Unfinished Music: Production on "The U.S. vs. John Lennon"
As most people who know anything about John Lennon are aware, he spent a significant portion of his post-Beatles life fighting attempts by the Nixon administration to deport him from the United States. Lennon's fame and vocal opposition to the Vietnam War frightened many powerful people, and his association with more radical types, such as Angela Davis and Bobby Seale, had officials throughout the government eager to get Lennon discredited and out of the country. Lennon kept fighting deportation and ultimately did receive his green card, in 1976. David Leaf and John Scheinfeld's documentary The U.S. vs. John Lennon takes a look at Lennon's struggle and the period's culture war through interviews, clips and a lot of Lennon's songs.
Scheinfeld and Leaf have been making documentaries together-Leaf calls the team a "two-headed monster"-since the early '90s, and they've been interested in doing something on Lennon for a number of years. "He's a complicated guy," says Leaf of their subject. "When you see all the clips, you see how charismatic, smart, quick and communicative he was. You understand why people mourned the way they did when he was killed. You understand that he stood for something that was important."
The team approaches their documentaries in a manner similar to the way dramatic scripts are written: in three acts. "Once we figure out what the scenes are in each act, we know what we need to accomplish at each step," Leaf explains. "Then we 'cast' the film in terms of story points. Who's the best person to address the context of the '60s? We got Noam Chomsky. Who's the best person to put the Nixon administration into a historical perspective? We got Gore Vidal to do that. What political figure can best address what Nixon was like during those anti-war movement years? George McGovern was a major leader of the Democratic Party and ran against Nixon for president. Who can talk about the Nixon administration and criminality? Carl Bernstein was best for that."
The two lined up these and many more people for on-camera interviews. Leaf and Scheinfeld traded production duties, either interviewing or watching footage on the monitor. They tried for between an hour and an hour and a half of interviews and were mostly successful. "We knew we could get what we needed in 30 minutes," says Leaf, "but the more time we had, the more surprises we got."
With the exception of those with Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, all of the interviews were shot against greenscreen so that the subjects could be supered easily against imagery appropriate to what they were discussing. "We wanted flexibility in what we would put behind our interviewees, and we wanted to avoid the standard bookcase/lamp sort of thing," notes Scheinfeld. "It allowed us to put something there that would underscore what they were saying or help us create a mood or an environment. It keeps the audience in the time period, without yanking them out of it to be in some hotel room or office."
Cinematographer James Mathers worked with a small ENG lighting package and a Panasonic VariCam HD 720/24p camera. He would make sure the subject was far enough away from the greenscreen to avoid spill and would then just concentrate on lighting the faces to allow a unified look throughout.
"David and I are good at putting people at ease, making them comfortable and asking questions they, hopefully, haven't been asked thousands of times before," says Scheinfeld. "The end result, I think, is that they open up to us in a way they don't necessarily to everyone. That enables us to get a shot at what I call the Oh my God moments, things you couldn't have anticipated. When we mentioned the song 'Give Peace a Chance' to George McGovern and he just starts to sing it. There's no way we could have planned for that. Or you can get the fly-on-the-wall moment like when we asked Yoko what was most memorable about the Bed-In for Peace and she talks about how she felt being with John late at night after all the reporters left. She's the only living person who was there, and we just knew when she said it exactly where it was going in the film."
The other major piece of the process-lining up all the clips-was at least as difficult as getting the interviews. "I look at it like I'm a detective solving a mystery," Scheinfeld says. "We don't know if a particular clip exists, or we know it existed at one time but it's been lost. How do we find it? We want to cast as wide a net as possible and see what turns up. We didn't want to ever just pop in some generic photo, some generic clip. Everything was carefully chosen to underscore the story point at any given moment in the film."
"I had my own film clip collection, and we put out a call throughout the world," says Leaf. "One person told us, 'I've had a camera angle from the Montreal Bed-In and I've never licensed it to anyone. I was waiting for the right project. This is the right project. We licensed things that had never been seen in the U.S. before or had never been seen at all before, but [the clips] also had to work for the story. We'd never put something in there just because it's rare. That's DVD material. The few times we used footage that may be familiar, especially to Lennon fans, it was because nothing worked better for that particular story point."
In the quest for clips, says Scheinfeld, "there's something to be said for not taking no for an answer. Some people showed us a few things and said, 'This is all we have.' And I'd say, 'This cannot be right. John Lennon was one of the most photographed people of the 20th century.' Eventually they would find things they didn't know they had."
A key piece of footage that nearly eluded the team was something of Lennon on the day he talked to reporters after finally receiving his green card. "We'd been searching for that for nine months," says Scheinfeld. "We were told it didn't exist. We were told it had been destroyed. But we thought, that's just not possible. We have photographs of that day and there are so many news cameras there. We kept pushing and pushing and, with three weeks to go before we had to finish the film, it turned up. It had been misfiled, mislabeled, put in the wrong box in the wrong place in the wrong archive. We had a couple of people in the interviews telling us what John said on the steps that day, but that really was not as good. A reporter asks him, 'Do you have any animosity toward Hoover and Mitchell for doing this to you?' And he says, 'No. Time wounds all heels.' Having him say it in the movie makes such a difference, but it took nine months to track it down and we almost missed the deadline."
Editor Peter Lynch worked with Scheinfeld and Leaf to turn the 70 hours of interviews and more than 100 hours of found footage into the film's final cut. "It's a process of honing it down," he says. "You build it big at first, with all the history elements, and then, like sculpture, you just keep whittling away what doesn't need to be there-deciding what can go and what has to stay-until you've honed it down to its final form."
Lynch worked in Final Cut Pro HD, where he was able to build a single timeline incorporating the DVCPRO HD interview footage and the found footage that came in on an assortment of PAL and NTSC Betacam SP and Digital Betacam tapes.
When the offline process was complete, the team brought the media to Matchframe Video in Burbank. The post team was able to use Final Cut Pro and Matchframe's much larger storage capacity to conform the show. Matchframe Smoke artist Jon Van Wye used Smoke (running on a Linux-based Octane 2) to fine-tune the greenscreen composites at high resolution. Jennifer Ngou used Pinnacle Commotion 2 for restoration work on some clips that had been less than perfectly preserved or transferred. Matchframe artists used Teranex standards converting equipment to master the film to D5 at 23.98fps. Finally, Matchframe Digital Intermediate recorded out to film using a Lasergraphics Producer 2 CRT film recorder.
The team used extensive selections from the prolific songwriter's catalog to tie pieces of the film together and keep Lennon's personality present throughout. With the exception of "Sisters, O Sisters," which was written and performed by Yoko Ono, all of the music in the film was written and performed by John Lennon or The Beatles. The music is used to advance the story or give some insight about what Lennon might have been thinking at a particular time. Yoko Ono was persuaded by the producers to provide about 20 tracks of Lennon's music without vocals, which were used to set an emotional tone throughout the film.
"We have some of the big ones and some of the lesser-known ones," Leaf says of the songs. "Things like 'I Don't Want to Be a Soldier, Mama' or 'Here We Go Again' or 'Just Give Me Some Truth'-they're not the familiar songs. They're album tracks that sound almost as if John were writing op-ed columns. Even where he wasn't physically present, like the Chicago convention, it allows him to be part of the movie every step of the way."
Making the film only reaffirmed what Scheinfeld and Leaf believed about Lennon in the years they were trying to get the project off the ground. Says Leaf, "Whether you agreed with him or not, John Lennon mattered. And still does matter. We've shown this movie to younger people who weren't alive when all this happened, and they say to us, 'Where's our John Lennon now? We need a John Lennon now more than ever.' I couldn't ask for a better reaction."