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Interview: Morgan Neville discusses THE MUSIC OF STRANGERS

“Making a documentary is like putting together a puzzle, when you don’t have a picture or the pieces”.

This line is spoken to us via phone from acclaimed director Morgan Neville. His new film The Music of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble opens theatrically at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema, released by The Archive. In a sense, the film is a true homecoming, as the world premiere at TIFF was the first time the movie screened to the public. The film demands to be seen (and heard) on a large screen. The documentarian’s films like the Oscar winner for Best Documentary 20 Feet From Stardom seem to jump off the screen and The Music of Strangers tells a compelling story. We spoke with Neville in advance of the film’s return to Toronto.

Scene Creek: You screened both The Music of Strangers and Keith Richards: Under the Influence at TIFF last year. Did you notice any parallels between the two musicians?

Morgan Neville: (pause) There was no connection between the two, other than the fact that I think that Keith and Yo-Yo Ma are more similar than you’d think (chuckling). You know, one has a wicked sense of humour and can drink like crazy…and then there’s Keith Richards. No, the films are very different. However, in a way, they are two guys who are no bullshit, who just understand the world through music. I think they would just get each other, you know? They were basically just two people I was willing to follow with a camera. There aren’t many people for which you want to do that.

SC: Do you tend to gravitate towards musicians?

MN: (pause) Yes and no, I mean, I’ve done a ton of music films and I love music, and I’m a musician, and a music geek, and I do love that. But the type of stories I like to tell, I come to think of them as stories about culture. Music is a great way to tell stories. Being able to make music films is a treat because if you’ve got music as an element of your storytelling, it’s almost because you’re cheating, because it has emotion, scale, all this stuff. It’s like you’re starting the film with a secret weapon. The important thing about music films, as in all films, the film has to be about more than just music. Music becomes the language of the film, but it ultimately has to be about something else. I love doing that. But I also like doing stories about artists and I am working on a project about designers right now, people who use culture also use their art to understand the world and to try and change the world.

SC: We’re also fans of your work on Chelsea Does, which isn’t primarily music-focused, because you told an interesting story.

MN: I’m glad, because we did something really unorthodox with that. I mean, she didn’t know what it was going to be, you know, because they’re really kind of documentaries, I think that most people would have had her narrate the whole thing, and we decided, no you’re not going to narrate this, you’re on a journey, and we’re going to document this and make a film together.

SC: Why is so important that this film received a theatrical release from The Orchard?

MN: I feel like Netflix is great for things like Keith Richards or Chelsea, because it has an audience, and the audience is going to find this project, and they’re craving it in the end, and that’s great. It’s going to go from 0 to 60 right away. I mean there’s two reasons why a film like this should have a theatrical life: part of it is that it’s a very visual, acoustic kind of a film, that I think should be on a big screen, but also, films like this, they need a chance to build up to some sort of conversation around them, to find an audience.

By taking them to festivals and screening them, and having it play out over time, allows it to sink in more. It could get lost on a streaming service. I don’t feel like films are ‘one size fits all’. I feel like each film needs its own distribution to make sense for that film.

SC: Has the conversation changed about The Music of Strangers between now and the festival run?

MN: Oh, yeah! What’s interesting is that we finished it just before TIFF, and we didn’t screen it again until Berlinale (which is about five months after). Because Berlin accepted it, we had to hold it until then. So, the difference between finishing it in August of 2015 and taking it to TIFF, and then waiting about five months and the theme of Berlinale this year was refugees and at our premiere, which was in a huge theatre, like in a way we had given away 200 seats to Syrian refugees and ex-pats, and then Kinan Azmeh came with an ensemble and we had a group of other Syrian musicians come up and do an impromptu concert afterwards. And just to see how the film played differently at that audience, and just to see, not just that audience, but just how world events had changed the context around the film and then continued to change and how that affects how a film is perceived. Initially, I had set out to make a film about music, but also kind of about tradition, and what tradition means, which is home, and what home means, and that it has come become a film about immigration, and that wasn’t its intent, but that has come out so much more, as the world is more focused on what that means, particularly in Europe now, seeing it with a European audience, it’s so much more present, the refugee crisis. It’s quite interesting.