Acclaimed documentary Mrs Carey’s Concert will commence screening at the Laurieton Plaza Theatre on August 4.
Set in an all-girls school in Sydney, the documentary is the culmination of 18 months’ work filming the girls as they prepare for a spectacular musical performance at the Sydney Opera House under the direction of teacher Karen Carey. One of the film’s directors, Bob Connolly, tells us about the processes involved in creating this inspiring story of talent, passion, teenage rebellion and seizing the opportunities life sends our way …
What’s your history with directing documentaries?
I trained in journalism with the ABC. After a stint in New York as a correspondent and 3 or 4 years on a current affairs program, I started off in documentaries. I spent about 6 years doing this for them – I made about 50.
Then I met Robin Anderson [who was to become both wife and colleague], who’d just come back from Columbia. She’d done a sociology course – a lot of which involved the methodology of film observation. The two us really meshed – and we decided to go off and make independent films together.
Our first one did well and really set us up; it was called First Contact. It got an Oscar nomination and did pretty well financially. This enabled us to switch to the kind of film making we were aiming towards – which was long term, observational, narrative film making. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 30 years.
What was the inspiration behind creating Mrs Carey’s Concert?
It’s like a very expensive home movie, is one way of describing it! My association with the school [MLC in Sydney] goes back to 1998, when my oldest daughter started there in Year 5. They just happened to have a fantastic music department, and that’s because they have a fantastic Director of Music. I liked her the moment I set eyes on her. My wife Robin and I went to an open day at the school (it was a summer Sunday). I went across to the building where the music department was, and there was a woman in a black leotard, sweating away on an exercise bike.
I said, “I’m looking for Karen Carey.”
She said, “You’ve found her. Who the hell are you?”
I thought anyone who could talk to a prospective parent like that must have a mind of her own (laughs).
I found out they do this concert every two years, so I went to one and was amazed at the standard. In 2005 Karen found out I was a film maker, and she suggested I film one of the concerts for the parents. So three of us did this. Karen asked us to film the concert again in 2007, and this time we had 8 cameras. At that concert, when Doretta [a student] played the slow movement of a Brahms violin concerto – I was just blown away. By this stage in 2007 (Robin died in 2002), I had joined forces with Sophie Raymond, who’s a musician and an animator; she did the actual camera direction inside the opera house.
The camerawoman’s opening shot shows a girl waiting to start playing, and just the nervousness and the trepidation on her face … I asked Karen about her later, and she told me that when she’d asked Doretta to play that piece, Doretta thought it was beyond her. She didn’t get up in front of the orchestra until 3 weeks before the concert.
I started to question the methodology … the concert’s only held every two years and she [Karen] is deciding the repertoire a year in advance and giving this material to the kids that they can’t do then, but she’s expecting they can do it come the night. As an observational film maker, I found that inherently interesting. That’s what you want when you’re looking for a film to do.
By that stage, it had been 6 years since Robin died. I wanted to get back into film making, because I’d given it away for a while – and I thought it would be a very interesting film.
So there you have it; you have the things you need to create a film: a central interesting character, a potentially interesting student (like Doretta), and an inbuilt dramatic structure, with the concert as the climax of the film. All the boxes were ticked!
We talked to Karen, the principal, the music staff and floated the idea to the student body and parents – and they all thought it was Ok. In 2008 we started filming, and the concert was in June 2009. For someone who knows nothing about this film, how would you describe it to them?
Carpe Diem! (Sieze the day!) It’s about adolescence; it’s about music making; it’s about seizing the opportunities given to you; it’s about teaching and being a student.
To really feel like you’ve succeeded in achieving what you hoped for with this film – what would you like audiences to take away from their viewing?
More than any other film I’ve made, I’m really pleased and a little proud of the emotional impact it has on people. I find it really interesting. This film is now the second highest grossing documentary in Australian history. One hundred thousand people have been to cinemas and paid to see it, and we’ve been to dozens of screenings. People come out wiping their eyes. There are all sorts of reasons for that … they were invested in the story; they were blown away by the music …
Kevin Brownlow said – and I’ve always taken this seriously – “The film maker’s first responsibility is to hold you spellbound in darkness”. Make them laugh, make them cry and tell them a good story.
Mrs Carey’s Concert will commence screening at the Laurieton Plaza Theatre on August 4. Bob Connolly will be conducting a Q&A session on this opening night at 6.30pm, with Cameron Marshall acting as MC for the evening.
Interview by Jo Atkins.