One Note at a Time director Renee Edwards shares her 10-year documentary-making journey
Renee Edwards is an established TV editor known for Panorama and Dispatches and the director of New Orleans set documentary movie One Note at a Time, a labour of love that took 10 years to make. The film follows the lives of jazz artists in the Louisiana city following Hurricane Katrina, a deadly and destructive category 5 hurricane that caused catastrophic damage to the lives of residents in the summer of 2005.
Here Renee tells Mandy News how she started her career and all about the long journey of bringing One Note at a Time to the world.
Renee, please tell us a little bit about how you first got involved in directing and working in the TV and film industry?
I’ve been working in TV and film for a long time. It all started because I went to LCP – London College of Printing, which is now part of the University of the Arts.
I left there wanting to direct and actually went to work with a corporate video company, making films for people like TNT and Avis at the time – I was about 20.
When I left there, after three years – I was assistant producing and then producing, and very much multi-tasking – I was asked to do loads and loads of editing, so I just went with it.
I was asked to have a go on the Avid – the first or second Avid in the country – while it was being Beta tested. Of course, I fell in love with that, because I had done a bit of editing on film so I could see the possibilities with non-linear editing. That was the beginning of an editing career, which is still ongoing.
About 10 years ago, I just thought – “when are you going to start directing?”
I’d directed some short films and had plenty of ideas. So, with that and Hurricane Katrina happening, it was just one of those things where everything came together. That was the beginning of my directing career.
The film took 10 years. It was a lot of work. I was doing it between editing jobs and that was what was paying for it.
You mentioned Hurricane Katrina but what was your original thought and approach to working on a project like this?
I’ve got family over there and I was talking to an aunt, who was terminally ill, about her funeral. She was making jokes about it and the funeral tradition in New Orleans – a bit of gallows humour.
After the hurricane, I was thinking about the jazz funeral tradition and how I'd really like to make a film about that and see what’s happened to all the traditions.
I went over there to meet some people who owned a funeral home, with this idea of doing a sort of black “six-feet under” documentary, if you like. Then it just progressed.
By this time, I was working with other people, and we found various charities and interviewed people within them. When I met Bethany Bultman, from the New Orleans Musicians' Clinic, it all came together.
It was a fascinating story about what was happening in healthcare; it seemed like a really good way to look out on a city whose music industry was in tatters at the time. Everyone’s health had been affected, including the musicians.
With the Musicians' Clinic, the documentary could benefit the clinic, and also give us access to musicians.
You said it took 10 years to make because you were working on other things. How long did the actual filming take? Was that broken up into sections as well?
I came up with the idea in 2007, then went over to meet people and started filming in 2008.
The filming was four years. We went every now and again for two or three weeks, whatever we could afford. At the very end of it, in 2011, I went for a couple of months in order to tie up the loose ends and finish off the filming.
I had no idea it was going to take 10 years to make the film – I thought it would be a couple of years. The original idea was to stay there for a year and film non-stop. There was about six months of filming altogether.
What I like about it is that it took on an energy of its own. You could catch up with the same musicians over that long period of time and get more of a picture. A lot of the issues that are raised in the film are still relevant now.
After filming finished, it was a case of editing over 200 hours of material. That took four years – again because it was being done between jobs. I kept a record of that and it would have taken a year if I’d done it non-stop.
On watching the film – when you talked to the English gentleman, Barry, who had moved over there from Staines, he talked about racial segregation and how you could actually still be arrested at the time he moved over – we didn’t expect that. It seemed to add to the frustrations and problems that the community were having.
Music brings everyone together – both in the audience and within bands. That’s something that had a massive impact on Barry. He just wanted to play with who he wanted to play with and made that happen. It’s good to hear what it was like from someone who was there.
People like Barry Martyn, Al ‘Carnival Time’ Johnson and Paul Pattan – those characters in particular – have an arc to their story which speaks to some of the frustrations the musicians face. They're all passionate about the music. Barry went to New Orleans because he fell in love with Louis Armstrong's music, and that became one of the highlights of his later career, playing at Louis Armstrong's seventieth birthday.
Obviously, it has its troubles and they are reflected in the film. I think one of the main things is that a lot of people who came to work in New Orleans, after Katrina, weren’t from there. So, maybe some of the things that people wouldn’t necessarily enforce before were being enforced. It still has its problems and it’s still an absolutely amazing place to visit.
Was it a hard project to get out and seen? Can you tell us a little bit about the journey that the film has had up until the success and critical acclaim it’s getting at the moment?
We finished at the end of 2016 – in 2017 it started to be accepted into film festivals.
It was a lot staying focused and going on to Withoutabox and FilmFreeway, and finding all the different festivals I thought might like to show it.
I tried the big ones, and then some smaller ones, and then some in the places I wanted to visit and the ones in the places that I knew loved New Orleans music.
At first, the film was 12 minutes longer than it is now. We had a screening in New Orleans and about a 100 of us watched it. It was the 10th anniversary of Katrina. Obama was in town at the time and it was a poignant moment. We watched the film together and I thought: “oh no, it’s too long!” I was so close to it that I hadn’t realised.
So, I took feedback from people in the audience and execs, cut 12 minutes out of it and submitted it again to various places.
The main thing was just staying with it. We wanted the film to be seen and we realised it’s not necessary to go to all the big festivals; we just wanted it to be out there. We had a wonderful, warm response from a lot of festivals. Both film and music festivals.
How has it been accepted by the music community as a whole?
So far, really well. It’s wonderful that the New Orleans musicians themselves have embraced the film and see it as an accurate reflection of what they went through and are going through.
Ray Russell, the composer – who’s an amazing guitarist over here – said it’s inspiring in terms of how much the music community work together over there, and support each other.
Were you the sole editor on the project as well?
Yes. Usually there are tight timeframes for the sort of work I’ve been doing over the years – like news and current affairs documentaries – so it was really liberating to be able to go through the footage in my own time.
Essentially, I looked through the material and assembled it as I was watching it. I had, at one point, literally a 30-hour-long film. It was part one, two and three – beginning, middle and end. Then, I shrunk it down as I watched it through. By the time I got it down to three hours, I was like “help!”. I sent it around to the execs and some editors and people who were kind enough to give feedback, and then carried on editing. I also had two assistants who helped at times with labelling, ordering, and essentially feedback, and a brilliant post production supervisor, Chris Stott.
The soundtrack is coming out for release – can you tell us a little about how that came about?
Our UK and Ireland distributor, Munro Films, were reaching out to people for publicity purposes and some of the radio stations were asking if there was going to be a soundtrack. I said “yeah, we can do that”. It had been in our minds, for a long time, to do a soundtrack so, we just got on with it.
It involved mixing some of the live tracks we'd recorded on the main gig featured in the film, from an event at Snug Harbor on Frenchman Street. Ray Russell, our score composer, mixed those and we have original pre-mixed tracks from the musicians of other songs.
A lot of the filmmaking was “on the fly” – we’d literally finish filming, go into one of the bars on Frenchman Street, see someone amazing playing and say “oh this is really good – can we film you?” A lot of those things we couldn’t use, because it was just filmed on one camera or two cameras.
The other thing that we have on the album is some clips of dialogue.
I’d also been talking to Lilli Lewis from Louisiana Red Hot Records over the last few years and we’d discussed the possibility of creating an album. When the time came, I got back in touch with her and she said that they’d love to master and distribute it. They’re now releasing the album.
Another thing I’d like to say about the album is that we’re donating 10% of the producer net profits to the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, the charity which is featured in the film; it gives musicians access to healthcare.
And the film’s out.
Yeah. We’ve got a screenings page on the website, which we’re keeping up to date with all the wonderful screenings that are coming in. The album is also available.
Are you still very much focused on this film or are you looking to the next thing already?
I am focused on this film and I have started another film, which is another New Orleans based story. I also have an ongoing children’s project, as well – Magic Wanda.
But one thing at a time. It’s wonderful to be working on another New Orleans based story, which will be ready for the 20th anniversary of Katrina.
What advice do you have for wannabe directors who want to get involved in shooting and directing documentaries?
When I started - apart from being at college, where you have access to gear - it seemed like a challenge to be able to do something. Even with this film, I was lucky that so many people wanted to work on it with me. So, were able to give it the time – literally pay for plane tickets and work for deferred payment and all of that.
I think one of the things is to let people know what you want to do, so they will join in with you. The other thing is to look for any support, or outlet for funding that you can. Also, just do it; if you want to make a film, make it. You can make a film with your phone and some inexpensive software, make a statement and have it out there the same day even.
The main thing is to stay focused and ask for advice and help – there are loads of people who can help. I’m always 'friending' people I found on LinkedIn to ask them questions. These days, it’s quite easy to contact people. It’s important to keep your network expanding and to talk to people.
I don’t have answers in terms of the funding side. This time, we're going to make a taster for the film and hope that, on the back of One Note at a Time, we might get funding upfront. One thing which made all the difference with One Note at a Time was having a fantastic trailer, so we'll be working with the same editor for the taster, Scott Gibson. It is a long time to be putting a large portion of your income into something and you obviously never know if you’ll ever see that back.
I think it’s very important to keep it within reasonable bounds financially. But, essentially, I think it is possible to start off making short films and for people to see them and you to get feedback straight away. And build from there.
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