Interview: Phil Grabsky (In Search of Haydn)

Interview: Phil Grabsky (In Search of Haydn). By Simon Miraudo.

Photo Courtesy: Phil Stearns/Envision

Photo Courtesy: Phil Stearns/Envision

“If you have blood coursing through your veins, you have to be interested in these people. They’re examples of what we as humans are capable of.” No, documentarian Phil Grabsky isn’t talking about Kim Kardashian, Snooki, or the cast of Celebrity Dog Rehab. He’s referring to legendary composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joseph Haydn, the subjects of his hugely popular In Search Ofseries of films. You’ve likely heard of the first two, but perhaps not the latter. I spoke to Brighton-based Grabsky – as he walked from his hotel to a Q&A screening of his latest pic – about the lesser known Haydn, as well as the reasons why we need to concern ourselves with these creative powerhouses of the past. He also shared with us his thoughts on the current “cottage industry” of documentary filmmaking (and why that’s not necessarily a good thing), whether The King’s Speech deserved its Oscar, and his feelings on current movie scores (he’s no fan of John Williams’ War Horse).

In Search of Haydn screens in select cinemas across the country from March 15, 2012. Grabsky’s other documentary, Leonardo Live, is now showing.

SM: Were there any films you watched growing up that inspired you to get into filmmaking?

PG: Actually, what inspired me initially was photography. When I was a teenager, what I wanted to be was a photographer. I used to love the old magazines, and when I could I’d get a hold of a Life Magazine or a National Geographic. Also, my brother was a photographer. When I was 18, I went off to India – anyway, it’s a long story – but I ended up with the Tibetans in Northern India, and I decided to make something about them. But the sound there was so extraordinary. I decided I needed to make a film about them, rather than photograph them. So I swapped to film. I was quite fortunate, because at that time in Britain the craft of documentary filmmaking was highly valued. I’ve always loved documentaries; I try and see as many as I can. Of course, it’s changed – almost beyond recognition – in the last 20 years. In the last 10 years. It’s completely different.

SM: Are you saying it’s changed for the better? Can you elaborate on that?

PG: I think it’s mixed, actually. I think if you’re a youngster, or even if you’re trying to lead the industry and set yourself up as a filmmaker, it’s so much easier now. For four thousand dollars – well, in Australian dollars, seven or eight thousand dollars – you can set yourself up with a broadcast quality camera and even edit it at home. But what’s happened, therefore, is it’s become a cottage industry. And with a cottage industry, sometimes you have fantastic individuals who turn out quality, but often what you have – and this is the majority of it – are filmmakers who are struggling to survive because it’s so competitive. Everything’s a rush, so people don’t really understand how cameras work, and don’t really understand audio. They don’t know the issues of documentary filmmaking; they think everything they’re making is new. Of course, it isn’t. I think what suffers is attitude and storytelling. What’s the point of the film that you’re making, beyond the one liner? What’s your thesis? How are you going to tell that with the best craft possible (framing, audio mixing, and music)? So, I have to say I’m often a little bit disappointed by documentaries I see now, which is kind of a shame in a way, because it coincides with the fantastic explosion of possibilities due to digital. When I released my first film in Australia – which was only six, seven years ago – that was on 35mm and 1660mm print, and they were quite prohibitive. But now, no one even talks about film prints, and that’s great.

SM: I think are lot of these issues are not only evident in documentary features, but also narrative features. It’s going to be very interesting over the next ten years. Let’s talk about your films, and your thesis statements. First Mozart, then Beethoven, and now Haydn. Can you tell us what it was about Haydn that intrigued you?

PG: I’m quite eclectic; I like different subjects. I did Mozart following on from filming in Afghanistan. When I did Mozart, I had no thought of doing another. I didn’t envision a series; I didn’t plan it as a trilogy. Mozart was actually extremely hard; trying to get access to sixty of the world’s greatest musicians is not easy, particularly on a very low budget. Budget is a real issue these days; fundraising is so difficult. But along the way I’d asked people, “Can you confirm for me that Mozart is one of the greatest composers to have ever lived? Because that will help me sell the project.” And they’d say, “No question; he’s not only one of the greatest composers, but he’s one of the most creative individuals to have ever lived.” I’d think, “Great.” And then there’d be a little pause, and they’d say, “But then, there’s Beethoven.”  And almost despite myself I thought, “Well, I’ve got to find out who that guy is.” I mean, I knew a little bit. But the public perception of Beethoven is pretty superficial; people’s perception of Beethoven is based on one portrait: a grey haired, miserable, frowning, mad, deaf man.

SM: The classic.

PG: I know enough from 25 years of filmmaking that when you scratch the surface things are often very different and more interesting. Also, it’s got to have some relevance to us. What is it about his life that not only informs us about his time, but also his own time? Along the way, you can’t help when you’re making films about Mozart and Beethoven, it is inevitable that you constantly come across Joseph Haydn. Because Haydn was the man they both looked up to. Haydn is who they both sought out as motivator and teacher. And you’re thinking, “My God; Mozart and Beethoven are two of the greatest creative individuals to have ever lived. If they’re looking up to this guy, who is he?” People in a lot of cinema screenings and big crowds shout out, “Do Tchaikovsky! Do Wagner! Do this and that.” But you have to wait until you are genuinely passionate about somebody, and that somebody was Haydn. It’s been a fantastic excuse to listen to all his beautiful music.

SM: Interesting.

PG: There is a difference. With Mozart, you’re kind of working with the knowledge that people have a sense of Amadeus. With Beethoven, people might have seen one of the feature films, or they’ve seen that portrait I’ve described. Haydn’s different, because actually people don’t have any sense of Haydn at all. The trick with Haydn – or the intention with Haydn – was not so much to say, “You thought he was like this, but actually he’s like this,” but to say, “I’m going to explain to you why Mozart and Beethoven looked up to him.”

SM: I must admit, my grasp of classical music is not as good as I’d like it to be. But I think that’s what’s best about film, and certainly why I’m interested in it: to discover these new worlds. Is that something that’s on your mind when making these movies? Appealing to the layman.

PG: 100%. You and me both. I didn’t know. To me, Mozart was who I knew from Amadeus. Beethoven, I just about knew he’d done nine symphonies. I’ve had a decent education, and all the rest of it; my parents used to play classic music. But like so many things, you ask someone what they know about something – and it’s not because we’re fools but often because we haven’t been educated or we haven’t had the time – actually we know very little. Classical music is one of those things that are all around us; we hear it on mobile phones, and people don’t even know on their mobile phone they’re listening to Beethoven’s 9th playing. Would The King’s Speech have won the Oscar if there wasn’t wall to wall Mozart and Beethoven? I don’t think so. So, it’s everywhere, in all places. And whatever your job, whether you’re a taxi driver or a writer or a filmmaker, whatever it is, you can learn from looking at these three men who began life just like us – in fact, in much harder circumstances – but somehow, they had certain characteristics that enabled them to become, ultimately, the top of their field. What are those characteristics, and what can we learn from them? Above all, it’s not that they’re God-given. It’s just that they’re extraordinarily passionate and extraordinarily hard-working; every day they’re listening to new music, or seeking out new musicians, or reading new scores. I think there’s a lot to learn from them. My basic view is, if you have blood coursing through your veins, you have to be interested in these people. They’re examples of what we as humans are capable of. There’s many, many examples of destructive powers – look at Syria or whatever- but when you listen to, not just one piece but 100 pieces from these three composers, your jaw is on the floor. You’re thinking, “My God, it’s extraordinary what you can do when you put your mind towards a creative outlet.”

SM: Is there really any modern comparison for this trio? Are there any artists – musical or otherwise – that you’ve noticed after studying Mozart, Beethoven, and Haydn that you see similarities in?

PG: Well, I make a lot of art films. I’ve done about 100 exhibition films for television. And recently I decided I wanted to bring one to cinemas; it was the first time ever. Who did I wait for? I waited for Leonardo [da Vinci]. So we did Leonardo Live, which I believe is showing in Australia right now. There are some names that stand out. When you look at the 20th and 21st centuries, certainly in terms of art… we just made a film about Lucian Freud, who is a great artist. In terms of music though, I don’t know. I’m not sure if Alan Aaron Copeland or Philip Glass… It’s a different world. A lot of these composers now operate in the world of film scores. John Williams might have been a composer in the old days, to make his money and fulfil his craft.

SM: Sure, the ‘Tintin Symphony’.

PG: Yeah, that’s quite good actually. War Horse. I have to say the War Horse score is pretty dreadful compared to the original stage play.

SM: It is. A bit too bombastic for its own good.

PG: Yeah, that’s right. But a lot of these guys also write for the opera; contemporary opera. So it’s hard to compare. But one of the things I try to do is stress to people that these are extraordinary individuals, and it really is worth two hours of your time.

In Search of Haydn screens in select cinemas across the country from March 15, 2012. Grabsky’s other documentary, Leonardo Live, is now showing.

2 Responses to “Interview: Phil Grabsky (In Search of Haydn)”

  1. Hi Simon…thanks for the chat. Few small errors: 16mm not 60. Aaron Copeland not Alan. War Horse: the John Williams score is not as good as the original music used in the stage play. Leonardo Live is definitely on now – as is another of my films (and probably my best) THE BOY MIR – TEN YEARS IN AFGHANISTAN . If your local cinema doesn’t have it, tell them it should! cheers, phil

  2. Thank YOU Phil; and my apologies for the typos. The perils of transcription! Cheers again.

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