The Unauthorized Story of the Making of 'Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band'
Published Aug 30, 2019I've been a filmmaker for over 30 years, working mainly in unscripted and documentary production as an award-winning director, writer and producer. I made my first professional film, Make Some Noise, 25 years ago. It was about the Toronto hip-hop scene and it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Presently I'm an in-house producer and Unscripted Development Director at White Pine Pictures in Toronto, a 40-year-old, boutique production company led by Peter Raymont. I oversee everything from blue chip, feature documentaries to commercial, factual series, and work closely with independent filmmakers.
I've loved the music of Robbie Robertson and the Band since I bought the double concert album by Bob Dylan and the Band, Before the Flood, in Grade 8. I've been lucky enough to spend the last three years working with Robertson and an amazing group of collaborators to bring the incredible, personal story of Robbie and the Band to the screen.
Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band has its world premiere as the opening night film of the 43rd edition of the Toronto International Film Festival on September 5, 2019. Once Were Brothers will play theatrically across Canada this fall, and premiere on Crave TV in November. Robertson's new album, Sinematic, drops on September 20.
This is my record of the production timeline of the film Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band, based on my diary notes, calendar entries, emails and other correspondence, other documents and my recollection. I don't assert that this is the complete story, but I feel it's a fair and accurate account of the process of bringing this ambitious documentary to the screen.
It starts innocently enough, with coffee with Grammy Award-winning musicologist Rob Bowman. Rob's a former colleague of mine at late, lamented Toronto campus/community radio station CKLN-FM. He's worked with Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and many others on their reissues. He wrote a book about Stax Records and counts Mavis Staples among his friends. A film I've been developing about Daniel Lanois has just fallen apart. The broadcaster wants stories of his collaborations with Dylan, Brian Eno, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young, but the legendary producer wants a film solely about the "music of the future" that is his current passion.
Bowman tells me he's been working as a researcher with Robbie Robertson on his new autobiography, Testimony: A Memoir. I thought I knew Robbie and the Band's story: the infamous Bob Dylan electric tour; the invention of "Americana" on their debut album, Music From Big Pink; and of course, their farewell concert, double album and Martin Scorsese-directed film The Last Waltz, which featured Dylan, Young, Joni Mitchell, Eric Clapton and many others. I felt that the Band's story had been told many times in different films, TV shows, books and magazine articles. Also, I wasn't initially convinced that audiences would be interested enough in this seemingly well-worn story.
I present the idea of a Robbie Robertson documentary to the team at White Pine Pictures, and try to convince them that we should pursue this project. There's some concern that Robbie doesn't have a high enough profile to drive a marquee, feature documentary film. I point to successful music films like 20 Feet From Stardom, Muscle Shoals and Standing in the Shadows of Motown that feature relatively little-known characters. "20 Feet From Stardom: Academy Award and $20 million box office." That's my pitch.
I also point out that Randy Lennox, President of Bell Media was previously Head of Universal Music Canada, and signed Robertson to the label. Peter Raymont, White Pine President (my boss) loves the Band, is enthusiastic and tells me to go ahead and start working on it. He knows Lennox and once we have Robbie's blessing, will reach out to him.
The first and most important step is getting Robertson's cooperation and approval, which means optioning Robbie's life rights and the book rights, which means convincing Robbie to trust me, and us, with his story. It also means finding a director, and convincing a broadcaster that Robbie's story both will make a good film, and be commercially viable.
Having read Testimony, Robertson's new book, I attend a talk hosted by George Stroumboulopoulos at a sold-out event at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In the book and in conversation, Robbie weaves a compelling, unlikely story of a half-Jewish, half-Indigenous kid who splits his time between WASP-y, 1950s Toronto, and summers on the Six Nations of the Grand River, with his mother Dolly's kin. It's at Six Nations, around the campfire, that the love of music and storytelling that will go on to define his life is kindled. Naysayers try to squash his teenage dreams of rock'n'roll stardom, but he's determined to prove everyone wrong, and at 17, he boards a train at Union Station in Toronto bound for Arkansas to join Ronnie Hawkins' band the Hawks, the most notorious rockabilly band in Dixie.
The book is mesmerizing and Robbie has the live audience enraptured. There are also dozens gathered outside, waiting for autographs. Robertson is clearly a great storyteller and he still has a lot of fans.
Rob Bowman has put me in touch with Robbie's manager, Jared Levine, who has looked after Robbie's affairs for 25 years. He's the gatekeeper. I hope to meet Robbie and Jared after the talk, but Robbie has a bad cold and returns straight to his hotel. It will be another five months before we meet.
I reach out to Levine to talk about making the definitive Robbie Robertson film. Part of my pitch is to tell Jared that, despite all the films and coverage of Robbie and the Band, no one has really captured Robbie's incredible personal story. Robbie's faced a lot of negative comments over the past few years, including accusations of hogging the limelight and the Band's royalties. The negative accusations started with his former best friend and bandmate, Levon Helm, who excoriated him in the 1993 biography This Wheel's on Fire: Levon Helm and the Story of the Band. This is Robertson's chance to face those accusations and give his side of the story.
Robbie is one of only two surviving members of the Band; the other, Garth Hudson, is in poor health. The legacy artists — Dylan, Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, Mitchell, Young and Robertson himself — are not getting any younger. This is the time to tell Robbie's story.
I have my first call with Robbie. He's charming, friendly and a great storyteller. He makes it clear that to really be engaged with this process, it has to be something special. He asks me if I've seen The Defiant Ones, the four-hour documentary about the intertwined careers of his friend Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre. Levine mentions the 2015 Black Panther documentary, Vanguard of the Revolution. I assure them that my intention is to make a unique, creative, filmmaker-driven film.
After the meeting, I start working on a very rough outline of the creative approach, remembering that I'm not the director. It's important to have a starting point, and mine is that we'll mine Robbie's book to tell his unique personal story, and weave in some present-day activity. Robbie is a working musician, in the process of making a new record and supervising the music for a new film that Martin Scorsese is making, called The Irishman.
Part of the deal with Robertson is director approval. For this kind of film, the subject must be comfortable with the director. We present Larry Weinstein, one of Canada's most respected documentary filmmakers, whose work includes Our Man in Tehran, The Devil's Horn, Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas and September Songs. Neither Peter nor I have previously worked with Weinstein, but we know his work and trust him. Best of all, because of his track record, Weinstein is certain to be approved by a broadcaster.
Weinstein is open to the idea of directing the film, but is a bit cautious because he's already committed to direct two others — one on the Jewish composers of Christmas songs, and the other on the history and art of propaganda. He's also not a popular music guy, despite having made a film featuring Elvis Costello, Nick Cave, Lou Reed and Betty Carter. But he agrees to read Robertson's book and come up with some ideas.
We're not alone in a rush to get the approval of a rock'n'roll icon — with a new album, a new autobiography and a six-decade story to chronicle. Other major Canadian production companies are also pitching their take on the project, including Banger Films (Hip Hop Evolution, Super Duper Alice Cooper), and Universal Music, which has both its creative agency, Shed, and super agent Michael Levine, a friend of Robertson's, on their side. The Shed/Universal pitch involves a 25-year-old director named Daniel Roher, whose take involves using his youthful perspective to illuminate Robertson's nearly six decades of musical innovation.
Weinstein agrees to direct the film and we start collaborating on and refining a creative approach to Robertson's story. A big part of creative development is simply determining which stories you want to include. Robbie's life is filled with amazing personal and career stories. We will have to distil a nearly 60-year career into 90 to 100 minutes. Weinstein, Raymont and I debate what shape the film should be. There are a lot of different documentary styles and approaches, from the "fly on the wall" style of D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back Gimme Shelter, War Room), or something highly constructed, like Asif Kapadia's Amy or Brett Morgen's Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck.
White Pine pays Weinstein a small fee to develop the concept. These fees are rarely, if ever, commensurate with the work involved. Other expenses — shooting a "teaser" (a trailer for a film that doesn't yet exist) to help sell the film, travel, editing — this is "risk money" for a film that might never be completed, fronted by White Pine.
Weinstein's concept is to use the classic Band song "Life Is a Carnival" as a jumping off point for a "carnival-esque" treatment that includes Ronnie Hawkins as a carnival barker, and many of Robertson's illustrious colleagues and friends in supporting and entertaining cameos. Very arty, very conceptual. I'm a little sceptical of this approach — I'm looking for 20 Feet From Stardom or Muscle Shoals. But Larry is the director, and I'm trying not to micro-manage. Weinstein feels it might meet Robertson's expressed hope for something unusual and very innovative.
Peter Raymont and I introduce Larry Weinstein to Robertson and Levine on the phone. Over the course of several calls with Robbie, he warms to Larry. Meanwhile, White Pine COO Steve Ord prepares an offer to Robbie. In order to make the film, we need his full cooperation, so we are optioning both his life rights, and the rights to make a film from his autobiography. Typically, documentary producers don't pay characters to appear in films, except subjects in music documentaries are almost always paid a fee. Our film is to be the exclusive, "authorized" documentary about Robertson; he is giving us exclusive rights and won't appear in any similar documentaries.
Filmmakers do make films without agreements with subjects, but they tend to be more adversarial, like the films of Michael Moore or Nick Broomfield (Kurt & Courtney, Biggie & Tupac). One could make an unauthorized doc about Robbie and the Band, but the filmmakers would have a tougher time getting subjects to agree to interviews and to clear rights to music and archival footage.
Levine calls to tell me that Robbie has accepted our offer and agreed with our choice of Weinstein as director. Part of the agreement is that Jared Levine and Robertson will help open doors and convince others to be interviewed in the film, and to give us a break on paying for music rights and archival footage.
Levine helps us in innumerable ways: calling Bruce Springsteen's manager Jon Landau to ask if he'll sit for an interview (he does); reaching out to Dylan's manager Jeff Rosen for access to Bob's incredibly rich, rare archival film; or negotiating with Eliott Landy, the photographer who shot many of the most iconic Band photos. Robbie will have input into the film, but he will not have editorial control.
Financing films in Canada requires convincing a major broadcaster to commission the film, so we go back to Bell Media; their assent will qualify the production for various other subsidies, funds and investments. This is an arcane and byzantine system that White Pine COO Steve Ord and Production Head Stephen Paniccia will tackle.
Weinstein already has a good relationship with Bell Media, having made several films with them. We pitch the Carnival concept to the Bell Media programming team. They agree to commission the film, investing a significant sum, giving them exclusive Canadian TV rights to broadcast the film for a specific time period.
The money doesn't flow for production until all the financing is in place; we have a broadcaster's commitment, but no actual money. Levine suggests we talk to Universal Music, Robertson's label, and their production arm, Shed Creative Agency, which recently produced Long Time Running, a film about the Tragically Hip's final tour. Shed/Universal had a very compelling pitch that intrigued Levine and Robertson both, and perhaps a meeting of minds between two different production visions could be beneficial.
We meet Universal President Jeffrey Remedios, David Harris (Managing Director of Shed) and Creative Director Sam Sutherland (a former Exclaim! writer); Shed are very interested in being involved in the project, not just for its subject, but for the synergy of a film about of their artists, especially since he has a new solo record coming out. They agree to a partnership and invest upfront money to allow us to begin filming. Bonus: I score free tickets to the Field Trip Festival.
Weinstein and I travel to L.A. to get to know Robbie and film some sequences for a "teaser." We arrive on June 21 and discover that Venice has been taken over by solstice celebrations that lend the beachside community a carnival atmosphere. It seems a good omen.
Weinstein and I spend four very productive days with Robertson at the legendary Village Studios, a restored Masonic Temple in west L.A. The walls are decorated with the gold and platinum records of artists who've recorded or mastered there, names like Aerosmith, Talking Heads, Steely Dan, Frank Zappa, Snoop Dogg, Little Richard, the Beach Boys, Nine Inch Nails and Bob Dylan and the Band.
We spend time with Robbie in his private studio, talking about the film, Robbie's new record and how we're going to work together. Robbie arrives at the studio every day around 1 p.m. and works with his engineer on new material. He's recording a new album, and I'm hoping we'll be able to capture some of the creative process.
We film interview segments, various visuals, and a sequence I see as the teaser's opening — Robbie, staring straight into the lens, saying: "My name is Robbie Robertson, and do I have a story to tell." Over the course of the week, Weinstein films some rather intimate moments and revealing interview segments with Robbie.
I'm not sure about the chemistry between Robbie and Larry. Our time with Robbie is so short, and we're trying to accomplish a lot. Robbie is always courteous, but a bit hard to read. Over dinner, Larry confides that he's a bit unsure about Robbie as a potential subject, and whether he will ultimately be open or able to give enough of himself for the film to work.
Weinstein returns to Toronto to begin editing the teaser with White Pine editor and post-production supervisor Phil Wilson. I stay on for a few days to look for archival material: film, video, photos, posters, ephemera, the raw material we need to tell Robertson and the Band's story visually. Levine takes me to Robertson's storage locker in Culver City — it's the size of a small garage, and is filled floor-to-ceiling with videos, photos, guitars, movie posters and notebooks, including the legal pads on which Robertson hand-wrote Testimony, as well as videos and films (in many different formats) of various Band performances and other documentaries. There's even a vintage Italian movie poster — a gift from Martin Scorsese.
The real mother lode is several boxes of black and white, Super 8 home movies documenting domestic life in Woodstock, NY and Malibu, CA, as well as some kooky "experimental" films featuring friends of Robbie's like actor Michael J. Pollard (Bonnie & Clyde). Rare, never-before-seen footage is critical for a film like this, and we've found some great material.
The teaser is completed. Weinstein believes that there's material that he's captured that shows some potential, and the funding partners are happy. Yet Robbie seems unconvinced. Not long after receiving the teaser, Levine tells me that, while Robertson likes and respects Weinstein, he doesn't think he's the right director for the film. Surprisingly, Weinstein seems relieved.
Six months into the film, I need to replace the director and keep our production partners on board. This is an almost unheard of situation in documentary filmmaking. It could derail the entire project.
The director must be a Canadian, to qualify for funding; this is one of the ways that Canadian content rules apply to the film and TV business. I reach out to some of the most respected music doc directors in the country, people who've made films about the Tragically Hip, Ron Sexmith and others.
Robertson brings up young director Daniel Roher, who's being mentored by Robbie's friend, Canadian super-agent Michael Levine. Robbie has never met Daniel, but he likes a treatment Daniel wrote as part of Shed/Universal's pitch for a Robertson documentary. Jared Levine sends me Roher's treatment and I am impressed by his cinematic vision for Robbie's story. Daniel clearly connects with the music of the Band and has a youthful energy and vision. I like the idea that a millennial (Daniel is 25) and essentially self-taught filmmaker wants to bring the story of a legendary rock'n'roll hero to life.
Internally at White Pine, there's some concern about Roher's abundance of confidence and relative lack of experience; hiring him will undoubtedly be a risk. While he's made a lot of films, he's never directed one this ambitious. I advocate for Daniel and his vision, making the case that, with Peter and my experience and track record, along with White Pine's production, legal and business acumen, that we can provide the necessary support.
Peter confirms that creative supervision management of the film is my responsibility, and that I will work closely with Roher. I'm relieved of day-to-day responsibilities on Toxic Beauty, a film about a coverup in the cosmetics industry that director Phyllis Ellis and I have been working on for two years already.
With Roher approved by White Pine, the next step is Robertson's blessing. Daniel tells me he'll be in L.A. for another project; I arrange for an extension so he can meet Robertson and Levine. Luckily they hit it off; I think Robbie sees something of his younger self in the ambitious, talented young filmmaker.
We haven't yet told our production partners, Bell and Shed/Universal Music, that Weinstein has left the production. Luckily, Shed/Universal already know Daniel; he has their implicit trust.
Co-producer Sam Sutherland and I take Roher to meet Tina Apostolopoulos, our Bell executive. While the film has the blessing of Bell President Randy Lennox, the production executives that I work with must be convinced that our heretofore little-known director can deliver.
Sutherland and I express our confidence in Roher, who describes his compelling creative vision for the film. Apostolopoulos is impressed and Bell approves Roher as the new director.
Daniel and I work on the creative approach for the film, building on his already strong treatment. I introduce him to Rob Bowman, who probably knows more about Robbie than even Robbie does. Daniel and I agree that there needs to be an emotional story at the centre of the film, so audiences who may not know Robertson, the Band, or their music can connect to the story. For me, the core emotional story is the incredible friendship and tragic breakup of Robbie and Levon Helm's 20-plus-year friendship. Roher expands this into the notion of the Band as a brotherhood, a concept that will be reflected in the music on Robertson's new record.
Cinematographer Kiarash Sadigh comes on board. Kiarash is a very talented Iranian/Canadian cinematographer. After the Islamic revolution, his brother left the country and gave him a small box of tapes of his favourite music. Western music would be unavailable in the Islamic Republic of Iran for many years, so Kiarash treasured these tapes. One of his favourites was the Band's The Last Waltz.
Robbie comes to Toronto to promote the paperback release of his autobiography. He still has close friends here, and has real affection for the city. Although we haven't raised the full production budget, we decide to take advantage of his availability to film a major interview.
For our location, Daniel Roher wants to shoot at the dormant Matador Ballroom, a legendary former after-hours country and western bar. Leonard Cohen's "Closing Time" video was filmed here, and his signature is on the wall. The Matador has been closed for seven years, is dusty and there's no heat, but it's perfect for our purposes. Owner Paul McCaughey gives us a sweet deal and the run of the place. Daniel decides to film the interview using three cameras, including a super high resolution, 8K monster more suited for shooting superhero movies. Daniel and I agree that Robbie should answer questions directly to the camera, in the style that Errol Morris popularized in films like The Fog of War.
Consultant Rob Bowman works with Daniel on questions and sits beside him for the interview. It's a gruelling day, and by the end of it, Robertson is worn out and seems annoyed with us. Robbie doesn't so much answer questions as tell stories. But we need tighter, more focused answers, always a challenge in interviews.
Jared calls me to confirm Robbie's annoyance with us, and insists we need to get our questions more focused and precise to get the best out of Robbie. This is one of the many time Levine offers invaluable council. Daniel, Rob and I work on the questions at my dining room table late into the night. The next day's shoot goes much more smoothly.
During Robbie's visit, we follow him constantly, cameras rolling, as he does media hits, book signings and other engagements. We travel with him to the Mohawk community of Six Nations, the home of his mother Dolly. Robbie's daughter Delphine joins us. Our trip includes Robbie's first visit to Tim Hortons. Six Nations Chief Ava Hill and Tim Johnson (producer of the 2017 award-winning doc Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World) have made arrangements to assist our filming. Robbie is very warmly welcomed in a tribute ceremony featuring Indigenous performers, including Sadie Buck and Derrick Miller. Despite his Indigenous heritage, Robbie he has never been registered with a Nation. On this visit he receives his Six Nations status card and a band leader tells him: "Now you can skip paying HST at the Brantford Wal-Mart!"
Late October 2017
On a lazy Friday morning, I'm relaxing at the Common, a Bloorcourt café, enjoying a "work from home" day when Roher calls me. Wanda Hawkins, wife of rockabilly legend Ronnie Hawkins, has told Daniel that if we want to interview Ronnie (which we do), we have to do it tomorrow. When Robertson went to Arkansas in 1958, it was to join Ronnie Hawkins' band, the Hawks. Ronnie is in his 80s, a cancer survivor, and is heading to Florida for the winter. He's a critical part of Robbie's story.
White Pine Director of Production Stephen Paniccia and I manage to organize camera, crew and transport on very short notice. The next morning, we drive through a biblical rainstorm to the infamous Hawkstone Manor, Ronnie's Kawarthas Mansion, located on Stoney Lake. Hawkstone is notorious as the site of legendary rock'n'roll parties in 1960s and '70s, with guests like Dylan and the Stones. John Lennon allegedly ran up a prodigious long distance phone bill here. A friend who lives nearby tells me that he forbade his daughter from ever attending parties there.
Wanda, Ronnie's protective wife, typically allows media 15 minutes with Ronnie. Daniel charms her and chats with Ronnie for nearly two hours. "The Hawk" is on fire with sordid, funny, side-splitting tales of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll that reveal his enormous affection and respect for Robertson.
Daniel, Kiarash and I travel to L.A. to film for two weeks with Robertson. We have scheduled around a session Robertson will record with his friend Van Morrison on a song Robbie has written for the soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's new film The Irishman. We've been warned that Morrison can be a little prickly. Levine instructs us to not get in Van's eye line and to hide our two cameras in the corner, which we do with great difficulty. Robbie plays the guide track for "I Hear You Paint Houses" and Morrison does multiple takes until they are both happy.
Village Studios owner Jeff Greenberg and manager Tina Morris give us the run of his phenomenal recording facility for our shoot. There are multiple studios, rooms, alcoves, nooks and corners to film in, as long as we work around their busy schedule. The place is mysterious, beautiful, ethereal and always filled with music and musicians.
Daniel interviews Robertson's ex-wife, Dominique, who is extraordinarily gracious and revealing. Robbie tells spellbinding stories, and Dominique offers introspection and insight. She and Robbie met in Paris on the Bob Dylan's tour in '65, and fell in love. She was a Quebec nationalist working as a journalist in Paris, less than impressed with the young musician when he told her "I'm Canadian too. I'm from Toronto." In Quebec, it was the height of militant Quebecois nationalism.
The crew travels around North Hollywood, Malibu, West Hollywood and Santa Monica for Daniel to conduct other interviews and gather atmospheric visuals. We meet and film with some amazing characters, like Rick Rubin and Jimmy Vivino (Conan O'Brien's music director and friend of Levon Helm). I bump into Billy Corgan at Rick Rubin's Shangri-La, the Malibu studio Robbie built, and we almost convince T Bone Burnett to tell us the story of being a 15-year-old kid catching Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks at a nightclub owned by Jack Ruby, killer of alleged JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald.
One morning. Daniel returns from his run and announces he's just met Elizabeth Warren and encouraged her to run for President.
We have raised a budget of around $700,000 — a healthy documentary budget, but not enough when you need to clear significant music and archival footage rights; we've budgeted 25 songs.
Martin Scorsese is one of Robertson's close friends — Scorsese directed the Band's farewell concert film, The Last Waltz, and he and Robbie have collaborated, musically, on subsequent Scorsese films (King of Comedy, The Color of Money and new film The Irishman). Could we ask Scorsese to be an Executive Producer, which would greatly increase the films profile? Having Martin Scorsese's creative feedback would be invaluable.
Robertson gives his blessing to approach Scorsese, but won't do it for us. Shed/Universal's David Harris will lead the negotiations on behalf of the production and after weeks of calls, emails, letters and conversations, Christopher Donnelly, Scorsese's manager, calls to say that Marty is prepared to be an Executive Producer, contingent on meeting the director and seeing a rough cut of the film. It takes several months to make it official.
Daniel goes on a shooting swing through America: Woodstock, NY, Arkansas, Tennessee, Martha's Vineyard, Ohio — the musical landscape of Robbie's life and career. He interviews Dylan chronicler D.A. Pennebaker (Don't Look Back), Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen, David Geffen, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner, Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood, Taj Mahal, iconic Band photographer Elliott Landy, blues legend John Hammond, tour manager and photographers Bill and John Scheele, Big Pink producer John Simon and Martin Scorsese.
Arranging interviews with celebrities, especially superstars who are still actively touring and recording, is always challenging. We land an interview with Eric Clapton, but Roher has to go to London to get it. It's worth it — Clapton's connection to Robertson and the Band is very important. When Clapton first heard Music From Big Pink, he broke up supergroup Cream and travelled to Woodstock to try to join the group. "Maybe they needed a guitarist." Clapton is very gracious and candid, sharing some dark revelations about his own personal demons.
Nearly a year after our first shoot, principal photography is complete.
In two edit rooms at White Pine, picture editor Eamonn O'Connor and Roher work concurrently; Eamonn tackles the structure and overall shape of the film, while Daniel works with two assistants, Shayne McGreal and Charlie Shektar, on detailed, fine grain work, mainly with the extraordinary archival trove of film and photos. The post team fights an epic battle with our editing software, dealing with problems I don't really understand, but require the intervention of Adobe engineers in India to solve.
There's a mad notion that we should try to have the film ready to premiere at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival in September. TIFF Senior Programmer Steve Gravestock loves the Band and is excited about the film, but it quickly becomes clear that there's no way.
Daniel travels to New York to meet Jeff Rosen, Bob Dylan's manager and keeper of the Dylan film archive. Daniel pores over the outtakes from D.A. Pennebaker's landmark film Don't Look Back, and other footage of Dylan, Robbie and the other members of what would become the Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson). Pennebaker's rare footage includes scenes of Dylan, Robbie, Levon and others (Robbie's wife-to-be, Dominique, appears in the footage) backstage, in hotel rooms jamming, and other intimate settings. It's priceless and much of it has never been seen by the public.
David Harris (Shed/Universal) tells us that he's been in discussions with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer's legendary Hollywood production company, Imagine Entertainment (Apollo 13, 8 Mile). The company's unscripted arm, Imagine Documentaries (Jay-Z's Made in America, The Beatles: Eight Days a Week) and producers Justin Wilkes and Sara Bernstein are interested in our film and soon they are producing partners.
The team watches several rough cuts that indicate that the film is going in the right direction, and has some very strong sequences. There are conference calls — sometimes involving 10 to 12 participants, discussing the edit, archival and music issues, and business and sales strategy.
All the interested parties meet in person in Toronto —Roher and execs from White Pine, Shed/Universal, Bell Media and Imagine Documentaries — with everyone having seen the latest cut. While we all think there's a great film there, it still needs considerable work. There are now ten of us giving edit notes — for a director, this is a nightmare.
Picture editor Eamonn O'Connor leaves the project for another commitment. Shed producer Lana Belle Mauro (currently nominated for a Indiescreen Award for her work on the film) brings in editor Alex Shuper, with whom she previously worked as a co-producer of Banger Film's Super Duper Alice Cooper and Hip Hop Evolution; Shuper takes over.
Daniel flies to L.A. to film a final "exit" interview with Robbie, as is typically done with the main subject of a film, to fill in any missing pieces.
Robertson comes to Toronto for a Canadian Music week tribute. Daniel and the editor prepares a rough cut to screen for him. A "rough cut" is all of the scenes together with transitions and music, but not colour corrected or mixed audio. It will be the first time Robbie's seen the film. All the partners gather at Technicolor Studios in Corktown for the screening. It's a bit of a family reunion. Everyone is very impressed with the cut, and most importantly, Robbie likes what he sees.
Late June 2019
We receive some fantastic news — Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band has been selected as the opening film at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, the first Canadian documentary ever to receive this honour. Only one other documentary, Davis Guggenheim's 1988 U2 chronicle, Rattle and Hum, has opened the festival. Once we digest this great news, the cold, hard reality of actually finishing the film in time for a September 5 premiere, sinks in.
On Friday, July 26, the picture is officially "locked" — the picture edit is complete. Now, the time consuming, meticulous process of turning the edited film, with low resolution footage, temporary graphics, and rough mixes of sound and music begins. It's a herculean effort, overseen by our post supervisor Andre Coutu, that will require the post folks to work around the clock. Archival producer Jessica Joy Wise coordinates the masters of all the archival footage; music supervisor Cody Partridge needs to clear rights for upwards of 50 songs, by artists including Joni Mitchell, Sonny Boy Williamson, Serge Gainsbourg, Bob Dylan, and of course, Robbie and the Band. There are extensive discussions and negotiations over the film credits, finances, publicity, sales and marketing strategy.
In the end, the film is very close to what I imagined when I started this project in the summer of 2016. It's not necessarily the film I would've directed, but I keep reminding myself I'm a producer. The director ultimately shapes the creative vision. Watching the final locked picture, I see a powerful, entertaining and emotional film that does justice to Robbie's story, and doesn't avoid difficult subjects — addiction, the breakup of the Band, and Robbie and Levon's falling out.
Working so closely with two artists (Daniel and Robbie), of different generations, disciplines and temperaments has been fascinating and at times challenging. In many ways they're very similar. I think that's the secret to their chemistry.
Robbie has built an enormous musical legacy, both with the Band, as a solo artist and in his in collaborations with some of the greatest talents of our time. He shows no sign of slowing down and is writing volume two of his autobiography. I can't wait to read it. Maybe it'll make a good film.
Once Were Brothers will play theatrically across Canada this fall, and premiere later on Crave TV. Robbie Robertson's new album, Sinematic, drops on September 20 on Universal Music Canada.
Andrew Munger is an in-house producer and Unscripted Development Director at White Pine Pictures in Toronto and has been a filmmaker for over 30 years. He's also a former contributor to Exclaim! who last wrote for the magazine in September 1992.
Shed Creative Agency Creative Director Sam Sutherland came to Exclaim! in October 2003 and was a stalwart presence as an Assistant Editor and Exclaim! TV producer. Both Munger and Sutherland are producers on the new documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band.