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Under the Influence: Morgan Neville talks about Keith Richards

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Trevor Hogg chats with Morgan Neville about hanging out with Keith Richards and making a documentary with him…

After winning an Oscar for Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013), filmmaker Morgan Neville shifted from profiling backup singers to legendary Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards as he records Crosseyed Heart, his first solo album in 23 years.   “I’m a music geek,” admits the native of Los Angeles who has made documentaries about Muddy Waters, Hank Williams, Sam Phillips and Stax Records.  “I play guitar and upright bass.  Editing can be musical.  On one hand music documentaries should be about music. The music itself shouldn’t just be score.  It needs to help tell the story.  The best musicians the music does reflect their life, the art and the artist are connected.  At the same time music documentaries need to be about something more than the music. Music is a great way to bring in an audience but once you have them there you can a different story.”

Twenty Feet from Stardom

“Getting the funding for Keith Richards: Under the Influence was not that hard,” reveals Morgan Neville while promoting the project which had its World Premiere at the 40th Toronto International Film Festival as part of the inaugural Primetime programme.  “Keith Richards is a subject that a lot of people are interested in. The ambition with this is that it’s not Keith’s life story or the book.  It’s like a sketch of Keith today.  We’re hanging out with Keith talking about life and music for 82 minutes.  It was suppose to be loose.  We did it quickly.  When we went to figure out how to pay for the documentary, we showed it to a lot of people who were interested.  What made Netflix work so well is that they’re nimble.  Documentary funding is changing constantly.  Netflix has put a lot of money into it.  It has raise what other people are willing to spend on documentaries.  There’s a bigger audience for them.  I watch a lot of documentaries on iTunes.”

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Gaining the cooperation of Keith Richards was critical for being able to make the Netflix documentary.  “Nothing happens in Keith’s world if he doesn’t want it to happen,” notes Morgan Neville.  “The music is unique in terms of the subject matter in that the artist controls the thing that you need to tell the story so sometimes you end up in this perilous relationship and with Keith I didn’t know how it was going to go down.  I finished a cut and showed it to Keith and Jane Rose [Richards’ long-time manager].  He stood up at the end of the screening and said, ‘I just have one comment.  Don’t change a fucking thing.’  That never ever happens!  It’s a moment I’m going to savour as filmmaker for a long time.”

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“Some celebrities have their public persona and don’t want to talk about their marriage or drug use,” observes Morgan Neville.  “Keith has always been so open about everything. It has in a way made him bulletproof. Nobody can hold anything over him because Keith can say whatever he wants.  Part of why his book was so successful was that it feels unvarnished.  The biggest revelation about the book which this film continues is that Keith is not just the guy with the cigarette and sunglasses who is half-stoned; he is one of the greatest songwriters of the twentieth century and is the bandleader of the one of greatest bands in history.”

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“We sat down and did an interview with Keith in the beginning when there wasn’t going to be a documentary,” recalls Morgan Neville.  “We talked about music in general.  It was great and Keith was funny.  Coming out of that interview I felt that there’s something going on here.  We ended up filming with him in the studio while they were doing the album; it became all of this cinéma vérité material that we had.”  The music served as a storytelling device.  “We talked about his mom, grandfather, and all of these moments which are connected to music.  It’s his mom with the radio dial and his grandfather with the guitar.  By looking at the music you can pull out all of these different moments of biography and narrative.  It was a useful filter because with somebody like Keith you could go in so many different directions.”
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“The big thing for this film was that we shot it on a RED DRAGON and Kowa anamorphic prime lenses,” states Morgan Neville.  “I can’t think of a vérité documentary that has all of the studio stuff shot on anamorphic primes.  People just don’t do that.  I love how they look and it’s a cinematic feel. It was a great challenge.  It gave the film a look and Igor Martinovic [Man on Wire], our DP, was fantastic.  A number of other shooters came in but he set the look in the beginning.”  Insert shots needed to be captured.  For the most part, like the recording pressing plant, that was me trying to get atmosphere.  We shot that stuff not knowing exactly what was going to be used.  However, I knew that I wanted that texture in it.  We didn’t have a ton of time so we didn’t overshoot too much.”

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The colour pallet did not change a fair bit during the DI process.  “We did a fair amount in camera,” remarks Morgan Neville.  “We played a lot with mixing different colour temperatures.”  A lighting grid was setup in the studio controlled by lighting board that allowed for the colour temperature to be altered.  “We would have the front cold and the back in warm and vice versa.  That was fun and was something that Igor came up with in the beginning.”  Additional interviews which the likes of Tom Waits, Buddy Guy, Steve Jordan and Waddy Wachtel were not difficult to orchestrate.  “Once Keith said it was, ‘Okay,’ everybody said, ‘We’re in.’”

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Sound design is a part of the cinematic experience.  “The cool thing was that we had all of the stems from recording sessions.  A master track is too polished so we would strip it back and go back to parts of it that were happening at the time. We mixed at Skywalker Sound and they’re amazing.  Part of choosing the music was what came up organically,” notes Morgan Neville.  “I had this idea that I wanted Keith to dissect one of his old songs.  Street Fighting Man is the song I love so much and was the one I wanted him to do.  I was able to get the stems for that.  When you take a song like that and listen to the individual tracks them seem as old as the mountains.”

Morgan Neville Keith Richards

“A lot of it for me was capturing his voice,” states Morgan Neville.  “By the end of the film you have a good and honest idea of who Keith Richards is as a person.”  The cinematic approach did not follow a traditional narrative structure.  “The interesting challenge about this film is because it’s so loose that’s not like a distinct story with a beginning, middle and end but you still want the film to feel like it is going somewhere.  You want the filmmaking to reflect the subject.  It was very rock’n’roll in how we made it, from the editing to the shooting.”

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Many thanks to Morgan Neville for taking the time to be interviewed.

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer who currently resides in Canada; he can be found at LinkedIn.

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