By Liam Lacey
Music is the mainspring in the emotional clockwork of the movies. Try to think of Jaws without John Williams’ nerve-jangling two-note riff of the “shark theme.” Or, the Toy Story movies without the bear-hug embrace of Randy Newman’s You Got A Friend In Me.
But how would these film composers create if they weren’t writing with someone else’s story and images in mind? That’s the question Grammy-winning pianist Gloria Cheng set out to answer with her album, Montage: Great Film Composers and the Piano. The film about those recording sessions is featured in Saturday’s closing night of this year’s ReelHeART Film Festival.
The six composers include Bruce Broughton (Silverado), Don Davis (The Matrix trilogy), Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game, The Grand Budapest Hotel), Michael Giacchino (Up, Ratatouille), Randy Newman (Toy Story) and John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws). They’re an illustrious gang, who have collectively earned 72 Oscar nominations, with nine wins, to date.
Cheng got the idea back in 2013, when Broughton, who composes for film and concert stage, presented her with a new work as a gift. She had been thinking of an album of Los Angeles-area composers, and then shifted to the film-themed album.
She approached John Williams, a friend, and made him promise to submit just one page. He did, and then soon expanded that to Conversations, a five-movement piece that he had had in mind for several years, exploring a series of imagined conversations between historical figures from different eras. The other writers she approached quickly came onboard.
Randy Newman was a well-known singer-songwriter long before he ever wrote for the movies but his contribution here has a poignant personal touch: Family Album: Homage to Alfred, Emil and Lionel Newman is a five-movement work written in memory of his famous film composer uncles (including a piece about his uncle teaching Marilyn Monroe to sing). The only piece not written for Cheng was Alexandre Desplat’s composition, originally composed for the Chinese pianist, Liang Liang.
You might imagine record companies leapt at the chance to invest in Cheng’s project. They did not. She raised money for the project using Kickstarter, to cover the cost of recording the CD and an accompanying video. In 2014, during the recording of the CD, documentary filmmaker Joey Forsyte oversaw the shooting of what was intended to be a one-hour video. But before the film could be completed, the crew moved on to other projects and Cheng was left with the unedited footage.
Enter The Canadian Guy: Ben Proudfoot is a 26-year-old filmmaker from Nova Scotia, trained at the University of Southern California, whose Breakwater Studio has offices both in Los Angeles and Halifax.
Breakwater is a contemporary digital production company that runs like an old Hollywood studio with all parts of the operation, cinematography, production, music, design and postproduction under one roof. Their specialty is short-form subjects, often on arts and crafts-related themes that reflect the company’s own hand-made esthetic.
Last year, Proudfoot released his first documentary feature, Rwanda and Juliet, about a production of Shakespeare’s play, a generation after the Rwandan genocide. Cheng had been hired to help record a score for the trailer and she told Proudfoot about her unfinished film. Proudfoot, who says he listens to soundtracks for fun, agreed to look at the footage. He decided there was enough there for one good half-hour film, broken into chapters for each composer, including interviews and footage of the recording sessions.
The results are rich in detail and down-to-earth: The unexpected trepidation of world-famous composers when faced with composing for the piano; Cheng’s frustration with compositions that stretch the limits of playability, and the extremely exact ear of producer-editor, Judith Sherman.
Proudfoot saw, his main job as staying out of the way.
“Usually, when we work, the film is the work of art. In this case, it’s a document. We tried to erase any sign of filmmaking,” he says.
That meant avoiding special effects, or even using any music score, except what was heard during the recording sessions.
There was one significant artistic decision that really makes the film.
Montage is in black and white, though that’s not how it was originally shot. Recorded with different kinds of cameras and different camera operators, it was a tonal hodge-podge. But then Breakwater’s team saw a workaround: Change the film from colour to to black and white in post-production.
What could make more sense? Here was a film about composers throwing out their giant orchestral and synthesizer paint boxes in favour of the equivalent of charcoal and paper, only what ten fingers could do on 88 black-and-white keys. It’s a film that had to be made in black-and-white.
“It’s a cliche that films are group effort. But in this case, it really was a collaborative effort,” says Proudfoot.
Financing also came collectively, from Cheng, Proudfoot’s company and Kickstarter.
The long-gestating child of several parents, Montage is finally ready to be seen in public. The film showed on PBS for a half-dozen viewings this spring and is currently making the film festival rounds. It can also be rented at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/montage.
Montage: Great Film Composers andthe Piano, conceived of by Gloria Cheng, screens at the ReelHeART film festival on SAT. 6.45PM at the Carlton Cinema, along with a live musical performance and post-screening Q&A with one of the composers. The film will followed by Long Road Home, Stephanie Volk’s documentary about Canadian singer-songwriter, Alfie Zappacosta.
Liam Lacey is a former film critic for The Globe and Mail, as well as contributor to various other media outlets over the past 37 years.. He recently returned to Canada from Spain because he forgot about the weather