The New York Film Festival kicked off its 49th edition on Friday and we'll be spending the next few weeks digging into all that the lineup has to offer. The festival is curiously light on World Premieres this year (the only notable one being awards question mark "My Week With Marilyn"), but the fest makes up for it with some serious auteur power bringing in the latest from Alexander Payne, Lars Von Trier, Roman Polanski, David Cronenberg, Pedro Almodóvar and the city's own Martin Scorsese, who will unveil his new 3 1/2 hour two-part documentary "George Harrison: Living In A Material World" this week about 24 hours before it premieres on HBO. The film was screened for press this weekend and both members of The Playlist staff in attendance were extremely impressed by it (read our review here).
The doc, which took five years to put together, assembles an impressive collection of footage from Harrison's life including new interviews, never-before-seen home footage and television clips that had been lost for nearly fifty years. The first half focuses heavily on the musician's life with The Beatles while the second part delves deeper into who he was as a person and stretching to cover the subsequent decades of his life. No matter how many times you think you've seen the Fab Four's story told, the film still manages to put it together in a way that seems fresh, occasionally zipping forward and backward in time and scoring early sections of Harrison's life with songs that wouldn't be written for another two decades. The team behind the film, which includes executive producer Margaret Bodde, producers Nigel Sinclair and Olivia Harrison (George's widow), editor David Tedeschi and director Scorsese, were in London for the World Premiere, but spoke to journalists at Lincoln Center via Skype after the film. Here are some of the highlights from that press conference.
1. The Harrison family wanted Scorsese for the project because they knew they needed a filmmaker who would be as capable of portraying George’s spiritual journey as much as his rock ‘n' roll life story.
The Harrison family had been approached by many interested parties in the years since George’s passing looking to bring the former Beatle’s story to the screen. When they decided it was time to tell his story they knew they needed to find a filmmaker who would focus on who George was as a person, and not simply a reel of career highlights.
Olivia Harrison said, “George’s outer life was well known and that would be an easy thing to do. You could put together that story, but the inner life was going to be impossible. And I knew how deeply George felt about certain things in life and what he was trying to achieve and that letter from a very early age was just a seed of what he was thinking. That at the very pinnacle of the young, early career of The Beatles, there was something telling him that this was not going to fulfill him. I think I was hoping that that’s what would happen [with the film] and that’s what Marty tuned into.”
Scorsese added that George’s spiritual journey had always been interesting to him. “I’ve always had a special interest in how he perceived life and what he was searching for.” In the film and in his life, George realizes very early on through immense fame that there must be something more to life. This realization is expressed through a series of letters George wrote to his mother in his early 20s which were some of the earliest artifacts uncovered and shown to Scorsese that helped hook him for the project.
Executive producer Margaret Bodde who also worked with the filmmaker on "No Direction Home" recounted, “Olivia had brought two beautiful letters that George had written and some postcards and some photographs. Marty and Olivia talked together about Olivia’s ideas for the project and then Olivia read this letter. It was a very moving letter that George wrote to his mother when he was 22 about his views of life. And at the end of the letter I was moved almost to tears and I felt slightly embarrassed and I looked up, and with respect to dear friend Marty, I saw that Marty himself was very moved. I remember thinking ‘this meeting is going well.’”
2. Though The Beatles story takes up a large portion of the film, you’ve never seen it told quite like this before.
Harrison, who died at the relatively young age of 58 from cancer, accomplished enough for several lifetimes. In addition to being in one of the greatest groups in the history of pop music, he also had a remarkable solo career, organized one of the first charity concerts, cofounded HandMade Films (“Life Of Brian”), formed the supergroup The Traveling Wilburys among many other accomplishments, so there was a huge task ahead of the filmmakers to decide what to include in the film. Though The Beatles story has been told and retold countless times, the first part of the doc is centered around the group's rise and fall as it would lay the foundation for the rest of George’s life, while the second part takes on the remaining decades of George’s life and his own journey inward.
Scorsese says, “Obviously we had to deal with the period of The Beatles as the group so I thought, let’s deal with that immediately and try to get past that information and establish that it’s a given. Even at one point I recall moving up the end point [of the group], the signing of the papers [to dissolve the band] as soon as possible. But really we had long discussions about why I was attracted to making the movie and it was a matter of him having everything in his life and still not being fulfilled. [George was] trying to find meaning beyond that, if not meaning, some sort of spiritual trancendence in his life. This comes through many different ways but it has to come through the music. But primarily, ultimately he’s going as we all are towards death. So this is what we talked about from the very beginning, the beginning of that journey to the end of our lives.”
3. The filmmakers decided early on that the biography would not be strictly chronological, nor would it be a standard greatest hits compilation of all George’s accomplishments.
The filmmakers realized that George doesn’t start writing songs until a third of the way through the first part of the doc but instead of layering in hits from the period the film is soundtracked by George’s songs anyway, including an opening featuring Britain being bombed set to "All Things Must Pass." It’s a somewhat radical decision that helps throw chronology out the window. Scorsese and editor David Tedeschi slam in and out of scenes, from blaring music to stunning quiet in sequences that have all the punch of the transitions in “Goodfellas.”
Scorsese says, “We decided it wouldn’t necessarily be chronological. We didn’t want to state ‘this is the period when such-and-such happens. This is this period.’ David found such a way with the interviews to layer in major changes in the midst of an answer, like Joan Taylor does. When she talks about meeting them and at one point she says ‘someone took acid and they gave so-and-so acid.’ There wasn’t any discussion prior to that about drugs and it’s done in a very, very quiet tone, the way I think it would be in a casual situation. So we tried to approach all these points in his life in an oblique way but ultimately ending with going towards the goal of being released.”
4. Recordings from The Beatles and George’s solo career have probably never sounded quite as alive as they do here due to several years of tinkering with the original mixes avoiding an overly "clean" sound for something more rock ‘n’ roll.
We’re not sure if this is going to come across when it plays on HBO next week but hearing the music in the film blaring in surround sound at Lincoln Center was nothing short of revelatory. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve heard these songs, unless you were hanging around the Cavern Club in 1961, you’ve probably never heard them like this before. Early Beatles cuts took on a whole new life sounding rawer and more rocking than anything being produced today. As it turns out, this is no accident. The filmmakers had access to the original 4 track recordings and spent years mixing them to get just the right sound.
Scorsese says, “At one point we were talking about it being clean and clear but it wasn’t rock n’ roll. It didn’t have a certain kind of excitement to it. I don’t know what that is so I said, ‘Maybe it’s bass, maybe it’s the strings, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that’...This went on constantly for a couple years until we got what we liked. For me, the whole search was what Ravi Shankar says in the movie, he says ‘Words can only do so much’ talking about compassion and love, he said ‘We have an advantage, we play music, we create music.’ So it’s all through the music really, that’s why the mixing was so important. It’s all George’s ability to express himself, or any great musician or composer to express themselves, and to find a kind of meaning in life with his work, through the music. So the mixing took quite a while, a couple of years at least.”
5. Many rare and unreleased gems are included in the film but even after years of searching the filmmakers couldn’t find quite everything they were looking for.
At 3 ½ hours the doc digs deep into the archives unearthing some incredibly rare footage of George which was no easy task considering some of the clips were nearly half a century old. Editor David Tedeschi says, “A lot of the television networks in the United States destroyed a lot of their archives. Our researchers contacted a local television station in Scotland that had film from 1963, a tour of Scotland that the Beatles were doing and no one had seen it for all these years. And the same went for Australia and different places. I also think that the Hamburg footage has been restored beautifully, so we were lucky that there was this document of what Hamburg was like in the 60s.”
Additionally the filmmakers culled new interview material from about 25 participants who “all had incredible things to say about their relationships, their experience, working with him and knowing him,” Margaret Bodde said. “We did one interview that was 8 hours long and you can only use you know, moments from those so that’s something that could be it’s own series of films.” Asked if there were any moments they couldn’t find, she said, “There was a moment when the Hare Krishna Singers were on 'Top of the Pops' and that was something that we couldn’t find that. We were really trying and no one’s really seen that.”
6. The film took 5 years to make because after ‘No Direction Home,’ Scorsese knew that it was impossible to have a deadline for a film when new footage and artifacts kept being discovered along the way.
Scorsese says, “It was tricky because new stuff would come in, and we’re talking about five years. One of the reasons that it takes five years is because there are no deadlines, it just happens to be finished now. For me, this whole year has been a series of films that I’ve been working on for quite a long time that just happen to be finished at the same time. Since November of last year till November now. It’s kind of enjoyable but what’s really important about working on this kind of film is living with the film. Meeting, talking, screening it, thinking about it, working, talking, David [Tedeschi] working for a couple of weeks, bringing me back in the [editing] room. Thinking I’m going to be there for 10 or 15 minutes, instead being there 3 hours talking. Coming back, working on the other films. And all this goes on and there’s no pressure, I mean there’s pressure [with] distribution, but on a couple of other ones we did we learned that. 'Oh we have to release it at a certain time then we miss the date and everyone will be upset.' And one of the things we started on this picture, I said ‘There’s no way we can guarantee a date.’ And once they said okay, we can aim for a certain date and tried for that and also slid behind a year. But I think because of that process, everything was open, everything was new, everything was fresh and everything was anticipatory. We always knew something would come in. Sometimes it was a little scary because if more good stuff comes in, when are we going to finish this? And it would go on and on. It was a real, real joy to work on and very moving experience. It was a real life saver.”