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On this episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, we speak with Peter Jackson and his longtime collaborator, editor Jabez Olssen, about their work distilling hundreds of hours of audio, dozens of hours of video, and 40 years of mythology about the Beatles’ “Get Back” sessions into a documentary that tries, going day by day, to lay out the experience of the sessions that led to the Beatles’ last live performance. Jackson and Olssen discuss what putting visuals to familiar audio changed, how they found ways around seemingly inaudible or unusable material, and why they set out to make a documentary that wasn’t a Beatles break up story.
Listen to the full episode below, or read on for excerpts from our interview.
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Partial Transcript Below:
Jackson and Olssen on creating “The Beatles: Get Back”:
Olssen: Well, the first thing I ever heard [about the project], Peter, was that you sent me an email because you were in England and you had gone into the Apple offices and you had started watching it there on videotape in their conference room. I’m sure you remember that, but, um, you put a few days aside for it, thinking, “Oh yeah, I’ll probably see most of it.” But because of the amount, you know, I think you got through a few days before you had to move on, but I would just get emails from you in the evening describing what you had seen, you know. And the first thing you said to me is that, you know, despite all the mythology about what the time was like and how miserable it was, that is not what you’re seeing in the footage. And you couldn’t believe it.
Jackson: You also have to have to factor in the general understanding or mythology, if you wanna call it mythology, of this period of time in the Beatles’ history. So, you know, as as a Beatles fan I’ve been reading Beatle books for 40-odd years and had painted a picture of the “Get Back” sessions in my head based on all the books, as most people have. We were going into it with one perception, and I hadn’t agreed to do the film because I told Apple, I said, “Can I just look at it all? Because, look, it would be a lifetime dream of mine to do a Beatles movie, but I don’t want to do the Beatles breakup film.” And if this footage is indeed showing them breaking up — as we all believe it — and if “Let It Be” represents the stuff that they were happy for people to see, what the hell is going to be in this footage that they didn’t want people to see back then? How bad is it going to get? So I sat down and I had dread to look at their stuff. I was excited on one level because it’s all, you know, Beatles stuff I’ve never seen before. But I also had a heavy heart and I said to them, “Please, just let me watch it.”
And so what Jabez and I did is we had 130 hours of audio, and the camera turns on and off. But if you regard the audio as being like a timeline and then the cameras switch on and off at different places all the way through that 130 hours, there’s about 57 hours in total of picture. But the story obviously is in the audio, not just the picture.
So what Jabez and I started doing is we sat and we watched it all — and when I say watched it, we had it prepared so we could sit in the cutting room and where there was picture, we watched the picture and when we went to audio only, we just had a black screen. So even though it was audio, we were sort of watching it all. So we watch all 130 hours because you have to, obviously, and we didn’t know what the story was. I mean, Apple kept saying to me, “Well, what’s the story? What story are you going to tell?” I said, “Well, let’s just wait.”
And I realized there’s no help to be gotten from any of the books that I read over the years in terms of what this was about, because the books were so inaccurate about what actually happened during that month. And then what happens is that you get to the end of the 130 hours, and you’ve seen and heard conversations towards the end, you know, in the second half that you think, “Well, hang on, back then they were talking about something that might relate to that.” So you’ve sort of got to go back and you’ve got to watch it all again, because you’ve now got the knowledge of the whole 130 hours, which you didn’t have going in and you want to now listen to the whole first half with an understanding of what’s going to happen in the second half because there’s things that are spoken about that didn’t mean a thing the first time through that now have a more interesting context or meaning.
So we sort of watched it all twice, really, in a sense to actually get a handle on [the material].
Jackson and Olssen on finding through-lines for the material:
Jackson: To answer Apple’s question that they kept asking me, “What’s the story?,”w e just felt well, [the story] has to be the most simple story, which is a linear story of starting on the first day of the “Get Back” sessions and proceeding through to the end. And so by doing that, we the audience, the viewer is experiencing things happening at the same time as the Beatles are. So, you know, you’re looking at the Day 6. Nobody knows that Georgia’s going to quit the next day. You know, we don’t know. They don’t know. Obviously, if you’re a Beatles fan, you probably do know. But just from a point of view of [the average viewer], we’re not ahead of the Beatles. We just wanted to [show] the whole monster, you know, [and the audience watching “Get Back”] at some point, we need to believe that they’re going to go overseas. They’re going to play in an amphitheater because they themselves think that’s possible at one point. So we just wanted the audience to experience it as the Beatles are experiencing [it] themselves.
Olssen: One example is, because they wanted to play live, they were lacking a musician, because they wanted piano, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar. Five instruments. And there’s only the four of them. For the past few years, they solved that by overdubbing and just doing a second pass, but here they wanted to play like a normal band. Eventually this gets solved by bringing Billy Preston, an amazing piano player. And I remember it was fairly late in the piece that Peter went back and watched the footage again. When he says we watched it twice. We watched the rushes a lot more than twice during the four years.
And I remember that it was late in the process Peter said, “I’ve gone back through the rushes and there’s this great bit that we didn’t know.” Early on in Twickenham with John and Paul are discussing, “Well, how are we going to play this? We need to bring in a piano player.” They didn’t mention Billy Preston. There was another famous [pianist] I think they might’ve mentioned. But [they spoke about], you know, ‘We can’t do it all. Maybe we need just to have them with us playing.” And these little ideas were percolating, but we had missed it on our first go through because it hadn’t seemed like a major conversation or something that was very important. And it wasn’t until the story of Billy Preston became obvious later on that this became a great setup. This became a great little piece that just showed you that things were percolating in these storylines. And that happened all the time with the various storylines that we ended up discovering.
Jackson: I became terrified with the sheer bulk of material that we were always going to miss out on something that we shouldn’t miss out on. We discounted a lot of material early on because it was inaudible, you could hear that they were having a conversation. And I think that conversation with Billy Preston, they mentioned it early on like day two or something there, it’s drowned out by strumming. I know some of [the strumming was done] deliberately because I think George and John in particular were hypersensitive of being eavesdropped on by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. And they would start strumming the guitar.
So in the last eight months we developed the software that we could separate and isolate things that we didn’t understand. We were working on this for four years and [didn’t let them] into our lives until about eight months before the end of the project. So I started panicking and thinking, “God, have we discounted some stuff earlier on that we shouldn’t have done?” Because you could barely hear it. So in the evenings, I would go back and listen to, you know, with the headphones on, [and listen to stuff] from the early days, stuff we’d already cut and finished with. And I tried to listen through all the noise of what was being said. And if I thought something was vaguely interesting, I would say, “Can we put this conversations through our audio technology? Because I think they might be saying something interesting. I can’t make it all out, but we should hear it.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.
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