Phil Grabsky: The Film-Maker In Search Of Beethoven

Phil Grabsky is an award-winning documentary film-maker. With a film career spanning 20 years, Phil and his company Seventh Art Productions make films for cinema and television. Below you can find my interview with Mr. Grabsky about his documentary “In Search of Beethoven” and documentary film-making in general for the Turkish classical music magazine “Neo Filarmoni”. The interview was published in Turkish in the September-October 2011 issue of the magazine.

I would like to start with a broad question: What is your aim in making documentaries? Why?
I love making documentaries and have done so for the last 20 years. I am naturally curious and what is more interesting than human kind and human history? My aim is making my films is to share my discoveries with the millions that don’t have the opportunity to travel as I do. I also aim to entertain by telling great stories in a context of visual and aural beauty. I also believe documentaries – all films really – should be a force for good. I think there are too many examples in movies of the bad humans are capable of – I want to celebrate the potential for creativity not destruction. Hey, I enjoy James Bond but I prefer Ludwig van Beethoven.

You organize some special screenings for your films. Can you give a few examples of these screenings? What do people need to do to hold such organizations with you?
We have held screenings of the films in practically every country in the world. Who is not interested in Mozart & Beethoven? Teenagers through to the elderly – we are all surrounded by the music of these giants: mobile phones, in elevators, in commercials, on feature film soundtracks (The King’s Speech would never have won the Oscar without a soundtrack full of Mozart and Beethoven) – all are and should be interested. Even if you are not that keen on classical music, you have to be interested in two of the most creative people ever to have lived. The screenings we do are varied: we screen the films in opera houses, concert halls, cinemas, musuems, arts centres, and even at private dinners. We screen with me in attendance, or me on Skype. We screen the whole film or we screen clips and have maybe a chamber orchestra play some live music. We have questions and answers sessions after the films. I also do a stage show: An Evening with Great Composers (which includes clips from the forthcoming In Search of Haydn and In Search of Chopin).

Is it difficult to raise funding for a documentary filmmaker? If yes, what do you do to overcome these problems?
It’s a nightmare. If I was making films about police car chases or overweight teenagers, it would be easy. But classical music? Broadcasters turn away. Shame on them. But my attitude is that I will make these films no matter what. I and my colleagues just keep on going through sheer hard work and imagination. And we make million-dollar films on much, much less.

In Turkey, mainstream TV stations are not very interested in documentaries. What is the situation like in the UK (or Europe, etc.)? How enthusiastic are broadcasters about documentaries? Can you comment on this?
As I was just saying, TV around the world has increasingly abandoned their public service ethics. It is worse than a shame, it is highly detrimental to society. They will claim that their job is to answer the needs of their audience; I respond that you can create what an audience likes. How many children will ask for salad if a burger is available? But we all agree that (1) salads are better for you and (2) a good salad will taste much better to a child than a burger. This is not to say there are not more documentaries being made than ever. If you are new to the industry, there has never been a better time to be a young documentary film-maker – but what kind of films? That’s the problem. Those of us who believe in craft, beauty, research, art are struggling to stay alive in a sea of superficiality. But we will survive because there are millions of people who do prefer a good salad to a burger – my job (which takes up all my time) is to make them aware of my films and how they can get to see them.

You attend film festivals and special screenings and you communicate your audience directly. What can you tell us about what you get out of these encounters? 
I attend a lot of screenings – and I love it. I love it because the audiences love the films and naturally that makes me feel good; I sell a lot of DVDs which helps finance the next film; I interact with the audience and can really give them ‘value-added’ to the film. My films may attract millions on TV but there’s no human feedback – cinema-style screenings are much better in that respect. In Turkey, for example, when I showed my recent film ( about Afghanistan) the audience refused to leave the cinema as they wanted to ask so many questions: I have been to Afghanistan over ten years so i could answer a lot of questions and offer a lot of opinions. The Turkish audience was great – very interested and interesting. I can’t wait to come back.

What initially motivated you to make a documentary on Beethoven?
While making the earlier film on Mozart, I became fascinated by Beethoven.

Making a documentary on a composer like Beethoven must be a real challenge. The scope of the work must be so huge. How much time was needed for the whole process (planning, shooting, editing, etc.)?
It is enormous – almost too big. But that’s why no-one else has done it…because they knew that and I didn’t. I just started and innocently decided to get as much music into the iflm as possible and, by the way, with the greatest living musicians! It took three years BUT the film I have made will be as fresh in twenty years as it is now. I genuinely felt I owed Mozart, Beethoven and now Haydn a responsibility to do the best job humanly possible – no-one would do this again and the films thus had to be full;, comprehensive, accurate, entertaining and stunningly beautiful AND the quality of music had to be great!

We see many famous artists in the documentary. How did you manage to bring all these people together?
It was very difficult but we contacted them, explained our intention, were honest and pleasant, sent them examples of previous work…and slowly one by one they all started saying yes. I think it helped in the filming that I had done my research, that I was often on my own (so less bother for them). that I was interested in the music and the man rather than how many affairs he may or may not have had! But it was a long, difficult and expensive process. It also involved a lot of driving and flying around.

I really like the “plain” narration style in the documentary. No tricks! No twists! Was this intentional?
It’s all about story-telloing. What is the best way to tell the story? I decided quite quickly that it wasn’t about me being ‘clever’ as a director. It was about telling the story clearly and well. So I start at the beginning and work through to the end – and slip in 60 different bits of music. It works REALLY well – I can honestly say these are the best films made about the lives of Mozart and Beethoven – if you’re interested in who they really were and why and how they did what they did.

When you look back at your work on Beethoven, what is the most amazing thing you find about Beethoven’s personality? What did he mean to you before you started working on the documentary? And what does he mean to you now as a person?
I must admit I did not know that much about Beethoven. I was worried that he would be the miserable, bad-tempered man that legend sometimes refers to. I was thus delighted to find a man full of love, friendship, optimism and humour. I grew to really, really like him – but, above all, I just can not express enough my admiration for the range and quality of his music – it is utterly extraordinary.

What exactly did you find in Beethoven’s music?
I found multiple examples of what we as humans are capable of. I wish every person on the planet would be encouraged to sit and watch the film – just so they could see and hear the beauty, the love, the open-hearted optimism of the music.

When do you think you work will be available in Turkey? Thanks.
The films are available from our websire http://www.seventh-art.com but I am open to invitations from the opera houses and concert halls of Turkey to come and show the films and talk about them. Maybe a combined screening and live piano recital with the extraordinary pianist Ronald Brautigam who I love working with.

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