A Few Minutes with Director Morgan Neville as we delve into ‘The Music of Strangers’

Posted in Interviews, Movies, Theatrical by - July 08, 2016
A Few Minutes with Director Morgan Neville as we delve into ‘The Music of Strangers’

Music documentaries, no matter how beloved they usually are always run the risk of being a little formulaic, unless of course you find something unique and truly special.

Documentarian Morgan Neville certainly has found that and then some with his new film The Music of Strangers, looking at cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road ensemble that he founded and the unique philosophies and practices that they bring to the table in how art and culture need to exist and thrive in our societies across the globe.

I got the unique chance to sit down with Mr. Neville as we talk about his process of filmmaking, what drew him to the story, his biggest surprises that he uncovered in the project and how personal this whole experience really was for him.

Dave Voigt: I really enjoyed the movie and in many ways I find myself drawing comparisons to one of your previous films 20 Feet From Stardom because it’s about these people who in spite of their obvious talent and genius, they don’t let their egos come ahead of the music.  What was it that ultimately drew you to Yo-Yo Ma and the entire Silk Road ensemble as a subject?

Morgan Neville: I guess to be blunt about it, I met Yo-Yo about five years ago and he was just so surprising.  He was charming, funny, philosophical but also a little crass and a bunch of other things that I just didn’t expect.  I just had that documentary filmmaker’s instinct and I knew that if I followed him with a camera, I might be able to get something pretty good.

The big questions that he was and still asking of himself really boils down to “Why, do I do art?” and what I think that he tries to figure out is how can he use art to really understand the world around him and how it can the world.  Plus as someone who makes films about art and about culture these are questions that I find I am asking myself fairly often.  When he was talking about it all I knew that these were things that I really wanted to investigate as well, that was the impetus to make the film.  I knew it was going to be wrapped around the Silk Road idea because that is basically the umbrella that he uses to explore all of these ideas, but I had no idea that I would end up shooting in refugee camp three years later after I started, but that’s the whole crux of being a documentary filmmaker, you have to hold on to one idea and see where it takes you.

,by Daniel Bergeron. Indiewire 2015. No PR/No Release on file.

Dave Voigt: How hard is it as a filmmaker to just go with it like that?  It feels like it would be a pretty big commitment especially when you aren’t 100% sure what the movie is going to end up as.

MN: It is a pretty big commitment that we have to make but the only thing that I would say is that having done this for quite some time now it has become a lot easier to trust that moment when you step off of a cliff that you know that you will catch an updraft.  It’s important to understand that being unsure where the story is going, is really an important part of the process.  If you go into a documentary with a road map, I think that is the surest way to make a bad film (Laughs).  I think it was Albert Maysles who said that if you come out of a movie making the film that you had intended to make, then you really weren’t listening along the way, which is of course a more eloquent way of summing up the process, that of course doesn’t mean that it can’t be stressful, because it is.

DV: How involved was Yo-Yo in really opening you up to all of these artists that he is working with from all around the world?

MN: He was totally open to it…and more importantly they were as well.  They had all been working together for quite some time and I think that they were trying to find the right way to tell their stories and their united story about this huge thing that they have all been doing.  He was great, but it didn’t take a lot of pushing, we met initially on a Tuesday and then he called me on Wednesday and said that he wanted me to meet everyone in the ensemble and that we start a tour in Hong Kong on Saturday, can I be there?  So I hopped on a plane and I spent a day there and then we drove to Guangzhou and I got to spend a couple of days with them all.  It was just me; I had brought a camera and just started to shoot stuff.

DV: How much did you have to resist the urge to sort of branch off into making another film because some of these subjects from the Silk Road ensemble have rich enough lives that you easily could have made films about them individually?

YoYoMN: Oh, absolutely you could and in fact there are other members of the ensemble with some great stories and there was one in particular whose story that I would have loved to go deeper on but it also didn’t really sync with the stories of the rest of the ensemble.  It was Wu Tong, the Chinese player with that kind of flute thing and he sings that song with the little class room in China, doing a duet…he was also the lead singer of this big heavy metal band in China which is obviously just amazing and he is really well known there.  It was an interesting tangent to be sure, but it just never quite fit and that is part of the process.  On 20 Feet I interviewed 80 backup singers to get down to the stories that helped to shape the story the best.

DV: Obviously you are familiar with making music documentaries because you’ve done a few in the past and I could help while watching this feel like it really is a story that is embracing the genuine globality of music.  It was necessarily a profile of the artist, but in many ways a profile of the music.  Is that something that you wanted to make stand out in the editing process of it all that music managed to stand separately from the message?

MN: Yeah, I really did want the music to be a character in all of this and in fact part of my process on this film was interviewing a bunch of very smart musicologists to explain how all these different ideas of intonation, toneation and notation.  Plus as a musician myself, I love hearing about all that but while we were editing it really felt very (pauses) wonky, kind of like we were making the book version of the film.  The music really does say a lot just by listening to it, I really wanted to make sure that the music has a chance to speak for itself and be its own character.

DV: Now for someone who be a fan of 20 Feet From Stardom or Keith Richards: Under The Influence how would you ultimately sell this film to them, because I can see some rock fans veering away from someone like a Yo-Yo Ma because he tends to be more classical then mainstream rock.

MN: It would be the same way that I was captivated right at the beginning of this project.  This certainly was not what I expected, and hopefully the film isn’t what people expect either.  This isn’t some like a Great Performances on PBS or that kind of thing.  It’s a story really about these amazing characters but about understanding the world through culture and how art can fit in the world.  It has conflict, it has humor and all of these other things to go along with it that are really important to me as well.

DV: Do you think that from a North American standpoint, that’s something we lose perspective on, how culture can influence life?

MN: In some ways, but another thing that kind of motivated me on this was that in North America we tend to think of our arts and our culture as nice, but really non-essential.  When it comes to funding, schools, grants…it just never feels essential.  Then when you look at artists who come from countries who have had cultural revolutions, places like China, Iran even somewhere like Spain under Franco; those artists pay REAL costs for being artists because those countries understand how important culture is, I mean they aren’t called “Cultural Revolutions” by accident (Laughs) Culture is how we define ourselves and the easiest way to subjugate any one is being wiping out their culture.  I think that when you look at the price that artists pay in other cultures it reminds you of why art can be so powerful.  It was something I thought a lot about while making the film.

The Music of Strangers is open now in Toronto and across the country later this month.


This post was written by
David Voigt is a Toronto based writer with a problem and a passion for the moving image and all things cinema. Having moved from production to the critical side of the aisle for well over 10 years now at outlets like Examiner.com, Criticize This, Dork Shelf (Now That Shelf), to.Night Newspaper he’s been all across his city, the country and the continent in search of all the news and reviews that are fit to print from the world of cinema.
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