Morgan Neville is fond of telling the story of how he first met Yo-Yo Ma, a meeting arranged with the idea of the Oscar-winning “20 Feet From Stardom” director making a concert film for the renowned cellist. For someone who has been in the public consciousness since he was a child prodigy, at the age of 7 appearing in front of President Kennedy and the rest of the world to see, there would appear to be a single-mindedness to Ma, a oneness with the precision he plays his instrument, and perhaps this fixed image is what threw Neville off when Ma led him away from the dinner they were having into another room, thinking they would talk about the particulars of a collaboration. It would turn out that Ma had something else on his mind.
“Can you believe this fucking wine?!?” an animated Neville recalls Ma telling him, exhorting him to try the spirits that would soon whisk them away into a conversation about music, culture and everything in between.
It was a candid side of Ma that hadn’t Neville hadn’t seen before, which the filmmaker draws upon to show another in his dynamic portrait of the artist and the international band he’s created, the Silk Road Ensemble in “The Music of Strangers,” a globe-trotting adventure spanning thousands of miles that shows how music closes the distance between the musicians hailing from disparate countries. In thrilling fashion, the film spotlights Syrian clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, Chinese pipa player Wu Man, Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayan Kalhor and Spanish bagpipe player Cristina Pato, whose soulful performances are shown to be a combination of unparalleled skill and often extraordinary personal sacrifice, while telling the larger story of how Ma’s search for a personal identity outside of the music that he dedicated his life to from such an early age helped him evolve as an artist.
Not only does the film find Ma at a crossroads, but also Neville, the rare filmmaker whose profiles of artists are every bit as invigorating as those whose work he celebrates, yet in making last year’s wildly entertaining “Best of Enemies,” which chronicled the fierce debates between political pundits William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, demonstrated that his interests are diverse and his ability to enliven any subject cinematically is considerable. As a result, “The Music of Strangers” is grand as much for the gusto that the Silk Road Ensemble brings to their shows as it is for the feeling that Neville appears to leave it all on the screen, passionately making the case for the tangible and enduring value culture has for a society. On the eve of the film’s release in theaters, Neville spoke about criss-crossing the world for his latest, why he creates a mixtape for every film he makes and why the people who get cut from his films might actually be better off.
So when you were initially approached for a film, was it a Yo-Yo Ma concert film or a Silk Road Ensemble film?
We talked about doing a pure concert film at the beginning and I actually ended up filming a concert for them, which is not this film, but at the same time, we said, “Well, now let’s make a documentary, too.” It was going to be a film around the Silk Road Project, but what that meant, I had no idea. I knew that there were good characters, interesting music and big ideas, but there was still an element of just stepping off the cliff and hoping to catch enough draft. The longer I’ve been making documentaries, the easier that’s gotten for me — to trust that you’re going to find it even if you don’t know what it is. That’s part of the fun of making documentaries, too. If you know exactly what it’s going to be before you make it, it’s probably not going to be very good because there are too many surprises in the real world. You have to go in with the plan and then be completely willing to adapt or throw away the plan.
Did you at least know how much travel this would actually entail?
It wasn’t always the plan. For the first two years, I was doing sporadic shoots, but that was part of figuring out what the film was going to be. We had to raise money to make the film and once we raised money, we did most of the shooting and all the editing in about a year-and-a-half, so even though it took four-and-a-half years, the bulk of that work happened in a year-and-a-half.
Was there actually much documentation of the Silk Road Ensemble? You have some early footage of their first meeting in 2000, but it seems like this was the first time this story has really been told despite their international prominence.
No. And we were fortunate that that footage existed from 2000. PBS had sent — WNET, I think — a camera crew up to do a short piece and they kept all the raw footage. That was just luck as a documentarian. I didn’t know that when I started making the film when we found this trove. Beyond that, [there’s been] bits and pieces, but nobody’s done anything like a documentary about them. It gave us a lot of grist for the mill.
It’s a big ensemble and you hone in on a handful of members. How did those become the right stories to tell?
Because we picked these characters, not only was there a need to have diversity — gender diversity, geographic diversity, diversity of experience — but at the same time, they had to all be on a similar type of journey and because of that, we didn’t have to come back to every character at every point in their career. You can have a few people talk about coming to America or a few people talk about returning home or longing for [something]. I had so much more stuff that I took out of the film, not because it wasn’t interesting, but because it lived in a different head space. It was intellectual and it just felt like this film and the music that informed it were so emotional that I really wanted to make sure that the music breathed as much as possible.
There were also a number of other musicians in the ensemble who I love and I filmed and whose stories were just as interesting, but they were too disconnected from everybody else. I filmed with Sandeep Das, the tabla player, who is great and he’s such a character. He moved to Boston and he has a great family. But then I had to have a conversation with him when I decided not to make him a character and I said, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The bad news is I cut you out of the film, but the good news is I did that because you have such a happy life that there’s no dramatic tension there. You should be happy about that.”
Certainly, I ended up picking characters for whom they’ve had a difficult journey being artists. It’s funny — when we started the film, the comment I got the most was “Is there any drama in this story?” I think the knee-jerk idea is “Oh, music is international language. Yo-Yo got a bunch of musicians together and it’s kumbaya”. That’s absolutely not true, it’s so much more complex than that.
In that first scene of them performing together in Istanbul, you seem to get inside the performance in a way that I didn’t even know it was physically possible. Did you have certain ideas in mind about how you’d capture those musical moments?
I would like to say yes, but that was pretty seat of the pants. In general, music is very fluid, so we had this idea that we should be moving a lot. That opening scene was a one-take pop up show with two cameras, I shot one of the cameras, we had a steadicam on the other camera. They did the song one time and we said, “Well, I hope we got it”. A rainstorm broke out immediately afterwards. That was a little stressful. When we actually looked at the footage, we said, “Okay. I think we can make this work.”
Your films often build to great crescendos with set-pieces that you don’t normally find in documentaries. Is there somewhere that approach came from?
I often think of putting a movie together like putting a mix tape together. When I first start thinking about it, I put together a list of scenes, and often, if I’m doing a music documentary, I literally put together a mix tape of scenes so that I can hear how can I tell the story with the music and how does that help inform everything. I feel like scenes are like songs. You have to have the right balance. You have to have the upbeat song followed by the ballad. It’s about tone and emotion.
Do you actually build the structure around those kinds of scenes and then find the connective tissue?
I usually build the scenes [first] and then there’s a certain amount of shuffling of scenes to figure out how they all flow together. Occasionally I have very specific transitions, but sometimes you get totally surprising amazing things just by shuffling all your scenes together. I don’t know if I could have made this film if I hadn’t made “20 Feet from Stardom”, just in terms of technique. The structure that we had to use for the film was so complex — the idea of doing an ensemble narrative with different characters and trying to make it work filmically — and that was definitely something I felt like we got on “20 Feet,” so this was another chance to do that kind of a story.
There’s a great moment where you introduce Cristina Pato, the Spanish bagpipe player, that feels like that.
I do it a few times. Probably the heaviest scene in the movie is the scene we filmed with the layers of loneliness [felt by the musicians] and the Basilica Cistern [in Turkey], and Kayhan’s playing and talking about revolution, and then we follow it with [Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance on] Mr. Rogers. I refer to that as “…And now for something completely different” style of editing to keep people surprised. There’s something about never being able to predict what’s going to happen next that I think is a great device that I use as much as I can — when you think it’s going one way, it suddenly does a 180.
Did you actually spend a day or two with everyone where they live?
Yeah. We took a whole trip to Spain with all of them and we spent days or more with each of them on their own — with Cristina, with Kayhan. With Yo-Yo, we took a couple of trips going to Nebraska with him and just having some alone time. They all have their own lives and then they come together in this ensemble and I think each informs the other. What they get at the ensemble, they return to their other lives with and for somebody like Yo-Yo, who’s such an amazing cellist, he still plays classical repertoire half the year, but then he does these other things half the year, and he’s become a more interesting cellist because he’s done these other things. I think he would agree it’s important to challenge yourself and this was a major challenge for Yo-Yo.
You’ve said this film encapsulated a lot of things that you wanted to say about music, and you’ve also said since you’ve been making music-related documentaries for a while, you’re spreading out more towards your other interests now. Did you actually approach this as an all-encompassing statement on the medium?
I feel like it’s a statement not just about music but about culture for me. As somebody that makes films about arts and culture, not just music, I felt like a lot of the things I’ve dealt with as a filmmaker are the same things that Yo-Yo’s dealt with as a musician. Often documentaries about the arts or culture are considered less serious or important or fundable and Yo-Yo’s big point is that culture is essential to who we are, which is exactly how I felt as a filmmaker. In a way, it’s both me feeling about what I’ve done as a filmmaker and what I believe the power of culture is. And I’m going to continue to make films about culture, but with music I feel like I’ve made so many different music films that like Yo-Yo, trying different things is great and challenging too. I’m doing a bunch of things now and none of them are music projects, though I love those.
In addition to the film’s release in America, the film will be traveling to refugee camps, which follows Kinan Azmeh’s visit to a Jordanian camp you see in the film. Will you be going on the road with it?
Not yet, but it’s going to be happening for a while. The first screening’s next week. I’m going to Australia, but I’d love to see this film in person at a camp. I know we’re going to do a bunch more, so hopefully I’ll get a chance to go.
“The Music of Strangers” opens on June 10th in Los Angeles at the Landmark, New York at the Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and Palo Alto at the Aquarius Theatre. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.