Filmmaker Daniel Anker talks about the challenges of illuminating an intangible subject, telling a story without a straight-line narrative and proving that films about classical music don’t have to be stodgy.
What led you to make MUSIC FROM THE INSIDE OUT?
The inspiration came from many sources. One is my own personal connection to music: The film is not intended to be a film about professional musicians or symphony orchestras, but really about the universality of music itself. As an amateur musician, I consider it a personal statement, about how all of us—whether we sing in church, or in the shower, or play an instrument—feel and experience music. It’s almost incidental that the characters are some of the world’s greatest musicians. In the film, they serve as the conduit through which a universal story is told.
I had thought about the ideas expressed in MUSIC FROM THE INSIDE OUT for many years, dating back to work I did in college. But for the most part, the film is an outgrowth of other music films and television programs I worked on early in my career. I wanted to do a film about music that was different both in content and form. Classical music in particular is often presented in such an austere manner. This film tries to portray the musical experience solely in terms of our human relationship to it. Rather than emphasizing the trade secrets and craft of professional musicians, or focusing on a star-soloist, or information about a composer’s life or specific repertoire, it tries to illuminate and express a feeling, an experience, and acknowledges from the beginning that the subject itself is ultimately intangible.
Filmmaker Daniel Anker describes the moment that the musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra truly welcomed him into their world.
Working in collaboration with the musicians was very rewarding. Initially, however, I had been warned that musicians are not welcoming of cameras. So, on my first shoot, I hung out on the periphery of the Orchestra. But a few minutes into the rehearsal, someone in the violin section looked over and moved his chair. And then the entire section moved their chairs, and the Orchestra sort of opened up, like the parting of the Red Sea. I walked through the musicians and found a seat on the floor in the oboe section and shot from there, which was, to say the least, an amazing experience. The cooperation and support from the musicians never wavered from that moment on.
How did you come to work with the musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra?
In early 1997, I spent time with The Philadelphia Orchestra working on a television project. During this period, the musicians were themselves soul searching, after having just settled a long and very bitter strike with management. One of the resolutions of their strike permitted them to participate in projects outside those officially sanctioned by the Orchestra management or board. That technicality allowed me to forge relationships with the musicians themselves, and produce a wholly independent film, something I would not have been able to do under other circumstances.
What are the challenges of making a film about an abstract idea—like, what music means to different people?
It has been a challenge in many ways—just harnessing the forces of 100 people and working within the institution of a symphony orchestra to make a film, is in itself a very difficult endeavor. Most difficult of all, perhaps, was the editing. We were in post-production for almost two straight years and struggled hard to find the right balance between music and talk, creating a structure that would carry the audience forward. Most documentaries still follow narrative form—a beginning, middle and end, with character development, conflict and resolution. We couldn’t do that here, so as a substitute, we had to make it visually, emotionally and musically compelling. It is the connection of the ideas, the visuals and the music that hopefully will sustain an audience for 90 minutes. Music is used in the film not simply as underscore, but as a character itself—intended almost to be a parallel narrative to the stories and dialogues. The music is never edited, which made it quite a challenge in the edit room.
I also shot the film differently than other programs with orchestral music. We shot almost exclusively handheld, sort of as an acknowledgement of music’s constant motion. Even when we shot with multiple cameras, much of it was handheld, often with cameramen crouching to shoot from the perspective of the musicians in the Orchestra.
How did you choose which musicians to feature? What was your approach in bringing their stories together?
The project was conceived in collaboration with the musicians, and we began with a series of workshops, which we held over several months. All musicians were invited to participate, and I decided to film them. About 60-70 people out of 105 musicians attended one or more of these workshops, and it is the stories that emerged from those dialogues that I followed in the production. So in a way, the musicians’ participation was self-selective. But also, after traveling and spending time with many of the musicians, I did start to make some choices about whose stories were more in synch with the themes of the film.
What was your goal in interviewing your subjects in groups?
The group discussions were initially a device to get musicians to participate and speak freely, but they also allowed me access to a great many of the musicians at one time. It would be very difficult to meet and get to know all 105 musicians otherwise. A handful of these discussions appear within the film, which I think allows the audience to feel like there are indeed 105 voices telling the story, whereas without the device, it would be confusing to introduce more than three or four main characters.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
We’ve been fortunate to ride the trend of recent years in which some documentaries enjoy a life in the theater, so we’ve seen first-hand the impact the film can have. When it began its theatrical run in 2005, the audience response completely blew us away. Rather than the sort of black-tie crowd that one associates with symphony orchestras, the film attracted quite diverse and very down-to-earth people who play music, or sing, or just love listening. In many cases, the towns where the film played have organized community activities around the screenings and the impact has sometimes been quite striking. People have emailed about being inspired to revisit the music in their own lives or about having their own love of music validated by the film. Some have returned to the theater multiple times, often with their kids who are introduced to music in a different way. I’m hopeful that the PBS broadcast and DVD release will extend that impact.
What period of time did filming take place and when did it conclude? Any updates on the people and what they have been doing since then?
Filming started in February 2000; editing began in February 2002 and continued through April 2004. Shooting continued intermittently almost through the end of 2003, and, in many cases, was informed by the editing process. Most of the musicians are still doing exactly the same thing—playing in The Philadelphia Orchestra.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
I definitely feel privileged to be able to do what I do and make a living. I enjoy immersing myself in a subject or a new world for a few years, and then moving on to something completely new. Prior to this film, I spent a great deal of time in Alabama working on a film about a civil rights case from the 1930s: Scottsboro: An American Tragedy. I went from that experience to traveling the world with the great musicians of The Philadelphia Orchestra. Then, in another recent project, Imaginary Witness, a film about Hollywood and Nazism, I had the opportunity to explore a completely different part of history, and meet and interview the filmmakers, historians, and scholars who are crucial to how the Holocaust has been portrayed. So perhaps the answer to your question is: the variety of experience is what keeps me motivated.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
No other broadcaster has as its mission to bring culture to a wide and varied audience, as opposed to just seeking high ratings. I hope PBS will continue to support the arts in this way.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
My advice is to not jump directly into filmmaking, even though it is easy these days to own and use camera and editing equipment. But rather take the time to apprentice and learn from others.
If you could have one motto, what would it be?
I’ll borrow a phrase from my cameraman, Tom Hurwitz, who used to say, “Rushing is the shortest route to mediocrity.” Every moment in this film is very carefully planned, developed and vetted, and hopefully, if the film works for people, it is because of the time we took to try to get it right.
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