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The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of ¡Viva Maestro!

What was your original artistic challenge when you were approached with this project? A profile of one person is quite different than your previous work.

Ted Braun: The previous films I’ve done, feature documentaries I’ve done (Betting on Zero, which looked at allegations of global economic criminality, and Darfur Now, which looked at allegations of massive, systemic violent crimes in Sudan) were, in different ways, ensemble stories about people trying to expose wrongdoing. And this film, from the outset, was an opportunity to focus on someone trying to expose beauty and art. From the start, it was focused on a single individual, Gustavo Dudamel. I was approached in March of 2016 — long ago, now! — just as Betting on Zero was about to premier at the Tribeca Film Festival. Like many films in Hollywood, this one began at a Jewish deli over breakfast in the San Fernando Valley. One of the producers of the film, Howard Bragman, asked, “what would you think about doing a film on Gustavo Dudamel for your next project?” Dudamel fascinated me. Before I met him (and certainly after I met him), he seemed like the sort of person who could carry a full feature film. He was a rich, dynamic personality; the camera was happy to be with him, and he was happy to have it around. And the opportunity to take a little bit of a break from the problems of the world (for me), and to focus on someone committed to bringing art and beauty into the world, seemed a very happy change of pace, and it posed an interesting set of creative challenges.

having to reiterate and re-articulate the story you’re trying to tell keeps you alive

Capturing live music is notoriously difficult. You have to be true to the moment, but also to the art of the musicians.

TB: That was one of the creative and technical challenges that excited me about this film at the outset. When I’m making vérité documentary films, present-tense films that are focused on people under very challenging circumstances trying to realize something of value to them… I like to work with a very small footprint and to be as unobtrusive as possible. Typically I’ll have a crew of three, or at most four, people: Cinematographer, sound recordist, a producer, and myself. And occasionally an assistant cameraperson. There was no way to film classical music effectively with a single camera. You couldn’t get the dynamic of the relationship between a conductor and an orchestra. And I was really intent on getting the audience into Gustavo’s shoes, so that the work of a conductor didn’t seem mysterious. It wasn’t just some person moving his hands with magic effect. You were there inside him, understanding that he was trying to bring a particular interpretation, that existed in his imagination, to life through a conversation between the orchestra and himself… and then ultimately sharing the results of that conversation (bringing it alive) for an audience. It’s a three-step creative process, and one involving multiple parts. There was no way we could capture those rehearsals and performances with a single camera. And so we had to bring a much larger crew. And in the end, for almost all the rehearsals, we were working with four cameras.

When does the shape or structure of the film start becoming apparent to you? Do you go into production with a clear idea, or do you let the events guide you?  

TB: Well, it’s a dance. Before I got into filmmaking, and had gone to graduate school for film, I had a chance to meet the great documentarian Fred Wiseman. I was living in Boston, and we were introduced by mutual friends. He was very dismissive of graduate school, and very dismissive of scripted films! He said, “why would you waste your time shooting something where the story is already decided? You’re just following the script… Documentary filmmaking is so great! It’s so athletic!” And I think he meant that… certainly in the years since then, I’ve taken it to mean not just the physical challenges of documentary filmmaking (which are significant, and I find very stimulating), but also the creative challenges. You have to respond to certain situations as a storyteller in much the way an athlete does: you have an idea, and then real life happens and you have to adjust. In this case, from the outset in order to secure the financing for the film, in order to put together a team… I had to have an idea of the story I was going to tell. And that serves as a kind of groundwork. And that carries through all the phases of shooting. When we head off to location, we’re going to be there for a week or ten days… you sit down and you talk with the crew, and it’s, “ok, what’s the story of this week? What do we imagine Gustavo is going to be doing? What’s he going to be up against? Where are those problems likely to come? How are we going to dramatize the conflict?” And then you have the same conversation each day, you know? As with a piece of jazz music, it’s sort of the tune you start with… and then, you know, crazy things happen! You have to abandon your plans and adjust. But it keeps you oriented. And so, constantly having to reiterate and re-articulate the story you’re trying to tell keeps you alive, keeps you focused… but it also allows you to adapt. And then… you get to the editing room!

Did you have a mentor when you were coming up in your career?

TB: That’s a very touching, and very good, question. My life… I have been fortunate to have been shaped by a lot of great teachers. In particular, I was shaped by a terrific music teacher when I was young. I grew up in a very small town in Vermont — there were more cows than people there — and in the fifth grade a woman named Jane Brown decided that she was going to start a music program at the local elementary school. And I was interested, and I picked an instrument, and she taught me for about a year. And I was serious… and she said, “we need to get you another teacher.” And that next teacher, a man named Neil Boyer, ended up transforming my life. Eventually I joined the Vermont youth orchestra, and for a long time I thought I was going to make a life in classical music. I thought I was going to be a bassoon player and play in orchestras. Ultimately, you know, though I came within a hair’s breadth of leaving Amherst College to go to Curtis [Institute of Music]… I chose not to, and ended up in film instead. But the relationship I had with Neil Boyer, who I saw once a week from sixth grade until I went off to college was really transformative. He opened my eyes to the benefits of discipline, of practice, to the joys of music… and made me feel that I could learn anything. And that kind of capacity as a young person: “My goodness… I could, if I practice well and hard, play any piece of music put in front of me?!” Suddenly you feel charged, and capable! In addition to feeling the joy and emotional satisfaction of playing music. So, yeah, I did have someone… you’ve touched a nerve as you can clearly tell. But that connection between me and Gustavo was, I think, one of the things that opened the door to making this film… and one of the things that gave him confidence that we were going to be seeing and operating on the same wavelength. And that come what may, whatever unexpected challenges unfolded (and as you saw in the film, there were some real, vast, and substantial unexpected challenges in this film), whatever those were, he and I were coming from a very common place of having our lives transformed by great teachers and having our lives transformed by music.