Scott Hicks’ Adelaide office is a reflection of the man: warm, down-to-earth, and imbued with a love of film and music. These two loves have walked hand-in-hand through Hicks’ career in features such as Shine and documentaries about INXS and Phillip Glass. It was the perfect setting in which to chat to him about his latest offering, Highly Strung, which adds to that canon.
The film winds its way through four movements and a coda, taking in the Australian String Quartet, musical philanthropy, diamond-studded Stradivari and the luthiers of Cremona. But where did such an ambitious work start?
“The project really began when Ulrike Klein came to see us and told us about the Guadagnini Project she had initiated, and if we thought there was a story in it,” Hicks explains.
“It appealed to me because I enjoy classical music and I’m fascinated by artists and musicians. I could immediately see that there were many layers to this story: the musicians, the instruments, the people who deal in them, the people who make them. All these things jostled in my head.
“I wanted to give a sense of that world and the variety of it and try to make something that didn’t just become a precious, lovely piece about beautiful instruments and classical music. It’s about the passion of these people. “
Highly Strung is this amazing parade of brilliant, passionate, flawed human-beings: that is the back-bone of this film. So where did Hicks find the “Kardashians of the music world”, the Carpenter family?
“Well,” he says, “there was a profile of them in The New Yorker, where they were described as being ‘impossible that they could exist, had they not been conjured into being by Wes Anderson’! They were very approachable, very eager to be involved and very generous. They’re a phenomenon. They understand the meaning of being in show BUSINESS. When they saw the final film they said ‘Ok, we get it. We’re the brash Americans. Now what can we do to help you sell the film.’ I love their flamboyance and their drive. They know their product and they know how to market it.”
Another character in this parade is Roberto Cavagnoli, a luthier from Cremona, who is commissioned to make a copy of the Guadagnini cello. The film shows him working meticulously over a period of four months, choosing the exact wood, tirelessly hand-carving and testing for tone and resonance at every step.
Hicks admits he found it fascinating that Cavagnoli worked literally the way that Stradivari or Guadagnini would have: with hand tools, working from a big chunk of wood, to make that thin top of the cello.
“It beggars imagination, that skill. And he was such a lovely personality. A funny incident occurred after the premiere of [Highly Strung] which opened the Adelaide Film Festival. He was approached by several women in Rundle Mall, and one woman said ‘You must let me take you to Bunnings. We have power-tools here in Australia and you could really use some’!”
The leitmotif running through this film is the Australian String Quartet. Hicks, serendipitously, captured the announcement of the (then), new line-up, the marriage of two of the members and then the implosion of that line-up.
“A quartet has really got to be tight in order to work. It’s such a delicate mechanism. You’ve got four very high-end performers, having to subsume their ego to the group, and when that doesn’t happen very quickly, it flies apart,” he says.
“It has to be, in some ways, democratic, even though the first violin is usually the lead in the musical side. But then compare that to the Carpenters. There’s a trio of siblings who are so tightly bonded that they would never critique each other… unless it was about jackets or shoes!”
So what is the drive that leads Hicks to make films about music? Is he a frustrated musician?
“As a child I asked for piano lessons, even though there wasn’t really music in my family. So I had lessons until my early teens when it became evident that I wasn’t really prepared to put the necessary time in. But I learnt to read music and I certainly listen to music a lot, both classical and rock. And that was, in fact, how I met David Helfgott (the subject of Hicks’s feature Shine). And it’s funny how Helfgott Senior’s story of having his violin smashed by his father echoes in Ulrike’s story of not getting a violin from HER father. I think it says that music cannot be denied. It will out.
“Plus,” he continues, “I’ve always been fascinated by artists. I’m fascinated by anyone who lives off their creative wits; that manages to turn their own dreams and fantasies into something that other people can experience.”
When I pointed out that that is what he, himself does, he quietly responded:
“Well isn’t that funny…yes I suppose I do.”
A response which only serves to emphasize the humility and humanity of one of Australia’s great film-makers.
Interviewed by Tracey Korsten
Highly Strung is now showing at selected cinemas.