What do Muhammad Ali, Pele, Mozart and an impoverished Afghani boy have in common? They’ve all been the subjects of lovingly crafted films by Phil Grabsky, who has made his name in the UK by directing feature docs about extraordinary lives carved out of humble circumstances.
His latest documentary, In Search of Beethoven has its world premiere in London a week from today, and promises to be another memorable exploration of the creative mind. ‘Everything we do is linked by the fact that I am fascinated by, and in many ways encouraged by, the human potential for creativity,’ says Grabsky, whose company Seventh Art is based near the seaside in Brighton, about an hour south of London. ‘Someone like Beethoven – how does this child, born into relatively difficult circumstances 200-odd years ago – how does he end up making music that will last forever?’
Whilst Grabsky cut his filmmaking teeth in an era of full commissions, he has joined other British doc-makers in looking outside of television to get films made. In Search of Beethoven will enjoy international festival and cinema runs before hitting television screens. The doc is roughly a third funded by Sky Arts, with the rest pieced together from many small pots. Although such a funding set-up is inevitably frustrating, Grabsky says he prefers it to the days of old, when broadcasters pulled all the strings. ‘Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World got five and a half million viewers on ITV. It cost a lot of money but they only showed it once. Now if I did something like that I would have a cinema release, would get lots of television screenings, I would have screenings for all sorts of interested groups. It’s much more rewarding.’
Grabsky says that the age of the Internet has made it easier for passion projects to get made without broadcasters, citing as an example Franny Armstrong’s climate doc The Age of Stupid, which was made by ‘crowd funding’ – small Internet donations from hundreds of people. ‘When you go to festivals, by hook or by crook, there are many films which people feel passionate about which do get made in the end,’ he says. ‘Perhaps 10 years ago, when the broadcaster did more or less control what was and wasn’t made, those films would never have been made. Commissioning editors used to always say, ‘Bring me your ideas of passion’ so we’d bring them to them and they’d say, ‘Oh, no thanks.’ So I thought, ‘I’m going to make my ideas of passion and we’ll work it out.”
Grabsky is currently making a film about the theatrical hit War Horse, and is also doing a follow up to his 2002 film The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan.
It was after he finished filming The Boy that his wife took Grabsky to a Mozart opera and piqued his interest in the stories behind the great composers. Like In Search of Mozart, the Beethoven film has been three years in the making, much of it spent with Grabsky hopping solo on trains with camera in tow. It’s a process he clearly enjoyed, as he did working with some of the world’s greatest orchestras – the film contains scenes from 55 live performances that Grabsky filmed. ‘If you’re going to spend three years on a project it’s got to be a project which has some value to it,’ he says. ‘Otherwise what’s the point? These things are so hard to make. One Scandinavian buyer said to me, ‘You’re working in art films, culture films, feature docs, classical music. They are really not top of our list in terms of our needs or our prices.” Grabsky is unperturbed by such knockdowns. ‘You know, we get by.’