Filmmaker Q&A

Billy Strayhorn, wearing glasses, a white shirt, gray slacks and a square pinkie ring, sits with his back against a wall with a brightly colored tapestry
Filmmaker Robert Levi shares his hopes for BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE.

I set out to build a living, flexible, vibrant, and emotionally charged film about a gentle soul and timeless spirit who left us few clues about his inner life. I wanted the world to experience both the beauty and the pain he lived through.

Writer/Producer/Director Robert Levi talks about wanting to set the record straight regarding Billy Strayhorn, finding archival footage and the appeal of New York pizza.

What led you to make this program?

I’m the director of Duke Ellington: Reminiscing in Tempo, a documentary feature film for which I was awarded an Emmy. As time passed, I realized how I, too, had been focused on the legend of Duke Ellington and had taken Billy Strayhorn’s contributions during their 29-year musical collaboration for granted. Over the years, I made several other films, but always felt a new film biography of Billy Strayhorn would help set the record straight and do away with categorizations and omissions.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I want viewers to experience one of the most significant collaborations in the history of the arts, only this time from Billy Strayhorn’s perspective. When people point to Ellington’s 50-year life as a bandleader, encompassing the creation of some 2,000 songs and long-form suites, they’ll understand what has led scholars and historians to credit Strayhorn with having written as much as 40 percent of the Ellington Orchestra’s material during his tenure with Duke Ellington, from 1939 through 1967.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Making a film about a prolific yet unfailingly modest genius—someone who might not have encouraged such an enterprise to take place in his own lifetime—was a major challenge.

What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to?

There were two interviews planned with colleagues Marian Logan, a civil rights activist, and Barry Ulanov, a scholar and author, who died while the film was in development. I believe they would have had volumes to say. Nevertheless, their presence is still felt through archival elements.

What has the audience response been so far?

Response, to date, has been phenomenal.

BILLY STRAYHORN: LUSH LIFE contains a variety of archival footage. What was it like working with rare historical media? Was there anything that surprised you while you were researching the material for the film?

The biggest surprise was discovering that most of the materials featuring Billy Strayhorn had either been lost or destroyed. This forced us to find solutions to keep viewers engaged. It led to our assembling a group of contemporary performers to record a collection of newly arranged versions of both classic and recently discovered Strayhorn works. We were amazed when stellar performers including Elvis Costello, Dianne Reeves, Hank Jones, Joe Lovano and Bill Charlap agreed to join us in this project.

The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?

The concept of being a small cog in a big wheel or having to accept transient and fleeting work based on marketing demands or dumbing down a project at the expense of creating quality work—all are a compelling argument to remain an independent.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

For me, PBS still offers superior outreach for the dissemination of one’s work—and it does so with an eye to quality, depth, and lasting impact. Plus, the people who work for PBS are finely attuned to nuance and detail, and seem to be guided by a solid moral compass—not a ratings system or marketing scheme.

What are your three favorite films?

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Viridiana and Belle de Jour are three films by the master, Luis Buñuel.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

I didn’t take vacations, and I didn’t see many movies.

If you could have dinner with one famous person, living or dead, who would you choose and why?

It would have been an amazing experience to dine with Luis Buñuel—one of cinema’s most original rebels, artists and visionaries.

If you weren’t a filmmaker, what kind of work do you think you would be doing?

The researcher/documentarian in me would be channeled into a forensic psychologist or homicide detective; the cinematographer would have become an architect or urban planner.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Don’t forget about the writer/director soundtracks on your DVDs; they beat film school in many ways.

What sparks your creativity?

Would you ask a border collie what sparks its herding instinct?

What do you think is the most inspirational food for making independent film?

I dream of home-cooked meals prepared by Mom or someone I love, but I’d never turn down a good slice of New York pizza.

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