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The Making of Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center

By Ann Hassett

An aerial view of the Getty Center in Los Angeles

October 29, 1997: In the blazing heat that late fall brings to Los Angeles, hundreds of construction workers are working feverishly to complete the $ 1 billion Getty Center for its long-awaited opening on December 16th. And 3,000 miles away, in a cold, dark editing room, three filmmakers fix their eyes on an Avid screen, racing to complete a film docu­menting the twelve-year creation and building of what is considered the most ex­pensive American cultural project since construction of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in the 1870s.

"I live in fear about what we're doing—we'll get our last architectural shots the day before the film is finished. It's going to be a miracle if it works!" said exhausted but exhilarated filmmaker Susan Froemke. The Getty Center is a 110 acre cultural complex on a spectacular site overlooking the city of Los Angeles. Six buildings­ more than one million square feet-house the Getty Museum and five related art insti­tutions: the Getty Grant Program for the Visual Arts; the Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities; the Getty Conservation Institute; the Getty Information Institute; and the Getty Educa­tion Institute for the Arts.

Fourteen years ago, as the project was being conceived, Getty executives decided to include in their plans the documentation on film of the entire process: conception, design and building. "We wanted to docu­ment the process for historians. Hard as it is to believe now, in 1982 we didn't know when it would start, what it would become, when it would finish or what the process would be," said Gloria Gerace, a Project Manager of the Building Program. "At first we thought we would just shoot archival footage and maybe later there would be a film. We hired the Maysles because we saw in the Christo films (Christa's Valley Curtain, 1974; Running Fence, 1978; Islands, 1986; Christo in Paris, 1990) that they had captured a process, and we liked the idea of a film about how something was made. They were quality filmmakers, they were willing to come on board to a project that had no parameters... basically, they were willing to come on an adventure."

The adventure began in May, 1985—and twelve years later, on December 6, 1997, the IDA will host the first public screening of Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center, a film by Susan Froemke, Bob Eisenhardt and Albert Maysles. The film will air on KCET Los Angeles, Wednesday, December 17th, at 8:00 p.m. I wanted the filmmakers to share with IDA members a little about their experi­ence. With 23 days (including weekends) left to finish the film, Susan, Bob and Altook a rare break and reflected on the doz­en years they've worked on this film.

Susan Froemke: In June of '85, we traveled with Getty Executives on a research trip to Italy—that was our first shoot. Our final shoot will be on November 20, 1997.

Bob Eisenhardt: After 12 years of filming, the very last shot will go in the day before the film goes to the Getty. After a moment of astonished silence, all three broke into laughter.

Albert Maysles: I mean, What's the rush?

What did the Getty have in mind for you to film?

Froemke: Gloria Gerace called and said they thought it would be a good idea to document the process. They didn't know what else they wanted—they had seen the Christo films we had made and they loved them, but they weren 't sure they wanted a film... they just wanted film. So for two years, we were just creating an archive.

Eisenhardt: In the twelve years, we've shot 150 hours of archival film.

And when did the archival footage start to become a film?

Froemke: Many times during these 12—almost 13—years, Bob and I have stopped to analyze the footage and in early 1993, we began to see that there was a film that could be made. Two years ago we were asked to write a film proposal, and the project was green-lighted. Around October of '96, we thought we could even make a Maysles film.

Again, all three burst into laughter.

Froemke: People will assume that since it's a film about the Getty, commis­sioned by the Getty, that it'll be a puff piece or a corporate film. In fact, it's a very real film, and that's what The Getty always wanted. They're very respectful of artists and the artistic process. Once it was decided that we would make a film, and not ju st shoot archival footage, they made it clear that they wanted viewers to see the real architectural and artistic debates, to under­ stand the amazing process that created the Getty Center.

Maysles: What we have made is a documentary. I wonder if any of that language—documentary, corporate film­ is valid anymore. We made a real film: everything in the film is authentic. It 's not dramatized—it's the way it was. No attempt was made to make it different from what really happened. We had the privilege of being with some very interesting people when they were doing some very interest­ ing things. Totally on our own—with more access—we might have gone deeper and further into the human elements—but the Getty wanted a film about the Center. There has never been a film about the process of making architecture like this.

This is a film that dispels the "burst of inspiration" notion and all the bull about the artistic process.

Since the Getty controlled when and what you could film, did access ever become a problem?

Eisenhardt: We often longed for more access, but what the Getty gave us was remarkable. They provided us with an invitation to join them in the 12 years of extraordinary artistic debate—we saw things we didn't expect to see. You'll be surprised when you see the film.

Froemke: When you watch intelligent people who are not afraid to fight for their artistic points of view and you see how through this process the shape of the Center, the architecture, expresses these concerns, it's a view from the inside that is—as Alsays—a privilege.

Maysles: In the early days, we would start filming, say at a meeting, and we would see a storyline emerge, and we always wanted to stay and complete that story. But sometimes it was six months before we could come back, so we devised a system of what we called "updates." It's a little different from your usual interview, and it turned out to be an important—and very human—storytelling device.

Everyone talks about the Getty's millions: did they give you millions to make this film?

Froemke: The Getty is very careful about controlling how money is being spent—they're not throwing it around. You submit a bud­ get and they expect you to stay right on budget. There are no overages. The hundreds of millions you hear about really went into the building of the building. We were their luxury, and the more the build­ing cost, the tighter our budget became.

You've shot an enormous amount of footage. How did you begin the editing process?

Eisenhardt: We began going though the footage, editing the scenes, cutting together everything we thought had value. We took 150 hours down to 60 hours of selects. Out of that, it was a lot easier to see what stories were most important and what scenes best described the story points. Then, Phil Shane and I began to cut those scenes and at they same time, we began to structure the film.

We showed Gloria 17 hours of super selects. Out of that process, we created a four-hour film. That was six months ago. The last six months have been absolutely frenetic. Right now, we're living the finish. It's so difficult—all we can think about is that we have got to lock the film—we desperately want another few weeks! It 's the most exhausting but the most thrilling... doing the music and seeing the titles—we're locking the picture before we even go out for our last shoot. We're terrified, but we're willing to take the risk because we want these last shots so much.

As the twelve years come to a close, have you arrived at any conclusions about this experience and the film?

Maysles: You know, I've been obsess­ing for a year or two, that there is so little on TV that is uplifting. And in this particu­lar film, you are with one of the world's leading architects, along with one of the world's leading museum directors, and the viewer gets to be present with these remarkable minds as they solve problem. This film doesn't tell you what it was like—it is what is, and that's an important distinction—it's an inspiration. And when you see the film, you will be inspired .

Filmmakers Susan Froemke, Bob Eisenhardt and Albert Maysles will pattici­pate in a short roundtable discussion, mod­erated by IDA President David Haugland, following the screening of Concert of Wills: Making the Getty Center, on Saturday, December 6th, 8:00 p.m., at Paramount Studios.

Former IDA Board Member ANN HASSETT has received CableACE Awards, an Emmy® and a Peabody for producing and writing news and social issue documentaries.