A scene from Ken Wardrop's "Making the Grade"

SXSW ’18 Interview: Ken Wardrop on the Unforgettable Piano Lesson of “Making the Grade”

In embarking on “Making the Grade,” a film about students of various ages all across Ireland preparing for a test of their piano-playing skills, director Ken Wardrop became happier about the fact that he had never tickled the ivories himself.

“I found that a huge advantage because teachers would want to get technical where I would want to actually get involved in the [student-teacher] relationship and the nuances and to try to find the humor and the humanity within each story,” says Wardrop, whose latest film says as much about how the budding pianists learn in different ways as much as what they learn. “They could see my eyes glaze over and knew that they would have to engage with me better and one of the scary things about a film like this is that when you put it out in the world, you fear that people will think it’s just purely an academic study of how to learn and in my head, it’s pretty much a love story to the relationship between student and teacher.”

In fact, it isn’t just the nostalgic sound of scales being played that gives “Making the Grade” its considerable warmth, but Wardrop’s affection for his subjects who come in various ages, skillsets and temperaments. Like his previous two films “Hers & His” and “Mom & Me,” he applies a broad survey-style approach to capture varying attitudes towards education, sitting with dozens upon dozens of students, parents and teachers considering how best to absorb the ability to play piano. Yet as it observes music teachers and their pupils working through sheet music that grows increasingly more sophisticated as the film moves with great deliberateness from grade one through eight, “Making the Grade” becomes more complex itself, as you start to see how students’ different backgrounds, whether in social standing or experience, have come to shape how they feel towards the piano, becoming not only an instrument for music, but in many cases for change in their own life.

From a precocious young girl in grade one whose father sways her away from the violin and towards the piano with the theme from “Miami Vice” to the middle-aged metalhead in grade four who defies expectation by picking up classical music while his grey-haired teacher admits how much she likes what he listens to, “Making the Grade” is full of disarming surprises as spends only but a moment with any of its intriguing subjects, but lets every one of them make an indelible impression. Shortly before the film premieres at SXSW, Wardrop spoke about crafting his own sonata, why the weather in Ireland put everyone in a good mood to talk and a clever test screening process for the film.

How did this come about?

The film is a project through the Reel Art scheme, which is an Irish Arts Council project and a rare government body that affords filmmakers an opportunity to make a film on the arts. They can come up with any idea from any aspect of the arts and the filmmaker literally just has to present the finished film. They won’t have any notes. They’re happy if you’re happy. Which is a different process to [most] funders because normally financiers will have opinions and want to have their expectations met, so this was just an opportunity to make a film the way I wanted to make it. But outside of film, I’ve really got a limited knowledge of the arts world. I go to the odd piece of theater [or] into the bigger museums and so forth, but I didn’t really have an idea [for a film].

My mother was moving house [at the time] and she decided she wanted to take the piano with her. And this was a piano that had never been played in its life, literally as long as I can remember, and it had two working keys on it, which my nephews might randomly find. So I thought it was amusing that my mom would take a piano that was obsolete to this new downsized property and her explanation was that it was a nice piece of furniture. I thought this was really, really sad that this beautiful instrument had failed to captivate any of my family. We had all failed miserably to engage with it. Now this all transpires from a bad experience my sister had had with a piano teacher – lo and behold – and I missed out because I was next in line.

So this started out as something quite different because I was going to feature the instruments and come up with something much more abstract, but when I did a bit of further researching, I realized that in Ireland there is this educational system called the grading system. When I delved deeper, I thought this is a narrative already waiting. It goes [from] absolute beginner through different stages out to what would be an accomplished or proficient pianist. I [thought] here’s an opportunity to have a narrative spine to the film and I realized actually having lots of different characters with lots of different flavor and backgrounds might be the way forward. To be honest, it was a similar space as I made my two previous documentaries with multiple characters, so I suppose I was playing a safe hand and also something that I knew I would enjoy the journey because I really am a fan of that process – the opportunity to get to meet lots of people, [which] always keeps yourself engaged and excited about the project because everybody offers something new and fresh.

This does seem to deviate from the template you had for films like “His and Hers” and “Mom & Me” to some degree – how could you adjust that process to the story you were telling here?

In fairness, [my films] have all been low-budget endeavors and I’ve had to cut corners. Previously, I had to edit my own films, but on this film, I decided to film it myself and be my own [cinematographer] because I’ve always enjoyed that process [of working with cinematographers] and really valued that input, but I just wanted some space from the editing process, which can take so long just to see the material freshly. I had a finite schedule for this project because I had to finish at a particular point, so even though I was drawing down on my previous experiences, I thought I could bring something fresh to the table by bringing on an editor and also having the ability to tell him, “Okay, there’s a certain amount of freedom, but as far as I can see it, unless you can better it, we’re going to start at the beginning and go all the way sequentially through the process, through to grade eight.”

Also, I had gained a lot of experience from the previous films to know that I needed to make sure that at each chapter — or between each grade [here] — I needed to change it up slightly to bring something different to the table, be it in “Making the Grade” [where] it becomes about siblings at one point or it becomes more about the teacher or for example, at a certain point, after grade four, we completely drop out of grades momentarily to [feature] the rebels who weren’t kind of engaging with the system, as I saw it. So I could impose that into the casting process rather than just them leaving it wildly open, working with the research and say [to casting], “Okay, we’re looking for siblings and we’re looking for rebels [for certain grades], and at grade seven, I wanted the proteges rather than being hit with really talented kids all the time, because I wanted this to be the everyman’s journey through learning an instrument as opposed to those standout students.

Did you actually find the students through teachers or some of the teachers through students?

It was a mix and match really. Going into this, we had approached the Royal Irish Academy of Music, one of the key academies here in Ireland who have a grading system, and they were quite supportive of it. They would help us engage with their teaching database. I know Americans don’t have the same system, but in Ireland, we have about three different academies that have their own grades and there’s slight variations between them, but pretty much the same.

The vast majority [of students] came through teachers we would call directly and discuss the project. A lot of them were apprehensive because they were allowing you into their private scenario and within the teaching profession full stop, there would be a lot of intrigue and mystery around everyone’s style and approach, and a nervousness about sharing that in case it maybe wasn’t cutting edge. It was a bit of a battle to encourage them to suggest interesting characters and interesting stories, not to go for the obvious standout students. The wonderful older character that’s in grade one, who was really struggling, was somebody that obviously [the teacher] had a great rapport [with] and knew that it would be an enjoyable lesson to be involved, so fortunately, they came onboard the idea, but [some] would be disappointed to know actually I wanted to find someone struggling at grade three as opposed to your grade A student at grade seven.

It’s hard to believe this was the first time working as your own cinematographer since the visual language of this is so striking – you really frame shots to include environments that the kids come from and from angles that are always interesting. How did you figure out what this would look like?

Because of my inexperience, I wanted it to have a certain continuity throughout to make sure there was consistency throughout the framing, so I actually allowed myself to only use one prime lens. Everything is shot exactly on the same lens, so I had certain rules in the filmmaking and that actually helps give it a coherent feel. I avoided closeups and I had no prior knowledge as to any of the locations before arriving, but it also coincided with one of the best summers we ever experienced in Ireland. So we were shooting daylight every day. We had beautiful natural light and I had two lights with me, so I just made the place look sunny and cheery everywhere I went. [laughs] You’ll also notice that it’s very consistently flat in the sense that I don’t go for any contrasts. I make it look light and airy, but that just happened to be the summer. I shot across eight weeks in total, but four of those weeks, which pretty much coincide with the main bulk of the filming were probably the best four weeks in the last ten years of weather in Ireland.

I’ve never heard a filmmaker talk about having good weather for an entire shoot, particularly in Ireland.

It’s always miserable. I got too lucky. Maybe the Irish Tourist Board will come onboard!

You’re a great ambassador. And you shot all over geographically – why was that important?

Ireland is such a small country I thought why not go the length and breadth and find characters from all across. It made life a little bit easier with regards to casting, but it’s all the richer for it, especially from the Irish perspective. There was never a crossover between teachers – they were so far apart, and if you’re viewing it [as someone from Ireland], you realize okay, we’re listening to a West of Ireland accent, then suddenly there’s a [person from] Dublin and [while] the film by its nature is indoors, so you don’t really get a sense of the world, you get a good cross-section of social, economic backgrounds and geographic backgrounds simply by accents. Here you can tell a lot by an accent. You only have to go 40 miles here in Ireland and you’re into a different world, and that’s summed up by an accent really. I can go from here for about five miles and I’d know where the person’s from, if he walked in, I’d know if he was from five miles away. It’s so parochial. And there’s so many [accents] as well.

What’s it like to be bringing the film to SXSW?

We’re really excited about SXSW. It’s just the perfect film festival for the film, given the music and the heritage that SXSW has, so it was always our longterm goal that this maybe was a festival that would be interested. Obviously, when you’re sending it out and about, you’re not quite sure if it’ll resonate, but you keep your fingers crossed. We did do something cheeky in early days of the film — I had a colleague here do a bit of research on the American market and see because you have a different educational system for the piano over there, and we wanted to know if there was any interest, so randomly, not a scientific approach to this at all, we got an intern to look up one piano teacher in each state in America and send them an e-mail inviting them to have a look at a link for the film, of which 10 of them got back to say they were willing and we had all ten of them watch it and fill out a questionnaire and this was before we’d even send it into festivals.

We had a really good response, really positive and we knew if we could get selected for a U.S. festival, we could then tap into the local piano playing or musical community, so the same chap who has been busy working on our Facebook has reached out to all the Austin piano teachers and their students to encourage them along. Hopefully, that gets the word out, but that all said and done, the film will resonate with anyone. If you learned anything as a kid or have gone through any sort of formal system, you’ll connect with it. You’ll understand the relationships at play and how important these teachers become in your life and why.

“Making the Grade” will play at SXSW on March 11 at 11:15 am at the Alamo Lamar D, March 13 at 2:15 pm at the Alamo Lamar C and on March 16 at 11:30 am at the Alamo Ritz 2.

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