MAKING THE GRADE – Interview with director Ken Wardrop

The Irish director behind 2009’s hit documentary ‘His & Hers’ is back, inviting us into the world of the piano lesson. The movie follows  teachers and students throughout Ireland as they prepare for their musical exams.

Congratulations on Making The Grade it is a fantastic film. There are so many musical instruments and within the musical realm, why the piano?

Well this is a bit of a long winded answer Graham so do stick with it. I was looking for an idea for The Real Art which is an initiative by the Irish Arts Council for filmmakers to come up with to explore and document the arts world. Something I’ve really been keen on for many, many years. I’ve never come up with an idea because I’ve never really, I suppose on one level I thought I’m just not highbrow enough for it and maybe I wasn’t as engaged with the arts world as I should have been outside of filmmaking you know. So I never really never had an idea but the deadline was looming and I really wanted to come up with a plan of attack it also coincided with some renovation work I had done with my house and my partner, his piano, was in a lovely alcove but I was putting in insulation and unfortunately I put in too much and the piano would no longer fit which sadly meant he was in a bit of an emotional state after this because we were going to lose it due to the house not being big enough. And then my mom had moved a piano from our old house into our new house and this was a bit of an odd move because the piano had never ever been played though my sister had taken a few lessons back when she was very young and she is 14 years older than me and she failed miserably and hated them and therefore the rest of the family lost out because my parents assumed just because she hated them everybody else would and we’re not wasting any more money so I never got to play piano.

And so this is all going in around my head while I’m plotting an idea for The Real Art and I then I thought oh wait what about piano’s and their in peoples lives and obviously they don’t have  much meaning in my life but to some people they seem to have relevance and so forth and I started to delve deeper and I suppose as a filmmaker you’re always looking for a narrative thread or a narrative spine to the film and I discovered this grading system which people learned piano through. Moving from 1 through to grade 8 and hey presto this is kind of cool. I’d have a storyline already made for me and then as a filmmaker what you’re always looking for, well for me anyway, in the types of film I’m interested in is relationships and where people would have a relationship with an object I now suddenly thought wait a minute I’ve got a student and a teacher here there must be something of interest to explore. And having spoken to friends who have been through the system you know some of them have spent 12, 14 years with the same teacher so obviously they had this very special bond with this person and I just found it fascinating that you would go in for 12 years weekly for 30 minutes sit down with this person and you’d share this moment with music with them. So I thought there was definitely something in this and that’s how the journey began, I told you it was long-winded.

You talked about how you met these duos of characters, what was it like travelling around Ireland and seeing these incredibly varied stories?

Oh, it was great. I have such a great job, don’t I? I just get the opportunity to meet all these wonderful people, travel around Ireland. It was such a beautiful Summer. If you look at the visuals of the film everything looks bright and airy and it really was. We shot in daylight every scene so when we arrived in the houses we’d have the cups of tea and have the chats and because the film is a celebration of music and what it brings to our lives and the relationships around it it’s a very easy project. There are no villains there’s no drama per se and you know people were very comfortable to talk about something they were very passionate about.

And really one of the things I learned is that it’s a great honour to have the opportunity to learn music and to learn an instrument like the piano and for the most part these characters cherish that. And I hope from the characters that you experienced from watching it that it was such a rich array of people from all walks of life from different backgrounds, from different nationalities, and cultures, and this was just by chance. We didn’t go out with any kind of an agenda to find you a quota of this type of person or the other we just threw our net wide to see what would come back and we just lucked out really. I mean it was a very special experience and I’m often asked how I get the relationship going with the person, it’s not just me normally I’d have a bigger team but this particular project was quite a low budget. There was, myself and my colleague Steve Battle who did the sound and he did such a great job on the sound. I don’t know how he got everything to sound the way it has because it’s complicated enough recording piano as well as an interview at the same time so he had to bring his personality into play as well and fortunately we connected with everybody. Now I think the stakes aren’t high in this kind of project like I said it’s not like I’m doing an exposé, I’m not trying to anyone I’m trying to shine a light on something that is quite a beautiful experience and a shared experience.

It is funny that you say that you didn’t go out for any kind of agenda because the film is very much a melting pot of the various people that live in our country. We have homegrown and abroad and how they all connect through music. So was there a favourite encounter that you had during the filming? Because for me it was the young prodigy because as we’ve said in a previous conversation is now the poster of Making the Grade.

Well, little Rosa is just a star, she’s so competent and she loves performing. I wouldn’t say there is any 1 encounter because everyone brought something else to the table across the film and I think audiences will see that. There are after all such a wonderful array of players and even though you’re at Grade 3 you could be struggling far more than someone at Grade 1 it’s just she’s moved along. And I know it sounds like such a cliché but when you make something like this you tend to, well I tend to just end up going to the people I like anyway. Like anybody I avoid anyone I don’t get along with or don’t connect with so if I filmed with them I connected with them it’s just the nature of our casting progress.

I worked with a great researcher Seamus Waters and Brian Raferty ad they would know my personality and then know if I would click with the teacher and get a sense with their chit-chats with the people if they’re going to work with me and I think it would be very wrong of me to point out 1 person because honestly there wasn’t I think every day brought something fresh. I mean if there was 1 person and this I don’t even want to mention it because it’s such a personal note. But I will tell you something if you’re watching this film you’re going to connect to these characters because they’ll remind of someone or an experience that you’ve had and there are specific characters in the film that just reminded me of my own teachers. There was this 1 person who reminded me of my teacher and they had a spirit about them that reminded me of this very special teacher in my life. It didn’t happen to be music but there was a connection there and I think when people watch the film they connect differently. For example, people will connect with Rosa because they like that kind of confidence and another audience member will connect to another character for a completely different reason. I’m sorry I think waffled a bit there.

No not at all, so Ken was there any time during filming that it got particularly emotional on set because there are 1 or 2 particular stories/personalities that have quite an interesting and unique connection to music and why the piano touches them so deeply?

Yeah well look I’m an emotional wreck at the best of times so I was probably like that half the time travelling around so you recall the stories. Some are more difficult than others some are quite straightforward and simple and I think if you see it on the screen I will definitely have connected with it emotionally and that be it there or in the edit suite it will have had an impact on me otherwise it won’t be on the screen. And if it’s a connection shared because of the editor or even Steve who’s in the room with me when we’re filming if someone is giving their soul and opening up to you about something and it’s emotional to them and it’s meaningful to them the fact that they’re sharing it with you is a special moment anyway and I am an emotional person, I get attached to people even after meeting them for like 20, 30 minutes if they’re willing to share their stories with me I’m going to listen because I enjoy listening because that’s what brought me to this profession. I just find that I catch myself if they’re emotional about it I’ll be emotional about it I just know I will. Well, I cry at everything, stories move me beyond what some people will find moving. Thankfully that empathy and interest is part of a documentary makers make up so anyone else who’s making documentaries they’re drawn to that because they’re inquisitive, they want to listen they’re open and I’m just that type of person who will go in and fit and enjoy the everyday chats. And they don’t have to be on a huge stage, I will find humour, I will find emotion with the everyday things and I think that’s something similar throughout the films that I make. That I explore the every day and I think audiences that see the films will see a continuity between all of them.

Finally, Ken what has it been like travelling the festival circuit because it has premiered in several places around the world. How has it been the audiences afterward for that?

Well, I’m just back from South By Southwest and that was a great experience we were really well received. I was obviously anxious for the American audience to see if they’d connect with this. Would they get the accents? Would they get the Irish wit and so forth? But it seemed to go down very well and yeah I’m enjoying it. It has a few more North American outings and I believe it will play in New Zealand and Australia and hopefully, it will continue on its journey which is great because like all of these things when you put so much work into it you hope that it won’t just disappear. That it lives on and it’s great now that it’s going on release here in Ireland and will hopefully find an audience.

Words – Graham Day
MAKING THE GRADE is in Irish cinemas from April 13th