Interview: Nyla Bialek Adams | Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley
This week, the documentary Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley will have two rather auspicious screenings at the Seattle Film Festival (which by virtue of its nearly month-long schedule boasts the most theater-goers of any festival in North America). Any fan of of the late Buckley will certainly be thrilled that a new batch of folks will be introduced to one of the finer musicians, well, ever.
After Fungible Convictions got word that Amazing Grace co-director Nyla Bialek Adams (left, with co-director Laurie Trombley) had liked what we had to say about her film, two email interviews on the film’s background were arranged between Adams and FC editor Andrew Whitacre, the combined texts of which follow. Hope you enjoy it, and don’t forget to post your comments!
Andrew Whitacre: At what point did you decide that a full-length film on Jeff Buckley had to be made and that you were the ones to do it?
Nyla Bialek Adams: Laurie and I decided to make a film about Jeff Buckley in 1998 while we were both working at A&E Television. Laurie had worked for Jeff as a college intern managing his fan relations. She was deeply inspired by Jeff, and when he died she wanted to pay tribute to his legacy. When I met Laurie, she introduced me to his music, and I was blown away. The project came together because I was working in documentary programming, and Laurie had connections to Jeff’s Estate. A documentary about Jeff just seemed like the perfect collaboration.
Our original idea was to make a short film about fans inspired by Jeff, but a few months into production we realized there’d be enough material for a longer film.
AW: How did you pull together the funding, particularly in not doing it all at once?
NA: We funded the film ourselves because we wanted creative control. We borrowed equipment. We milked our colleagues for advice. We asked for XLR cables and lavaliers for Christmas. It took six years to make the film because we’d buy equipment and then have to learn to use it! Other times it took months to find the right technical people willing to cut a deal for tasks we couldn’t manage ourselves.
There was never any serious consideration to seek outside funding. Also, when we began production there were no other Buckley documentaries out there. Early on, we heard a couple of documentaries had been attempted but that very few people in Jeff’s camp would participate.
AW: In the film, you include interviews with artists who have been influenced by Jeff. How did you find and choose your interviewees? And how were you hooked up with the amazingly eloquent Sebastian Bach?
NA: Finding artists was easy. Finding art that translated well to film was a challenge. We began by posting an ad on Jeff Buckley’s website asking fans to send us tangible artwork that had been inspired by Jeff. This is how we found Maria Castro, the classical composer featured in the film, and Gary Bernard who painted a series inspired by Jeff’s song, “Lover, You Should Have Come Over.” “Fall In Light,” the dance piece choreographed by French dancer Ingeborg Liptay came to us through Jeff’s Estate. And I believe we read about Duncan Sheik’s tribute song for Jeff, “A Body Goes Down,” in a magazine interview. Graciously, Duncan and guitarist Gerry Leonard played a gorgeous live acoustic version for us.
As for Mr. Bach, midway through production I had a chance to see Sebastian perform at a nightclub in the village (Laurie and I were both metal heads in high school.) Toward the end of his set, he covered Jeff’s song “Eternal Life” and my head nearly exploded. Laurie contacted him that week and he was eager to interview because he adored Jeff.
AW: At the Boston Film Festival screening, an audience member asked what I’m sure is a popular question on the film’s focus: why did you choose not to do include more personal information on Jeff?
NA: Basically, it comes down to an artistic decision. Laurie and I set out to make a documentary about Jeff’s musical legacy. We wanted to focus on the music and the fans. Our feeling is that the film includes just enough personal information to get to know Jeff. Recently, one of Jeff’s band members saw Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, and told Laurie it was the only film he’d seen that made him miss Jeff as a “guy” rather than as an amazing “talent.” Several of Jeff’s friends remarked that after watching the film they felt like they’d just spent an hour with Jeff. So, even though the film veers from a traditional biographical formula, we’re confident that audiences will experience Jeff on a deeply personal level.
AW: People ask filmmakers all the time if there was footage they loved but had to cut. But are there events from Jeff’s life (concerts, conversations, etc.) that you know would have been perfect for the film but which simply weren’t recorded?
NA: God, yes! Editing the film was brutal. One example of a difficult cut was an interview with Siouxsie Sioux and Budgie. They told us this great story about their first meeting with Jeff at a diner. Evidently, Jeff burst out over eggs and coffee with a falsetto version of their song Killing Time! Unfortunately, it was just one of those segments that didn’t flow with the final version of the film.
Our dream footage would’ve been Jeff meeting his two greatest inspirations – Jimmy Page and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Jeff used to call Nusrat his Elvis. Obviously, Jimmy Page was Jeff’s personal guitar god.
AW: In both marketing and intimate senses, for whom was this film made? Whom did you picture in your audiences?
NA: We wanted to introduce Jeff Buckley to people who hadn’t heard of him, and we wanted to give die-hard Buckley fans something special by which to remember him. These two groups were our primary target audience. We also fantasized that our audience would include budding artists in need of inspirational prodding! Jeff inspired Laurie and I to get off our butts and DO something. His music stokes the creative fire in so many of his fans, and we’re hopeful this film helps to further Jeff’s inspirational reach.
AW: What was your favorite day of work on the film?
NA: There are too many favorites! Both Laurie and I met some of our best friends working on this film. I’d say the best days were making friends, finding members of our tribe.
AW: And what was the worst?
NA: Our flights were booked for London, and we were 48 hours off from interviewing PJ Harvey. She had to cancel due to a conflict with her recording schedule. We were devastated. PJ Harvey is a rock n’ roll powerhouse, and a massive inspirational force in her own right. She often cites Jeff Buckley, and his album Grace, as one of her musical inspirations, so we thought she’d have unique insight into Jeff’s inspirational power.
AW: What are you looking forward to most about the Seattle Film Festival?
NA: A super-enthused, music obsessed audience! Seattle’s exciting for filmmakers because it’s the most highly attended film festival in North America. Laurie and I are on a quest to introduce music lovers in this country to Jeff Buckley, and Seattle is a great place for the film to get serious exposure.
We’re currently discussing distribution opportunities with several different companies. Our hope is to see a world-wide release on DVD.