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The making of
by Michael Slowe, FACI

The film won an IAC Diamond and the Best Documentary Award at BIAFF 2013
To BIAFF 2013 results | To Full Making Of Index

The article was written late in 2012, before the film was completed.

Portrait of Michael Slowe. As I’ve frequently written,we non-commercial film-makers are in the fortunate position of being free to approach a project any way choose and to mould and form the piece as we feel inspired so do without constraints and, more particularly, without a producer or client breathing down our necks demanding that we exclude this but include that.

Equally, this freedom can work against us in that guidelines have be self-imposed and self-discipline is a rare attribute in regard to artistic endeavour.

It is for this reason that I always prepare rough cuts of my films and take time to test them with a few selected people, taking on board suggestions if I agree their validity, prepare a second rough cut and so on. This is not ‘editing by committee’ because I don’t always heed the suggestions, but it does draw to my attention points which become obvious to me once they are pointed out and which I would miss if viewing the piece alone at the edit suite.

I mention all this because (at the time of writing) I’m nearing the completion of a particularly difficult documentary which entails telling a story almost entirely with dialogue spoken to camera which always takes longer than one would wish and results in a long film if the story is to be told properly. Hence the requirement for the self-discipline referred to above.

There are many strands and aspects to this story and much material to choose from, I have to consider the sensibilities of the people featured and at the same time, reflect past events faithfully without distortion.

The central figure in the film is an elderly musician, the last survivor of a world famous classical string quartet who dominated the music scene for 40 years of the last century. I and my family knew the individuals well at the time, but since they stopped playing on the death of one of their number - together with the death of my two sisters who were very close to them, we rather lost touch.
The musician in question was the cellist of the group, Martin Lovett, and I happened to see him one day last year, exercising at a local gym. I thought then that he might well be an interesting subject for a film for quite a few reasons. Firstly, everyone is fascinated by celebrity, and this man was certainly celebrated, albeit some years ago, there is also some notoriety attached to a last survivor.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.
In addition he is what is often referred to as a ‘character’, an impression that comes over well on camera. There is the history, well documented by press cuttings and a comprehensive archive of photographs - and finally there is the music. This is where I faced another dilemma. Music, when played on camera takes time and, furthermore, the classical genre does not have universal appeal, I agonised therefore over how much live music to include. Martin still plays his cello today and I obviously wanted to have sequences of him doing so, but I also needed to show him in his prime playing with his colleagues in the quartet.

I had a book, written by a distinguished musical historian and broadcaster, featuring the quartet, published around its 25th anniversary in 1963. I contacted this gentleman and told him what I was contemplating and he agreed to be my ‘anchor’ in that he could set the scene as regards the history and, in conversation, lead Martin through some of the events and adventures of his career.
In addition, I coincidentally happened to meet the daughter of the viola player of the quartet, the first member to die, whom I had known when she was a child. She was enthusiastic about the project and agreed to help in whatever way required. Actually, together with the daughter of Martin, I was able to film the two girls exploring the quartet’s archive which explained the inclusion of some of this material. Finally, to complete my ‘cast’ there was the lady who has become Martin’s live-in companion and partner in the eight years since the death of his wife. She is from the Netherlands, is a successful author in Holland and Germany, and plays the piano in accompanying Martin in his daily musical activity. In keeping with my invariable practice, I embarked on my filming with no set plan or script in place, I prefer to explore the subject and see what comes out.

In the old 16mm film days of the 70s, this was expensive and less practicable but with digital acquisition and huge storage capacity there are no such problems. Conversely another problem is thereby created, that of having a surfeit of material from which to construct the film, a problem that I constantly grapple with.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.
Having no prearranged script or story line does mean that I can allow my subjects free rein to discourse as they wish with little direction. They feel at ease that way and as a result, I am often asked how this is achieved. Rather as I imagine the portrait photographers work, I go to great pains to relax the subject without too much fussing with technical matters. I generally attach a microphone of some sort, either radio or wired, but try and avoid using intrusive lighting set ups. This approach can however have a detrimental effect on the quality of the material obtained.

Sometimes, as with some of the sequences in this film, people can start talking and although I may feel that something about the setup is not as I would like it, I’m reluctant to suspend the action while I make corrections. Disparity in colour balance and exposure is not always easy to match shot-to-shot although modern editing software correctly used, does help greatly.

Since most of the events referred to in various conversations took place many years ago, I faced the obvious problem of retaining the audience’s interest. Clearly, I needed archive footage of the quartet playing while in their prime, together with general shots of them away from the concert platform - particularly of my cellist. I had a bit of luck here because just when I was making my initial contacts, the BBC had commissioned a production company to compile a series of DVDs containing performances by famous musicians from the past and Martin had been sent the one featuring the Amadeus.

The company concerned was International Classical Artists and I contacted the lady there who had dealt with Martin about the contract and asked her to 'sound out' the possibility of me using some extracts from the DVD in my film. I suggested that I'd need no more than two minutes and the BBC kindly agreed.

I am not a great advocate of using other people’s footage but sometimes it is justified in a film of this nature dealing with past events provided that the extracts are kept to the absolute minimum and do not constitute a significant volume of the total. ICA Classics was also able to obtain additional footage of the quartet from a BBC programme from 1973 which was invaluable in the making of my film and which is currently the subject of further permissions as is the use of some snatches of recorded music played by the quartet. I was greatly amused when Martin indignantly exclaimed, “Of course you can use it, I’m performing” and I had to explain that it is not as simple as that! In dealing with copyright matters great care has to be taken in how you present your case and the non-commercial aspect of the production has to be emphasised. In this connection I would refer to my previous film, Hounds & The Huntsman which has been broadcast quite a few times by one of the minor Sky channels.

This, together with sales by them of the DVD, has resulted in a tidy sum being due to me. I made it very clear from the start that in no way was I to benefit and I decreed that all payments were to go to a nominated charity thus preserving my amateur status and complying with my statement that all my film-making is on a strictly non-commercial basis.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.
Still from 'The Last of the Wolfgang'.

An important question arises at some point with any production - "What’s the film for?" Not only do I ask this myself but others do as well, especially those appearing in it.

With this film, it is a particularly valid question and one that even now I am unable to answer. Martin and his family and friends are delighted that it is being made and will regard it (I hope) as a film in its own right providing a permanent record of a remarkable group of men and one which may well end up being broadcast somewhere. Its length therefore is of no concern to them provided that it is interesting throughout and tells the story in an entertaining way. On the other hand, my amateur film-making friends and colleagues might well be aghast. “Forty five minutes!” they will exclaim, “Who on earth wants to sit through that?” and IAC Festivals will simply banish it to a back room.

An added complication is that the subject, a classical musician, might not be of universal interest and for most people under the age of fifty, the Amadeus Quartet would mean nothing. I will wait until the film is in its final form before deciding on its exhibition. I may well try and reduce the length for a version more acceptable to festivals but a great deal of the sense of the narrative would inevitably be lost or distorted.  As the film inevitably contains some live music sequences, I was aware of a conflict. In an effort to limit the possibility of boring non-musical audiences, I had to keep these sequences short.

Normally, when I edit music, it is modern material which lends itself easily to masking a cut. With a classical piece this is not easy at all, particularly when there is vision as well. Serious musicians are very sensitive in this regard but I really needed to use only segments of Martin playing at home.

His daughter is a freelance vision-mixer and has recently vision-mixed some of this summer’s BBC Prom. concerts so I asked her advice with the music cuts. Where I thought I had fiddled a good cut, she definitely disagreed! I even had to resort to a fade to black on occasions. These musical scenes work well and those who have seen the film are unanimous in their approval of them.

You will, I hope, have an opportunity of seeing the completed film in one version or another, the title of which is The Last of the Wolfgang. This refers to the fact that the quartet were often known as the Wolfgang, one of Mozart’s names, the other being Amadeus, with the inference that their behaviour might have been such as to justify this sobriquet.

This article appeared with different illustrations in the December 2012 issue of Film & Video Maker magazine and is used here by kind permission of the author and the magazine editor.

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