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“I Felt an Enormous Amount of Pressure to Deliver Something That Wasn’t Just a Music Doc”: Matthew Heineman on His Telluride-Premiering Jon Batiste Doc, American Symphony

A scene from American Symphony

“I literally finished the film at three in the morning last night,” director Matthew Heineman says on a video call with Filmmaker on Tuesday, just past the airport security on his way to the 50th Telluride Film Festival. “I’m barely alive right now.” 

Thankfully, Heineman is alive and well, and at the height of his powers as a documentarian with sharp instincts and artistic finesse with American Symphony, which marks the second time a feature of his world premieres at the annual Colorado gathering. The first was last year’s stunning Oscar-shortlisted Retrograde, on the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

In a lot of ways, American Symphony is a major gear shift for Heineman, a filmmaker who often puts himself in danger’s way, chasing deeply human, high-stakes stories in war and conflict zones. With his latest, Heineman pulls of something even more intimate than his previous films, leaning into the life and times of the Oscar and Grammy-winning musician Jon Batiste and his wife Suleika Jaouad, a writer, musician and artist. Together, they’re navigating the highs and lows of existence—with Jon writing a singular, Carnegie Hall-bound symphony, celebrating his success at the Grammys and steering a deeply challenging phase with the return of Suleika’s leukemia, which she was first diagnosed with at the age of 22.

Heineman compassionately follows the couple—who are his friends and collaborators—for months during American Symphony, putting forth a richly layered portrait of two artists with a beautiful marriage.

Below is our interview, conducted prior to the film’s first Telluride screening.

Filmmaker: When  did your friendship with Jon Batiste start? I know that he composed for The First Wave, but does it predate that?

Heineman: Our friendship really grew out of working on The First Wave together. I’d run into him a couple of times before then. But yeah, we were having dinner the fall of ’21 after The First Wave had premiered, and he was just telling me about the next year of his life and this plan to create the symphony that would premiere at Carnegie Hall. And so that was the initial conceit of the film, to make this a process film about the situation of symphony. Obviously the film, like every film I’ve made, evolved into something much different, much deeper, but that was the original intent.

Filmmaker: Let’s open up that shifting of gears. You go into the story through one angle, and then it turns out be the story of an artist who is experiencing both the highest and lowest of his life at the same time. 

Heineman: I never really go into films with a roadmap or a plan. That’s part of what I love about making films like this: be open to the story changing, be open to the reality of life. And certainly, there were numerous times in the creation of American Symphony, the film, where things shifted and evolved. I knew that I wanted to try to capture Suleika’s journey as well. I didn’t know whether that would be possible. And obviously we didn’t know whether she’d survive or what would happen. So that was certainly a very, very sensitive aspect of the film that I wanted to handle quite delicately. But ultimately, the film became the portrait of these two artists navigating these incredible highs, incredible lows of life and unbelievable power of art to persevere during these times.

Filmmaker: You’re no stranger to filming people in their vulnerable moments. But this feels a little different still, more intimate, because you know these people personally.

Heineman: My goal always is to try to get as intimate as possible with my participants in my films. Having done this for a long time, this was a particularly interesting challenge given how close I became to the two of them. And I really wanted to change my approach a bit, be a bit more participatory. We talked a lot about what we’re doing. We talked about my intentions and our intentions. Because I was basically living with them for seven, eight months. We were filming sometimes 18-20 hours a day, basically every single day for months. And to do that requires a fair amount of transparency and communication and trust building. And so in some ways it felt similar to what I’ve done in the past. In some ways it felt completely foreign to me.

Filmmaker: On the one hand, you’re obviously not in physical danger here, not dodging bullets or anything. But on the other, the emotional toll this must have taken feels like it has a connection to your former work. 

Heineman: I’ve certainly filmed a lot in hospitals. My father battled cancer for most of my life. So this was something that was very close to my heart. It felt very personal to me. Obviously, [Suleika] is not a family member, but she’s became a friend, and so I care deeply about her and what might happen to her. But yeah, it’s impossible to compare it to Retrograde or Cartel Land or any of the other films I made. I think I felt an enormous amount of pressure to deliver something interesting, to deliver something that wasn’t just a music doc. Having watched a million and made one myself, I didn’t want this to be even described as a music doc, and I don’t think it is.

And cinematically, I really wanted to try to push my craft and to push myself. And it was quite an amazing palette that I got to play with, from deeply intimate verité in their bedroom, to a 13-camera shoot at Carnegie Hall, which was an extremely complicated logistical feat to pull off. And sneaking into the Grammys and filming on my iPhone. It just had a whole range of cinematic and stylistic and producing challenges and opportunities. I feel like in some ways, my whole career brought me to this point, to be able to pull something like this off.

Filmmaker: How does one sneak into the Grammys? That must have been an exciting challenge.

Heineman: I should probably be careful of what I say, because I don’t want to get in trouble. I certainly didn’t have a ticket to the Grammys. I’ll say that. Yeah, I snuck in, and wasn’t supposed to film, but I filmed. And it was important to me to not just cover it as a news story, as a news event. I wanted to see Jon’s perspective. I wanted to feel what it’s like to be in that room.

And that’s my goal: to make you, as an audience, feel like what it’s to be part of the fabric of the daily lives of my participants. And whether that’s a musician, artist, human being, creating a symphony, or his partner, another artist, writer, battling cancer, I want to try to make you feel what it’s like to be in their shoes. And I think it’s so easy to look at someone like Jon, who’s been misunderstood for most of his career, completely misunderstood, [and misunderstand him]. And so I felt it was really important to me to try to allow people to understand and know the Jon that I knew.

Filmmaker: I’m thinking about one of my favorite moments in the movie, which is at the airport after the Grammys. He’s getting his shoes shined. And people approach him. How do you know when to roll during those off-the-cuff moments?

Heineman: I love making docs because you cannot write that. If you wrote that scene in a fiction film, it would be preposterous. Some of those lines would be ridiculous. The body language, the way they approach each other, the way he turned and said, “Are you a celebrity?” You just can’t write that stuff.

It’s part of my ethos. It’s part of approaching filmmaking, which is “roll at all times.” You never know when a magical moment’s going to happen, so you always have to be rolling. I had no support. I had no assistant. I had no producer there with me. I just was carrying my own bags, and I was shooting, and I was trying to get on the plane. I was trying to go through security, and I was doing all the things that every other person was doing while also trying to shoot the movie. But you never know, in those moments. You shoot a lot and sometimes you’re like, “Oh, maybe this will make it in. I’m not sure. This is the least important to do.” I knew when I was shooting that scene that would make it in the movie. It was one of those classic documentary scenes that says seven things at once.

Filmmaker: And then how did you handle the editing of this, since there are several stories between Jon’s career, him writing the symphony, Suleika’s own story, their relationship… How did you balance all those threads?

Heineman: It’s a one hour and 42 minute film and we shot 1500 hours, if not more. So obviously there’s a lot of story that’s not there. This is probably the hardest film I’ve ever cut, because the possibilities were limitless. Could have been just a process film. It could have been just a Grammy film. It could have been just a Jon and Suleika film. It could have been just a Suleika film. Literally every one of these storylines and beats could have been a film unto itself.

So it was really hard to weave this story together and make it feel both intimate and deep. But also we cover a lot of ground in an hour and 42 minutes. It was really, really challenging. To be honest, for months, I kept debating: “Is this a series? Is this a feature? Is this a series? Is this a feature? What am I doing? What’s the story I’m telling?” And then eventually we found our way, and we settled on obviously a feature. And I’m really happy with where it is. I think it was always my goal make it a feature, but I also just felt like we had such great material. Our first assembly was five or six hours, and it was a watchable five or six hours.

Filmmaker: Was Suleika at any point hesitant about being a part of the process?

Heineman: She was very hesitant. Extremely. I mean, it was very clear the stipulation of making the film, that she wasn’t sure that she wanted to take part. She wanted to always have a parachute to back out if she didn’t feel comfortable, which was okay with me. I filmed so much of that storyline, not knowing whether I’d actually be able to use it. And I always wanted to respect that. I want to respect her wishes. I think she was very clear not wanting to be the sick anecdote to Jon’s success. And so, I never wanted to make her that. I wanted to make her a fully formed person, which she is. 

Filmmaker: What does it mean for you, to be going back to Telluride?

Heineman: I’m just so, so honored to be coming back. It’s such an incredible festival, such an incredible place to premiere a film. This is the perfect festival for this film as well. And I’m excited to start this journey at Telluride. I think it’s going to be a way different process to releasing a film. I mean, we don’t have a distributor. We’re still trying to sell the film, but it’s fun. We’ve done a few interviews already together. It’s just fun to be able to talk about art and the artistic process and the incredible power of it from three totally different perspectives. And so I’m just excited to start this phase of the journey with them. Jon just released a new album and it’s an exciting time, so I can’t wait to have people see it and see it in the theater. We’ll see where it all goes.

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