Stephen Walker, Young@Heart
Television directors often go through their careers dreaming of striking cinematic gold like Stephen Walker has. The 46-year-old Brit is a veteran of the small screen who plied his trade at the BBC before setting up his own production company, Walker George Films, with his producer and life partner, Sally George. Walker has directed narrative material, including Prisoners in Time (1995) starring John Hurt, but is best known for his TV documentary work. He won acclaim for Hiroshima – A Day That Shook The World (2005), a drama-documentary that was nominated for three Emmys, including Best Director. Other highly regarded documentaries he has directed and produced include Hardcore (2001), an unflinching portrait of the pornography industry, and Waiting for Harvey (1999), a light-hearted look at the Cannes Film Festival. He has also written two books, Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima (2005) and King of Cannes (1999).
Walker’s latest project, Young@Heart, is a documentary about the Young@Heart Chorus, a choir of septuagenarians and octogenarians from Northampton, Massachusetts who sing rock ‘n’ roll songs. It began life as a documentary commissioned by the UK television station Channel 4. After a highly successful showing in November 2006, Walker submitted the film to the Los Angeles Film Festival, where it took the Audience Award and was snapped up by Fox Searchlight. While Young@Heart still has the look and feel of a low-budget TV documentary, the inherent strengths of the material and the unexpected emotional power and intensity of the story allow it to rise above these limitations. Beyond the inherent appeal of seeing a group of eightysomethings singing The Ramones and Sonic Youth, it’s Young@Heart‘s motley cast of characters that makes it such an engrossing, heartwarming and ultimately very moving film.
Filmmaker spoke to Walker about the conception of the film as a rock opera, the transition from small to big screen, and choosing Halloween 4 as an antidote to plane turbulence.
Filmmaker: What was your initial contact with the Young@Heart Chorus?
Walker: One night I was coming back from a shopping trip and Sally [George] was sitting in the kitchen brandishing a couple of tickets for this performance of a show called Road to Nowhere, named after the Talking Heads song, with a bunch of old people from America who sing rock ‘n’ roll music. I remember thinking it could be a good idea, but I was definitely skeptical. I went along to see the performance and I was completely blown away by it, partly because the audience were so blown away by it. I also just thought the music was great, and what they were singing about was great because all that rock ‘n’ roll stuff suddenly became different when it’s sung by people in their nineties. ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ becomes a song about death, ‘Road to Nowhere’ becomes a song about the celebration of life on the road to death, and ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ becomes a song about what it’s like to be in an old people’s home. There’s still a punk edge to it – you don’t have to be 18 to be a punk rocker, you can be 80. I just thought “Wow!” and them I walked away from that and Sally and I were very revved up afterwards and we were saying “There could be an amazing rock opera about old age here.”
Filmmaker: So the rock opera was conceived in a similar vein as the choir’s music videos in the film?
Walker: Yeah, the music videos were very much part of what we wanted to do. We knew we were going to make them, and we knew we were going to make them part of the film. I was always excited by the whole Dennis Potter, Singing Detective and Pennies From Heaven territory, and I thought that would be a fun way to go when you break out of time and play around a bit. Because you get bored. You have to keep making documentaries fresh and I didn’t want to make just a classic observational narrative feature, I wanted to do different things. I wanted the film to be very personalized, I wanted to travel that journey with them. I’m shooting a lot of it myself and they’re looking straight at me, which means they’re talking straight at the audience. There’s intimacy there, which I like.
Filmmaker: So when did it go from rock opera to documentary?
Walker: In a sense, that’s a very good question. The operatic qualities of the film were always going to be contained within some sort of documentary narrative. The story was constructed, and in some ways it was an artificial story that we constructed – but not entirely, because the chorus do do this. The tension was to construct a show, for the chorus to spend a couple of months working towards that show with new songs, and the show would have a climax, a big pay-off at the end. And along the way there would be other shows, like the jail show. We had to select the songs they were going to be working on. [Choir master] Bob Cillman came up with the idea of bringing back these two [former choir members] that had been sick into the chorus because he felt they had recovered sufficiently to be able to perform a song. The song he thought would work very well was ‘Fix You,’ the Coldplay song, and we thought that was a really good idea. As we started to meet people and cast it, the elements of narrative structure began to form themselves. The key element of the narrative structure that we could never anticipate was that two of the characters that we concentrated on would actually die. That did change the narrative, obviously, quite remarkably.
Filmmaker: It must be very conflicting for you as a documentary filmmaker to have those sorts of things happen because on one hand it’s obviously very sad, but it also adds great power…
Walker: Of course, and I’m not unaware of that. It would be a complete lie to sit here and say that I’m not aware of that. I’ve considered the point that you’re making before and I’ve had to really try and put myself back into that time. I think my initial reaction was certainly not “Gosh, this is going to add hugely to the power of the film,” it was utter shock. I actually remember the shock most of all in both cases, but really with Joe, in the second case. It was real shock and you’re dealing with that first of all. I remember the initial dilemma that I was dealing with to begin with was actually not between “Wow, this could be really amazing and a great bonus to the film!” and “Oh, but I’m emotionally engaged…”, but actually “I’m so shocked, how do I go on and make the film?” It was very intimate: you’re talking to somebody, and the next time you see them – in both cases – is in the coffins, with the lids open. It’s never happened to me before, and you cannot overestimate what that feels like. I thought that was it, that the whole film should just stop at that point, the concert would be canceled, there was no way it was going to go on, and I would just put a caption [on the screen] and the film would end right there. Obviously later, when I was in the cutting room particularly, I began to realize the power of the material I had as I started to put all those elements together. Not cynically, but professionally. Although the film is rightly being marketed by Fox Searchlight as a crowdpleaser, to get people through the doors, I’d like to think that it’s a hell of a lot more than that. It is actually quite uncompromising in certain places when we approach the subject of actual death, virtually in front of your eyes.
Filmmaker: How do you feel about that marketing tactic of playing up certain aspects of the film just to get audiences through the door, rather than giving a totally accurate impression of the movie as a whole?
Walker: We chose Searchlight, and we had a lot of offers – some very good offers – from Hollywood studios when we took the film to the Los Angeles Film Festival. We won the audience award and everybody was all over us and it was great, but we chose Searchlight. We had a very extensive series of meetings with them about what they were going to do with this film, and I was really tough about that and felt really strongly that you’ve got to have the right people behind you. What often happens with all this stuff – and it has happened to me before, and I can see now I’m growing up – is that you’re just the next piece of meat, and they just want to bit of that meat. They don’t know if you’re going to be big, hot, useless – but you could be money. I’m a grownup, I’m not a kid – I’m in my forties – and I knew that I had to be really careful of all of this and be very grounded, not like some 20-year-old kid, and look at this and say “What is best for the film? Who is best for the film? Leave the money aside.” So we’re sitting there thinking “Who’s right for this film?” and we liked them. They were very passionate, they are also brilliant marketeers – they do know what they’re doing.
Filmmaker: When was the decision made to send this made-for-TV documentary to the Los Angeles Film Festival and to try and get it distributed as a theatrical film?
Walker: What actually happened was that we made the film, it went out on Channel 4, it had this fantastic reaction. We started having private screenings in London, just for fun, and we had these amazing communal reactions and people were really enjoying watching it together with other people. I was thinking, “God, maybe there is a theatrical life here somewhere. Maybe, maybe, maybe.” Everyone knows it’s fucking difficult to get from television to the movies, it hardly ever happens but we all dream. So what we did was we decided to submit to the L.A. Film Festival because there’s a lot of distributors in L.A. and they might actually come and see it if we can drum up a bit of interest. We got accepted by L.A. and went out there with the film. I didn’t have any money, and I spent all the money I didn’t have on getting a marketeer to do some stuff. We had tons of leaflets made up at the local copy shop, Kinko’s, and I was out there walking the streets handing out flyers. We got a guerrilla publicist on board who did it for virtually nothing, Mickey Cottrell, who was great. Suddenly we started getting distributors in there, and then suddenly it went wild. For the second screening, I remember there was a queue about 150 yards long. It was really starting to fill, and it became huge very, very quickly.
Filmmaker: So what changes were made to the film to adapt it from a TV documentary to a theatrical film?
Walker: When Fox got it, I insisted on going back to the cutting room, because there were things I wanted to change. So I made the film much more cinematic: I changed the opening to make it much more theatrical; I made it about four minutes shorter; I had to kill the commercial breaks, and that’s very complicated because it’s not just about closing gaps, it’s about a different structure and it’s quite complicated. New graphics went in and much more importantly than all of that, we also put totally new sound in there. We just had a stereo mix of compressed sound, and what we did was we decompressed everything right back to the bare recording and reconstructed everything. It took weeks and weeks at Pinewood and also the studio at Technicolor – we reconstructed it all for the cinema and turned it into this huge sound.
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing film you watched the whole of on a plane?
Walker: I’ve seen some terrible movies on planes but I can’t remember the names of half of them. I’m now trying to think of the worst movie I’ve seen in my life, but I don’t know. I hate horror films, and I think I remember seeing something like Halloween 4 – one of the really late, downstream ones – and I remember thinking it was [dreadful]. I can’t remember why I watched it. I was trying to scare myself on a plane, I think. Maybe we were bouncing around in turbulence and I wanted something else to take my mind off it that was scarier.
Filmmaker: What was your cinematic epiphany?
Walker: I grew up in that whole era of Scorsese and Coppola in the 1970s – I’m 46 now – so [I was] growing up and watching movies like Taxi Driver, The Godfather and even Apocalypse Now, which is brilliant but flawed. I just thought they were extraordinary. I thought, “God, what an amazing experience to do something like that.” I’m not a Star Wars person – I was too old for Star Wars, it’s not my kind of movie – but those movies I thought were great.
Filmmaker: What’s the best piece of advice you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Walker: Don’t do it. [laughs] No, “Perseverance” I suppose is the right thing to say, isn’t it? Genuinely, it’s not perseverance, as that’s a kind of obvious thing to say, but keep a really open mind. I wasn’t at all convinced about Young@Heart when I first heard about it and look what’s happened to it. Whether you’re going to be a documentary or narrative filmmaker, the world of stories is all around you, all the time. Every day you read the paper, go down the street, sit on the subway, wherever you are, keep an open mind. Keep it open, because openness brings fertility and fertility can bring amazing results.