Interview: Sophie Raymond; co-director of Mrs. Carey’s Concert

Interview: Sophie Raymond; co-director of Mrs. Carey’s Concert. By Simon Miraudo.

Documentaries are a crapshoot. Filmmakers are a slave to their real-life subjects; all the clever editing in the world won’t save them from boring footage and dull characters. Singer/songwriter, animator and first-time director Sophie Raymond was aware of the risks in her transition from the medium of animation (where a filmmaker has precise control over every element) to documentary. Thankfully, she avoided those pitfalls by choosing a far-from-boring “star”: Karen Carey – the no-bull music teacher at MLC School in New South Wales. In Mrs. Carey’s Concert, co-directors Raymond and legendary, Oscar-nominated documentarian Bob Connolly follow Karen’s attempts to host a concert at the Sydney Opera House. The resulting product is engrossing, gripping, and even tear-inducing. I spoke to Sophie about her love for Snoopy and The Muppets, her relationship with the subjects of her film and the prospect of a 7-Up style sequel.

SM: I normally like to start by askng people – particularly filmmakers – ‘Was there a film or filmmaker that inspired them when they were younger?’ But I understand you’re a singer/songwriter and an animator, so you have quite a big span …

SR: I know! So much inspiration…

SM: So I’m going to open the question up a bit. Is there any piece of art or artist that growing up set you on this path?

SR: Well, my earliest influence – I don’t even want to say it – my earliest influence was probably The Muppets I’d have to say.

SM: Excellent!

SR: Because they were singing and dancing; they did everything. I loved the characters and everything.

SM: Are you looking forward to The Muppet movie later this year?

SR: Oh, is there?

SM: Yes, in December.

SR: Is it going to be in 3D?

SM: That I don’t know.

SR: Actually, it’s going to be interesting because I think it is going to be a combination of weird genres.

SM: Which should be good. I’m a big Muppets fan. 

SR: I didn’t know that, so that’s exciting. Let me think, what else? You know I probably went into animation because I was always into anything that Jim Henson did. I’m a Snoopy die hard I must confess. There are photos of me, as a primary school friend reminded me, of me with my Snoopys in the front row in our class photos. That’s a bit tragic. Director’s wise, in the adult world…

SM: It’s ok if it’s just Snoopy and The Muppets.

SR: They were certainly my early influences.

SM: Well from Snoopy and The Muppets, how did you get on the track to get into the industry?

SR: I ended up doing a lot of theatre at school; in my school theatre program. I always liked performing. Then, when I finished school, I did Anthropology and Drama/Theatre Studies combined, and then alongside of that I had been doing my own music since I was about thirteen. I always just liked dipping my toe in – I sort of call it playing dress ups, and I’m kind of playing dress ups as a documentary filmmaker now, right? I actually did have a key moment. I wanted to do a post grad degree after my arts degree. I got into a course to do theatre directing in London. I actually got all the way back there and I needed to get funding from all sorts of places. My parents had mortgaged their house and my boyfriend at the time’s mum loaned me the other half. I didn’t feel good about either of those situations (laughs)! I got all the way back there and I had to think, ‘Did I really really really want to stay with theatre?’ I kind of had to, for the first time, really treat what I’m doing as an investment in my future. ‘Do I really want to do this as I’ll have to pay back all this money?’ In my heart I loved the journey in theatre, there was always something about film that I hadn’t exposed myself to and wanted to explore, and I think because it had that music scoring element. It had so many layers to it that you don’t quite get in a live space that really intrigued me. And then because I had that Snoopy/Muppets slant, I thought ‘A good way to learn about film is to do animation, because it’s going to be applicable anyway and you’re just learning about film a frame at a time’. So I applied for a fantastic post graduate course in Melbourne and came back and did that, and that kind of just exploded my brain. I actually got my grey patch (points to a grey streak in her fringe) that year, because I had learnt so much, and it really impassioned me big time for the screen, and I learnt so much about doing soundtracks, but also doing sound design, which I’d never really thought about. Of course, just the basics of camera, lights and story arcs and character, and just the way you can – you learn to basically manipulate the audience in a cinema environment. From that point on, I left the theatre – I kept on doing live music – but just explored film and its various facets.

SM: You mentioned manipulating the audience. You worked on an animated documentary called It’s Like That. Forgive me, I haven’t actually seen it. But I am intrigued by the concept of the ‘animated documentary’; there’s also Waltz With Bashir. These are two mediums you wouldn’t think are amenable, because with animation you have control over every frame, like you said, but documentary, you’re putting yourself in the hands of your subject.

SR: Especially an observational documentary; that’s the least control, because you’re not going in with – certainly not the way Bob [Connolly] and I approached Mrs. Carey’s Concert – we didn’t go in saying, ‘We’re going to make a film that is this, this, this and this’. There are things we thought were kind of interesting in the scenario, and thought, ‘Let’s let the scenario tell us what the story was.’

SM: Was it tough though with Mrs. Carey’s Concert to let go of that control? There’s no animation in this one.

SR: Yeah, weirdly, I’d come straight of the set of Mary and Max (on which she was an animation assistant) to do Mrs. Carey’s Concert, so they were complete mirror-reversals, because of course in animation the film is virtually edited before you shoot; it’s storyboarded to the frame. The ratio is often 1:1. You barely waste a frame because they take so long to make, especially in stop motion.  So coming off the back of that and doing the complete opposite where you don’t have anything and you’ve got to build the story in the edit, and the edit goes on for as long as the shoot, which is a completely different experience altogether. What I love about documentary, and what I loved about working with an animated documentary, was just how working with real people, just when you let them be themselves … I dunno. Something about the truth in the character; they say things that are surprising. There’s a beautiful natural music to the way people just talk, that having done theatre and seeing people not act very well, it’s lovely as an animator to work with that level of naturalness and reality in an audio world, and then build a physical world and characters based around that. That’s really a pleasure to do, and that’s probably what I would like to continue to explore. It’s been great to go from a full-on feature length stop-motion animation to a fuller-oner feature length observational documentary, and I can still feel twinges of trying to bring the two together in some form or another.

SM: Well you definitely found a real character in Mrs. Carey. Tell me how you discovered her and decided with Bob that it would be good to build a film around her.

SR: Bob had known Mrs. Carey for a while, because his girls had gone through the school and done music. Not in a particularly intense way – although Mrs Carey kind of forces everyone to do it at a fairly intense level – but they weren’t aspiring musicians at all. So everyone who goes through the school encounters Mrs Carey. Where the nucleus for the film idea came out of was when she asked us to film, just for parents really, a DVD of one of the concerts. Bob had done the previous concert with just a couple of cameras, and she said ‘Well, what if I get a bit of a budget together and had a bit of a crew?’ We thought ‘OK’, and got a seven camera crew together and filmed that. And that’s actually the first time Bob and I had worked together, and that was interesting too. And that worked really well. But then also, putting the concert down the end of a long lens, and seeing these kids up really close, like you can in cinema, was really dramatic unto itself, not really knowing any of the kids. It was very, very moving because the standard that they reach is really extraordinary, it does sort of strike you as incongruous because they look so young yet this sophisticated, otherworldly sound comes out of them, it’s really moving. And then we thought, ‘Wow; imagine how much more powerful it would be if you really knew these kids’. So when you saw them step up to those moments, you had already travelled with them. So Mrs. Carey gave us a back story on Doretta Balkizas  who ends up opening Mrs. Carey’s Concert. Her story was really interesting because it did take her a long time to step up in front of the audience and play, but Mrs. Carey had this set faith that she’d be able to do it, whereas she didn’t really feel comfortable, and neither did her music teacher, and she was embarrassed in front of her friends to take on this very grand piece of music. And yet, when she does, it sort of knocks you out. We thought that’s a beautiful element to use as a centrepiece for an observational film.

SM: Well the film brings up a couple of really interesting questions. With the character of Emily – I say ‘character’ as if she’s not a real person…

SR: I call them characters.

SM: You have Emily who’s this very prodigious musician and she’s had trouble articulating what the music means to her. But she does raise a really good point, where sometimes the music is meant to be there to articulate that which can’t be articulated. And that clashes with her teachers’ ideas. I’m wondering where you sit on that aspect?

SR: I love that that’s a really contentious point for people. I’m actually really clear where I come from because having been a musician, and having been in a situation where you really do have to find a way to communicate to other musicians – the audience don’t need to know – but the other musicians do need to be on the same page. In lots of ways, you often just get forced in that situation that you’re playing something and they’re not with you. So you’ve got to go, ‘OK, how do  I put this into words?’ It really does become a key element to communicate verbally with other musicians. So I could totally see them saying, ‘OK Emily, you play really well; you’re playing with an orchestra of school kids who aren’t as good players as you. It’s going to help them if you can explain to them, and it’ll be good for you to learn to’. I think what made it hard for Emily was that it was her mates; it wouldn’t have been as hard if they were complete strangers. So I can see both angles on it.

SM: Similar to that, you have Iris who is the “villain” of the film, and she’s trying to get in the way and not participate. But even she raises a good point . She says, ‘I don’t feel this is for me; why do I have to do it?’ I was a theatre/art geek as well, and I had flashbacks of not wanting to be forced to do sports.

SR: Or maths!

SM: Do you have sympathy for her and her complete withdrawal?

SR: Absolutely. She certainly has a point. That’s a completely legitimate situation. But the teachers would  come at it: ‘You’re at a school; you come to school to learn stuff, to be exposed to what you wouldn’t normally be exposed to’. From Mrs. Carey’s point of view, that’s what she’s offering them. And it’s a bit more than that in a way, and that’s what she tries to explain to her. It’s a little bit more than putting on a concert. Actually, the school as a unit putting on something together. And that’s actually a really lovely thing to endeavour for. So that was something Iris found a bit hard to counter.

SM: Iris is one of the few “characters” in the film to break the fourth wall, at least in the film. At one point she does sort of wave at the camera, which I thought was funny – of all the people in the school, only she is aware the camera is there. How was it to be a fly on the wall in that situation? The logistics of it; the difficulty in pretending that you weren’t there?

SR: We never actually pretended that we weren’t there. The key to it is to actually become a part of the place. And we were just an expected element in the music department, because we were there for so long. We weren’t really a novelty at all after months of shooting. The other key to it is to not expect anything of anyone. Naturally, someone’s there with a  camera and microphone, you think, ‘OK, what do they want me to do?’ After a while, when they realise you don’t have any directions you want to give, they give up and carry on. So I guess the slight difficulty in the scenario was that the girls would come in for 45 minutes a day and go off again, and whatever class time was in music was when they were there. In their heads, they can’t try to edit what we’re filming, because it’s hours and hours of stuff, and we’re filming other people. It becomes hard.

SM: Now I understand you and Bob are self-distributing the film. I guess this goes back to the animation vs. documentary question, but do you feel like you have total control, or even less control?

SR: We just decided to back ourselves. The proof will be in the pudding in the next couple of weeks. I think, these days, because of the way you can communicate digitally with an audience, it does become a little more feasible to self-distribute in a way that we’re trying to get people to the cinema. We employed a guy who’s booking the cinemas and that’s his thing, and he’s a publicist also. Because at the end of the day, to make money back on the film is hard, and we thought, ‘Look, if people are going to like it, they’ll want to buy the DVD and they’ll want to see the movie. And we should put ourselves in a position to get the best possible return’. It’s really as simple as that. It’s really a punt. It’s a lot of work and it’s not really something that we as filmmakers, our headspaces shift easily into. Creating that attention to detail you have on the screen, to suddenly sell things. It’s quite a different headspace. But I think having done the indie music thing for a bit, it’s something I was familiar with, so it wasn’t too scary.

SM: What’s next for you? I know you’re toying between a lot of different mediums, but where are you headed?

SR: Look, there is an animated documentary project that I have shelved, that I hope to take off the shelf and get back into that. This’ll keep us busy for the rest of the year easily, because we’ll have to get DVDs together and extras and other regions.

SM: And the sequel of course.

SR: (Laughs) A lot of people have suggested the 7-Up thing. Because it is intriguing to watch people at that age in their lives. Because we all know how different we were. Iris and Emily have been fantastic in the way they’ve owned it: ‘Yeah, that’s how we felt at the time’.

SM: You change a lot in the period between 16 and 18.

SR: So many changes. So it is kind of curious to see. There is that fascination because people can’t help but put themselves into that situation; imagining if someone showed you a picture portrait of yourself at sixteen, and what the portrait would be now. ‘God what would be the connections? Am I still the same? The horror!’ I think people really do have that sense when they watch the film in some ways. I don’t know. I don’t think we’ll be doing a follow up. That would be cruel!

Mrs. Carey’s Concert is now showing in select cinemas across Australia.

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