Filmmaker John Scheinfeld is no stranger to taking on challenging subjects for documentaries. The Emmy®, Grammy® and Writers Guild Award nominee and writer/director/producer’s other films include The U.S. vs. John Lennon, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him), We Believe, and Dick Cavett’s Watergate. But something about the story of legendary jazz saxophonist John Coltrane called to him for his latest project, Chasing Trane (premiering Nov. 6 at 10 pm on Independent Lens on PBS; check local listings). As he tells us in this exclusive interview, Scheinfeld was not a Coltrane-obsessed youth per se but came to love his music and found the man himself mysterious and intriguing: “the more I read about him, the better I came to believe that his was a special and unique story.”

Critic Glenn Kenny, writing for RogerEbert.com, said “Chasing Trane streamlines the story of the jazz saxophonist, but it does so in a way that doesn’t feel like cheating. Scheinfeld’s approach is to give the viewer the forest, point out a few trees and get out, confident that those trees will inspire the viewer to spend more time in the forest.” Kenny adds, “What emerges in this film is not just a great artist but also a noble soul that constantly sought to be gentle. The fact that someone as wholly beautiful as John Coltrane once walked this earth is enough to make you maintain some kind of faith in humanity itself.” 

Why did you want to make a film about John Coltrane?

To celebrate the extraordinary musical legacy of an outside-the-box thinker whose boundary-shattering work continues to impact and influence people around the world.

Chasing Trane filmmaker John Scheinfeld
Chasing Trane filmmaker John Scheinfeld

What is your own relationship to music and jazz music in particular? When did you first discover Coltrane’s music?

Although I’m not a musician nor do I play an instrument, music plays a key role in my life every single day. If I’m not making a film about a musician, or researching a new music-related project, I can be found listening to songs in my iTunes library (I’ve got nearly 20,000). Music entertains me, moves me, inspires me.

I confess that I was not an obsessed John Coltrane fan when work began on Chasing Trane. Like many others, I had been introduced to his remarkable work through his recording of “My Favorite Things” and later came to know and be inspired by A Love Supreme. But the more I read about him, the better I came to believe that his was a special and unique story.

We’ve all heard the cliché tale—a young artist with awesome talent explodes on the scene, has great success, makes a lot of money, abuses one substance or another, and as a result dies young. Coltrane was the antithesis of this. He had his challenges early on but, by sheer force of will and hard work, he overcame them and began his journey to greatness. To me, this was an inspiring and uplifting story.

What jazz music would you recommend newbies start with (both Coltrane and other artists)? In other words, what are some of the must-have albums for those wanting to become more jazz-literate?

There are many jazz artists that I enjoy, but I’m no expert and don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on this subject. That said, I’m mindful of something John Coltrane said during an interview and is spoken in the film by Denzel Washington:

“I myself don’t recognize the word jazz. I mean, we’re sold under this name, but to me the word doesn’t exist. I just feel that I play John Coltrane.”

This, I think is a key point. From the outset it was important that Chasing Trane be a film for everyone, not just Coltrane fans or hardcore jazz aficionados. It is a portrait of a remarkable artist whose music crosses barriers of genre to such a great extent that it is, truly, in a category of its own.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making a music bio doc?

Having made films about iconic artists such as John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, Brian Wilson and others I’m accustomed to the pressure that comes along with the joys of making a film about someone whose work I and so many others admire. My goal with Chasing Trane was to tell a strong, compelling and honest story that didn’t rewrite history to satisfy Coltrane’s biggest fans. He absolutely had his demons and they are addressed in a responsible and truthful manner.

To fully appreciate Coltrane’s redemption and the musical excellence that followed it was critical that the audience feel and comprehend the darkness that encircled him that, through sheer force of will and faith, he successfully overcame.

Another challenge was the lack of performance footage. Unfortunately, Coltrane didn’t make many appearances on television in the United States and only on a handful of shows in Europe. Therefore, to bring his story to life, the Chasing Trane creative team spent many months tracking down the most unusual, rare and never-before-seen photographs and home movie footage with which to tell Coltrane’s story.

Happily, we found far more than we could possibly use. Once we knew what we had to work with then we could begin the painstaking process of molding and shaping individual sequences into a cohesive whole.

Was there anything you wanted to include in Chasing Trane but had to cut out?

The initial concept included featuring stories of real people whose lives had been dramatically transformed as a result of their passion for Coltrane’s music. We actually shot and edited four such stories, but during editing no matter where we moved them they never found an organic place. As a result, I had to make the painful decision to cut all but one out of the picture. Happily, they can be seen on the Blu-ray/DVD release of the film.

There are a lot of big names included in the film. How did you gain the trust of those you interviewed and participated in Chasing Trane?

For me, a critical aspect of documentary filmmaking is the interview process. First, I had to decide who would be interviewed for the film. Possible subjects were divided into four categories: People who knew and worked with Coltrane (Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Reggie Workman, Wayne Shorter); family members who would provide a more intimate perspective (step-daughters Antonia Andrews and Michelle Coltrane, sons Ravi and Oran); musicians who have been inspired by his fearless artistry and creative vision (Common, John Densmore, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Kamasi Washington); and unexpected choices who added passion and eloquence (Dr. Cornel West, President Bill Clinton).

One their commitments were secured and I found myself sitting across from them with the camera running it’s my job to create an environment in which they trust me and feel comfortable sharing their memories and perspectives. First and foremost, ask smart questions and get out of the way. The interview is not about you, it’s about them. Allow a wide berth for them to answer a question and do not be too quick to jump in with the next.

Second, listen – don’t be so focused on your questions that you neglect to maintain eye and ear contact with your subjects. If interviewees sense you’re not really listening all you’ll get are quick, stock answers.

Third, be open to going where they take you. Many is the time an interview subject shared a story that had not appeared or been mentioned anywhere else (which is great) and one needs to be willing to go in that new direction without being locked to the list of prepared questions. All of this enables a filmmaker to earn trust and, in doing so, it will help achieve the goal of being able to dig deeper, to get them to open up and share their innermost feelings and experiences.And because I am relentlessly optimistic, I wanted a movie star to read those words. I built a list of possible actors to approach, but far and away my first choice was Denzel Washington.

You mention being blessed by getting Denzel Washington to participate — how did you approach him and what convinced him to take on the project?

In his lifetime, Coltrane never did a television interview that we know of and only a handful of radio interviews, and the sound on those recordings was not good enough for me to use. But I wanted Coltrane to have a vital presence in the film beyond just the performance clips. Happily, he did many print interviews so I was able to find a number of passages I could pepper throughout the film to illuminate what Coltrane might have been thinking or feeling at key moments in his life.

And because I am relentlessly optimistic, I wanted a movie star to read those words. I built a list of possible actors to approach, but far and away my first choice was Denzel Washington. Not only is he a superb actor and one of the biggest movie stars in the business, but if you think about many of the roles he’s played, they are men of quiet strength. Everybody I talked to who knew Coltrane described him in similar terms — a man of quiet strength.

I learned that a casting director friend of mine, Vicky Thomas, was also casting Fences for Denzel. She agreed to reach out on my behalf. A few days later I received a text from her: “Denzel is in. Needs to talk to you. Here’s his phone number. He never answers right away, but he’ll get your message, and he’ll call you back.” So I call and Denzel picks up on the first ring. “I like the idea, love Coltrane, but I need to see the film.”

We sent a secure link to him for a rough cut. And five days go by. I don’t hear a word, so I’m convinced he hates it and I’m never going to hear from him. On the fifth day, the phone rings, and the first words out of his mouth are not “hello,” not “it’s Denzel,” not “how are you doing?” The first words out of his mouth are: “It’s beautiful brother. When are you coming to Pittsburgh?” (He was there directing and starring in Fences).

I flew to Steel City and, on one of his free days, met Denzel in a recording studio. He came fully prepared, knowing precisely how he wanted to interpret Coltrane. It’s not narration or mimicking Coltrane’s voice. It is Denzel’s interpretation of Coltrane, much as if he had been hired as an actor to play him in a scripted feature film. He did a wonderful job and really and truly elevates the entire film.

We’ve had Forrest Whitaker playing Charlie Parker in Bird; who would play Coltrane in a fictionalized biopic?

Now that’s an interesting question. Coltrane was only 40 when he passed away, so it would have to be someone in their late 20s or early 30s. I’ll have to think about that one! 😉

Poster art for Chasing Trane, by artist Rudy Gutierrez
Poster art for Chasing Trane, by artist Rudy Gutierrez

The artwork used in the film is quite striking; how did you find the artist you used in the film and did you give any directions to him or just let him fly?

I just love the artwork. In fact, I loved it from the instant I saw it. Artist Rudy Gutierrez had re-created dozens of moments in Coltrane’s life for a book, Spirit Seeker by Gary Golio. His paintings are so fresh, so striking, so memorable, that I just had to have them in the film. Best of all, many illustrate a time where there was no camera there to record it. This really helped strengthen the narrative as we were able to bring alive some critical moments in Coltrane’s musical and personal journey. So we reached out to Rudy and he graciously gave his permission for us to use nearly 20 paintings in the film. We also visited his studio and shot an interview with him from which we produced a special featurette on the Blu-ray/DVD release of Chasing Trane. Bravo Rudy!

What are your three favorite/most influential documentaries or feature films?

Growing up I confounded my parents by watching far too many movies, so it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few. But in the way of feature films it would have to be Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane. The epic qualities and elements of the former made me want to become a filmmaker and the audacious storytelling and style of the latter opened my eyes to the possibilities of film.

As for documentaries, I’d have to say Point of Order. Cutting together kinescope footage from the Army-McCarthy hearings, without narration, it gives a dramatic structure and theatrical flair to exposing the abuse of power and self-destructive demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy.The key to understanding John Coltrane, in my opinion, is that he is timeless. And not only timeless, but his work defies categorization.

What film/project(s) are you working on next?

At the moment I’m working on two new films. One is for PBS’s American Masters on the comic legend, Bob Hope. Although somewhat forgotten today, Hope reached the top in every form of mass entertainment during his lifetime and influenced generations of funny men and women that followed in his substantial wake. The other is a feature documentary on world music artist Sergio Mendes. It’s not often that I’ve had the opportunity to delve into the story of a living legend and I’m enjoying every moment of my collaboration with Sergio (not to mention that his music and spirit are so joyous…and so needed during these difficult days).

What do you think is ultimately Coltrane’s legacy today?

Although John Coltrane passed away in 1967 from liver cancer he looms large over the contemporary musical landscape. The key to understanding John Coltrane, in my opinion, is that he is timeless. And not only timeless, but his work defies categorization. Just when you think you have him figured out he released an album on which tried something entirely new and different. He was constantly pushing the envelope and exploring the limits of his art and talent. And he did so without concern for the effect it might have on his record sales and overall career. This resulted in an amazing catalog that remains as fresh, unique and inspirational today as it was when he recorded it.