A great teacher manages to push students to heights they never imagined possible. This kind of miracle is at the heart of Mrs Carey’s Concert (releasing 28 April), an observational feature length documentary by Bob Connolly and Sophie Raymond.
The main character, the formidable Karen Carey, is the director of music at MLC, a Sydney girls’ school. Every two years, the students perform at a special concert at the Sydney Opera House, where the goal is to have every girl participating, whether she’s timidly singing in the chorus, or performing a virtuosic violin solo. Tension is high, drama abounds, and there’s the odd tantrum – these are teenagers after all. Lives are changed and much beautiful music is made.
The word ‘veteran’ should be used more sparingly than it is, but Bob Connolly really is a veteran documentary filmmaker. Beginning his career at the ABC, he directed more than 30 documentaries in the 1970s alone. Then, after leaving the ABC, Connolly and his wife and working partner, the late Robin Anderson, worked together to make a number of seminal and award winning feature documentaries, all of which received theatrical release. A number of these were made in the wild highlands of Papua New Guinea, including the Oscar nominated First Contact (1983), Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1989) and Black Harvest (1992). All three of these won the AFI Award for Best Documentary. Then there was the fascinating and often hilarious insight into local government in Rats in the Ranks (1996) and the poignant Facing the Music (2001), set in a beleaguered university music department. It was poignant not just because of its expose of the tragedies of economic rationalism, but because it was the last film made by Connolly with Robin Anderson before her untimely death, leaving Connolly to raise their two school-age daughters on his own.
A ten-year break from film directing ensued, yet it was in this period, while focusing on his children’s education, that Connolly found the subjects for his next film – the extraordinary music teacher Mrs Carey, and the adolescent girls in her charge. Mrs Carey’s Concert sees Connolly teaming up with his new partner (in life and work) co-director Sophie Raymond. Raymond is an animator and singer/songwriter whose previous work includes writing and producing the highly successful short animation It’s Like That (which was nominated for an AFI Award for Best Short Animation in 2004), and as assistant animator on Adam Elliot’s Harvie Krumpet. Raymond’s work on Mrs Carey’s Concert included not only co-directing, but also managing Sound and Editing (along with editors Ray Thomas ASE and Nick Meyers ASE).
Mrs Carey’s Concert premiered in February as the opening night film for the 2011 Bigpond Adelaide Film Festival – a gala event in that included a surprise live performance by the film’s young star violinist Emily Sun. The audience in the Adelaide Festival Centre responded with a standing ovation, and when we caught up with Bob and Sophie the day after, they were still on a high from the film’s rapturous reception.
AFI: Congratulations on the film’s world premiere. It was a very special opening night, with the surprise performance at the end.
Sophie Raymond: Thank you! Yes. It was kept pretty secret. It was [Adelaide Film Festival director] Katrina Sedgwick’s grand plan, I think, to really get a special occasion, a big grand opening.
Bob Connolly: She’s got a magic touch, that woman!
Sophie Raymond: Yes, we are very grateful to her, and to the festival, because a lot of the reason we are here is to do with the Adelaide Film Festival Investment Fund. They got behind the film at a crucial stage. We were at the end of the budget really and we needed an injection of help to finish it properly and so we sent it to Katrina and she just completely greenlit it, and that set off the green lights for the rest of our funding bodies.
AFI: Did this mean that any of the film had to be made in South Australia?
Bob Connolly: Well, there is a requirement that where possible there be some kind of post-production, but in our case it just wasn’t convenient so they were flexible on that.
Sophie Raymond: Obviously the festival tries to encourage that exchange. They encourage works to be made in South Australia, but it’s not restrictive. And that means it becomes a festival that can really represent the work of a nation. And let’s face it, our distances are large but our population isn’t, so there’s this lovely sense that it’s everyone’s festival.
AFI: At what point did the Festival fund come on board?
Sophie Raymond: Oh, we’d fully done a rough cut and we’d gotten it down to 100 minutes. The film was well into the final stages of editing.
Bob Connolly: But we only had funding for a one-hour film.
Sophie Raymond: Originally, we’d marketed it as one hour documentary, but when we saw the cut we realised it really did need to be feature length. The ABC and Screen Australia saw that same cut and said “Well, yeah, we can see that,” but it’s difficult, given their structures, the way they’re organised, for them to just suddenly change it to a feature-length film. By getting Katrina on board, that obviously ensures that it’s going to have its premiere in Adelaide and various other bonuses, for being associated with the Adelaide Film Festival. And so, when she got on board, then the rest of them were able to then to put in a little extra as well so we could get a fine cut editor in to really polish it up, and do the full 5.1 sound mix that you heard.
AFI: So what kind of budget are we talking about for the film?
Bob Connolly: About $520,000. Which isn’t really very much, not for three years of work. So we didn’t get paid very much, but that’s the deal. We’re distributing this film ourselves, which is a big deal. You take on a huge, huge load. But we’ve got confidence in it.
AFI: Bob, all your previous feature documentaries have been theatrically exhibited?
Bob Connolly: Yep.
AFI: Is that something that’s really important to you? Is that something that you always aim for?
Bob Connolly: Well, there’s a number of levels to this answer. From the filmmaker’s point of view, that’s why I make films, to have people see them. I think an obligation of all documentary filmmakers is the same as any other filmmaker, which is to create something that makes people spellbound in darkness, and you know, laughing and crying, which is what all cinema is really supposed to do. It’s supposed to take you somewhere and make you lose yourself. And the best place to do that is in a cinema, because of the facilities.
From the commercial point of view, a cinema release guarantees publicity and press and reviews. Serious people write about it, and that’s very important as a means of propelling your television release. So, from the filmmaker’s point of view it’s lovely to have people see it in the cinema, and from the distributor’s point of view it’s great to have it in the cinema. Documentaries do find it hard to make money in the cinema because you don’t get those multiple screens, and we don’t get eight slots a day and there aren’t the marketing budgets, and there’s not a real tradition of people going to the cinema to see documentaries. But I happen to think this one could break the mould, and last night’s reaction confirmed that. It was the best reaction I’ve had to any of my films. Rats in the Ranks screening at the Wellington Film Festival in ’96 was the second best screening I’ve ever been to, that was wonderful. But this one was special… Because I think it touched a chord in people, you know. I think everyone could relate to it. Someone said to me last night: “Anyone who’s been a teacher or been taught is going to connect with this film.” And of course, that encompasses everybody.
AFI: I suppose one of the ways into the film for me was as a parent of a child at a public school. ‘Privilege’ is the word that comes up a lot in the documentary – these amazing opportunities that these private school children are given. In Australia, we have a complex relationship with that. I imagine there would be a lot of parents looking at the film and thinking, “Well, I would love for my child to have access to resources like that and to have teachers like that who can really focus on something so specialised and so rarefied as classical music.
Sophie Raymond: Well, the teachers are able to support the kids because they are supported within that school. You’re right though, I think a lot of parents look at the film with those kind of eyes. It is interesting in Australia, because sometimes we don’t like people achieving too much. The whole ‘tall poppy’ thing does exist in its strange way, whereas in this film they’re saying, “just go for it!”
Bob Connolly: But there’s a counter-argument. For example, in Finland, where it’s all public education, they put tremendous resources into classical music education in their schools, because they recognise, “lightbulb, lightbulb”, that it is colossally important in the intellectual, creative and emotional development of children. And so these are choices that education authorities make.
Sophie Raymond: Yes, but in Australia, we do grapple with allowing people to shine in particular ways, in particular with performance and music, which is different to the purely academic arena. Interestingly, the guy at [New York’s] MOMA [Museum of Modern Art], where they’re doing a season of Adelaide investment films, when we asked him “Should we come? Do you think there’s a good audience for this film in New York?” He said “Well yes! Because New Yorkers really love struggle and achievement, and the idea of people really trying to be extraordinary and creating things that are extraordinary.” That was interesting and heartening to hear.
Bob Connolly: The bottom line also is that we were not looking at the divide between private and public schooling. We’re looking at a bunch of kids wrestling with a huge talent. The background to that is the fact that’s it’s an all-girls school; the fact that it’s probably 60% Asian; the fact that when you look at the demographic, a lot of these parents are probably burying themselves to put their kids into a school like that, because they figure it’s really good that they’ve got access to that sort of education, you know. But we made a very conscious decision that we were simply not going to enter that sort of political arena. It was going to be about these kids.
Sophie Raymond: And it was going to be about the music, you know, and what the music does for them. We didn’t want to get too far away from the music at any point, otherwise it becomes a film about something else.
Bob Connolly: And you should remember that this is a very different school. Admittedly it’s a private school, but where it’s placed in Sydney, it’s in the inner west, about 15, 20 kilometres from Sydney. The demographic is Western Suburbs Sydney, and these are very often first generation immigrant families who came here with nothing, who built up a shop or a restaurant or a business of some sort. And the minute they’ve got enough spare cash, they’ll send their kids to this school. They would never in a million years send their kids to Pymble Ladies’ College or Redlands or the rest of them, which are Anglo-Saxon, you know, rich man’s, Sydney’ girls schools of privilege. I sent both of my kids to this school and it just completely lacks pretension, you know, which is what I really liked about it. It’s also worth mentioning that almost all the girls we follow are on full scholarships, and they’re getting $120K worth of education. That’s a lot.
Sophie Raymond: That’s part of the way the music department works too, is that the scholarship kids are role models. You’re not just here to serve yourself, you’re here for everyone, and the younger kids are inspired by it. And Karen Carey recognises that the best role modelling a kid is going to get is from another kid. That’s part of her approach.
AFI: Another issue the film raises is that question of how much pressure should be put on kids to strive for achievement. There’s a fine line, isn’t there, between how far you push someone and how far you just let them be who they are? It’s by being pushed that we stretch ourselves, which is obviously the philosophy Mrs Carey subscribes to.
Bob Connolly: What’s that line from the film? “Smile. Be brilliant… No pressure!” [laughs]
Sophie Raymond: Yeah she’s a really great study in that, because she really does get a good sense of each individual kid and what they need. She doesn’t treat everyone in the same way. And she just sees where each kid is at and just offers them the next level. So with Emily, a hugely talented musician it was “We know you can play beautifully, we know you have this ability, but your next challenge is to actually find words to articulate that, so you can bring that orchestra with you and have that language.” Whereas another girl like [the rebellious and completely unmusical] Iris, her challenge was just to open her mouth and sing, just be a tiny part of the performance. And both of them achieved that.
Bob Connolly: And my daughter, the indifferent clarinet player, her challenge was to basically get the notes right at the back of the orchestra in one of the big orchestral pieces. Not to play like a genius in front of 2,000 people, but just to sort of merge in. And the discipline of doing that is terrific. But it wasn’t as though Karen was hitting her on the head and saying “You’ve got to be brilliant.” She was saying “You know, just do a little more practice if you can and try your best.” It’s meeting every child where they’re at.
AFI: As filmmakers, how did you manage to make yourself unobtrusive in the class room? I imagine that the girls – and the teachers – were quite fascinated and distracted at first?
Sophie Raymond: Yeah, they were pretty funny actually, at first, very preoccupied with how they would do their hair etc, but when you’re there for 18 months… And they get busy, you know. We just became like an element in the music department, and they stopped really concerning themselves us.
Bob Connolly: That’s actually the most commonly asked question and for us the least problematical thing. Because this is the sixth long film like this I’ve done. All of them shot over at least a year. It just varies. If you go out with a police patrol on a riot, people will forget you’re with them in half an hour. If you go into a couple’s home, who are having a break up, it’ll take six months to get the level of observational intimacy that you need. If you go to a girls’ school like this, probably after two months. Certainly after a month, Karen [Carey] stops coming in with her hair done up and dressed to the nines, and comes as she is. You just wait for that. You know it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of waiting. I call it, ‘passive activism’. I mean, there’s a technique to it. For example, you never, ever direct the action. You never tell people what to do. You never get them to say something over again.
Sophie Raymond: Often in the early stages, they do look to you and go “Do you want me to say that again for the camera?”And you don’t answer. You just indicate that they should keep going with what they’re doing, and eventually they just get on with it.
AFI: The sound in this film is amazing – as you’d want it to be in a film about music. Sophie, as the sound recordist, what the particular challenges here?
Sophie Raymond: I had a setup of four radio mics, but I also had a boom and a couple of very, very good Neuman cardio mics that were were for the orchestra. I had a four track mixer that recorded at a very high bit rate, so that meant that we could record a big range of sound, which meant that I could keep the volumes pretty low and not lose any information. Then in the mix, you could lift up the sound and not get [background] noise.
AFI: It was just the two of you on location, with you holding the camera Bob?
Bob Connolly: Yes, basically. Sometimes, Sophie would shoot second camera as well as doing sound. The opening scene of an earlier concert was shot by a brilliant cinematographer Bonnie Elliot, and she did exactly what we asked her to do, something that I learnt when I was shooting Facing the Music. She held the shot. The tendency is – because the shot doesn’t change, it’s just one face, someone playing something – there’s a tremendous temptation to move the camera. What she did was just stay there and hold that shot. And then we had this footage of the performer just waiting for her turn to play, with all the anxiety going across her face. It was gold. That’s the beauty of observational documentary filmmaking.
AFI: Sophie, you edited the film along with Ray Thomas and Nick Meyers. When did Nick Meyers come in?
Sophie Raymond: He came in with the really fine cut. The structure was all there but it was really just trying to get the flow to make it more cinematic. We needed a fresh eye, and chose him because he’s a drama editor. It was good to be offered a whole bag of different ways of seeing and he just offered lots of lovely solutions. And Ray Thomas has worked with Bob on all his other films and it was great having those really two different skill bases or perspectives, you know, because Ray is a documentary editor, and he had that touch. His years and years of editing that kind of material and that gives him an amazing] understanding – working out how to make sense of an 18-month process and put it into a 95-minute kind of logic.
AFI: One last question for Bob: You’ve had a substantial break between your last film and this one. Was it a good feeling to be back doing it again? Was it like getting back on the horse again?
Bob Connolly: Yeah …
Sophie Raymond: It was like you were back in the saddle again! I remember you heaving the camera up on your shoulder and you’re like, “I can feel my muscles again.”
Bob Connolly: Yeah, but you know, this is such a hard thing to do. This was three years, and they’re a very long process. There’s that little tiny light at the end of the very long, dark tunnel. And you don’t really know what you’ve got until the end of it. You can’t rush it. I used to do quite a lot of film doctoring of other people’s films. And so often, they’re just at that point where you have to think hard about the film and it needs about another four or five or six weeks of work, but they’ve run out of money. And for lots of lots of complicated reasons, so many films of great potential aren’t as good as they could be, because of bureaucratic and financial pressures. They’re locked off before they should be. Robin [Anderson] and I always made a vow and that we would never ever lock off a film until we thought we couldn’t do anything else to improve it. And it’s the same with Mrs Carey’s Concert. All the people who worked on it were on it were experienced, professional filmmakers and there’s not a single excuse that we can offer. It’s as good as we could possibly make it. It looks seamless and simple and straightforward, but it’s bloody well not. It’s massively, massively difficult and daunting, and it doesn’t get any easier.
[addressing Sophie] Remember I warned you? I mean, not that you’re a neophyte or anything, but I remember saying, you know, these are grinds! There’s nothing glamorous about it all until the premiere, and you don’t even know if that’s going to happen. But the one thing you do know is that unless you put in those hard yards, that’ll never happen.
AFI: Presumably, the more experienced you are, you become more confident that if you wait long enough, something interesting will happen that you can catch on film. The threads will emerge that you need to pick out?
Bob Connolly: That’s very true, but you see, experience also tells you that you go in there 18 months early. I can remember on our film, Joe Leahy’s Neighbour where we lived in a grass hut up in the mountains in New Guinea for 18 months, and then we spent 18 months editing it… You know, and someone came up and he said: “I loved that film. I want to make a film exactly like that, but we don’t have the luxury of spending 18 months on location…so do you think six or seven weeks will do the job?” And I said: “Just go away!” You know, I mean, please. There are no shortcuts. None at all.
Sophie Raymond: We looked for them! They’re not there!
AFI: Thanks so much for your time, and best wishes with the film.
Mrs Carey’s Concert releases 28 April.