I spoke with Swirsky about how he tackled the realm of documentary filmmaking with Beatles Stories.
You taped interviews with a lot of people for this film. How did you manage to pare it down to what we see in the final cut?
I had so much material to work with. To be honest, the Beatles are so sacred—not just to me, but to the world. I felt like I had to be very careful about how I presented it. I felt like the best thing to do was to try and create the feeling of reading a book. There’s a chapter title, yet I didn’t want each chapter to go by in one minute’s time. That would be too fast. Two minutes, three minutes, that might be too long. But it’s not like I had a rule. It was important to me that the stories were told, especially through the photographs.
The photographs used are quite illustrative of the story being told at any given time.
It took me a long time to find the photos and the other footage. If somebody was talking about the Beatles in 1965, the photo had to really reflect what they looked like in that period. And not just a generic photo. Like the Steve Kipner interview, the songwriter who told the story of how he was with Maurice Gibb and Lulu when Ringo Starr made him baked beans and toast. Then they watched a movie at Ringo’s house. It’s a hilarious story. But it was very important to find a photo of Ringo eating, which wasn’t easy to do. So it was somewhat of a sleuth-type thing.
Am I correct in assuming some of the photos apparently came from the interview subjects’ personal collections?
Well, what’s amazing—just to go back to Steve Kipner—I had done his piece [for the film]. He then sends me a photograph with a note saying, “I’m not sure if you’ll need this.” He had a photograph of Maurice Gibb and Lulu with himself and his partner. I’m thinking, “Now that tethers us to the story, it grounds us.” So I had [the segment] already edited, but sometimes the interview subject had things that they dug up me. It was really great. I really tried to match the photographs to what the subject was talking about.
What about that great piece of video footage with John Lennon doing a weather broadcast live on a Philadelphia TV station in the ‘70s?
Larry Kane had that. When I interviewed him, I was just interested in his story, but he had the footage to go with it. It was such an incredible story.
A few of these stories will be fairly well known to many Beatles fans, but most of them haven’t really been heard.
Even if you have heard them, one of the reasons I included some of them is that you might not have seen them being told. If somebody told me a story, like, “John and Paul used to cut school and write songs together in the beginning,” that’s so Beatles 101, I would’ve never included it. So many times, interviewees told me things like, “I remember when ‘Hey Jude’ came out and it changed radio because it was the first record that was longer than seven minutes.” I would not include things like that. I always had, in my head, a friend of mine who knows every single thing there is to know about the Beatles. I thought to myself, “I want this movie to appeal to him too.” But at the same time, I had in my mind the casual Beatle fan.
In my opinion, that’s one of the areas in which you really succeeded.
Well, you might know that Brian Wilson listened to Rubber Soul and it led him to create Pet Sounds. But have you ever seen his excitement when he tells the story? I’m not out to change the world. There are moments you might not have heard before. But I’m not advertising it as, “Oh my God, never before heard! This is going to shake up the world of Beatledom.” It’s just small moments in many ways. I was trying to bridge the gap for everyone who likes the Beatles on any level.
There’s a great flow the presentation. We never know what kind of story we’ll hear next, but it progresses naturally. Was it difficult to achieve that structure?
The actual running order, the juxtaposition of the stories, was carefully crafted that way. There was thought behind it. There’s a general sense of the ‘60s in the first part, and then it goes into the ‘70s, like Art Garfunkel, Henry Winkler, May Pang. It’s kind of important to match the time period in a subtle way so the viewer doesn’t feel jolted.
Once you tracked down and contacted someone you wanted to interview, did you have a hard time scheduling a meeting?
I know nobody in the Beatles world. People have said, “Oh, you’re a songwriter and have written hit songs, so you must’ve known this person or that person.” I didn’t know anybody, I really didn’t. This was all about the passion of doing it. Whenever I got to somebody, say through a guitar player that might’ve played on a demo of mine, I would always say, “I’d love to get 10 minutes of your time.” But what do you say, “Let’s meet at your house?” You just can’t start by inviting yourself over to Art Garfunkel’s house. I always said, “I just need 10 minutes of your time.” And I meant it. And then they would end up inviting me to their house a lot of the times. Before I knew it, 10 minutes turned into an hour. So I had a lot of extra footage.
How did you go about boiling it down to what we see in the final cut?
I always thought of it as a rainbow, in that you don’t always have the exact same hue of blue or orange or yellow. I didn’t want the same story. If Justin Hayward [of The Moody Blues] told me about the first time he met John Lennon, I would think, “I already have that story in another form.” And yet Justin told me another fantastic story about how George Harrison didn’t remember the chords to a Beatles song [“I’m Only Sleeping”], and he had to teach it to him. So I had to choose different ones that weren’t the same thing to make that rainbow. I was always trying to give the viewer a different color.
Did you ever find yourself with footage you really wanted to use, but just couldn’t quite fit into the film comfortably?
Most of the extra things are either in the bonus material or I talk about it in the director’s commentary. I think the bulk of the entire work, which took eight years to do, really is on the DVD in some way. There’s also the extra interview with Norman Smith [recording engineer on all The Beatles recordings up to 1965]. This was a guy who was really there. He said a lot of things that I thought were of note.
That reminds me, we see George Martin very briefly in the film. Was the actual interview longer than what we see?
When I saw George Martin, there were a couple other things I got from him. Yet it was so amazing, right at the beginning when I first had my camera on. I told him I had just interviewed Norman Smith. And I almost fell over when he said, “Norman Smith? I thought he was dead.” That for me was bigger than any story he could’ve told, because he worked in the trenches with this guy for years.
As I said in the car when Norman picked me up, there were six people that made the sound: the four Beatles, George Martin, and the man that John Lennon referred to as “Normal,” Norman Smith. He really helped make the actual sound in the studio. He was a very integral part. And so I thought to myself, he was somebody that George Martin would’ve probably known whether he was alive or not [Ed’s note: Norman Smith passed away March 3, 2008, not long after Swirsky’s interview]. It also served as a transition piece to get into Norman. So that’s why that ended up that way.
Was there anyone you had an extra challenging time contacting? Someone you thought you’d never get for an interview?
I tried to get Graham Nash and I don’t even remember the source, maybe it was his agent. I wrote an email and I couldn’t get him. Two years go by and I’m still getting people for the movie. I tried to get Graham through someone else and that didn’t work either. So by 2010 or whenever it was, I was at a birthday party for somebody, and who’s at the party? Jackson Browne. Two guitars come out, and people know I’m a guitar player, so there I am—Jackson Browne and I are playing “These Days.” It was great. I know most people’s catalogs very well, and there I am playing songs with Jackson Browne. He complimented me afterwards and asked what else I was doing. I told him about this movie. “Is there anybody I can get for you?” I told him I’d been trying to get Graham Nash for years. He goes “I’m going to call him right now.” And before I knew it, I was at Graham’s house.
Wow, that’s a great story in and of itself. In closing, I wanted to mention that, for me, perhaps the biggest strength of the film is the emotional subtext that many of these stories carry.
The beauty of the movie, to me, is not necessarily in the stories on the outside. It’s the stories on the inside. As an example, go back to the Steve Kipner story. He’s just a songwriter dude who’s just going along. He knows Maurice Gibb. And Maurice says, “There’s Ringo’s house, let’s go.” And Steve says, “Ringo has a house?” Which is a funny line. But more to the point, when Maurice left the house, Steve’s there in Ringo’s house. He doesn’t know the Beatles. And then Ringo asks if he can make him dinner and then he wants to watch a movie. And nobody but people like The Beatles had movies at home in those days.
Beyond the funniness and quirkiness of the story on the outside, when you watch it a second time, you start to think to yourself, “Maybe Ringo was lonely.” Here’s this guy he doesn’t even know, and he’s really kind of goading him, “Can I entice you to hang with me?” To me, in many ways, these stories contain certain psychological things we find out about The Beatles that are very human, very much like us. That’s the way I was thinking when I cut it. If you can get into the story a second time, there’s something more there.
Beatles Stories Clips
Seth Swirsky’s Beatles Stories is now available on DVD. For more information about Swirsky, please visit his official website.