Mary McCartney spoke with Solzy at the Movies about her new Abbey Road Studios documentary, If These Walls Could Sing.
The film, which covers the entire history of Abbey Road, launches December 16 on Disney+.
If These Walls Could Sing is one of my favorite documentaries of the year. How honored were you to premiere the film at Telluride?
Mary McCartney: I’m honored that you just said that. Thank you. Telluride was mind-blowing. I’ve never directed a feature documentary in my life and I was asked to do this. It’s something very close to my heart and then as we finished it, we were like, we’ve been invited to Telluride. I hadn’t really heard of it before because it’s not my area. I researched it. I went and it was one of the best experiences of my life. Also, it gave me the opportunity to—because this is gonna come out on Disney. It was a lot of work and it was quite a complicated documentary to do because there’s so much to fit in and so many genres in such a long space of time. I was really like, how is this going to be received by the audience for the first screening? I was terrified. I don’t know if you were at that one. I did it. I got up and announced it and nobody could understand what I was saying because I was rushing and didn’t have the microphone up to my mouth. I was so nervous. But then when I saw the audience reaction, it got exactly the feeling that I wanted from it. I could see people’s faces reacting to the moments and laughing where they were meant to laugh and looking emotional where they were meant to look emotional. I came away with a lot more confidence and I felt like a proper director by the end of it. I went in feeling like a photographer and came out feeling like a director.
I was not at Telluride but Disney sent their award screeners that weekend. I was like, I’ve got to watch this film.
Mary McCartney: I’m so glad. It means a lot that it connected with you.
When you give me a film with The Beatles and John Williams, I’m gonna watch it!
Mary McCartney: John Williams—I can’t tell you how much—it was incredible. interviewing him. It was sort of a pinch yourself moment because he agreed to be in the documentary and then it was like how to fit it into his schedule because he’s still a very active composer. He arrived, got out of the car, walked in, sat in the seat and started the interview. It was like that. He did it beautifully, graciously, and eloquently. He got back up, walked out, I saw him into the car, and he drove off.
How long was the initial cut?
Mary McCartney: Good question. About two and a half hours. There was a time I was like, Oh, I’m gonna make it two hours because I don’t want to cut anything else down. We didn’t really cut things out but we did trim. We trimmed and trimmed and trimmed. The Jacqueline du Pré section was much longer. The Pink Floyd section was much longer. The Beatles—there was more of everything and then it was neatening, neatening, neatening. I think it’s a good length to be able to digest in one sitting.
Did the studio need much convincing when it came to opening up their doors since they don’t really do tours for the general public?
Mary McCartney: No. They didn’t because I think this documentary has been talked about. Abbey Road and Universal had wanted to do something about the history and I think it hadn’t come together. When I was invited to direct this, they said Abbey Road will make their archive available to you. It’s an official documentary. I went in knowing they would. It was definitely a challenge to actually do it because the studio is so busy. When I needed to do all of the beauty shots in the studios or the interviews, it was a challenge to get the studio space. Clearing the studio so that you could see the grandeur of it—that was a whole process as well because it’s carted and got all of the equipment in it.
When did you start working on the documentary?
Mary McCartney: I started working on it during COVID. It took about a year and a half from start to finish when we locked the picture, which was around May. I filmed a chunk of the interviews and then I actually stopped for about four months because there was a specific editor that I wanted to work with. I had to wait for him to come off his project. He was doing a documentary called Bobi Wine, which I don’t know if you’ve seen that, I would highly recommend it.
I don’t think I’ve seen it.
He’s a Ugandan musician who became a politician. It’s a fascinating, important story. I highly recommend you watch it. But that editor, Paul Carlin, I really wanted him so I waited for him. There was a gap in the middle. Then we went in, we started working on the edit, and it started taking shape. I did another final cluster of interviews from there.
What was it like to interview your father in a professional setting like this?
Mary McCartney: It was nerve-wracking in one way because a lot of importance was placed on it for the documentary. I rely heavily on the interviews, not just his, all of the interviews. I rely heavily on them saying really heartfelt things. You can’t just go in and go, Oh, yeah, I like Abbey Road, it’s a really great place. I really love it. You need to sort of elaborate more so in that sense, it was really nerve-wracking because I needed some good stuff.
I talked to Dad about it when I came on. I was like, I’m just gonna direct documentary about the history of Abbey Road. He would say anecdotes and say things to give me information and give me leads, which I was grateful for. When he arrived, he was ready. He knew enough about the project behind the scenes that he was ready to discuss. There were certain things that I could tell he wanted to talk about, like the caliber of the people there and how he felt about the space. It was an opportunity to give like Elton John, Dad, Ringo, and John Williams—all of them—an opportunity for them to talk about the space. Usually, they’re interviewed about themselves. This was like, we’re interviewing you within the context of Abbey Road. It seemed like they found that interesting to talk about.
One of the things that I found very fascinating in watching the film was how Abbey Road turned to recording film scores from the likes of John Williams in the late 1970s, early 1980 just to drum up business.
Mary McCartney: Or the studio may have been made into a car park. Can you believe it?
The site of all that history, it’s just unbelievable to even think about,
Mary McCartney: I know but the thing is, you think about it—the amount of recording studios that have closed down and Abbey Road is a living and thriving. They’ve pivoted and moved with the times. They’re active and they don’t just rely on being Abbey Road. They strategize, they do events, writers’ workshops, and the film scores are still very active there.
What would you say was the most challenging aspect of the production given the pandemic?
Mary McCartney: The most challenging aspect of the production was finding the archive material. I knew there were lots and lots of stories and there was so much to fit in. It was how to do that because I didn’t have lots of pictures of people in recording sessions or film of people in recording sessions. Current recording sessions are private spaces and people are creating recordings. They don’t really want lots of pictures being taken so the challenge was how to illustrate the stories.
Mary McCartney: Just to illustrate that, for instance, when I found out that Fela Kuti recorded three albums there, I was like, we have to have Fela Kuti in this. It’s just going to be so fantastic. You’re going along, it’s like this and then suddenly Afrobeat has come to Abbey Road. I think it’s going to be a real energy moment for the audience. I couldn’t find any footage. I couldn’t find anyone to interview. Despite everything, I was like, we need to find someone. Finally, we found the saxophone player and a woman who had been a girlfriend of one of the managers at the time, who had one contact sheet—a 35mm contact sheet, which she had taken in the studio, nothing more, and she couldn’t find the negatives. I literally was like, Can we come to your home and search your house for the negatives. We were looking for them. That whole piece—I think it’s quite dynamic but it’s all based on one little contact sheet.
I saw the film in early September. Since that time, Kanye West has increasingly become notoriously antisemitic. Did you ever consider removing that footage from the film?
Mary McCartney: I have to admit I’ve been very upset by that because I love people and I condemn any kind of hatred or antisemitism or racism so I found it very upsetting. When the documentary locked, this wasn’t the issue that it is now and he hadn’t spoken. I think he was a very different person. I didn’t do an interview with him. The footage of him in it is there to show the range and breadth of the music that has been recorded at Abbey Road. At that time, he was eloquent and was recording a beautiful album there. It’s a history piece but yeah, it’s definitely a challenge because of now. I think the audience will understand that is something that was recorded of the moment of the time.
I still had to ask because that’s been weighing on my mind.
Mary McCartney: I know. So how did you feel about it?
Well, I could personally do without Kanye, but at the same time, you’re also telling this history of Abbey Road.
Mary McCartney: Yeah. Yeah. It’s definitely challenging. It’s there for a reason and it was there before it became this version of Kanye.
What’s the reception been like on the festival tour? I know you played Chicago in October.
Mary McCartney: I hope you get an opportunity to see it in a cinema, because the sound mix is really beautiful and it’s great. The audience reaction has been, I think, surprise. People are like, I loved it. I love all the Beatles stuff. You want that because The Beatles recorded so much there. That means a lot. But then, they’re like, Wow, I didn’t realize all this other stuff. I didn’t realize that Goldfinger was there. I didn’t realize Jacqueline du Pré, the film scores. I think it’s been uplifting for a lot of people and emotional, which it makes me feel good. I wanted it to be something emotive rather than just informative, factually kind of interesting. I was like, how do you make people feel love for a building?
How did it play at the New York premiere?
Mary McCartney: It played really well. I’d never been to the Metrograph so that was a great adventure. I think people really—again, they were kind of like, wow, I just didn’t realize 90 years that—I think people go in knowing about The Beatles, but then all the rest is a bit of an adventure.
Watching the film and listening to some of your father’s comments and John Williams’s comments—I’ve been interviewing a number of composers for another outlet that I write for and that’s actually influenced some of my questioning, like, do they have a favorite studio because of the sound?
Mary McCartney: Great, thank you. John Williams, the way he speaks, it has beautiful bloom. The way he talks about stuff is so evocative. I was very pleased with it because if the interviews hadn’t been so personal and had such good content, then that would have been challenging to make this documentary. Within my career in photography—I like portrait photography, that’s sort of my style anyway. I’ll be there and I need to connect with my subject, the person I’m working with. But then in this, it was a new area for me because I’m interviewing people as well. So you’ve got to, like, try and get a good interview, concentrate on that person, but at the same time, you’re checking the composition of the frame, the angles, how they’re looking how the lighting is. But I loved it.
How much has taking still photography influenced the way you direct?
Mary McCartney: It’s influenced a lot. It’s how I’ve developed my lighting style. In photography, I’ve never been drawn to flash photography. It’s always more filmic to create a nicely lit space that somebody feels comfortable in. That was great. That influenced how I did the interviews. As I said, it’s my technique of how to connect with the person that I’m working with. That’s important to me. I’ll just mainly work with that connection of conversation and having a debate about something and then wait and see where that conversation is gonna take us, which is the interesting thing.
With this documentary, it was very well researched. We knew exactly what points I needed, things that I really needed people to say or discuss in the interview. I needed people to just do certain things so that I could get the thread for the edit. But then, other things would come out. It was left for room for those little extra special moments that maybe I hadn’t—my story producer was sitting behind me. I had my list of questions, and then if I wasn’t getting answers for everything, she’d be like, these are the ones we need before we can finish. She handed me a little post-it notes with the questions on so good teamwork.
I posted my documentary awards on Wednesday and this film was named Best Music documentary.
Mary McCartney: Thank you. I really appreciate that.
Mary McCartney: I’m sorry. I was like, yay, I’ve been nominated for a Critics Choice. And then, I was with my dad and he’s like, Oh, my G-d, I’m so proud of you. This is amazing. And then a few days later, I saw the actual thing, and then I FaceTimed him and he was like, you do know who else you’re up against? I was like, Yeah, I know. I know. This is my first documentary—just to be nominated is literally enough for me.
It’s such a beautiful film. Thank you so much for making it and putting it out in the world.
Mary McCartney: Thank you for appreciating it. I really am happy about that.
Disney+ will release If These Walls Could Sing on December 16, 2022.
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