It is our pleasure to screen an award winning biography and a feature documentary called Max Steiner Maestro of Movie Music. Max Steiner arrived In America as a penniless musician from Europe at the beginning of the last century. After a short stint on Broadway he would head west and introduce a new art form to Hollywood…. the musical underscore. His ideas were revolutionary. He worked on over 300 films, including timeless classics such as Gone with the Wind, King Kong and Casablanca.This is the story of the man who created a vital new art form once the movies found their voice and changed Hollywood for all time. His legacy lives on today through the many composers who followed in his footsteps. The film recently won best biography at the Montreal Independent Film Festival.
The director of this feature documentary, Diana Friedberg, is a multiple award-winning editor, director and producer. In 1967 she began her career in her native South Africa. There, in 1972, she became the first woman to direct a feature film. She moved to Hollywood with her husband and family in 1986. With an MFA from USC in film production Friedberg has edited and produced features, episodic television, animation series and non-fiction productions for companies as diverse as Disney, National Geographic, The History Channel, A&E, Discovery, NBC, USA, Stephen J. Cannell, and Leonard Nimoy Productions. We had the pleasure of speaking to Diana regarding the making of her film.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you worked on?
I started making films working as an assistant film editor in a commercial house in Cape Town, South Africa. I had taken a summer job answering phones and after wandering into the editing room and observing the editor she offered me a job to learn on the job when I graduated from the university.
After a year learning the skills of the editing room the director of the company organized a short internship in the editing rooms at Pinewood Studios in London. Known as a supernumerary I was able to gain great experience in the world of feature film editing. Returning to South Africa I pursued the path of film editing on features.
What was the inspiration behind the making of your film?
I was first made aware of the music of Max Steiner while working as an assistant editor on features in Johannesburg, South Africa. An editor, Joe Masefield from New York was brought out to cut the film to try an ensure an international flair for the overseas market. Before beginning work in the mornings Joe would bring out his cassette player and say we cannot start the day without inspiration from the music of Max Steiner. And so I was introduced to the wonderful world of Steiner scores including Gone with the Wind, Now Voyager and Casablanca. His music was forever etched in my soul.
My dream of making a film about Max Steiner began when I was completing my M.F.A. in film production at USC in Los Angeles. Through an introduction by Joe Masefield I had befriended Lee Steiner, Max’s widow. At school I proposed making a film about the life of Max Steiner and his contribution to the art of film scoring in Hollywood. Film music at that time was a little recognized contribution to the cinematic experience. Preproduction, scripts and interviews with relevant composers and musicians went ahead. With film music historians Fred Steiner and John Morgan (who later in his career was responsible for rerecording 16 Steiner scores) we spent mammoth weekend screening sessions viewing 16mm prints of Steiner-scored films through the courtesy of United Artists. Sadly, the production department turned down the project at the last minute since they were then focused on developing dramatic stories.
Fast forward 46 years. My husband Lionel Friedberg and I share a passion for film music and while attending an outdoor summer concert in Los Angeles we found ourselves sharing a table with a film music lover, Bill Rosar. As the fates would have it, I mentioned my shelved dream of making a Steiner documentary. He enthusiastically encouraged me to revitalize the idea. I believed there was no hope as all the people who would have been in the show had long passed. Not to be defeated, he arranged the first Max Steiner Symposium through the Conservatory of Music, California State University, Long Beach in January 2018. Here I met many of the experts and lovers of Steiner music who enthusiastically edged me into making the film.
And so, my dream project, my labor of love, began. At its completion, I finally ended my Steiner journey and closed a circle in my life.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
I think the hardest challenge is finding people to believe in your dream and being able to convince them to see what you have envisaged. This really refers to trying to presell a film or looking for companies or organizations who will partner with you. No matter the level of the individual’s experience, producers are more ready to evaluate and make a judgement call on a finished product. This is especially true if you are not a known entity.
How difficult is it to fund indie films?
Trying to get people to lay down money on the table after reading a short synopsis with a couple of photos is an almost impossible task. This is especially true of documentary films where so much of the story and interpretation happens during the filming process. Dependent on great interviews, colorful and relevant B-roll and illustrative photos and other materials is what makes the film come to life. With a feature film you can read a story and like it or not but with documentary proposals it is very difficult finding backers to believe in an idea with just a few words on a piece of paper.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
I have many favorite directors who are all masters of storytelling and filmmaking. There is David Lean, Stanley Kubrick, Steven Spielberg, William Wyler, Billy Wilder and many, many others. The greatest lesson learnt from them all is the ability to tell a great story. It is the narrative that drives the film whether it is a feature or a documentary. You have to hold the audience’s attention throughout. How you tell that story whether through camera, music, performance, effects etc is essential but ultimately it is the story through-line that is core. Watching films of the masters you will always be engrossed in a great dramatic tale. The mastery comes in how they weave all the elements together. This applies to all films from commercials to Imax epics.
How did your film go into production and how did you finalize the cast and the crew?
Once I received my first donation, I knew I was obliged to go ahead and make the film no matter what. As more small donations trickled in, I was able to add more production to the schedule. It was a film with big ideas and little money, and I had to stretch it all to make it work within the budget. As a documentary I organized days of interviews with experts in a green screen studio. I had a small diverse crew who helped me through the days of shooting. With three main locations I had to find a cameraman in Utah for the shoot there and in Vienna I hired a local Austrian crew who were wonderful and ran around for three days completing my shot lists. Everyone worked hard to complete my packed schedule.
How was the film received by your audience and film festivals and what is your plan for further distribution of the film?
The film has been remarkably well received. It is commonly said that they learnt so much about a subject they knew very little about. They were engrossed in the story and the subject matter.
There are no future plans yet for the distribution of the film. I am letting the audience be the judge. If the film is liked and gets well received in festivals,
I am hoping someone will see it and offer to distribute it.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the making and the distribution of independent short films?
It is difficult. I suggest making the film to the best of your ability and let the work speak for itself.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
My next project is a feature film which I am sill developing. It will probably be a story of female resilience and strength in coping with immigration. Hoping it will be an epic tale set against a canvas of decades. Trying to find time now to set my ideas down on paper.
Why do you make films?
I make films because it is a passion and my life. Celluloid runs through my veins.
Watch the film: