Thursday, August 2, 2007

Nilsson Schmilsson: Part Six

1969's Harry


A Chat With John Scheinfeld: The Future of Harry (click here for part five)

There's a point I'd like to make about the music in the film.

Please do.

Every piece of music, except for the closing credits, is Harry. He either sang it or wrote it. That was very important to us. I wanted the artist's music only in this [film].

And that's different, because I'm used to documentaries where, to set the scene, you hear something representative of the time, whether it's Neil Young's "Ohio" or whatever. And that gets old. I understand why directors do it, and for people who don't watch many films, maybe that's helpful, but for those who do... There are certain songs I've heard a million times. I don't need to know, 'Hey, it's 1969, and so-and-so has just released...' The film isn't about them, so I liked that. And not having a narrator-having Harry be the narrator is another huge difference.

Let's come back to that in a minute, because that's a very important point.
Well, we used the music in several ways: to set the time and to advance the
story. There's a method to my madness for every song, and where I put it.
So, if you listen to the lyrics, they give us a window into what Harry might have
been thinking at the time, or a view as to what is going on, or about Harry's experience. So, when he sings "Down," and he's going down in his career, that's a story point. That's a good example. We used music that way, but I don't know if people notice this stuff-I suspect you probably do-and I hope they will, because whether it's this piece, the Brian piece, and certainly the Lennon piece, we use music in the same way. The other cool thing you might have read in the production notes...

The instrumentals.
Sony let me go into a recording studio to remix 26 Harry tracks, and we
stripped off his vocals-that's all we did. And so there are these great pieces
of music in the movie that sound just like Harry songs-and that's because
they are! Everyone is so enamored with Harry's voice-you get caught up
in how beautiful it is-that you sometimes don't realize that the music
underneath was exquisitely produced, as well. And every mood we needed-
humor, pathos, poignancy, drama, sadness, whatever-we got that out of it.
I was definitely struck by that, so I'm glad you mentioned it. Have you done
that in your other films, or can you think of films where that's been done?

I can't think of any, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been done. We do it in
all of ours. We did a big piece on Bette Midler two years ago, and then we did
a big piece on the Bee Gees-kind of the Definitive Bee Gees-and we used their music to tell their story in the same way, so I think it's a trademark of our films.
It's preferable to using incidental music
that's trying to sound like the subject's work.

Back to your question about narrator, we set out purposefully not to
have a narrator in the Harry film. We've had narrators in some of our
other films. There was a little narration in the SMiLE piece, but not much.
I don't remember any, so it must have just done its job.
I thought, because we had all this tape on Harry, that that would be a really good approach to take. In fact, it was, except there were some story points later in his life where he just never did an interview, or he didn't live long enough to finish his oral autobiography, so we just didn't have anything there. The other thing, stylistically, that we do in our shows-and you'll see it in the Lennon piece, as well-is we let our witnesses tell the story. And [it's] how we cut them. People will sometimes say, 'You just have talking heads, and you cut them together.' Well, yes, that's true, but look at how we cut them together. What we do is that one person will start a story, a second person will pick it up, and a third person will conclude it. They don't all say the same thing. It's as if it is one person telling it, but we break it up. That I think is something stylistic to us, rather than just staying with one person to tell the story.
And you need that at the end, too. That really comes
across there, where we're hearing less of his
[Harry's] voice.
Yes. There is a value to having your star tell his own story, because
sometimes how he says it-words he uses, what you hear in his voice-
tells you how he's feeling about it all, which is another layer, as opposed
to the Voice of God narrator. Lennon-same thing-being one of the most
photographed and recorded personalities in the world, we had so much to
choose from. So between him, either in interviews, radio interviews, TV talk show
appearances, or what Yoko says, they carry the story. We don't need a narrator.
At the press screening, a friend said to me, right before the lights went down, 'I wonder if the title is a reference to Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me? The film starts to play, and then out comes Dustin Hoffman [to announce Nilsson's death at the Academy Awards]. So I have to ask, more for
my friend than for myself, because we understand the 'Everybody's Talkin' part.

[The Hoffman connection is Midnight Cowboy, in which "Everybody's Talkin' appears.]
It wasn't really a reference to the film, but it was a title that David and I both remembered. It may have even been David's title, I think. It just struck us-it
was always a funny title. I mean, it's [from] a Herb Gardner script. And more so
when we interviewed some people, like Micky [Dolenz] talks about it, and the Smothers Brothers talk about it. They kept saying, 'Who is Harry Nilsson?' Either
they got it or they didn't get it, so we just thought it seemed like a good way to go.
[Gardner also wrote the script for A Thousand Clowns.]
The context in which Hoffman appears is sad, but the minute he showed up,
my friend said, 'That's Harry Kellerman!'

He's a very smart guy, your friend. [laughs]
He is. I'll tell him you said so. Since a lot of people know who Nilsson is-he has
a lot of fans, even if he isn't as well known as Lennon-were there other people who considered making a biopic or a documentary, or did you have this to yourself?

Yeah, I think we had this to ourselves. We haven't bumped into it anywhere
else. The only documentary was the [Who Dropped His] Mouse, and that
was really only about the making of the album. [Nilsson Schmilsson]
And the music continues to get covered. LCD Soundsystem, who I caught live
last year, do an amazing version of "Jump Into the Fire," which is on their
[self-titled] album. They're kind of an electro-pop band, and it's how they end their
set. You wouldn't think they're fans, but they clearly are, and it isn't an ironic
cover. It's wonderful, and I keep hearing other bands covering his material, but maybe filmmakers aren't looking at his music in the same way as musicians.

It seems to me that it's really two things. Were you at the party last night?
This local guy, Sean Nelson...
I was thinking of him, actually.
He did a set of Harry songs.
He's a known Harry fan.
He did eight Harry songs on stage last night.
That's a lot.
Yeah, he's not Harry, but they're songs you never hear anybody else perform,
really, so I think there are two ways to answer your question. Musicians know
Harry, and I think that's why we got the response we did at the screening last
night, and why there are a lot of musicians who like talking about Harry, whether
it's Randy Newman or whoever. Randy wasn't like a close friend, but he had great respect for Harry, so I think that's part of it. Film people use Harry songs in movies.
There's a long list.
'Coconut,' I think, was in Reservoir Dogs. You've Got Mail has four Harry songs,
and that kind of stuff, but no one felt compelled to make a movie, whether
a documentary or a biopic. We're gonna try and see if we can't get a biopic
going, but we're the first ones I think that said, 'Let's do a documentary.' And
we had a hard time selling it. We tried for two years, and we just couldn't do it.
That's amazing.
People said, 'Harry? I don't know. He's not popular enough.' It wasn't John Lennon. So finally we got independent financing to take us to this point. A lot of deferred salaries-a lot of labors of love-and we hope we'll get a distributor who cares enough about Harry and will give it the right support, and we'll make some money then. This is really up in the air. The whole thing in coming to festivals is you want a distributor to see it and grab hold... Our first screening was in Santa Barbara in February, and
it got great reviews, and we got interest from about 20 companies. No one said 'No,' but no one said 'Yes' either. My feeling has always been that Harry isn't going to be the big box office grosser of the summer, so it's going to take somebody who has an emotional connection to it, and knows how to handle a little film like this. Our hope would be to have a small theatrical window, followed by HBO, Showtime or BBC.
Then the DVD-who knows after that. I don't think it's got the legs for a big theatrical release. So, we had it to ourselves. At least that's my understanding of it.
Even though I grew up with the music, pretty much everything
about his personal life was new to me. I think you'd have to be
a really big fan to know everything about his family life.

That's really good. I'm glad.
And I did want to know more about him as a musician. I like it that the film gives you both. Some [docs] tilt more towards one than the other. You find out about someone's working methods, but nothing about their personal life. With Harry,
it seems you didn't have that...choice. A lot of his songs are about his life.

Yes. They sort of intersected. The other thing is that I didn't want to do one
of these documentaries, where it's like, 'Let's analyze this album,' and 'Let's
analyze that album...and then in 1971, this happened,AeP' So, you don't hear a
lot of dates from us in this movie. You don't even hear the album titles, particularly-a couple of songs here and there, because there were interesting stories attached
to them. But that's definitely the approach we took, to give you a sort of portrait
of an artist, if you will-and the journey of an artist-and in some ways, I've often
felt that this movie is kind of the quintessential rock and roll journey. It could be
Kurt Cobain-it could be anybody else that kind of lived the life that Harry lived.
Al Kooper will shoot you down!
I liked that it was very uncondescending in that you didn't say things people could easily look up on their own-that aren't really that important-whereas another documentary would give you this whole big background. Like when Al Kooper comes on screen, we're not told who he's played with, and it's not relevant to what he has to say, but for anyone who's familiar with Bob Dylan and people like that, they would know right away. It was nice-it was refreshing-not to be told such things.
I do think that sets it apart. And it does seem to be geared towards people who are a little more educated
[about music history] than your average film fan, because you don't automatically say, 'Well, this person did this thing and the other.' You just say who they are, what they do, and then they tell their story that relates to Harry.
I'm so glad you noticed that. We, David and I, get into things about this
from time to time. He's more inclined to do that. It's called Chiron sometimes-
I call that Chiron for Idiots. Okay, let's tell them everything we know.
If they're 16, that's gonna be really helpful, but I think the other people
who are gonna see this documentary-and I don't mean to imply that
people in their 20s won't see it-but I do think you're gonna hit a lot of
people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s who do know who these people are.

I think so. Even VH1, they do 'rare home movies.' We won't do that-obviously, they're rare. Where else do we have these? That said, I do think we treat our audience with some respect. We try to make smarter shows for smarter people.
And with that, my tape came to an end, but Scheinfeld and I continued to chat for another 15 minutes, although I can no longer remember whether we spoke strictly about Who Is Harry Nilsson or whether we touched on other titles. Once he and producer David Leaf decide what they're going to do with this fine film-theatrical release, DVD, cable, and/or public TV-I promise to update this post accordingly.
To hear selections from Nelson Sings Nilsson, please click here, and here
for a video of Sean Nelson's Seattle Town Hall performance of "Maybe."
Images from the AMG, MovieMeter, and Nelson Sings Nilsson.

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