probably a thirty-minute film? It was a portrait film, really not a music film.
Cilman: Yeah, and so I wasn’t dying to do a film at the time at all, but we talked about music videos and they were interested and they sent me some films that Stephen’s partner Sally made. They weren’t music videos, but they were poetry videos, and they were really good. I liked them a lot, and then Stephen sent a more recent thing he had done about a punk rocker who was conducting?
Walker: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Cilman: Right, right, so the music production value on that was really good. I thought the music sounded really good, so I thought, “Okay, well they can deal with the music, and they’re interested in music videos, so those are a couple of things I’d like to do.” Then we sort of have a give and take about what would happen. I really wanted it to be done in our hometown, just because I didn’t want to go anywhere, ’cause we go away a lot.
Walker: (Iaughs) It’s like Woody Allen and New York.
Cilman: Exactly. I wanted to be home and I wanted it to deal with the rehearsal process, and they were into that idea. They wanted a payoff and the payoff was the concert after working for six weeks. That was the one thing that felt a little strange to me, but I’m glad we did it in retrospect because the concert footage is really pretty good.
CS: Yeah, it’s a really great document of the group.
Cilman: So we said “yes,” and there you go, and we did it? and here he is? so you can talk to him.
CS: Stephen, obviously, the person you worked with came to you and suggested making a movie about this group. Had you seen the other movies and what was your original idea for approaching this group?
Walker: Well, first of all it was my wife (laughs) I’ve gotta be clear cause she’ll kill me! She’s the person I work with and she’s also my producer–Sally George is her name–and as you know, she came back with these two tickets and said, “Let’s go and see this show, this chorus of people singing this rock and roll music.” I wasn’t sure what we were dealing with. Was this kind of a dancing bear territory? I mean it’s very hard to know. I did know they had great reviews and that was one of the things that convinced me to go, but I wasn’t sure what I was going to see. Was it going to be some sort of karaoke? I didn’t know. I went to London and the music struck me as being really exciting. What was great about the music was there was this rock and roll music that I know really well and it has a totally different meaning when these guys sing it. So when eighty seven year old Lenny stands up and sings “Purple Haze,” you’re in a song about dementia really and what it is to lose your mind, or sudden forgetfulness. When you’re in the song “Road to Nowhere,” the Talking Heads song, I mean it’s amazing how that song becomes almost a celebration of life on the journey to death. As I start the movie, you get this incredible moment with Eileen Hall, this 93-year-old who sings The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?,” and it becomes a song in her mouth about life and death. Incredibly powerful stuff to me. We talk about my production values, but the music was great. It was really exciting. These are not cover versions in the classic sense of the word. I thought, “Wow, here is the possibility of a kind of a rock opera about old age.” I mean really difficult territory to deal with–people don’t wanna know about that. This is a kind of taboo area. Let’s talk about sex and death and sickness and loneliness and also the fun things to do with old people, because the movie is fun as well. You’re in this situation where it’s not easy to do that, but to do it through rock and roll, and the rock music that people know and identify with and it’s good, struck me as being a potentially really heady artistic mix.
CS: It sounds like you really liked their music, but did you see a story going into this?
Walker: I very much did. Bob was less interested in story. We knew that we needed a story, because as a filmmaker you’ve gotta have some sort of a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s not the same as a show or the live theater work that these guys do. We had to create a real story here, so we came up with a structure that would work for us and as Bob said would work for him. I mean he was less interested in that, but we knew it was our building block. We had to have it and the building block was this slightly unusual situation, if not unique situation, where they had a relatively short amount of time to put together a bunch of totally new songs. I remember we kept saying to you, “Don’t play them that song yet,” and then of course Bob came up with one really very clever idea which was very, very useful to us, he said, “I’ve got this really interesting idea of bringing back these two former members of the chorus. Both whom have not been well, who have been sick, who were now deemed to be well enough to come back for this one show, and they’re going to sing Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ as a duet.” I do remember thinking, “That is a great extra strand to the narrative.” We also filled in things like the jail concert came up quite early, so we got a narrative, we started to identify characters in the first couple of months. We started to cast it really, a sense of foreground characters like this wonderful Eileen and people like Stan Goldman who sings “I Feel Good,” but never manages to sing it intact, and also not lose a sense of the chorus background. We got all of that, but the one thing that we could never anticipate was the biggest thing that happened, which was that two people died while filming.
CS: Bob, you were talking about wanting him to come to Northhampton and cover the rehearsals, and as a person with a music background myself, I know that getting to the point where you have this amazing show requires a lot of work. Was it uncomfortable having these cameras capturing the rehearsals, especially as you were dealing with problems with certain songs?
Cilman: No, not too much, because we have been around cameras a lot. The only thing that makes me uncomfortable around cameras is what eventually is going to be shown from them, not that they’re going to mess the chorus up, because the chorus, when they go present stuff, there’s a whole period we do every time that we allow cameras in to shoot for fifteen or twenty minutes.
CS: Like the TV promo stuff?
Cilman: Yeah, so this was just a larger extension of that, and I think?
Walker: Quite a lot larger.
Cilman: One of the things that was really successful about this is that it was a very short period of the sort of mugging for the camera thing. I think the chorus fell into the camerawork really naturally. I don’t think there was a real moment where?.
Walker: A little bit in the beginning, but actually, it was a very very intense period of time. Basically, the music videos, which were shot later, took place in a period of about two weeks, but the actual filming of the concert was around seven or eight weeks, something like that I think, a couple of months, but a couple of months of great intensity. We were at every rehearsal, weren’t we? Of course, we were outside.
CS: How big a camera crew did you have while filming it?
Walker: Yeah, a small one. I had essentially two cameras. I had a DP who’s operating one camera, and I was operating the second camera. What we did have was very good sound. It’s again coming back to that discussion that we had with Bob about the music. We felt very strongly that he wanted to have very good sound. We were very lucky because there’s a guy called Dan Richardson who is the chorus’ sound engineer who is a genius at sound. What he did for very little money–because we didn’t have very much–was he came on board with us and did all the sound for us. It was the most brilliant decision you could ever have because what it basically meant was that we could create a huge soundtrack, and what you hear in that theater is a huge soundtrack, it’s amazing. We played it with 8 or 900 people, and it’s still amazing. I mean you go even bigger than that. It’s a massive theatric sound. It gets better the bigger the theater you’re in. In this sense, Bob and I were completely in unison that we really wanted the sound to sound great and exciting, and it does, you know?
CS: Have you and the choir done any live or studio recordings?
Cilman: We have a recording now, a CD, that we really are quite fond of. Most of it’s live, but three of the tracks were recorded in the studio.
CS: I know the group’s kind of a floating and rotating thing with new members joining all the time, so I was curious if you tried to capture songs that were special when performed by certain singers like in the movie.
Cilman: We don’t always and there’s times when we think, “Oh God, I wish we had recorded that.” That happened in the piece we did with Stephen with Joe, who was working on a song that I was really fond of called “Wish You Were Here” by Pink Floyd. It was beautiful and he had just gotten it to the most beautiful stage. Because we had worked on it before Stephen came, it wasn’t really one of the songs we were considering.
Walker: No, we did record it actually, but we recorded it very poorly. You do hear it and it is stunning, but nobody was to know that Joe was going to die, so it was a song that we could come back to, but we actually never did. We do have one incredibly beautiful recording that we did of Joe’s other trademark song, which is U2’s “One,” and the problem with that was that we couldn’t clear it for the movie.
CS: I was going to ask about that, because there are a lot of famous songs in the movie being sung?
Walker: Yeah, a lot by big, big artists.
CS: Was it easier to clear the music since it was the choir’s performance of the songs rather than the original versions?
Walker: Yeah, it is a little bit easier, but it’s not. In fact, when the film was bought by Fox Searchlight last year in order to go into the movies, we were suddenly faced with a horrific… to find the clearance for the theatrical world, it was a nightmare. It took approximately nine to ten months to do that and it cost a fortune to actually clear this music, it really was, and some was not clearable. Obviously everything in the film was cleared, but you know, some of it wasn’t. I’m still trying to clear some for the DVD extras a version of “Walk on the Wild Side” they sing, which is really fantastic. I think we’re very close to getting Lou Reed’s permission on that, but it’s taking me months to get that through.
CS: The music videos we see in the movie were actually done as part of the project?
Walker: Yes, they were directed by Sally George my wife, who’s a director too. Not originally meant to be, but what became very clear very quickly, was that the music videos were going to be very complex to do with a very small team on a very small budget, so what we did was that we decided that the best thing to do was for me to do was to stay in the cutting room. I had 140 hours of material to cut down in a period of weeks to make this movie, and then Sally and I would work on the music videos together before she went out and directed them. She’s such a fantastic director that I just knew she’d do them beautifully and she has done. I’m really proud of the way she’s done them. I think they’re fantastic. I love “I Wanna Be Sedated” particularly in an old people’s home. I think that’s particularly successful and I like the way she’s done “Road to Nowhere” too. Obviously, it wasn’t like she just went out. We talked constantly and we storyboarded them and we worked them out together and all the rest of it. Then we had the interesting bit of actually placing those music videos in the film because you can be very arbitrary where they go, and if you’re too arbitrary it becomes pointless. I had been really influenced by films like “The Singing Detective” which is a big series on television where a guy is in a hospital bed with psoriasis and suddenly he’s in a dance routine. I thought it would be really fun and really exciting to go outside reality, outside the time narrative, and go into this world which was not in time, but somehow was commenting on what was happening in the real story. One of the things I really liked for example was being in an old people’s home with Eileen, the 93 year old who sings The Clash for real, and then segueing into a version of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” in another old people’s home with the chorus. For me, that feels like a real punk moment in the best sense of the word?that’s my background of tradition–because actually, they are angry about the way they’re being treated in the old people’s homes and that’s an incredible thing to witness.
CS: Bob, I wanted to ask you about the relationship between filmmaker and subject matter, because you’re as much the subject of the movie as the chorus. Can you talk about working with Stephen as far as having the cameras there filming and when you didn’t want to have the cameras rolling? Did you want to see the first edit of the movie before anyone else? Can you talk about the relationship that you two had making the movie?
Cilman: Actually, it was pretty seamless in the very beginning.
Walker: (laughs) The very beginning? Are you kidding? Like the first day. (laughs)
Cilman: Yeah, I’m just trying to be really nice?.
Walker: That’s just shocking to me. We had some issues. We had issues over the deaths obviously, particularly Joe’s death, and that was a very sensitive and difficult moment. I needed things as a filmmaker to make a narrative work and Bob, quite understandably looking back on it now, was resistant. It was a very difficult and a tough challenge I think for both of us, and I think that’s when our relationship was at it’s lowest point, but amazingly we pulled through that and I think we created something that we’re all happy with. We did show you a cut definitely I think, more than one.
Cilman: Yes, you did. I saw a cut that was about two and a half hours long and I think they made some really good choices about what to cut out of that. There’s some obvious things, and when I first was given the film and I had to watch it, I was really nervous because we did have a lot of tense moments towards the end. I wound up really being quite fond of the film for capturing the people for who they are and dealing with the most sensitive situations really well.
CS: It must have been tough to watch yourself in those situations as well.
Cilman: Yeah, I don’t like watching myself much in the movie, and there’s moments when I’m given credit that feel funny to me.
Walker: You’re a very modest man.
Cilman: No, it’s not about modesty. It’s about the fact that there’s a lot of people who have gotten the chorus to be where they are, and my being quite aware of that and never wanting to forget about that? and I’m getting lost here on what the thought was?
Walker: There were things that you liked and there are things about you looking at yourself on the screen.
Cilman: Oh, looking at myself on the screen. Man, there were a couple of times where the camera was really close. It’s really scary.
Walker: Yeah, actually, there’s a reason for that and the reason for that is one of the directorial choices I made on the film–and it’s really something that’s come up over a number of films I’ve done in the past–is that if you use these very, very lightweight cameras which are self-operated. I operated a camera called a Z1, and what it does is it provides you with a possibility of great intimacy because people can look straight into the camera lens, which is what they’re looking at when they’re looking at you looking through the other end, and of course they look straight back through at the audience through that, so the audience feels instantly involved. What you get is a confidential and occasionally a confessional quality which is very powerful. There’s one moment for example when they’re talking about “Yes We Can Can,” the song that goes a bit wrong with its seventy-one “cans”, and there’s this moment where one of the characters goes, “Yeah, I love this song! It’s great! It’s wonderful and all about us, and we’re all about life, and life is there to be lived,” and it cuts to Bob in one of those close-ups and he goes, “Oh, I don’t know about that song.” The audience usually laugh at that moment, and they’re laughing because it’s confessional. If that was shot slightly wider to somebody off-camera, it wouldn’t get anything like the same kind of laugh.
Cilman: Yeah, but my nose looks really bad in that shot.
CS: I think at the very beginning of the movie, people might watch Bob rehearsing the group and think, “He’s a real taskmaster for pushing these old people so hard.” To Stephen’s credit, that feeling changes over the course of the movie, because you really see the humanity in everything. You’ve been directing the group for twenty five years, so what are some of the logistics of running the group, especially now that they’ll probably be a lot more well-known after this movie comes out.
Cilman: We don’t know. I think the real trick for us is just to keep grounded and to continue to do what it is that we do best and that is to take new music and make it in an interesting way. I think that if we get really caught up in all the gig potentials, we’ll really sort of destroy what’s at the center of this thing. I don’t think we’ll let it happen. I really don’t think we’ll let it happen.
Walker: No, I don’t think they will either, and I do think it’s caught all of us by surprise. I mean the reaction this film has had has been quite overwhelming actually. It’s wonderful to see audiences react the way they do. There’s huge amounts of laughter. There’s huge amounts of entertainment, the music, everything. They seem to get something massive from it, standing ovations. It’s just amazing, but it’s also easy to get carried away with that. We’ve created something that for some reason, some kind of alchemy here, is touching people in really quite extraordinary ways, but you have to step back from that and realize that as with them, life goes on.
Cilman: The bigger problem is going to be the people who want to join. We’re already getting letters from people saying, “My father lives in Ohio, but he’s going to move to Northhampton to be in your group,” and I just say, “Have him visit first. Don’t have him sell the house just yet.”
CS: Do you have enough interest that you’re now holding auditions for members?
Cilman: We do in a way, but the audition process can last for a long time, you know. It takes us a while to figure out whether someone’s going to work with this group.
Young@Heart opens in select cities on Wednesday, April 9. (If you enjoyed this interview then check back tomorrow for a similar teaming of filmmaker and subject matter when we talk to Phil Donahue and Tomas Young, the soldier featured in his new movie Body of War.)