“Bernstein’s Wall,” a documentary about the life of the famous American conductor, had its Atlanta premiere through the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival Sept. 21 at the Sandy Springs Performing Arts Center. To celebrate the film, Reporter Newspapers spoke with director Douglas Tirola about why he felt drawn to Bernstein and the importance of the artist. You can also read Reporter Newspapers’ review of the film here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Reporter Newspapers: What drew you to Leonard Bernstein as a subject? Did you have a relationship with his work before starting this project?
Doug Tirola: I grew up in a house that had some classical music and books. My mom, she worked for a wealthy woman who had a subscription to the New York Philharmonic, and eventually that woman shared her seats with her, and then she took them over.
I was researching another movie that had to do with something in the 1980s, and I came across a concert Leonard Bernstein did in Berlin right about two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. He performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 on Christmas morning in East Berlin – an American Jewish conductor. It just led me on this search for things about him. Not so much his music, more like his thoughts about social change and politics and family and art.
I came across so many things that I liked. I went to my longtime producer Susan Bedusa and said, my next movie I want to direct is about Leonard Bernstein. She said, “I haven’t really heard you mention him before.” And I said, well he said all these things, and these are things that I also believe in.
That’s where I decided to make a movie about him, really. In a way to get those ideas out that he had about people and life and politics and art, because I think they’re very relevant today.
RN: It’s interesting you bring up not focusing so much on his work, because I certainly knew him from “West Side Story,” “On the Town,” and that stuff. I found it interesting which works you decided to focus on, like “Mass” and his work with the Philharmonic. How did you decide how much time to lend to different aspects of his professional life?
DT: It is a movie about Leonard Bernstein, and it starts at the beginning of his life and goes to the end. When you’re doing a movie, for me at least, about someone who’s so public, there are going to be a lot of fans that are going to know more than we’re ever going to know as the filmmakers, because their relationship with him and his work has been for so long.
I kind of look at it like going to a great rock concert – they used to have things, DVD box sets, that would cover an artist’s career. You can’t have everything. You’re not going to see everything at a concert either. But you want to get the things that you feel as an audience member, that we were robbed [that] we didn’t get to learn about this or hear this, but also expose the audience to some work that they’re less familiar with. Almost anybody’s going to know “West Side Story.” A portion of the audience is going to know “Mass,” people that are big fans of his. But if you’re not, you might not know that. Then, there are some other things that he did that even the biggest fan might go, oh I forgot about that.
You’re really picking these parts one, to satisfy and deliver something new and exciting to the audience, and then also to help structure your own story. The pieces we picked were the ones that we thought were important to tell a coherent story, to move the story forward. Also, things you could say have to do with social change and politics and culture. So “West Side Story,” obviously immigration. “Mass” has to do with power and politics – even though, as [Bernstein] says, they’re not really mentioned. Out story of Leonard Bernstein is guided by those ideas about the world and art and artists and how they can affect change, as opposed to his greatest collaborations. Though I think you get many of those in there as well.
RN: You brought up the performance in Berlin, which is a very powerful image that the film ends on. When you saw that, did you know that was going to be where you ended up?
DT: Before we started making the movie, the idea was to start with the Berlin Wall coming down concert, and we’ll end it there like a book end. So you do see a little bit in the very beginning of that first concert. What we didn’t know when we started was this concert he did in 1961 right as the wall was going up, where he’s playing in Berlin with the New York Philharmonic, and it happens to be Rosh Hashanah and he gives this prayer in Hebrew. In some ways,
that’s also the beginning – the wall coming up and the wall coming down. But yeah, the idea was always to begin and end with this concert.
RN: The documentary is essentially all archival footage. Was there every a thought to bring in new interviews with people who knew him, or was this always the idea?
DT: The initial attraction to do the story was hearing his ideas. So I just wanted to hear from him. Many of the people, understandably, that were important in his life are passed on. There are certainly a lot of great documentaries where you have people who are experts or who have met him. Certainly a lot of his protegees are out there. But the idea was to tell the story as if you’re sitting somewhere and he’s telling you this personally. He’s looking at the camera, he’s looking at the audience. It’s as if he could be in a restaurant talking to someone at the same table or at the bar, and he’s going to tell them his life story as a way to teach what his meaning of life is.
RN: I feel like Leonard Bernstein is having a bit of a moment – the “West Side Story” remake, there’s a biopic in the works, he’s mentioned in the new Todd Field movie “Tar” – was that resurgence something you were thinking about as you made the movie?
DT: No. I mean, we started the movie before any of those. I mean, I don’t know – I’m sure some movies take a long time, but it wasn’t anything that was public or we had access to. I don’t even think we knew “West Side Story” was happening yet.
It was really just seeing this concert. A lot of filmmakers – a lot of people – they get interested in something, next thing you know you miss dinner, it’s three hours later, and you’re ordering books about him. It’s really what he said – his central ideas and themes that he talks about in his life. That is why we made the movie.
Everything’s a passion project and a labor of love. This was particularly so in many ways. When he speaks, it’s like he’s giving a sermon. He’s like a minister or a rabbi. In many ways, the film is sort of like a cinematic sermon, in terms of him saying these things with enough of his story to hold it together and hopefully be compelling.
RN: You focus a lot on his political life, but some of the parts I found most interesting were how much he prioritized teaching, whether it be the Young People’s Concerts or coaching a young conductor. What drew you towards his proclivity for teaching in tandem with his political life?
DT: Before I was gonna be a filmmaker, I was going to be a teacher. I think a lot of great filmmakers – it’s not just do this, do that – you’re teaching. You’re referring to things in cinematic history. So, when he gets that idea to turn and face the audience at the Philharmonic and make that part of his performances from then on out, [with] talking – you know, teaching is everything. I would say, if he wasn’t a conductor or composer, he would be a teacher or a rabbi or something like that, where he’s passing on knowledge.
I think the idea that he’s teaching – which comes across as he’s talking the whole movie – is important to understanding who he is, and maybe encouraging people now to teach not just in the classroom.
RN: Bernstein spends a lot of the documentary talking about his thoughts on how art can affect change, and what the artist’s role is. Is that something you find yourself thinking about, and did you think about it more often while making the film?
DT: I certainly thought about it more often when making the movie. I certainly thought more often about the idea of what is the role of art and the artist in our society and in trying to create social change. It’s something that I’ve thought about before, which is probably what drew me to him. You know, how are you trying to affect people? How are you trying to inspire people? It’s what they do after you’ve given them access. After you’ve allowed your art to be seen by people, there’s an effect. But it’s also how you talk about it, and how you use the discussions of your art to try and get people inspired to do good. It’s not just I want you to think this, it’s what they’re going to do afterwards.
There’s a moment in the movie where [Bernstein] goes, a note on its own is nothing. It’s only a note as it affects another note, and that’s the teaching. That’s art. That’s the artist.