The Iris Interview: Keep On Keepin’ On director Alan Hicks at Sydney Film Festival

  • Chris Singh
  • June 21, 2014
  • Comments Off on The Iris Interview: Keep On Keepin’ On director Alan Hicks at Sydney Film Festival

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An incredibly insightful and deep look into something so very positive and important. This is how I would describe my chat with Alan Hicks, an Australian drummer and surfer who moved to New York at the age of 18 before happening to fall under the wing of one of the most prominent figures in jazz history – Clark Terry. The award-winning documentary Keep On Keepin’ On is the work which portrays this soulful 93 year old man and his infinite love of teaching; a very human doco that is bound to reach as deep into the soul as the most profound jazz classics. The documentary follows Clark’s mentoring relationship with a young blind pianist by the name of Justin Kauflin. It’s an amazing, organic story which also featuring past proteges and friends of Clark’s including Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Bill Cosby.

While he was for the 61st Sydney Film Festival, The Iris caught up with Hicks to talk about the five-year process of making Keep On Keepin’ On, what message he hopes people will take away from the film, and much more.

So let’s talk about the genesis of the film. I know you toured with Clark Terry for a while and then you came back to Australia. What brought you back over to America to film this documentary?

Well yeah, I moved to New York when I was 18 to study jazz and through a sequence of events met Clark Terry, and we became really good mates. I ended up joining his band and touring with him. After awhile I ended up moving back to Australia and Australian Story – the ABC program – approached me about doing a short feature about my relationship with Clark: a young Australian drummer with an old Jazz legend! It was all going ahead and I was really stoked about it but then, like a lot of government funded things, they pulled the funding.

I was surfing with my mate Adam Hart – who does the cinematography – and I told him about how the story had fallen through; he said just said “mate I reckon we could just do it ourselves, it will be easy”. That was 5 years ago now. We saved up for a year and bought a camera and a ‘documentaries for dummies’ book, then tried to work out how to make a film; then we just dove in and started shooting.

We’d shoot in increments. We’d shoot for three months and then run out of money and work for three months; I’d jump on a tour and play drums and Adam would come back to Australia, work and save up for three months – this was a cycle. That happened for years, and then eventually we did a Kickstarter campaign and that’s how we got through the film. We Raised over 40,000 dollars.

So you mentioned that the original focus was the relationship between yourself and Clark, when ABC pitched it. How did the focus turn to the relationship between Clark and Justin?

Once we decided to shoot the movie we wanted it to just be about Clark, that was the main idea. So we focused in on Clark, but while we were shooting Justin would just be down there, practicing and studying with Clark all the time. So instead of just having a biopic about Clark Terry and his achievements, we thought…because like Clark is one of the great teachers of our time and it just presented itself to follow one of his students and see how that developed. As soon as we switched the cameras over to Justin as well as Clark, things just started to happen and we were inexperienced enough to just keep shooting for years and years without even knowing where it would end up. So that really worked in our favour at the end of the day: our inexperience.

So it all happened really organically?

Yeah, so like in film school they teach you to just wrap up at a certain point, but we didn’t know any of that, we just kept shooting. It was just a pleasure, I think it was because we were enjoying it so much that it didn’t really matter that it was taking so long to make, and we just did not know where it would end up.

So five years is a very long time to shoot.

Yep! It was four years of shooting and then two years of editing – the editing overlapped with the shooting. So I’ve spent nearly two years in an editing bay, I’m just being released out into the world again!

Over those 4 years, how did the constant shooting effect both Clark and Justin? Was there any moment where they thought it was too much?

Not at all, because I’m a student of Clark’s as well, so I’d be studying with him while we we’re down shooting. I mean, Justin and I both played in Clark’s youth band for years, so we were good mates as well. So it never was a feeling of having a film crew around, it was just mates the whole way. We shot on these really small DSLR cameras and just had a couple of LED lights as well, so our set up was minimal, it could fit in a backpack. We were never in anybody’s way and we would always be as respectful as possible. So when we were down there to shoot, it just became second nature to everyone.

So what’s the chemistry like between Clark and Justin?

Oh they just have this beautiful relationship; I’m so honoured to have been able to capture a little bit of that. I had the pleasure of introducing Justin to Clark years ago. Clark has had diabetes since, I think the 1950’s, and when I first got to know him his vision was starting to fail. I was playing with Clark for awhile and he started to have a real hard time with. It just so happened that Justin came to the university at that time. I asked Clark like “mate there’s this young blind kid that just started at the university do you mind if I bring him around?” Clark thought that was a great idea.

So I brought Justin around to Clark’s place; I remember the night when Justin was explaining to Clark about going blind and how it’s not as bad as you’d think, he really just calmed Clark down, chilled him out; that’s how their relationship started – this is years before the film. So it started from this mutual friendship where they were able to help each other through a disability, then Clark noticed that Justin is one of the great piano players coming up. So then they started working hard together.

So it was a kind of two-way process of them teaching each other and helping each other grow?

Totally. That’s the great thing about Clark too – you can tell he is learning from his students as well. I feel like that represents a great teacher – they are getting something back. Clark said to me one time…he was explaining the concept of teaching and one thing that’s always resonated with me is when he told me that when you’re teaching, you’re learning. And he leads by example with that.

Watching him teach all these years you can tell that he is trying to hone his skills as a teacher, and he is in his 90’s. To be able to watch this process of Clark mentoring a young student and knowing that he mentored greats like Miles Davis and Quincy Jones…it’s like an insight into the history of American music. To see what it is that this guy gives to people. That was really a pleasure to watch from my side, behind the camera.

How did you guys capture the process? was there dialogue? Were they constantly talking through the process or does everything speak for itself?

There’s no like one thing that Clark says where you’re like “that’s the key to the whole thing,” it’s a holistic thing. When you’re studying with Clark it’s not like your hours start and end; the lesson is on from the moment you walk through the front door and he’s singing a song – you’re studying with him every moment. Even eating a meal with him; you’re learning. One of the great things about Clark as well is that he has never charged a student for a lesson, not once in his life. He’s always just felt this obligation to pass on the jazz legend, it’s something which gives him energy.

What do you think will resonate with viewers the most when they watch Keep On Keepin’ On?

I think because it’s a human story it will touch them; it’s not just about jazz per se. It’s about the relationship between a mentor and his student. Everybody’s either had a mentor or wanted a mentor. One of the main things I wanted people to take from the film, while I was making it, is for them to feel inspired to pass on something that they are good at. A lot of people are really great at things but don’t really have a second for a kid, you know to encourage them or pass on what they know. So if there’s anything, I’d love for people to be inspired to pass on something that they know.

That’s a very great message.

I think it’s so important, but we just forget. It’s actually a pleasure to help somebody along the way. I’ve learned that from Clark a lot, because he gets so much joy out of it and he’s a master of his craft, which he also gets joy out of. To see that it’s actually rewarding to help people hone their skills is a beautiful thing to witness.

How did people like Quincy Jones and Herbie Hancock come on board for Keep On Keepin’ On?

Well Quincy was Clark’s first student, and one day he literally just walks into the documentary. He came and visited Clark while we were shooting with Justin one time, and we didn’t know about it. He just walked in and we could not believe it. Here’s Quincy Jones, who just walked in to see his old teacher. It’s like “wow.”
A lot of people who you see in this film have had great relationships with Clark over the years; he’s been mentors to them or great friends. We were fortunate to get interviews with Bill Cosby, Herbie Hancock, and a whole slew of other people. It’s because of Clark’s legacy that we were able to have that kind of access to these great people.

How are Clark and Justin at the moment?

Doing very well. Justin’s career is starting to take off and Clark is still teaching, still really getting into it. A great thing about having the film released is that a lot of people are reaching out to Clark now, and starting to show him their love, and that’s giving him a lot of energy at this stage in his life.

So let’s close on talking about your experience on the technical side of things. I understand this is the first thing you have ever directed. What was that experience like? What have you learned?

I studied music but never studied film, and I think the really cool thing is that there’s a lot of overlap between music and film, in terms of lessons. And all those years I studied with Clark, like all those things he would teach, really helped me in making this. Simple things like repetition, and simplicity, and just encouraging you to practice and keep going…persistence. Those things relate so well to shooting a documentary. So we just kept shooting and kept shooting until we got it right. So instead of going to do a film degree, I studied with Clark and he was able to help me find a voice in another medium that I didn’t know I was capable of.

As for the process, it’s been like a sharp learning curve, but I feel like Clark’s guidance in music really helped me finish the documentary.

Keep On Keepin’ On screened as part of the 61st Sydney Film Festival


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Chris Singh

Chris Singh is an Editor-At-Large at the AU review, loves writing about travel and hospitality, and is partial to a perfectly textured octopus. You can reach him on Instagram: @chrisdsingh.