Musicwood by Josh Granger
How would you describe your film?
Musicwood is about the most famous guitar-makers in the world (Dave Berryman of Gibson, Bob Taylor and Chris Martin) traveling together to the heart of one of the most primeval rain forests in the world. They are on a mission to change the way it’s logged, by Native American loggers, before it is too late for acoustic guitars.
Musicwood is a modern twist on a classic story, an urgent battle between the white man and Native Americans, where age-old land disputes result in an upending of our simplistic view of the past. It’s a political thriller with music at its heart.
What challenges did you/your crew encounter while making the movie?
Probably the biggest struggle with making Musicwood was just how remote the Tongass is, and how rare the huge old-growth trees are. Early on in the filmmaking process, we knew the film would be working if it felt like we were bringing this beautiful rain forest right into your living room. Everyone was talking about how gorgeous the forest was, and how it was a real “crown jewel” among forests, but it was so incredibly far away.
And once we even got to the forest, it was so difficult to find the giant old-growth trees that the Musicwood Coalition are talking about saving. We knew this might be the case—this is part of why we were making the film after all—but weren’t prepared as to just how hard it would be. We had to fly on a tiny seaplane, take a small fishing boat up a remote, secluded river and then hike deep into the forest, far from any civilization, to be able to find the big trees to film.
Other than that, and beyond the classic independent filmmaker struggles of finding money and getting people (and musicians!) to agree to participate in the film, it was also a real struggle in the editing process to figure out just how to tell this incredibly complex story. It’s a political story, a cultural story, an environmental story, and a story about music, with an absolutely byzantine maze of twists and turns and complexities. Figuring out how to make that all clear and engaging for an audience was extremely challenging, but we’re really pleased with the way the film came out, and audiences have been telling us that they’re really enjoying the way the film takes them to places they never thought they’d go.
What attracts you to the medium of film, as opposed to other forms of art?That’s a great question. I guess a lot of it has to do with how we respond to films. There’s something about watching a narrative unfold over time that seems to connect with people so powerfully. When you have those transformative experiences while watching film, they make a real impression, and when you hear a story that you think everyone should hear, film just seems like a natural way to try and get that story out to the world.
Beyond that, I remember hearing someone say that we don’t make documentaries for the money, or for our careers—we make them because we have no choice, there is something that compels us to try and tell these stories through film. That really feels right.
What inspires/influences you?
I’m influenced by absolutely everything. Watching other docs, other fiction features, music, conversations, pieces of dialogue overheard, the design of everyday objects, snatches of prose from a book, the way a busker plays her guitar in the subway, museums, clothing, walks in nature, views from mountains, etc.
I like a good story well told, and there’s something that I really really like in films that we’ve tried to do in Musicwood, which is to make you feel like you are in good hands. You know that feeling? When you’re being told a story and you just know you are in good hands because of the way it’s moving you through its parts. That type of storytelling is real inspiration.
Are there any particular genres you favor over others?
While we have focused on documentary, we’ve also made fiction narrative shorts of all kinds and have an affection for many different genres. Social realism is a definite love, as is full-on comedy. Message films that have a real compelling story to them, well-drawn characters in any genre, ornate period pieces, stripped down drama.
In the process of film-making, how much of the creativity is found in production? How much improvisation do you find on set?
Well, with a documentary like Musicwood, I guess you could make the case that the creativity really splits between production and editing. Since we don’t know much about what is going to happen as we’re filming, a lot of production is just doing our best to keep up with the action, to ask the right questions, to be in the right place at the right time. And all those skills certainly require their own form of creativity.
And then once productions is done (or when you think it’s done!), the edit on a documentary like Musicwood takes an extraordinary amount of creativity. We know the story, we know what we want the audience to feel, now how do we put those two things together. There are so many choices to be made, so many ways the narrative could go, so many different paths we could take. It’s an incredible feeling when things work out the way we envisioned them, it’s been so exciting to hear from audiences who are getting the film exactly as we hoped they would!
How did you learn your craft?
Many years in the business. Between my co-producer/editor and myself we have been working in film and TV for well 15 years. We’ve worked on wildlife documentaries, short films with actors, commercials, non-profit films—everything and anything. It really has been a case of learning as we go, and constantly making personal projects alongside our professional work, which is a great way to try things out and get a sense for what works. We’ve also been lucky to work with some amazing professionals in our careers, people who have taught us a ton.
On what projects are you currently working?
Our main focus is on Musicwood at the moment. We have some more film festivals in the future, and then we will be taking the film to screen at music festivals over the summer, and into a limited theatrical run. Which is all a ton of work, especially as we’re independent filmmakers without any budget for PR, publicity, travel, etc.
We are doing some R&D for future projects, just beginning the groundwork for what the future may hold. We will probably be working on Musicwood through the Fall, picking up smaller for-hire projects as we can to keep ourselves in groceries!
What would you say of the place motion pictures have in our culture?
Movies have a very special place in our culture. There’s something about the way narrative unfolds through a movie that makes it connect with an audience in such an intense way. Our brains seem to have deep-rooted affinity for this type of story-telling, and we love being part of an audience for a film. It’s exciting also that these days movies can get to their audience from a million different angles, and start a million different conversations. If anything the motion picture’s place in our culture is growing, becoming more entrenched, more vital.
In terms of motion picture production, what would like to see from the state of Tennessee? What advantages does the state currently have, and how do you think it could improve?
We filmed a bunch of Musicwood in Tennessee, and found it to be a great place to work. The crew we were able to pick up, the friendliness of the folks we asked for locations (we have to give a shout-out to Gruhn’s Guitars!), it was really smooth. Beyond that, filming a story about the acoustic guitar in Nashville has been a great experience—guitar love is extremely deep here.
How long have you been working in motion pictures?
We started our company Helpman Productions—a production company that makes socially conscious documentaries—in 2007, but we’ve been involved in aspects of film and TV since 1995.
What themes do you like to explore in film?
We really like to make films that do have a message, or a point of view, but that don’t hit you over the head with it. A film needs to be more than a platform for a viewpoint or an essay about policy, it needs to be a narrative that can capture an audience’s imagination, with characters that you care about.
What advice do you have to aspiring filmmakers?
Just do it! People are going to constantly tell you how hard it is to get in, or to make a living, but as I said before, we make films because we have to. Don’t worry about film school or having all the right connections, these days you can get an HD camera, editing software and YouTube and you have all the tools you need. Make something. Have something to show people when you’re applying for that job, or grant money or gig. It will be hard, take a lot of time and effort, but it will be worth it. Having the dedication to make something and see it through will put you a step ahead of everyone else out there. Do it!
What do you see as the future of film?
We are entering an amazing time for film. It makes a lot of people nervous because now all the tools to make films are more available to more people than ever before. There will always be a place for the giant spectacle genre film, but now we are finding there’s a real appetite for documentaries, which is amazing. Six, seven years ago we would not have been able to make Musicwood because the tools simply would not have been available to us at any kind of level we could afford. But in today’s world—with a lot of donated help!—we are able to hear a story, decide the world needs to hear it, and make the film. That kind of thing is going to be happening whole lot more as film moves into the future, and it is going to be amazing.