In an exclusive interview with The Violin Channel, producer and co-writer Adam Grannick, director Jesca Prudencio, and co-writer Erin McGuff-Pennington, talk us through the making process of the short film, American Quartet.
The 4-time-award-winning science fiction short work has been featured at 17 film festivals around the world.
Adam, how did you come up with the idea of producing a silent movie based on classical music?
The Filmelodic series began as one short film in 2012, set to part of Symphonie fantastique, and designed to reimagine the stories of program music in a modern setting.
Since then, we've expanded beyond program music and have produced 5 films thus far, each touching on different human experiences and different genres of music, and in collaboration with an increasingly wide circle of artists. Many of these artists, I should add, come from a musical background, but many do not, and it's been great to see where everyone's imagination takes them.
A film without dialogue is inherently about lack of communication between characters, and that ties in directly to the story we are telling. It's about how technology allows you to become immersed in your own memories and points of view which can both be comforting and validating. However, it also cuts you off from others and leads to a lack of empathy. We explore how that lack of empathy can affect, for example, how friends react differently after a hateful incident.
Adam, how did you choose the repertoire and musicians for this project?
My co-writer Erin and I spent months brainstorming what piece we wanted to focus on for this fifth film. We wanted to tell a story about empathy and America and the experience of feeling like an outsider. We realized that Dvořák's "American" Quartet was a perfect match. Even within the first movement alone, there are so many interconnected stories and variations in tone.
The Dover Quartet's interpretation stood out to us as ideal for the film we were aiming to make. Just like the script, it's full of moments of tranquility, vulnerability, angst, and conflict. We feel very lucky that we were able to use such a poignant recording of the piece for this film.
Erin, how did you go about building a script around the score?
The music comes first, both literally and artistically. We start by listening to the score ad nauseam (except it's never really ad nauseam because, my goodness, what beautiful music!), and as we feel we're getting a handle on the rhythms, motifs, phrases, etc., we start to brainstorm story ideas based on the spirit of the music.
After generating our initial ideas, we share them with one another to see what aligns, and what moves us both as writers, listeners, humans. We start to build characters, a plot, and eventually a structure around those story ideas, always checking back with the score to ensure our creation is grounded in the music.
Once we have a good feel for the overall narrative, we do the microscopic work of crafting and revising the story so that it fits the musical phrases and transitions of the piece; for example, we want the climax of the story to align with the score's most heightened moment; we want the characters' emotional lives to resonate with the sounds our audience will hear.
Figuring out precise timing is another important part of the process. Our character actions and plot points need to correspond to the movement within the score. Not having dialogue to help mark the passage of time is a challenge, so sometimes we even write theoretical dialogue to help us know how long an exchange—a "conversation," if you will—between two characters might last.
The writing must be specific and time-bound. If we're not careful, we could end up with a 30-page script for a 10-minute score, and that won't make anyone happy in the end.
Jesca, the movie explores racial tensions in a future world. What message are you trying to bring to light?
The movie explores the tension of the future, but you will see that it is also the tension of the past and present. There has always been fear of the other — that one's mere existence causes unrest.
The great message of our film is to seriously question how fear can control us and investigate what it will take to live in a world of empathy and compassion. I believe that great art raises questions and leaves audiences asking questions of themselves. How does fear control us? What will it take for us to peacefully coexist? What will it take for us to truly experience empathy? Is the answer in technology?
Jesca, as a director, can you tell us how important music is to you?
Before I was a director, I was a musician. I began my training as a violinist at age five, so it became my voice and means for expression, something that was essential as a shy kid. I soon blossomed through theatre, both on stage and off, and found my true passion as a director. I enjoy leading a team in creating experiences to make audiences feel things, but I never forgot my roots as a musician.
Music is essential in everything I create, it is my hand guiding the viewers. It moves them in ways that no spoken dialogue or visual image can. My interest in various art forms has manifested in my interdisciplinary approach to storytelling, so when I was given the opportunity to direct this film that uses the powerful music of Dvořák, it was a natural fit where I could finally merge my two worlds.
Music is the text of this film. There is no need for spoken dialogue because the music gives voice to each narrative. This is the essence of Filmelodic and I am so grateful I can bring my whole artistic self as both violinist and director to this film, letting the music do the speaking in American Quartet.
Jesca, if we want to see the short film how can we do so?
The film will now be featured on Filmelodic's Facebook page as well as Filmelodic's website at www.filmelodic.com, and should be shared with audiences all over the world. We also look forward to when we can once more present our films in concert with live music.
Music is a universal language, and we are excited to create a global conversation about empathy and understanding, voiced by the music and brought to life by an incredible team of artists.