What made you want to debunk the myths surrounding Beethoven?
Well, Beethoven is an interesting gestation. I’m a documentary filmmaker and I make films about all sorts of things. Before making Mozart, I made a film about Afghanistan. But in making the movie about Mozart, I would ask people, “Is Mozart the greatest conductor of all time? Have I chosen the right one?” They would say, “There’s no question he is one of the greatest. There’s no question he is one of the greatest creative individuals to ever walk the planet.” Then, there’d be a slightly troubling pause. They’d say, “But there’s Beethoven.” These films are really difficult to make and they’re impossible to fund. They take time and all the rest of it, but I couldn’t help myself. I thought, “If this music of Mozart is so great, what is it about Beethoven that makes him better?” I’m fascinated by the fact that a little baby is born in a small room in an upstairs apartment in Bonn. That little kid who’s no different to millions being born around the world somehow becomes one of the greatest composers of all time. Beethoven comes to Vienna one year after Mozart dies but everything’s changed. And the fact that it’s changed affects him and his music. That is fascinating. These babies aren’t born the greatest composers of all time. They may have something predetermined, but basically it’s like people throwing millions of pebbles and all of a sudden this palace emerges. An amazing amount of luck goes into it, too.
But is there such a thing as inherently having a good ear for music?
The single unifying factor about all these people — and I’ve made movies about Muhammad Ali, Pele, many great artists and great commanders - is that they are single-minded, passionate and determined and the hardest working person in their field. I wasn’t born a filmmaker. I have the ability to work 20 hours a day at it. I’m not comparing myself to these great geniuses. But from an early age, Beethoven knew what he had to be. Of course, there are many others who put in as much effort but we don’t know who they are. There is clearly an unknown spark and if you’re of a religious bent, you could call it a God-given spark. But it’s something we can’t determine. What we can think about is just how important was his father. Just how important were the musical influences that he was listening to. And from our perspective, just how important was it that he wasn’t distracted by Playstations and iPods. It’s not surprising they became great musicians because that’s all they did. If I sat down and played 20 hours a day, I could become a decent pianist, too. You can listen to Beethoven’s music and not know anything about the biography and still be moved by it. But the more you know about the biography, the better the music becomes.
Did you come away thinking that Beethoven was the better composer?
As a non-vegetarian, do I prefer fish or meat? It kind of depends on the day. There is perhaps more variety in Beethoven. He’s not repeating himself. With great respect to Philip Glass, he’s kind of repeating a riff. Beethoven doesn’t do that. The symphonies are wildly different from each other. I do find that extraordinary. In my car, I cannot stop listening to the piano concertos. That’s what I’ll be listening to as I make the drive from New York to Cleveland. On the other hand, the operas by Mozart are out of this world. There’s so much average, we shouldn’t be choosing between these two great guys. If you have warm blood in your veins, you must be interested in Beethoven. I don’t care if you’re 8 years old and watch Disney or if you’re 17 and listen to hip-hop or if you’re 80, Beethoven is for you. The story is extraordinary and the music is extraordinary.
So were you into classical music before making the films?
Not really. I listened to it but without knowing much about it. I couldn’t have told you when the baroque became classical. Or who lived first, Hayden, Mozart or Beethoven. In a way, these films benefit from that. I take nothing for granted. The films are easy to follow. My 7-year-old son watched it all the way through and understood it. At the same time, I have the world’s foremost Beethoven experts watching it and getting something out of it. That’s the balance you want as a filmmaker.
What was it like filming 55 performances for the film?
The glib answer is that it was a nightmare. You have lots of material. At one point, the cut was 14 hours long. I filmed it myself. Let’s take a 50-minute symphony. What’s the one minute you use? Is the filming of that moment what you need? It’s very complicated. Each piece you have to approach differently. I spent a lot of time on this. The editing is very difficult. I spent 12 months of editing. My editor never wants to edit a string quartet again. We were shooting in high-definition, which creates some additional things. There are great complications. We go to the world’s best musicians and that’s not easy. We don’t have the budget to do it so I’m traveling on overnight trains. When you’re next to a Fabio Luisi or Riccardo Chailly and they start to play, and you’re filming it in high-definition, it’s great.
What do you like about doing the Q & A sessions at the screenings?
I really like that. It’s one of the reason I do cinema films for the last ten years. Previously, I had done work for the BBC and Discovery. Sometimes you’d be told three or four million people watched your movie. But you get absolutely no response. The Q & A afterward is like an extra service. It’s interesting to see what people say. The questions have been different for Beethoven. With Mozart, people wanted to know about access. With Beethoven, the questions are more music oriented. The character that comes through in the Beethoven film is not what you think. The character that emerges is far more full of love than you would have thought.
Did you know that would be the case?
I went in with an empty slate. If he turns out to miserable, so be it. I don’t go in with a pre-conception. For example, everyone said his father was a dreadful bully and I ignored that and wanted to find out for myself. Who is it that’s paying for the best teachers? Beethoven’s father was a musician but he realized he wasn’t good enough to teach Beethoven. He pays for the best tutors in Bonn. Beethoven owes him something. There’s only one account of someone coming around and seeing him crying at the keyboard.
I guess the press didn’t work any different back then.
I made a series about Roman history and it was the same. There was one guy who was writing essentially a gossipy blog. Everyone takes their history from him as if it’s gospel. WE don’t’ write letters, so if all these blogs survive and become history, Hollywood stars are going to tear their hair out. That’s why I go talk to musicians. Who will know the music better? I know I’m reflected in my films. I can spot my sense of humor and my interest in the same way that Beethoven and Mozart are reflected in their music. Musicians like talking to me because I know more about the history, which makes it very conversational.