Stephen Walker Is Young at Heart
by Paul Fischer
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British filmmaker Stephen Walker could not have expected his small British telemovie to receive the wide critical acclaim bestowed upon his Young at Heart, a film that tells of a group of over 70-year-olds who sing rock songs at concerts around the country. Funny, poignant and moving, the film is receiving huge buzz following its U.S. premiere at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. The director spoke to Paul Fischer. Be warned, some spoilers ahead.
PF: The version of Young at Heart being released theatrically is slightly different from your original TV cut. What tweak did you have to make to this, for it to go well with the studio?
SW: What I did—it wasn’t the studio that requested it. It was actually me and I ended up spending pretty much all of my minimum guarantee clearing the music, which is massively expensive for theatric—and also tweaking. What I did was, I changed the beginning a little bit to make it a much more cinematic opening than it was before.
PF: That is the opening when they’re performing on stage.
SW: Yeah. Well, when she screams. You know, it’s all that stuff, where they start building up the clapping, and it’s intercut with the titles, and it just builds and builds and builds, and then she steps up and she screams the opening lines of “Should I stay or should I go.” I mean, a version like that did exist in the previous version, which we showed on Channel Four beforehand. But it was more kind of television. We really kind of opened it up, and tried to make a much more interesting cinematic opening. And we lost about four minutes with some saggy bits. We took out about 20 percent of my commentary, and we didn’t want to make it feel like there were commercial breaks any longer there, so we actually restructured the film slightly, so it’s now on a continuous arc, as opposed to lots of little arcs. And the most important thing we did was we completely redesigned the sound. We went back, and we literally started from scratch with the sound and rebuilt it. We have fantastic people doing it. Some of the people who were involved in The Golden Compass were working on our sound. And we built it up from scratch into a much bigger theatrical sound, so it’s now a really big surround sound. But it’s—you know. And that gets people excited. Because they feel like they’re at the center—you know, they’re in the concert. They’re actually in the show.
PF: Where did you first discover these guys? How did they come to your attention?
SW: Well, what happened was, my producer and I were—we’d set up a new production company in London called Walker George Films, after both of our surnames. Her name is Sally George. And we were looking for—we had an output deal with Channel Four, one of the networks in the UK. And we were looking for a story, really, to start off. And it was essentially—the company was set up really as a directing vehicle for me, with Sally producing. And we were kind of hunting around. We were very small, and we were operating out of our kitchen. We were trying to really keep—we had very little money. And we were looking for a long time. And then one time, Sally came back into the office with a picture, and said, “I think I’ve found something quite interesting. I’ve got a couple of tickets for a show that is happening in a theatre in London, with a bunch of American singers aged between 70 and 90-something. They sing rock and roll music.” And I remember thinking, “God, that’s a really weird concept.” And could it be awful, be patronizing? You know, what is it gonna be like?” So I was a little skeptical at first. And I went over with her. And I wasn’t sure. And she said, “Look, just keep an open mind. You know, who knows? There might be something in there.” We went over there. And there were two things that were immediately apparent. One was that this theatre was absolutely packed. And it was packed with every age group. It wasn’t just old people. It was—every single age group was there. A lot of people in their 20s and 30s were there. The group had had very good press and national press when they came to London. And also, when Eileen, the 93 year old came up to the microphone and started to yell that song, the Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” obviously with the shock value, people laughed, like they do at the movie. But immediately it became obvious that what she was singing about was life and death. And at the end of it, she says, “Should I stay or should I go?” And the whole audience shouted out, “Stay.” You know, like, “Live.” And I suddenly began to think—and we both began to think—“Christ, there’s a film here about old age, and where you can really rip apart some of the stereotypes of old age, and really explore some of those sort of difficult, and taboo-like areas that people don’t like to touch. But you can do it through music. And you can do it through music that people can identify with. Because it’s kind of rock and roll music. And that became really exciting. We walked out of the theatre that night thinking—we were kind of revved up, thinking, you know, “We can make a musical about old age.”
And that’s how it started. And we took it to Channel Four who immediately said yes. They thought it was quite original and very quickly, we came up with the idea of music videos. Then we had to spend some time convincing Bob Cilman, the director of the chorus, to do it. And that whole process took about three or four months.
PF: How did you manage to convince the chorus to participate?
SW: Not easy at all. But he saw some films that we’d made which he really liked. That really helped. So we kind of showed him our work. We’d both been in the business for quite a long time. And he liked the stuff that we did. That’s one very important thing. But also, he liked the concept. It was tough, but we gradually won him over to the concept of really making something with the music in this film. And he had had experiences before with a couple of documentaries which he really hated, because the music was not really very present, or it was very badly recorded. And we said, “Look, we’re gonna have some fun with this. Let’s do these music videos. Let’s move out of time. Let’s not just make it classic observational documentary, but let’s be really kind of a bit unusual with this film.” And we worked together on this, and pressured and pressured. And I remember, we were getting to Christmas, and he still hadn’t said yes. And we were rapidly running out of money with our development deal. And—you know, I was looking at a very lean Christmas, and it was getting pretty nasty for us. And then suddenly, before Christmas, he called us up and said, “You know something? I think you guys are gonna be okay. Let’s do it.” So we did. And that’s how it started.
PF: How surprised are you by the relationships that you fostered with the chorus?
SW: Surprised. I think that we got incredibly close to them. And one of the things that people sometimes think—I mean, people who don’t really understand how these things work—you know, we get the “Yes” from Bob, and then we just sort of turn up with a camera one day. It wasn’t like that at all. We spent two months with the chorus before we shot anything. And in that time—we essentially were casting it. We were deciding who were the front-runners. Who was foreground, who was background, what their stories were, what we were going to put in the film. The jail scene, the big show at the end, the songs. So, we spent a lot of time working on all of these things. Over two months. Basically, preparation before we went into production. And in that time, we built up very close relationships. We got to know some of them, particularly, very well. I mean, Fred Knittle, you know, the very big guy that sings “Fix You,” kind of adopted us as children. I mean, he used to call me and Sally his adopted son and daughter. He was really sweet. And—you know, we got sent a lot of cake, and a lot of tea. And we got to know them really well. And so when we started filming, they were very used to us. We were part of the family. And I think that’s one of the reasons why we were able to get the kind of intimacy of access. Particularly when things started going bad, and people started getting ill and then dying. I mean, all of those connections that we’d built up, all that relationship we’d built up was critical at that point.
PF: Which of the deaths affected you the most, personally?
SW: That’s a really difficult question. That’s a really, really difficult question. I mean, I don’t know, really. I mean, they both did, in sort of different ways. I wasn’t expecting either of them to die. I mean, most people, when they watch the film, think it’s likely that Bob Salvini will die. Nobody expects—or, almost nobody—you may be different—expects the second one, Joe, to die. It’s very unexpected. It was utterly unexpected to us. I think—I was affected more by Joe. Not because I cared more about Joe, or I knew Joe better. But because it was more of a shock. Although I have to tell you that one of the things I had been considering was—when Bob Salvini—the first one, when he was very ill, and he was still determined to make it to the stage, I didn’t think he had a chance in hell of actually getting to the stage. But I didn’t think he was going to die. And two days before his death, Bob Cilman and I were discussing organizing a live hook-up from his hospital bed, directly into the Academy, with a great big image of him on the screen behind Fred Knittle, and they would still be able to sing the duet together. But he’d be singing from his hospital bed. And I thought that was gonna be the climax of the film. I remember thinking it was gonna be very moving, that this guy was gonna actually sing it from his hospital bed, to all these people. And Fred would be actually on the stage, in the Academy itself. So that was a shock. But the Joe one was a real shock. And, you know, I was with Joe when he had his blood transfusion. It was very hard getting access to the hospital to do that but he let us in. And I sat with him for three hours. And I really treasure that time that we actually spent together. Because he was—he kind of told me his whole life, you know? It’s essentially the last time I saw him alive. The next time I saw Joe was in his coffin.
PF: Why do you think this movie has struck such a chord with young people?
SW: That’s a really interesting question. I ask myself that question again and again. There’s no answer to the question. But the first—it’s kind of a roundabout way. The first time I began to realize it was having an effect on many people actually was when Youtube clips starting to pick up in the most phenomenal way. I mean, if you now add up all the clips from the movie which people have stuck on Youtube, and you look at the number of hits, it’s about 1 1⁄2 million hits. It’s become a sort of Youtube phenomenon. And mostly younger people are using Youtube. Obviously not exclusively. And when you start reading the comments there, it’s really fascinating. When you read what people say. They’re incredibly moved by it, I think for two reasons. One, I think it’s a connection with grandparents, which is really strong. It’s not their own mortality they’re thinking about. It’s often grandparents, to whom they’re very close, or they feel they haven’t seen enough, or whatever. Or they’ve died, or something like that. There’s a closeness there. You can feel it very, very strongly, when you read the things that people write. But also, what they’re absolutely bowled over by is the music. Which they know, but when these people sing it, it becomes something completely different. And of course, they don’t just do straight covers. They sing it really interesting. I mean, because Bob is actually quite inspired in the way that he actually uses the chorus to sing these songs. And they get very excited by that. I had a really tough screening at Sundance, because I was really kind of worried about. We played the film to a bunch of high school kids from Salt Lake City. I mean, it can’t get much tougher than that. So—it was a packed cinema. There were about four or 500 kids there from different high schools, that all came to see the film in Salt Lake City. And I was dreading it. I thought I was going to get stone faces. “This is going to be where we really reach rock bottom, because they’re not gonna like this movie at all.” And they absolutely loved it. I mean, they loved it in a way that was just so incredibly moving. And all of them loved it because of the music, and got excited about the music. But a lot of them, afterwards, when we were talking, were talking about grandparents and things. And they are making a very strong connection. These were a tough audience. Fifteen, 16, 17-year-olds.
PF: Will you do next films in a similar style, in terms of the subjectivity, and immersing yourself into the narrative? Or was this just the best way, structurally, for you to make this movie?
SW: Well, I mean, this was right—I like to think of myself as a storyteller, first and foremost. I mean, I have made films with actors, drama films, for the BBC. And I’ve also written books as well. And I’ve also directed documentaries. So this felt right. To tell the story, this was the right way to tell the story. Because there’s nothing to beat reality, when you’ve got these people. I mean, it’s just extraordinary that they are—they’re not actors, they’re real. They really do this. This really is a community. So with future projects—I just finished a film, actually, that was filmed in Britain a few weeks ago, which in some ways is not a dissimilar sort of story. And it’s also a documentary. But I won’t bore you with the details of that. But has very similar kind of subject matter. And that felt right, to do in the same sort of way. And the next—you know, I don’t know. I’m getting a ton of scripts through my agents at William Morris to read, from various studios. Almost all of them are drama scripts, although we are talking documentary as well. You know, it’s got to be right. So I’m hunting for the right project now.
PF: So I take it you’d like your next film, if possible, to be a narrative feature, if you can find the right story?
SW: Yeah, it could be. I mean, I had a very good meeting, actually, with my agents, the William Morris people yesterday. And there were two or three projects with studios here that I really like the sound of, which we’re discussing with them. And they are narrative feature projects. That may work, and I’ll direct those. But I’m not—that’s not what’s important to me. What’s important to me is finding the right story. And it could be very different. You know, before I did the film on Young At Heart, I wrote a book about the last few weeks before the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. You know, about as different as you can get. And I wrote it as a nonfiction thriller. It’s published by HarperCollins here, a book called Shock Wave. And it did very well. It was a New York Times bestseller. It was really exciting. And I thought I was going to write another one of those, you know? And suddenly I kind of moved, and made a film about old people singing rock and roll. So. [laughs] You end up doing very different things. And that’s one of the joys of all of this. I don’t know what’s around the corner at all. It could be something utterly and completely different. It may be along the same lines. But—you know, the dangerous thing is to get over typecast, and you end up being the guy that makes—I mean, a lot of the scripts I was being sent originally from Hollywood studios were scripts with people dying. Old people dying. You know? And—of course they do. Or they were just music films. I was sent a lot of music films, as well. I’ve even been sent music films where people die. So, you get kind of the double whammy. That’s not where I am. I mean, I’m looking for what feels right. And I’ll know it when I see it.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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