Over the next month, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Bruce McDonald, director of Music from the Big House.
Synopsis: Rita Chiarelli, an award-winning recording artist, takes a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the blues: Louisiana State Maximum Security Penitentiary, a.k.a. Angola Prison. She never imagined that her love for the blues would lead her to raise the roof in a collaborative jailhouse performance with inmates serving life sentences for murder, rape and armed robbery. Music has given these inmates something to live for in what was once the bloodiest prison in America. Steeped with hope, these remarkable voices guide us on a journey of men on a quest for forgiveness. One woman, four bands, and two hours of the blues: It's time to make a new soundtrack.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Bruce McDonald: Through music. After making a number of fictional films that dealt with music and musicians, I got the chance to work on a number of documentary projects with some of my favorite artists; things just kind of went from there.
IDA: What inspired you to make Music from the Big House?
BM: Without a doubt, the passion of Rita Chiarelli. She inspired me.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
BM: This film initially had a very short schedule of a one-week shoot. We knew it was tight, but it was all we needed to get the slice of life at the prison and a window that gave us time to get to know the musical inmates, rehearse with them and then have the concert. However, at the last minute, all our crew was down in Louisiana ready to shoot, but Rita was stopped at customs at the airport in Toronto and was refused entry into the USA. The officer thought she needed a performer's visa, and even though she was doing a free concert for a documentary and had the broadcast letter to prove it, she was denied and sent away. When the prison found out, they decided then to pull the plug on the production. Our producer pleaded our case for days and tried whatever means possible to get us back into the prison. Even some of the townsfolk from St. Francisville joined in to help us out by giving us contacts and leads and even feeding our crew! Luckily, three days later, Rita made it down to Louisiana, and Erin, our producer, had reached the Secretary of Corrections to explain the misunderstanding. Once he got in touch with the warden and discussed our case, we finally received entry to shoot our film. So with three days left, we shot our feature documentary, got to hear some incredible stories and witnessed some magical performances. We're glad the world gets to see this now, too.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
BM: We were pretty much all on the same page in pre-production, ready to go. So our snag with the location logistics was what could have thrown us off, but we stayed true to what the story was about: redemption through music. So even with such little time with the guys, they were so happy to have us there and share their stories, and they really opened up and gave us even more than we had hoped for. In post, we had so much great footage to work with, it came together pretty easily. At first we thought we'd tell the story in a non-linear way, but we realized that our own experience with them was also the experience that we wanted the audience to have, so after the rough cut, we changed it to a linear story, which we feel gives the emotional experience that was true to what happened.
IDA: As you've screened Music from the Big House--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
BM: We have only screened the film for a small test audience so far, and it really got us excited for releasing this film to a wide audience. We now realize how controversial this film may be, and we hope that it raises as much discussion that we received at our focus-group testing. The most unexpected result was that there was personal information revealed about the prisoners at the end of the film, that some of the audience really didn't want to know. They wanted us to cut it out and were very irate that we had included this information in the story. We felt again that it matched our own experience there and wanted to reveal that information in the same way, as it was an emotional part of our own process. We think it's important for people to discuss and debate this documentary after they see it.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
BM: Peter Mettler, Werner Herzog, Agnes Varda.
Music from the Big House will be screening August 13 through 19 at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles and the IFC Center in New York City.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for Music from the Big House in Los Angeles, click here.
To purchase tickets for Music from the Big House in New York, click here.