By Danny Peary
Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle fits my category, Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. But for now, until Tuesday, you’ll have to see it in New York City at the Film Forum. I have been a huge fan of the unique Canadian duo, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, since their first self-titled album was released in the mid-1970s, so I was thrilled to learn a concert film had been made to pay tribute to Kate, a brilliant singer and songwriter who died from clear-cell sarcoma at the age of 63 in 2010. I was even more excited to learn that Kate’s supertalented kids, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, were behind the film and Rufus had handpicked Lian Lunson to direct it. Lunson was a perfect choice because she had shot the acclaimed documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, which includes a concert in which the McGarrigles and Rufus and Martha perform beautifully. I interviewed the personable Australian director before that film played at the Film Forum in 2005 and was delighted to do the following interview with her a week ago to help her promote her new movie—which includes marvelous performances by Rufus and Martha, Anna, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, and even Jimmy Fallon, along with archival and new offstage footage—and champion her extraordinary subject, the much missed Kate McGarrigle.
Danny Peary: What part of Australia are you from?
Lian Lunson: I’m from rural Victoria, the countryside outside of Melbourne. I moved to Sydney to go to drama school, which I attended for three and a half years. Then I did a lot of theater and starred in a TV-movie ["Army Wives" (1986)] and a feature film ["The Big Hurt" (1985)] and had a couple of smaller roles. So I was just starting to get known when I moved to L.A.
DP: Did you go to Hollywood to be an actress?
LL: Yeah, but I lost interest in about five minutes because it was much different from what I’d known. Australia had a much smaller acting environment, so we all knew each other and the few major casting directors all knew us. Even if you weren’t getting paid, there were a lot of theater groups and opportunities to perform. I guess acting was my way out of Australia to come here, but it wasn’t really the right thing for me to do. I’m very proactive and like getting involved in things rather than sitting around and waiting. I grew impatient and went into production.
DP: You produced music videos for such well-known artists as Neil Young, INXS, Pearl Jam, Public Enemy, and Dwight Yoakum. Was it because you were a music fan that you gravitated toward music videos?
LL: No. When I first came to America I started doing work on various film sets, doing pretty much every job. As part of that I got into the producing aspect, learning how to structure budgets. The particular production company I worked for, overseeing budgets, did mainly music videos and commercials, but I left that company and started to produce on my own for various directors. I formed my own company, Horse Pictures, in 1997. I did my first video with Willie Nelson, which was great because I was already such a huge fan of his. Based on that, he asked me to do a feature-length film about him for PBS. I ended up being in that world of his for nearly two years.
DP: Then you made your documentary, Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man. How did you learn about the 2005 Cohen tribute concert at the Sydney Opera House that featured many rock and folk artists singing his songs, including Kate & Anna McGarrigle, and Kate’s supertalented kids Rufus and Martha Wainwright?
LL: Hal Willner, who is a very good friend of mine, is a Grammy-winning American producer who does these great concept shows where he ingeniously puts together unique people with amazing songs. He told me he was putting on the Leonard Cohen “Came So Far for Beauty” concerts, beginning in Brighton, England, with an amazing group of performers. The third one was in Sydney, and he said there was the possibility that it would close the annual Sydney Festival at the end of January 2005. I thought it would be great to film it, given that it was in the Opera House. But I felt I could do that only if I could include Leonard in my movie. I really wanted to make the film about him, with the songs in the concert being like chapters in his life.
DP: You didn’t know Kate and Anna at the time you filmed the Leonard Cohen concert in Sydney?
LL: That’s where I met them originally.
DP: When I first interviewed you, the Cohen movie had gotten any distribution in Australia. Did it ever get it?
LL: Of course, it played for about 7 months. Everything’s changed on this film. We’re self-distributing it.
DP: Who is we?
LL: Me. This film, I ended up doing pretty much everything. It wasn’t something that I wanted to give to a distributor that would play it in the cinema for a week and then exploit it in perpetuity. This was something incredibly personal for Kate’s family and I worked really hard so it would stay in the family. We’re very lucky to have this open at Film Forum, which is an amazing cinema that takes care of its films. But we don’t have the funds or anything to do a campaign to play it elsewhere. But that’s the way it is, and I’d much prefer doing it this way. Kate’s children, Rufus and Martha–this is their film and they’ll keep it within their ranks.
DP: What is your reputation in Australia now, are you one of them?
LL: I have no idea. I still live in Los Angeles and don’t go back and forth very much because it’s expensive. But I grew up in Australia and as I said, my Leonard Cohen film had a good run there. And Sing Me the Songs had its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, so I was there for that. We had two screenings, on a Friday night and a Sunday. The Friday night was really good, it was full, and I called all my friends who were coming on Sunday and said, “It’s 12 o’clock on so no one’s going to be there. But come anyway and we’ll go have lunch.” And we get to the cinema and there’s this big line out the door. It was really amazing. I asked my friends, “Whose film is this? It’s mine!” Australia, a little more so than America, embrace singers like the McGarrigles and Wainwrights in a really big way. They’re more interested in that sort of music and Rufus and Martha have a huge fanbase there. I can have screenings in America and some people will know about the McGarrigles and others won’t. They aren’t obscure, but they’re not mainstream. Rufus’s name has become a little bigger than his mother Kate’s.
DP: I’m surprised about their popularity in Australia. In our previous interview, you said everyone in Australia at one time had punk albums and Leonard Cohen. But I doubt if they had Kate and Anna McGarrigle albums because you didn’t know of them until you were making the Leonard Cohen documentary.
LL: I wasn’t really aware of them then. But I did know of them from before the Cohen film, when they sang on a Nick Cave album, and I heard these amazing, unique voices in the background and wondered who was singing. But, you’re right, I wasn’t aware of them in Australia. That’s why I was so surprised when I went back there and there were so many McGarrigle fans. People I’ve known since I was a teenager were there and they knew every song, and I was like, “How did you know about the McGarrigles and I didn’t?” But it was really nice to see. I think many people in Australia found out about the McGarrigles from seeing the Sydney concert in the Leonard Cohen film, because they had such a big presence in that. I had never heard of them before. I liked Leonard Cohen, opera, and country. I grew up listening to Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris. Emmylou’s album “Bluebird,” was such a huge part of my history so it was a thrill meeting her. She’s a beautiful human being and I’m happy she’s in the movie.
I’m kind of glad I didn’t know about the McGarrigle’s music before. Making this film and editing it and seeing it 24/7 in my house, with these songs, was really an unveiling for me of incredible song writing by this incredibly underrated woman, Kate. Getting to know her songs and the caliber of her writing, and how honest and intellectual she was, really struck me. I came to this sort of fresh and was completely blown way. If I take any project on, and put two years of my life into it, I want to have grown enormously from it afterward in a spiritual sense. I want to know that I have grown as a human being, in every way. You want the world look different. I knew when Rufus asked me to do this that it would be a project like that.
DP: How did it happen that Rufus asked you to make the film?
LL: We’d stayed in touch since the Cohen film. We were had lunch with the Town Hall show coming up, and he started asking me how I would go about making the film. He wondered what it would entail and how much money it would cost to shoot the concert. I started telling him some of my ideas and I remember him just getting overwhelmed with sadness and tearing up. It was still a very terrible period for everyone. Then he said, “Will you do this?” I said, “Of course.” I knew that it would be such a delicate time for Rufus and Martha and everyone. It was so brave to even attempt to try to do something when everything was so fresh and raw. In my mind, I thought it was a rich place to step into because everyone has lost somebody and has gone through this terrible grief at one time. Now I’d be able to document it. This family is generous with their feelings and their emotions and sharing that it would be interesting and hopefully help other people who have gone though the same thing. We can’t all put on concerts for the people we’ve lost, but I thought this will be somewhat of a cathartic experience for the people who have gone through something similar. I don’t make “behind-the-music” documentaries, I’m more interested in the mystery and the ether around a human being. And the ether around this human being was loss and sadness. Some critics have slagged me for not telling the full story of Kate McGarrigle, but I wasn’t interested in making that type of film. Somebody else can tell her life story, but my intention was to capture the emotional atmosphere within the family at that time and a moment that was a concert.
DP: It’s a strange situation for me because I don’t look at this film as a viewer coming from the outside and being objective. I am on your side and wanting many people to see the movie so they can appreciate the McGarrigles like we do. It’s because after attending many of the family-and-friends concerts when Kate was alive I feel I know these people personally. I’m sure a lot of people feel exactly the same as I do.
LL: I’ve come across a lot of McGarrigle fans through social networking and whatever, and it’s very much like that. They feel very close to them. I discovered a Kate and Anna appreciation group on facebook and for those people the McGarrigles are like an obsession. They feel very much like they know them.
DP: Like they’re family members who would be welcome at their gatherings.
LL: Exactly. I’m sure these fans are going to see the movie, but I also tried to make it for people who don’t know anything about Kate McGarrigle. They’re not going to learn that much about her in this film, but they will see how much she was loved. And hopefully they will leave the cinema and Google her and go listen to her music.
DP: So you want this film to lead to something more.
LL: Yes, they’ll hear these songs by this incredible woman songwriter who was completely underrated and realize how talented she was.
DP: When Rufus introduced the film at Sundance-London, he stated that Kate was underrated.
LL: She should be much better known than she was when she was alive. I think her work will become a lot more known after people look her up! The one thing that’s extraordinary about the energy in the film is that it’s just really about love. It’s an outpouring of love. I hope it makes people ask, “Who was this woman?” She has these amazing children, Jimmy Fallon knows her, this cross-section of people all seem to know something about her. A lot of the young kids were the biggest fans of my Cohen film, because they were seeing what they didn’t know existed. They went, “Wow. I didn’t know that guy. He is cool!” I hope this film makes people say, “Wow, Kate McGarrigle! Some of her songs are incredible.” I hope they buy the soundtrack. It’s all live stuff, from other shows, too, and it’s beautiful. They played it the other night between the screening and tribute concert, and people just were tearing up.
DP: At the concert that you filmed, what was the feeling in Town Hall?
LL: I likened it to an Irish wake. It was very funereal. It had that feeling to it, for me. It wasn’t a dark feeling, but there was just a deep, deep sense of sadness and mourning. There were light moments, which gave everyone time to take a breath, but everyone was somber and there were a lot of tears.. It was really very touching. When I look at religious art, I’m drawn toward someone incredible because I think what I see is the devotion of the painter to that spiritual entity, sort of deep love and respect and honor. I’m struck by the energy of devotion. That’s how the show felt to me, watching these artists who are close family and friends painting Kate’s songs with the deepest level of emotion they had. I think it’s a very rare experience these days for an audience to see that.
DP: Some of Kate’s personal songs are so sad. Do you think it’s because of her broken marriage with Loudon Wainwright or later relationships?
LL: Rufus said the other day that his mother wrote about life. She was very honest when she wrote about having children or about her divorce. Anna McGarrigle talked about a song the other night. She said her sister was reading this huge, really boring book. She was such an intellectual that she read the whole thing, in French. Then she wrote a song in English about the story of this whole book. Anna said, “She’d never let me perform it; at least now I can perform it.” I think Kate’s songbook was so rich. Rufus says, “You know, my mother was a real romantic.”
DP: I always thought there was a balance in the songbook of the McGarrigles. The songs that were sad were so sad and other songs so playful. The concert was such a sad day that I wondered if people knew that when she’d perform Kate would wear funny hats and Anna would sometimes have a mustache on.
LL: I think there’s room for that in another film, and I hope someone does do a film about Kate and Anna and their whole career, because this film’s focus is really her children and what they were going through at the time, and that energy. There are some light moments in it, but I just sort of followed their lead when mostly they were going through this grieving process. I tried to follow the feeling that was there and not try to manipulate it any way. I didn’t say, “Oh, we need a light moment here.”
DP: In terms of style, you use a lot of close-ups, as you did in the Cohen film. Talk about your love for faces and how in this film the faces convey a lot of emotion.
LL: I’m a huge fan of the music films of the 1970s. When I’m watching a concert film, I want to feel like I’m sitting there watching the people on stage. When you start cutting around and doing other stuff, it turns into something else. If you’ve got a person who’s singing beautifully, and they’re right here, you don’t need anything else.
DP: Where were you?
LL: I was at a camera station. I had to call these cameras. I had to be behind a monitor and make sure the camera people were doing what I wanted because they weren’t trained to shoot like I shoot. They wanted to cut back and forth or pan, and I’d have to say, “No, stay with you’re doing.” I had to really watch all the time. But still I was feeling the emotion.
DP: Norah Jones, where did she come in?
LL: I think she’s been a friend of the family, and a good friend, she’s been in all these shows. So amazingly talented…I just think the way she sings these songs is so beautiful, such a beautiful talent.
DP: She’s good, she’s great when she sings with other people. I know you’ve seen her perform with Willie Nelson. Where does Jimmy Fallon fit in?
LL: He was a friend of the family. He met them in the late ‘90s, I think, and – he comes from an Irish Catholic family.
DP: He was really good doing “The Swimming Song.”
LL: He was great, and he’s a nice person too. With him and the other guest performers I included entire songs. When I was cutting the film I showed it to some friends who said, “That song goes on too long, you need to cut it up into bits,” but I would never do that. Ever. The songs need to play out.
DP: You never show the audience at Town Hall.
LL: That was my choice. The audience is not something I like to see in concert movies. If you show people clapping in order to validate the performances, it’s a waste of time. I didn’t come to see these people, I came to see the concert. I don’t care much for that stuff. Are people so trained that for them to have a good time they must see the audience had a good time??
DP: You also edited the film, so later when you saw all those close-ups of teary performers, Rufus particularly, what did you think?
LL: I should do more close-ups. That’s how I like to watch things. I tend to stay where the most emotion is, on the stage. In that song “Talk to Me of Mendocino,” you’ve got the amazing Norah Jones front and center, but really the place to be in that song is with Rufus, because he’s really going through something emotionally.
DP: And the camera moves mostly to him, though she’s singing too.
LL: You just feel the energy of the person who’s really going through something, and that’s who I go to, like a missile.
DP: You also have this great shot that’s not a close-up. You follow Martha in long shot as she walks across the stage although you usually don’t like panning.
LL: It’s really rare that I would do that with the camera but that was such a beautiful moment for her to go over there. Most people would say, “You should’ve stayed on the horn player because that was his moment,” but I wanted to watch Martha watching the horn player. It was much more interesting for me to see her watching him than me seeing him.
DP: For me there were a lot of just emotional moments in particular songs. To me, the saddest person was Anna. Was that your feeling also? There’s just so much going on with her.
LL: So much, so much. More than anyone knew, I think. I don’t know Anna very well, but I think when I looked at the footage, it was just very evident.
DP: At the family Carnegie Hall Christmas show tribute in 2011, it seemed like Anna was drifting back and not wanting to perform because she had lost her The other night there was a fundraiser that BAM put on that closed the Cinematheque Festival. They screened the movie at the beautiful Rose Cinema and then there was a panel of Emmylou Harris, Jane McGarrigle, and Anna McGarrigle just talking about the early days of Kate. It was a really special event, the people around me were thinking that they’ll never get to see this again. And the following night they did this incredible show. I’ve seen the other tribute shows where there was a deep sense of mourning. In the days before Kate died, you’d go see her and it would be a celebration. This show felt more like that. It was like they were doing their own songs and there was a joy to it, and it was like the closing of that mourning period. Now, we’re celebrating her legacy, let’s just move on. It felt like a really positive and powerful thing for all of them. What was so lovely about this panel the other night was seeing Anna talk about thatI would have filmed it on my iPhone if it hadn’t died!
DP: You didn’t feel it was important to show the concert chronologically.
LL: No, it wasn’t important at all. I don’t think so. What was your favorite song in the movie?
DP: “Proserpina.” It was her last song and when everyone she loves sang it, emotionally, you can feel her presence.
LL: That was very powerful. It’s so powerful that she wrote something like that before she died. This woman was so connected to many things, in this case Persephone, in Greek.
DP: I also loved the Christmas song Rufus and Kate reflect on near the end. They learned it as kids so it was very emotional for them. And me.
LL: For everyone, I think, but for them particularly.
DP: You know what I also loved in several performances? How Rufus and Martha appreciated each other. They watch each other sing, and with their expressions they said to their sibling, “You got it right, you did it beautifully, thank you.”
LL: It’s a beautiful moment in the beginning, when Martha is standing behind Norah Jones and she’s watching Rufus, because she can see he’s getting very upset. She’s just starting at him, hoping he’s going to be able to get through it. It’s just so beautiful, just the way she’s looking at him, hoping he’s going to be able to do it.
DP: My hope is that your film won’t just get due recognition for Kate and Anna McGarrigle but also Martha, whose unbelievable talent is on display in this film, as it was in your Cohen film.
LL: She’s so great. She’s grown so much. Rufus has also grown enormously.
DP: I was also feeling while watching your film that they have such gratitude toward their mother for everything.
LL: Enormous gratitude. I think the more they go on in life, the more grateful they’ll become, too. You just look at Kate’s body of work. I think the kids are very concerned and really want to create this amazing legacy for her and just really hope a whole new audience will come to her work. And even the people who knew her a little bit can sort of appreciate these incredible songs that she wrote.
DP: When you were making this film, were you thinking you’d have to please the family?
LL: It was very much for the family. Rufus and Martha were very involved. They would come to my house and I would show them clips and I would do a cut and send it to them. They had their ideas but they’d be very gracious about letting me do what I do. They’d be suggesting tweaks here and there, but generally it was pretty much that we were all on the same page. It’s very brave and good of them, because sometimes people are expecting a certain type of documentary film or whatever. And they sort of knew my work from the Leonard Cohen movie. I don’t make straightforward documentaries, and they knew that. They saw the first half of the film but the first time they saw the finished cut was live at Sundance London, on the big screen. I had made a slight change on Easter Sunday and once I made that the whole film had to change, so I was madly rushing because of the deadline for Sundance London. So the whole film had changed and they hadn’t seen those big changes. It was scary for me.
DP: They were okay afterwards?
LL: They were okay. I think it was very hard for them to see it, they were wiped out.
DP: I get emotional watching the footage of Kate playing the piano and singing. When you watch it, do you feel that way?
LL: I see this person who had so much powerful energy and so much life. Once Rufus and I decided I was going to do the film, he sat me down and showed me a slide show of the last year of his mother’s life. I was really overcome by that. You saw this woman who was incredibly brave, and in no picture was there any sort of sadness or fear or why me? It was just her looking straight into the future. There was a progression. They’d go on holidays together, they spent their last times together, she was slowly getting more ill.
DP: There’s a “wow” shot of Martha in the bed with her.
LL: That was their idea. Rufus wanted the picture in the movie because he felt his mother would have wanted that.
DP: It was beautiful. And the footage of him and Martha in the graveyard?
LL: I wanted to see where Kate was buried, it was the natural thing to do. It’s a graveyard outside of Montreal, one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. When they’re walking down that pathway, you can see a beautiful piazza at the very end, and the twelve stations of the cross are all around the graveyard.
DP: Anything you learned about the family while making the film that you didn’t think you would, because it’s a concert film?
LL: I learned how important it is for families to do things together, especially in this day and age. That’s what was so remarkable about them, the McGarrigles and Wainwrights..
DP: It’s also nice that Rufus and Martha have continued the tradition of having concerts by the family and the extended family. Martha has said that earlier in her career she tried to establish her own identify by moving away from the family as a performer, but now she goes toward it.
LL: That’s true. And you know it’s amazing how she looks more and more like Kate!