Scott Hicks, Glass: A Portrait of Philip In Twelve Parts
Best known for his fiction films, Scott Hicks has returned to another form in which he has also distinguished himself: documentary. Usually identified as an Australian, Hicks was in fact born in Uganda and lived in Kenya until the age of 10, before his family moved to England and then Australia. He studied English, Drama and Cinema at Flinders University of South Australia, and made his directorial debut the year of graduation with the ultra-low-budget drama Down the Wind (1975). After working as an assistant director for the remainder of the 70s, Hicks returned to directing with the road movie Freedom (1982), the kids’ film Sebastian and the Sparrow (1988) and the true-life heist thriller Call Me Mr. Brown (1990). He had notable success with his documentary series The Great Wall of Iron (1989) and Submarines: Sharks of Steel (1993), both of which gained record-breaking ratings on U.S. television. In 1996, Hicks had his breakthrough success with Shine, a biopic of pianist David Helfgott which won an Oscar for its lead, Geoffrey Rush. Since then, Hicks has written and directed two literary adaptations, David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars (1999) and Stephen King’s Hearts in Atlantis (2001), and last year he remade the German hit Mostly Martha as No Reservations.
Like Shine, Hick’s latest film Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts is a compelling portrait of an enigmatic musical genius. Commissioned to mark iconic composer Philip Glass’s 70th birthday, it captures 18 months in his life as he puts his seemingly boundless energy into a symphony, an opera, several film scores, and performances both as a solo pianist and with his ensemble. In addition, Hicks is there to document Glass’ family vacations, visits to eminent friends (such as artist Chuck Close) and his multi-faceted exploration of his spirituality. Hicks’ film is respectful and never invasive, yet Glass is sufficiently open and uninhibited that we get a genuine insight into his life, and come away feeling that we know the artist, though the man remains somewhat obscure, perhaps even to Glass himself.
Filmmaker spoke to Hicks about returning to his filmmaking roots, editing over the internet, and watching The Red Balloon at a drive-in in Kenya.
Filmmaker: What was the first contact that you had with Philip Glass?
Hicks: It was actually when I was editing Snow Falling on Cedars back in 1997 or ’98, and I was using (as so many filmmakers do) some tracks of Philip’s music as temp score to edit to. I made contact with his management just in case we wanted to actually license the music and Jim Keller, his manager, actually realized that I was a Glass fanatic and so he arranged for Philip and I to meet when we were in Los Angeles at the same time. We kind of hit it off together. Philip is a very easy person to get on with and I just found him wonderful, charming, delightful company, basically. Over the ensuing years we would get together from time to time when we were in the same city, be it in Sydney, L.A. or New York, and a friendship grew out of it.
Filmmaker: What was your initial conception of the documentary?
Hicks: I bought an HDV camera and I flew to Nova Scotia to where Philip was on vacation with his family. I just took a sound recordist and an assistant to help, and I thought I’d just film a lot of background material to put in the bank for when I had a proper crew and a budget and could do it the way I imagined. But something remarkable happened, which was that my presence in the room with this little camera was somehow so non-threatening and unintimidating that everybody responded as if it was just me being there. Even on the very first night, Philip started making pizza for his family and was talking about the eighth symphony he was working on. I realized that something special was happening, because how often do you get into that sort of intimacy with a major artist who’s executing an enormous piece of work? And here he is talking about it when he’s chopping onions! It’s like a dream. At that point I thought,“Maybe this is more than just background material I’m getting.”
Filmmaker: The intimacy of the documentary is what makes it special, so how much of that came from the existing closeness of your relationship with Glass?
Hicks: I’m sure that had a lot to do with, but I think a lot of it is just Philip’s nature. When I was filming him for the first time, he started chatting to me and I was thinking, “Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be a fly on the wall, and you’re talking to me! What’s going on?” [laughs] What he was doing was acting as if the camera was not there, because that’s exactly what he’s like. He’s very easy to get on with, he’s sociable, he’s funny and I felt that this was a side of Philip that the world at large had not really had much exposure to. That’s really what the mission of the film became, to capture the human elements of Philip’s life.
Filmmaker: How much of a technical challenge was it? I’m imagining it must be a long time since you were your own camera operator?
Hicks: It’s the first time I’ve ever done it and so it was enormously challenging, but oddly liberating as well. Although I’ve done a lot of documentary work in the past and I’ve worked very closely with cameramen in documentaries and in features, now it was down to me to find the moment, find the framings. I take a lot of stills so I’m used to looking through the lens, but to my delight I discovered I could find the shots you could never describe to someone unless you were looking through the lens. So it was a very exciting process for me. At times I would go, “Am I missing something?” When you’re directing, you scan the horizon and you can nudge the cameraman over to something that’s out of their vision, so I began to wonder if I was missing everything that was really going on. [laughs] It was like going back to my roots as a filmmaker, thinking back to early days when you really wanted to make a film, you got a group of people together and you went out and did it, regardless of how it was going to be financed or what it was going to entail.
Filmmaker: Glass comes across as very unguarded, but there are a few moments where his family say things like “Hopefully you’ll edit this out” and “Don’t quote me on that.” Did you feel awkward leaving moments like that in the film?
Hicks: I think when a sophisticated and intelligent human being is talking to a camera and they say “Don’t quote me” and they’re laughing, I don’t feel there’s any betrayal there. It’s disingenuous to think that that’s seriously going to end up on the cutting room floor. I think if you steal those moments or try to catch somebody off guard without them knowing that you’re recording them – because there were instances where people asked us to turn the camera off.
Filmmaker: What was the film like to edit?
Hicks: Steven Jeffs, who edited the film, was an incredible collaborator and he stepped forward at a time when I really didn’t know where I was going to start. He had edited commercials for me and this is his first long-form work. He lives in New York and I live in Adelaide, and we cut this first film together over the internet for a six-month period. He would cut and post his cuts at four or five o’clock in the morning my time, I would get up, I would download his cuts, we would link ourselves together with a piece of software which locked our two computers into perfect sync, and we would view the cuts and talk about them across the internet. And that’s how we worked. Without the technology, and without his energy, none of this could have happened. It was something that just could not have been achievable a few years ago.
Filmmaker: I believe Philip Glass did the music for your movie No Reservations, which you were shooting at the same time as this.
Hicks: It was a bit like being woven into a double helix because I would be with Philip looking at cues and how they worked with the movie and I’d have my camera there on remote in the corner, thinking we might have an interesting conversation that might end up in the film and then I’d go to adjust the camera, and Philip would say, “Now look, Scott, what film are you making at the moment? Are you making No Reservations or are you making the documentary?” [laughs] In the end, I had to turn the camera off because I had to focus on the film, but it was an interesting point at which it would have been better to have someone else shooting.
Filmmaker: What has Philip’s reaction been to the film?
Hicks: Naturally, it was complicated. My heart was in my mouth when I showed the film to him. I said after showing the film to Philip that the closest experience I’ve had of that was the time I showed Shine to David Helfgott — the main difference being that Philip wasn’t clinging to my leg at the time. When you’re showing someone a film that is about their life, it’s a very exposing thing. We never see ourselves the way the world sees us, but he’s a man lacking in vanity to a high degree so I don’t think it weighs too heavily on his mind.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Hicks: The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse. I was born in East Africa, I grew up in Nairobi [in Kenya] and my parents took me to the drive-in one night. I was probably five years old. I didn’t see much cinema because there wasn’t a lot in Nairobi and there was no TV, but that film (and subsequently the book) made a huge impact on me as a kid. Years later, I went to stay with Max von Sydow in Provence after Snow Falling on Cedars and we were wandering around his property. At one point he said “Oh, that’s my neighbor, Pierre Lamorisse,” and it turns out it was the little boy [from The Red Balloon] who was Max’s next door neighbor. I thought that was an interesting journey for me, 50 years later.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Hicks: When I was a restaurant photographer in 1976. [laughs] I had that job where you go around and photograph people in restaurants: you’d disrupt their dinner, make them sit in arrangements they don’t want to, flash a thing in their face, rush away to develop the film, dry it with a hairdryer, spit out prints of it and then slap them back on the table to hit them with a huge bill before they left the restaurant. [laughs] I didn’t enjoy that. That was my last attempt at having anything approaching a real job – since then I’ve only worked as a filmmaker.
Filmmaker: Should a director always take risks?
Hicks: I think it’s always good trying to explore. Rather than falling back on how you’ve done something before, thinking “How can I do this different to the way I’ve done or seen this before?” Whether that’s a risk or not, I don’t know, but it’s about trying to keep some level of challenge in what you’re doing.
Filmmaker: What’s the strangest experience you’ve had during your time in the film industry?
Hicks: I worked on a number of film crews for terrific directors in the 70s in Australia, as a production assistant, a 3rd A.D., a 2nd A.D. Very early on in that experience, before I really knew my way around a film set properly, the 1st assistant director took me aside one day and said, “Your job is to watch me and anticipate what I’m going to ask you to do. You have to know better than me what has to happen next.” I thought “Crikey!” The next morning we’re out at dawn, we’re shooting in this forest and I’m poised at the edge of the set, my eyes are riveted on him and I’m trying to read his mind. [laughs] He turns to me and he makes a gesture, and I’m completely startled, I’ve no idea what he’s talking about but he makes it again and so I wave back. I turn and blunder away into the shrubbery in the dark, thinking “Oh God, what does he want? I’ve no idea! This is catastrophic, I’m going to be fired…” I’m blundering away from the set, completely lost, when I hear music and I think “Oh, they shouldn’t be playing music, we’re recording dialogue – that’s what it is!” So then I started to work my way to the source of the music and I found somebody with a radio on back in the basecamp and said, “Turn that off, turn that off!” Then I rushed back to the set and got to the edge of the magic circle around the camera and [the 1st A.D.] just turned around and he nodded. [laughs] He was like some kind of sensei, and I’d learned something.