Two master artists discuss their film about culture.
The Music of Strangers is a documentary by Morgan Neville about Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble. Below, Ma and Neville discuss their involvements with the film, the origin of the project, and how the film turned out:
Tell me the story of how this film began.
Yo-Yo Ma: Well, Silk Road was celebrating its fifteenth anniversary and Laura Freid, our CEO, and Sony decided to make a film of a concert. But then Laura thought, ‘we should make a documentary because there’s more of a story’. So through our mutual friend Michael Gorfaine, who is a wonderful manager of Hollywood composers, Michael recommended that we meet Morgan because Morgan was already filming the concert. We loved working with him and so he flew to Hong Kong for, like, a day to meet us and I think we realized that we were working with the same values. So for the next four and a half years we were just traveling together. We were almost like ensemble members.
Did you make a lot of decisions in the shaping of the film?
Ma: No. It’s really all Morgan and deliberately so, because even though we felt very much aligned, I wanted to make sure Morgan told the story the way he saw it. So it’s his narrative that’s going to make the film. We were open to anything that he wanted to do. But otherwise he just followed us, talked, asked questions, and built the film around who we were.
Is there anything that didn’t make the final cut that you miss?
Ma: I don’t know because I’ve seen slightly different versions of it and I just love the final version because it’s done so sensitively and it’s done so sensitively from different perspectives. And I think particularly at this moment when we have such a refugee issue and we have such an issue with people being afraid of welcoming people in their countries because of the social issues involved. I feel like this film is a little bit of an antidote to show the human face of people as opposed to the fear that people feel sometimes when you’re just dealing with an abstract issue.
Tell me your perspective of how you got involved with the project.
Morgan Neville: The thing is, after twenty minutes Yo-Yo was telling me dirty jokes, and after sixty minutes we were talking about philosophy, and after two hours we were talking about our kids. So I was kind of captivated at the end of the first night. I said, “I’ll follow you with a camera anywhere.” We had this kind of amazing evening, and we hatched a plan to make a documentary. But that wasn’t the original plan. Now here, four and a half years later we have a movie out of it.
And what was it like to travel with these musicians for four and a half years?
Neville: Well it’s amazing because they’re all amazing, master musicians. But they’ve all had such different experiences. So being able to go into refugee camps or into villages in China or into medieval castles in Galicia… I mean those are just experiences I never imagined I would’ve had, but it just shows the reach of where art can take you. They’re all musicians, but they’re all ambassadors. And the idea is what can we do with music to make the world a better place. What role does culture have as a tool for social change? They’re all these kinds of big questions that Yo-Yo’s been asking, that they’ve all been asking, that are the same questions I ask myself as a filmmaker. What can I do with film and what can I do with music? And I think at the end of the day the thing that we’re all trying to do is create empathy for other cultures, to understand the other whether you do it with a documentary about a musician or a song from an ancient culture, it’s all about understanding other people.
Did you feel a lot of pressure to handle the material a certain way when you know you have such high level music?
Neville: No, actually. By the time I get into editing, I’m just trying to make the best film I can with the footage I have. Then that becomes the filmmaking part of it. There’s the capturing it and being sensitive to them, but then when you’re editing you have to be merciless.
And how do the qualities of the music shape the story of the film?
Neville: Well it sets the mood and the tone. Music is so important in the storytelling here, but at the same time we had to make a lot of very difficult edits to make it all work too. It takes a long time, but I was happy with how it turned out.