#1 Documentaries on pop and rock stars such as The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa, or the opera diva Maria Callas, or the composers Igor Stravinsky, Richard Wagner and Benjamin Britten, are only a small part of the great British director, Tony Palmer’s (1941)’s rich opus. We met up with Mr. Palmer in Skopje, a few months back, sitting down for a long coffee stretch at the MKC Restaurant; the reason behind his visit was a rather significant cameo in Igor Ivanov’s newest film, The Piano Room. Tony Palmer proved himself quite the warm and affectionate character, a rather gifted interlocutor who would not stop chatting up about the great musical artists he was fortunate to befriend during his work, full of inspiration, wisdom, as well as courage.
Mr. Palmer, it is truly unusual to hear that one of the world’s most pristine musical documentary filmmakers will step on the other side of the camera, taking the role of an actor, right here in Macedonia. To begin with, have you had any other contact with our country prior to this?
Indeed I have. I hold a bond with Macedonia for over 50 years now. And it’s through a record I received in 1961. It is a recording of traditional Macedonian music; however, the names of the performers now escape me. Nonetheless, it is a recording of wonderful musical rhythms I listened to over and over again. The LP wore out, but I was able to transfer it digitally. On another note, I first came to Skopje 30 years ago, as a tourist. And then there is the film I made a few years back. Namely, it is a portrait of the famous Greek composer Vangelis, who spoke of the roots of his inspiration, which got me intrigued. He said that he found his inspiration in old Greek music, as he termed it, certainly not of the ‘bouzouki’ variety, but much older, from a place they call ‘Greek Macedonia’, or rather here. I am familiar with the political issues your country has with Greece; yet in a way, I can freely say that I’ve always been partial to this sound, this Byzantine sound, if I can describe it as such.
Before we move onto questions about your career as a musical documentary filmmaker, I’d like to ask you about your acting experience. Looking at the list of acting and directing names you’ve had the chance to work so far, I hope your acting experiences have been fruitful.
Yes, I’ve acted bit parts in my own films, but mostly because of an immediate problem that had arisen, so it proved faster and more efficient if I took on the role rather than auditioning for another actor. It’s interesting to see this process from an entirely different angle. Along those lines, I’d like to share an interesting lesson I learnt. When working with Richard Burton, he told me of the first time he appeared on the screen next to Elizabeth Taylor, in the film Cleopatra. At the time the film was being made, Richard was already famous, while Elizabeth Taylor was a bonafied star. So, he was nervous; he wanted to do well. On the first day of shooting he approached the director, and told him – “I’m sorry but I am not feeling well today.” Now, Richard was known for not really watching his own films, so he had no real understanding of how he looked up on the big screen. The director told him that all would be ok. The following day Richard went to see the director again, this time telling him – “I am awful. I truly apologize, but I have no idea what I’m doing.” The director asked him, “What are you talking about?” To this, Richard responded: “I say my line to Elizabeth, but there is no reaction. I cannot hear what she says, nothing is happening. It’s as if I am acting with a board!” The director told him then: “I’m going to show you the scene footage tomorrow, I have to.” So Richard agreed due to his concern and agitation, he told me. The following day, all eyes were glued on Elizabeth Taylor in the scene. And what they saw was that she was doing it all while seemingly doing nothing. And they all kept saying: “Who is this idiot next to her waving his arms?” That was indeed Richard Barton, and it was quite amusing to see.
Insofar, I’ve made two films with Ben Kingsley, and one is in the works. In the first film, the iconoclastic Gandhi, he gave an outstanding performance which won him an Oscar. At that time Ben was still on the rise, just at the onset of his international career. And we got along splendidly. I told him – “Mr. Kingsley, try not being an actor.” I shared with him the Burton and Taylor anecdote. He promised not to be an actor in the film we are making next year.
And now, in The Piano Room the director approached me after we shot a scene. I tried to do my best. And then he came over, and told me: “Mr. Palmer, it was really good, but can you perhaps act less?” There you go; this keen observation has followed me since the beginning of my ‘acting’ career.
What drew you to the script for The Piano Room so that you would come all the way to Macedonia to be a part of its making?
I had the opportunity to see Igor Ivanov’s previous feature, Upside Down. I think that it’s filled with interesting images, and it also tells a rather interesting story. Philip Bergson gave me the script this time, and there was a little role in it made for me. It dawned on me – this could be rather interesting. I wanted to come back to Skopje, to see what had been happening; I wanted to visit Macedonia once again, and in a nutshell the film was one more impetus for me to come. On the other hand, I also thought that it would be good practice to see myself on the other side of the camera, as a kind of learning experience. And I’ve learnt a lot indeed: to try not to act. It has been a truly valuable personal experience.
So, how do you see Skopje today?
It’s interesting. There’s the Macedonian Radio Television [building], like in Tito’s days. Then you see all those spectacular buildings in the center. Skopje reads like a construction site. Lots of construction going on. I can see the reasoning behind it. The need to forge an identity. I can sympathize with it too, as you are surrounded by beasts like Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia…you are surrounded by these beasts and felt the need to ascertain your [your] identity. But I also think that it’s a shame you’ve not shown a bit of courage and hired some of the world’s greatest architects. You are building something that was never there. Let me offer an example, about courage and the need for it. The story behind Sydney’s Opera House. It’s such a humbling story. The City’s Council provided the land rights, but everyone hated the original design. They did everything possible/conceivable to shut it down. They destroyed that original design. The original concept included three objects: an opera house, a mid-size theatre building and a little chamber music structure. So what they concluded was that no one went to the opera there, so they chose to house the opera in the middle-sized object. But of course that did not work out at all. To place an orchestra of 20 people in a little building was lunacy. Thus they faced terrible problems. But if you are looking at a postcard from Australia, chances are you will see that very Sydney Opera House. You see what I mean, all of this asked for a good deal of courage, on the behalf of the architect, the few members of the City’s Council, while most people considered it an act of lunacy. It’s a shame that the Macedonian authorities did not have that needed courage.
And there is something else as well. I expect to be deported for saying this (laughter). That statue, at the square, of Alexander the Great. That’s horrible. That’s an embarrassment. That statue belongs on a film site, something out of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 2. Its proportions – all of them – are off. When scaled to its surroundings, it stands out, awkwardly so. We took a walk down high street, took some great photographs, felt great, and then we chanced upon the statue. Ridiculous. Take it down, place it on a mountain top. It may ‘work’ there, when seen from a distance, propped on top of a mountain, but not in the center of town. Ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. Like I said, I will probably get deported for this.
It is important to understand and vocalize, I believe, this need to forge your identity, particularly because of the gangsters that surround you: there is a bankrupted gangster to your south, a right-wing gangster in Bulgaria, and a gangster in Serbia. I understand this foundational need well, but there are other ways to go about it. Just remember the Sydney Opera House.
Let’s go back to your exceptional body of work. What were the beginnings like, in other words, what made you choose musical documentaries? What helps you decide who you ‘put’ on film?
Sadly so, the first film I made was quite the success (laughter). The film was made at the suggestion of John Lennon; he wanted to make a film that would be named after The Beatles’ song “All My Loving”. Like I said, unfortunately the film was a success and people expected that I’d be doing this kind of work till the end of my life. Now, the last film I made was about an African playwright, so it has nothing to do with music. But when I finished it, my good friend, the great film composer Hans Zimmer asked me what I’d been working on, and then mentioned that he had a great score for the film. So, I cannot escape music. Although I made a film about a playwright, I could not escape music’s ploy.
We all like to believe that the best music of all time was the one made during our youth. I am that old to be able to say that the music of the late 1960s and early 1970s was made during ‘my time’; truth be told, between 1965-1966 and 1971-1972, pop music reached its zenith, and not just because of The Beatles. It was never that great as it was then. Certainly, there are good singers and good bands now. I also think, as the next person, that Adele is a great singer; meaning, I do not believe literally speaking that nothing good has happened music-wise post 1971. What I mean is that the period itself was just exceptional.
Bearing in mind that I was at the start of my career, and that The Beatles were mates of mine (two of them), it was inevitable to make a film about that world, but as you know I’ve made a good deal of films about classical musicians too, such as Maria Callas, Margaret Fountaine, Igor Stravinsky, etc. You asked about my choice process? Sometimes I get asked – ‘you knew John Lennon, you worked with him; you knew and worked with Stravinsky. What do those two have in common apart from the fact that they are both musicians?’ Well, I am fascinated by courageous people. Those who possess either moral or artistic courage, a psychological kind of bravery. Such people do the things we cannot, meaning: not that we are incapable of doing the same, but rather do not dare to do them. The playwright I made my last feature about, from Africa, turns 80 this year. His entire life has been dedicated to toppling the white South African apartheid rule. He was arrested, his passport was seized, he was threatened with deportation, but he kept at it, kept attacking them from within. And the irony was that he was not a black South African, but rather an Afrikaner [white South African]. And all this took great courage, great moral courage and physical bravery since his life was constantly under threat and he kept getting arrested.
I also made a film about Dmitri Shostakovich, the great composer. He used to believe that they may come for him, the authorities, every day, and shoot him. But he kept at it, he wrote despite being publically denounced. He was constantly threatened with everything; so, it took, once again, a good deal of courage to keep at it.
You made a documentary about the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky to commemorate the 100 years of his birth. I am personally interested, as I believe the readers will be too, in the story behind this film about the man who shaped the music of the 20th century.
With Stravinsky, the story was once again connected to courage. I told him this while he was alive; after his passing, his widow asked me to shoot the film commemorating the 100 years of his birth, which was certainly a gift for me. And one of the people we got to interview as the famous French teacher Nadia Boulanger. I told her that I could not understand why Stravinsky took classes with her, continued to take classes with her in the 1920s, in Paris, even after writing his three big hits, The Firebird, Petrushka, The Rite of Spring. Nadia told me that she too did not quite understand it. But I also wanted to know what she got out of the experience. She said: ‘It’s simple really. Sometimes, not always, a man or a woman possesses a vision, and all the rest of us can do is follow that vision.’ This takes courage, since to be a truly great artist, means to be rather lonely. You are left on your own; there is no one to help you, so your march forward. And a time comes when you get attacked, as was the case with Stravinsky, and you get publically criticized, as was the case with Stravinsky.
I am certain that when you speak about courage you are also thinking of your countryman, the composer Benjamin Britten, who you made several films about.
Benjamin Britten was a good friend. And my next film will be about him. I’ve already done 3-4 with him as the subject. It’s interesting that he is the vengeful type. Cruel, selfish, unpleasant, telling off musicians left and right, so no one could understand how a man like that could write War Requiem for instance, as well as other masterpieces. And the answer is: he was the way he was, because he was left on his own. He dogged the army, while Britain kept getting attacked. He was a gay man, living together with his lover at a time when such an act was considered illegal. He could have easily ended up in jail. And this too is a kind of bravery. And throughout this he was a conscientious objector, which during the Second World War was deemed unpatriotic. Stravinsky was also accused of treason for not returning home to fight in a patriot’s war. These are incredibly lonely people. Not for a lack of friends, but rather because they are doing something entirely novel. It may sound like a cliché, but they are not that dissimilar from a lone actor, naked on stage, with nowhere to hide…
After so many films about the musical greats, can you now say with certainty that you know where their creativity, their genius comes from?
Let’s consider the imperative that music is a gift from God. We keep hearing it repeated all the time. If it is not God’s gift, what is it then? What is music, what is art really, or even more importantly, what is creativity about? We all possess something, perhaps a selfish kind of a gene, which drives us towards artistic creation. Some are less successful at it than others. I will never be Stanley Kubrick; I know this, and yet I march on and make my films. I am embarrassed, since when I see Kubrick’s work I know that mine will never be like that. Can you imagine that? During a cheerful teatime chat, so not an interview, Benjamin Britten and I talked about the role of the composer. He told me: ‘Well, in my case it is rather easy, since my work (he called it work) is to be useful, to be of use to the living as well.’ I find this to be an excellent description. And then we got talking about other great composers too. He told me that he is not a great composer, rather that Schubert is a great composer. Imagine being Schubert or Mozart’s contemporary, and wanting to be a composer? What would you do then? I’ll never be Schubert, you’d probably think. And everyone around you knows this, although you wish to compose music. We want to create, and from this impetus comes the nature of beauty. But what is beauty?
Translated by Bela Gligorova