While in town for the Sydney Film Festival, Larry Heath caught up with director Lian Lunson to chat about her latest film Sing Me The Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert For Kate McGarrigle. She talks about the making of the film, and hints towards her next project with Leonard Cohen, while praising his son Adam Cohen.
You premiered the film in London (at Sundance)... how was it sitting with Rufus and Martha and watching it together?
I think it was very emotional, I think it will always be very hard for them to watch but I didn’t expect the audience (to react so emotionally as well)... because you know I finished the film on the Thursday, I took it to Dolby, I got on the plane on the Friday. So I hadn’t shown it to anybody, I cut the film in my living room so I was very nervous. They (Rufus and Martha) hadn’t seen the finished film.
I think that people who had lost somebody were the ones who came up to me afterwards and said to me how moved they had been, because often people don’t get to express their own grief. Everyone has lost somebody so these songs were very moving, but to have their family really share their own grief with other people, I think that people were touched of the Wainwright and McGarrigle generosity.
They do open their hearts to you throughout the film/ There was numerous amazing moments and they talk about things which I’m sure they would have shied away from in the past. Did you have a relationship with them in the past that made those conversations easier for them?
You know I had met them both of them when I did the Leonard Cohen film, back in 2005 in Sydney, and we had sort of seen each other over the years since then.
I’m good friends with Leonard Cohen and his daughter, so we would just see each other, and knew each other. And Rufus came to me for advice about how to go about making a film, which is when we ended up deciding to do it. I think they trusted me, from that level we were in touch, they were a very big part of making the film. We talked all the time about what we were going to do, how we were going to do it, they trusted me to do it, with the vision that I had for it. So I was very lucky that they like my sensibility as well, but they knew my work obviously from the Leonard Cohen film (I'm Your Man). They could see how I worked as a filmmaker.
Did the Leonard Cohen tribute concert from 2005 work its way into how Kate's concert was staged at all?
This is a family that sings, they always did the Christmas show, they were always doing these types of things together. So the fact that Kate had passed away was not going to stop them from doing this. I think they had always done that. And I think what’s interesting about these types of musicians and artists,, who are real artists, they are not commercial pop you know... they’re always interesting because they are always doing these incredible shows and really incredible music events, that you’re very lucky to see.
So there’s a huge wave of that... it tends to be all those kinds of artists that do these concerts and tribute shows and whatever they are. And they are enormously beautiful. So I think that this was a very natural thing to do for Kate after she passed away... for the family to get together with their friends and celebrate her songs, which is what they did.
And part of the celebration of the songs in the film, we listen to some unreleased recordings and performances by her, kind of shaky cam sort of footage and things like that. What was the process of getting all that together? Were they like... here’s a pile of what we’ve got?
They went to enormous lengths to get me everything they could, we didn’t have a lot of money to buy footage that was owned by networks. It’s a ridiculous amount of money you have to pay for something, but we didn’t have that money so family and friends dug in, and Sloan Wainwright who is Loudon’s sister gave me a bunch of footage, some great footage.
Everybody put in and gathered what they could for me to use. But I also have this three hour concert film, and it was a balance of how much do I (put in of each). We really wanted to present her beautiful songs and also have a glimpse of her and the family. This was about the family coming to terms with her loss, so it was just about marrying all those things together.
And with the interviews that you did with the family and friends, how close in proximity were they done to the concert?
I shot the concert first, then about a month later I was outside Montreal, where Kate and Anna and Jamie’s father built the house, and that’s where we did the bulk of the interviews with Anna and Jamie and Martha.
At the piano, when Kate in the film is saying we sat singing around this piano, that’s the piano Martha and Rufus were at when we were doing the interview. So that was important that we’d be in that house. And then I did other stuff in my house with them too, so we did interviews after the concert.
And then there was the editing! [laughs]
Yeah well again we had no money, so my whole living room was an edit suite. So I would just get up and start cutting, I would work 18 hour days, sleep, get up, cut, that’s all I did.
How long was that process?
I think seriously I started to put it together just before Christmas and then I worked through Christmas and I knew I had a deadline for Sundance London so I just kept working.
I think when you have a lot of material, you know as an editor and filmmaker it’s about choice. And often I will do things a hundred times and change it a hundred times until I get it right. And that’s just a process to work on something and do it a hundred different ways and that’s just the process of what it is. You lay in bed at night, you think about piecing something together in certain ways, the next day you try it and try it again, it’s just a process.
Normally it’s better to have a lot more time, but we didn’t have that so I had to try do that fairly quickly but that’s just a process. Working things through, sitting with them, see what they feel like, listening to them, I do all sorts of things, like download it onto my iPod, listen to it, apple TV watch it. I try to do all these things to get a sense of how it works, as well as cutting.
I imagine it’s hard to decide what you keep in and what you keep out, but one moment that really grabbed me was early on in the film when they were talking about when Rufus sings the song that he wishes was about him, but he knows it’s about all first born sons. I had the opportunity to see Martha a couple of months ago in Toronto, and on the night she said, ‘I’ve been putting it off for a long time but I’ve finally written a song about my first born son.’ It meant nothing to me at the time and it’s amazing how that continues to impact them in all their song writing and it really gives a great insight into their souls almost.
Yeah that’s really interesting, I think that all these songs that they grew up listening to are all chapters of their lives and I think for Martha too I understand what that meant, now being a mother.
And I think she said something interesting in one of the interviews at Sundance which was very beautiful. As a rebellious daughter, I think she spent most of her time trying to carve out her own separateness from Kate, in her own career, and now all she’s trying to get back to is being like Kate.
I think as children we always want to be different to our parents, and now coming to the realisation of how great she really was. And I think for her children that’s going to be continual, getting over the loss of her is one thing, but the longer that passes the more that will grow, how incredible a talent she was. I think that people are starting to understand that now, those songs are some of the best songs ever written, so incredible and unlike any other songs.
So I think that as time goes on, people will come to really understand the enormous talent she had. The songs will grow and I think that the weight has really started to dawn on her kids... now being adults with their own children I think it takes on a new meaning.
So what’s next for you? What else are you working on at the moment?
Right now I’m doing another project on Leonard Cohen, I’m really putting together a lot of archival material on this enormous journey that he’s been on. I also shot a lot of the early, about four or five of the concerts when he first went on tour, so I’m using some of that stuff too.
He’s an amazing, amazing performer and I got to see him when he did his first tour in Australia in a hundred years [laughs]... it was a long time. How long was it between when he was touring?
I think he was in retirement for nearly fifteen years, it was a long time.
I remember your film touched on that…
When I was filming that tribute show, and that became that film, he had been hidden away for quite some time. And I think we’re very lucky that’s he’s out now and touring.
Well that was definitely what I was getting at… it’s so great and he seems to love it, he’s just so gracious.
I think people have waited so long to hear him. And when I see him perform, it’s just this incredible person giving back everything that had been given to him and that people have really adored his songs and taken them to heart, and I think that means an awful lot to him.
And that’s another talented family, Adam (Cohen, Leonard's son) is doing his own thing as well.
Adam’s incredibly talented, my gosh, I mean I saw him recently in LA and it was mind-blowing. He really is an enormous talent, I mean it’s hard to be the son of somebody but this is a guy who really has an extraordinary talent of his own. And I hope that he goes on to really big things, because I think people are really starting to see that because he’s been touring a lot and he’s really been starting to step out of this shadow. His shows are incredible, very, very different to anyone else who’s out there.
He’s got a very timeless quality, much like his father, and I think the same about the Wainwrights and the McGarrigles, they don’t sort of follow a pop culture... they have this authenticity...
They are not trying to be famous, they’re just artists expressing and doing what they do and I think that’s something that is very unique. And Adam is certainly doing this. It’s almost like you’re transported to a place other than where you are and you’re in this French café or some exotic place and this beautiful person has gotten up to perform for you, it’s very different from anything else.
Well I look forward to seeing what’s next from you, it looks like it’s going to be an exciting project and all the best with the screening this evening.
Thank you, I hope people like it. I mean it’s hard to say like it because it’s sad, but…
I think it’s a celebration, I think joyful. I think you can’t help but be taken up by it, whether you find it incredibly emotional or incredibly uplifting. I think there’s a good balance there.
Well I think when you find people giving so much of themselves to something you can’t help but get caught up in it.
Krystal Warren is particularly amazing, she was down in Australia last year for the Nick Drake tribute shows. No one had ever even heard of her, and just stole the show... phenomenal.
I first saw her when I showed up at the rehearsal shows in Brooklyn, I filmed the rehearsals and I was like, ‘What? Who is this person?’. You know she’s just mind-blowing and I think just incredible, I think she’s going to go far.
And I hope so.
I was just blown away by her. So I would have loved to have seen her do that. You know it’s like when I did the Leonard Cohen thing, the film at the Opera House, that was the first time Antony had come out, and to see people go, ‘who is that?’. It’s a beautiful thing to see, to see somebody unique come out and just this raw talent that people are struck by, you know that’s not famous and people don’t know who they are. You see it happen for real.
And he (Antony) and Rufus singing in the film is just beautiful...
A lovely moment, a very beautiful moment. It was a lovely song too, I cried, very beautiful.
Well thank you so much for your time and congratulations on the film.