The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song
Can you discuss the archival material you have in this film? It’s incredibly comprehensive.
Daniel Geller: One of the things, I think, that came later in the process — as we began to develop a relationship with Robert Cory, who was Leonard’s manager, and who got him back up and running when all that money was ripped off, and then helped him get on the road, and is also a trustee of the family estate — Leonard began to understand what Dayna and I were trying to do with the movie as we showed pieces of it to him in process. As such, he began to open the door to the archives. The Cohen personal archives. Because at first, the remit was, “don’t ask for anything.” They were giving a tacit blessing to the film, but don’t ask for anything. One of the things, for me, that was a great surprise was that Leonard was using his Polaroid camera to take all these selfies! All along! And they’re beautifully composed… they’re really moody and really interesting. And in some ways, that was just the tip of the iceberg of what he and different people were attempting to do in an age where not everybody had iPhones. The difficulty involved in doing that kind of documentation required real deliberation. Real effort.
He absolutely loved writing
Dayna Goldfine: And Leonard… I mean, I remember calling Sharon about this… one of the joys of finally getting to go into Leonard’s archive, after spending years working with the audio material — would be to find a piece of Leonard’s writing that exemplified what we were listening to. And Sharon had told us about this dialog that she’d had with Leonard when they were in the middle of working on Ten New Songs, and I saw his journal page from that day. And I took a still of it and I sent it to Sharon. And I said, “Sharon… this is the documentation of what you talk about in your show,” and Sharon just said, “yeah… he was a ‘journaler.’ ” He was one of the original “journalers.” And you kind of get a sense of it in the film, when he says that, at age nine when his father died, his urge was to sit down and write what he thinks about as his first liturgical piece of writing. He was just committed to — as he would say — “blackening the page.”
Sharon Robinson: Yes, absolutely. That was his first, and maybe really only, love. He absolutely loved writing. And it was the thing that I saw him doing whenever there was any downtime, whenever there wasn’t anything else going on… he was writing. It was, you know… I guess a calling, for him. I think he knew that he was good at writing, and he knew that he could find the words for almost any human experience or emotion. And he did it all the time.
Dayna Goldfine: And then in terms of the other types of archival… you know, the best skill one can have, I think, is to just be… to have ears that are just constantly hearing all these different things that you don’t even know you’re taking in. For instance, with [Larry] “Ratso” [Sloman], who had that incredible font of cassette recordings, starting with his very first telephone conversation with Leonard… we were in the middle of wrapping up an interview with him, early on. I was wrapping up my sound equipment, and he said — just sort of out of the corner of his mouth — he’s like, “you know… I think somewhere in my house I’ve got all my cassette tapes with all my Leonard conversations.” And it just… I stopped everything and said, “what? Can you repeat that?!” And then it took about two and a half years, but literally every few months I would send a note to Ratso, and I would say, “hey Ratso, have you gone through that closet yet?” And he’d always say no. And then, a couple of years later — on my birthday! — I got a note on Facebook, saying, “Dayna Goldfine, I’ve got a gift for you.” So a lot of it is pestering people! It’s listening to hear someone say something like that… and then following through, not taking ‘no’ for an answer… and not letting someone convince you that their closet is too jumbled up to dig through.
What impact did working on this film have on you, in terms of your understanding and relationship to Leonard Cohen?.
Sharon Robinson: I think Leonard saw religion as a necessary part of life, but that… most religions sort of lead to the same place. And that in many ways, there wasn’t… or there isn’t, rather, ultimately in different religions. And he respected all religions— he used to tell me, “you know, the word ‘Islam’ means peace.” And he had representations of all the great religions (as he called them) in his home. And he was a scholar of all the religions. Even though he was inherently and deeply Jewish himself, he respected the world’s religions.
Alan Light: I feel like I started all of this with a funny relationship to Leonard, because my father and Leonard were classmates at McGill! Same year… my dad was two months older than Leonard to the day. And so, you know, I grew up with Leonard’s college yearbook on the shelf at home! So any time it was, like, the dark brooding Leonard… I’d be like, “oh, come on man— I know what you guys are like!” So it was always a little bit of, like, “Ok… that’s some guy, a lot like my Dad,” you know? And I think what’s been so much fun watching, and being involved in helping with this film (which is a different project than the book I wrote; I really honed in on only the song “Hallelujah” itself, it was intentionally not a deep-dive into his person, it was about one song), I did a short version of what is really explored much more deeply in the film in terms of what in his life leads to this song. Act three in the film is sort of what the heart of the book project was, which was interesting to watch on screen