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Entries in Stradivarius (1)

Wednesday
May112016

NOTES ON A SCANDAL: THE SCOTT HICKS INTERVIEW

Brilliant, often troubled personalities consumed by the power of music have yielded rewarding cinema for director Scott Hicks. After conquering the world and earning two 1996 Oscar nominations for his David Helfgott biopic, Shine, the Adelaide-based filmmaker delved into the complex genius of Philip Glass in his 2007 documentary, Glass: A Portrait of Philip in 12 Parts. His latest journey into the flawed brilliance of musical obsessiveness is Highly Strung, an intimate portrait of the Australian String Quartet in the grip of member conflict and of the all-consuming power of the classic Stradivarius and Guadagnini string instruments with which they ply their trade. Ahead of the film’s Australian season, Hicks spoke to SCREEN-SPACE about his latest ‘music on film’ opus…

SCREEN-SPACE: As someone with a layman’s comprehension of classical music, Highly Strung was a very accessible film.

Hicks: That’s always heartening to hear because one of the great challenges was to how to make a film about these rare instruments and the rarefied world in which they exist and what fascinating obsessions drive it. Obviously, it enhances it a bit if you know a little bit about classical music, but this is a story about people who are possessed by these ideas.

SCREEN-SPACE: Given the events that unfold as the shoot progresses, how close to your original vision for the film is in the final mix?

Hicks: (Laughs) Oh, no, the whole nature of the film changed as I was making it. That represents the purity, the lifeblood, of documentary filmmaking. You can set out with a plan, with an idea; you have to have some sort of concept of what you are trying to do. But, at the same time, life has a habit of unfolding in its own direction and you have to follow where the film takes you. I had in mind something that probably would’ve been a bit more historical, with a bit more information about the instruments. But I got caught up in the day-to-day world of these individuals and went with that, and some unexpected developments happened. (Pictured, above; ex-ASQ first violin, Christian Winther, in Highly Strung)

SCREEN-SPACE: Did you envision the clash of personalities that ultimate played out?

Hicks: I filmed the very first concert of the Australian String Quartet’s new line-up, with these four magnificent Guadagnini instruments, and from day one I began to get an idea of the tensions that underlie these musicians. What a struggle it is to find a band that can stay together! Which I guess is true of any type of music. What do The Rolling Stones have over any other band? They stayed together (laughs).

SCREEN-SPACE: The sheer diversity of personalities that are possessed by this love of classic string music, and of the Stradiviri and Guadagnini instruments in particular, is remarkable.

Hicks: The music is the language of the film. Everyone in the film speaks the same language, but they all have their own agenda, whether they are musicians or dealers or collectors or craftsmen. Everything about their lives is filtered through these incredibly well engineered pieces of wood that are 300 years old. The passion was so infectious, none more so than in the hedge fund dealer in New York who, while cradling his Stradivari, says “Of all my investments around the world this is the only one I can touch.” And then he proceeds to play it! It is this passion that I was certain audiences could connect with regardless of the knowledge of classical music. (Pictured, above; Cremona-based luthier, Roberto Cavagnoli, right).

SCREEN-SPACE: Between the flawed, maddening genius of Christian and the grace and dignity of Roberto, your film finds its yin-yang, attains a fine balance.

Hicks: There is an amazing thing that emerges when you are making films and it applies as much to the documentaries as it does to the dramas I’ve created, and it’s called casting (laughs). I had no way of knowing what these people would be like on this journey, but it turned out that there were these archetypal figures, the yin-yang as you say – the passionate, flawed genius of the first violinist in Christian, set against the almost ‘old world’ feeling of Roberto, the luthier from Cremona, crafting by hand an identical copy of a Guadagnini cello from a plank of wood. Between those forces, that ‘force field’, there is a universe of ideas that I found fascinating.

SCREEN-SPACE: And acting as a kind of matriarchal spirit is the charismatic figure of Ulrike Klein…

Hicks: Well, Ulrike was the starting point for the film. She came to my wife Kerry (the film’s producer) and said she was collecting the four Guadagnini instruments, to loan to the ASQ in the hope that they would achieve an even greater standing in the world of international music. She said, “Do you think there is a story in this?” and immediately I could see the complexities that existed between all the diverse passions at play in this small world. What was so intriguing was that I began to ask myself what was intrinsic to Ulrike that lead her to this philanthropic, cultural idea. What happened, as you see in the film, is what I like to call a kind of ‘Rosebud’ moment, when it is revealed that her passion stems from a thwarted childhood desire. (Pictured, above; the director with Ulrike Klein)

SCREEN-SPACE: Which, in many ways, recalls a crucial part of the narrative of Shine…

Hicks: Exactly. In Shine, the first kind of ‘musical’ film that I made, there was a story element that was central to David Helfgott’s upbringing. In the film, his father says something like, “When I was a child, I saved and saved for my first violin, which I wanted more than anything, and when I got it, my father smashed it.” It was a thwarted musical instinct, just like that which emerges about Ulrike, that was so much part of the Shine story.

SCREEN-SPACE: Have you ever drawn a line between the artistry and talent of your subjects and the artistry and talent you bring as the filmmaker?

Hicks: (Pause). When I made the film about Philip Glass, on the very first day of shooting I pulled out my camera and started filming Philip cooking us pizza in his kitchen at Nova Scotia. In the process of cooking, he kept turning around and talking to me behind the camera, saying things like, “Do you like garlic, Scott?” And I’d answer, “Well, yes, but stop talking to me, Philip, I’m the documentarian” (laughs) But as the shoot progressed, I began to realise that that was the film and that he was inviting a relationship with me and choosing to ignore the fact that I was holding a camera. That created a tremendous sort of intimacy. What began as me thinking ‘Well I won’t be able to use this,’ actually dictated and drove the tone of the film. The same thing sort of applies in Highly Strung, in that you’re not pretending you are not there because the presence of the camera impacts upon every situation. And it would be crazy to imagine otherwise. It is, essentially, an attempt at some level of honesty about your engagement and involvement with these people as people. I think somewhere in there I answer your question, partially (laughs).

HIGHLY STRUNG begins a limited theatrical season in Australia on May 19 via Sharmill Films.