Christopher Wilkinson is one of Hollywood’s busiest screenwriters. His credits include Ali, starring Will Smith in 2001, and Oliver Stone’s Nixon in 1995 , with Anthony Hopkins in the title role.
Several other major projects are advancing down the pipeline.
But Wilkinson is in Fort Worth now, not Los Angeles, and will be through mid-June, working 14-hour days. His current artistic focus is not putting words into the mouths of stars in big-budget features, but on capturing the stories of much more anonymous artists who have come to Texas from Russia, Italy, China, Japan and music schools in the United States.
Wilkinson, 63, who has also produced and directed over a career stretching three decades, is the director of the webcast and subsequent documentary of the 14th Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, which on Saturday begins its semifinal round at Bass Hall.
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And he’s not the only one with serious industry chops. Producer Lori Miller began her career in feature films, and in the past several years has turned out several highly regarded documentaries. The director of photography is Larry McConkey, a veteran of more than 100 features, and one of the industry’s most respected practitioners of his visual craft.
“There is a core team of people who I’ve known since college that are working on this film at vastly reduced rates, so it’s kind of like putting the band back together,” Wilkinson said Wednesday. “What we’re doing is we’re bringing all this filmmaking experience we’ve had, this storytelling experience, this technical experience, and applied it to a gig that would have been more appropriate for us to take 30 years ago.”
The question is why. Ali had a budget of more than $100 million. The total budget for the Cliburn webcast and documentary is $500,000.
The answer has to do in part with a love of music. Miller is an amateur flutist who grew up in a home where classical music provided the soundtrack. Wilkinson 35 guitars and practices an hour a day.
But their motivations clearly run deeper. One is the unique technical challenge of capturing visual magic in the performance of classical piano. But most compelling are the stories, and often the pathos, of young competitors from 13 countries, their passion and almost superhuman dedication to their instrument from a very young age.
For them the Cliburn is a cauldron, a marathon of playing and media exposure. All this for an art form that has been greatly marginalized in recent decades, at least in the United States.
“It’s an opportunity to examine a group of people who are like astrophysicists or jockeys,” Wilkinson said. “They are such unusual people living such unusual lives. Their lives are nothing like what you would think they would be.”
For now, Wilkinson and his crew of 20 focus on the webcast, a slickly produced and beautifully photographed program hosted by Jade Simmons. Since the competition began May 24, it has drawn up to 30,000 page views per day, more than twice the audience of the 2009 Cliburn webcast.
But eventually there will be a documentary, and thus a story to be told in a more conventional way. Wilkinson was asked if he knew what it would be.
“I think we live in a culture that doesn’t respect … in our culture, there is no slot for Van Cliburn anymore,” Wilkinson said. “There is no slot for Ernest Hemingway. There is no slot for Miles Davis. There is no slot for John Coltrane. There is no slot for a famous artist.
“There is a slot for Katy Perry. There is a slot for Justin Bieber. There is a slot for any number of pop stars. But what are these kids doing?” he said. “They’re playing music that’s 200 years old, a hundred years old. How do we keep this alive? That’s basically what interests me. Because if we don’t keep it alive, we’re dead.”
Road to Fort Worth
Wilkinson’s presence in Fort Worth has to do, in a very roundabout way, with the 2008 financial meltdown.
“I wanted to make a documentary about it. I still do,” he said. “But not having made a documentary in 30 years, I thought I should talk to some people who are making documentaries. You know, ‘What’s the drill?’”
One of his agents is a close friend of Miller’s, who was first drawn to Fort Worth in 2007 to make a documentary about that year’s Cliburn competition for outstanding amateurs.
“I got really excited,” she said. “Jewelers, housewives and doctors were performing music at this level.”
Her resulting 2009 film, They Came to Play, was named one of the nation’s top documentaries by The New York Times. That led to a call from Alann Sampson, then the Cliburn’s president.
“She really liked that I came up with the idea for the documentary and raised the money myself,” Miller said. “She asked me to make a presentation.”
After she landed the job for this year’s competition, Miller said she interviewed 20 for the position of director.
“I met him a few times and in the end my gut told me,” she said of Wilkinson. “He’s a gifted storyteller. His most memorable films are biographies, and this is a version of a biography. Frankly, I couldn’t believe he would do it.”
She and Wilkinson have been working on the project for a year, and began filming in weeks leading up to the competition, traveling to Russia, Italy and various places in the United States to interview the competitors at home. The result has been mini-documentaries that air on the webcast between performances.
Wilkinson has tried other ways to reveal the individuality of young musicians, who often don’t know quite what to make of the attention. Just asking them to snap the slate at the beginning of takes has yielded some priceless footage.
“I try to disarm them in the interviews,” Wilkinson said. “We put them up in front of a white wall, with a host family they’ve barely met. They’re jet-lagged and they’re expecting someone to ask, ‘How do you feel?’ Instead I ask them, ‘What’s your favorite tree?’ or ‘What part of your body do you not like?’ Now you’re speaking to them as a human being.”
‘Enormous amount of organization’
It’s hard to imagine when, but Wilkinson said he continues to work on his writing projects in Fort Worth. He is in the final draft of a script for Mercury, a biopic of rock icon Freddie Mercury. A biography of Bruce Lee is in the works. Yet he is a ubiquitous presence in and around Bass Hall. In recent days he has also made visits to the competitors at the homes of their local host families.
“There are so many moving parts to this, it requires an enormous amount of organization in terms of what the webcast is, what the webcast looks like, the ingredients that go into the webcast,” he said. “We’re shooting eight cameras in the hall and we’re continuing to generate footage for the featurettes and mini-documentaries.
“I have to supervise what’s going on creatively but also make sure the train runs on time, too. Obviously, I do that in close collaboration with Lori.”
On a recent night during the Cliburn preliminaries, while Wilkinson was filming off-site, Miller popped in and out of the trailer that filled a Bass Hall garage. Members of the control room crew loitered before screens and consoles, waiting for evening performances to begin. Alessandro Deljavan came up, the Italian pianist whose facial expressions had polarized the audience and critics alike.
In the control room, concert director Branden Fedde made frequent on-screen use of Deljavan’s dramatic faces.
“I don’t find it off-putting at all,” said Jeff Nelson, the associate concert director. “I think he’s being honest. He cares about those pieces that much. That’s who he is.”
The tension in the room rose noticeably as air time approached. They counted down the final seconds, bringing Jade Simmons up live to viewers around the world. As the performances went on, Fedde called out the camera shots, choosing from an array of images on a screen in front of him.
The magic came in the night’s second performance. Pianist Lindsay Garritson was finishing a quiet and emotional piece by Liszt as Fedde spoke through his headset to camera operator Brown Cooper. Cooper controlled a remote camera situated just behind the piano, the best closeup of hands at the keyboard, and of the players’ faces.
Garritson had lowered her face to within inches of the keys, in the same shot with her fingers.
“If she tilts her face up, stay with the face,” Fedde said.
Garritson did just that, and Cooper followed her with his camera, inching it up, catching the performer’s trancelike expression up close.
“If she leans down again, go back to her hands,” Fedde said.
It was like the soloist was following his direction. The camera followed her face to her fingers gently caressing the keys. Garritson stood to receive a standing ovation. Fedde applauded himself, but not the performer.
“Oh, that’s so good,” Fedde said. “I’m applauding you, Camera [number] Two.”
Fedde described the moment for Wilkinson later that night.
“That’s a perfect way to describe what we’re doing, in microcosm,” Wilkinson said. “We’re using all of our technical chops to try and present this Cliburn in the most sensitive and artistic way possible.
“What you saw was just a little glimmer, like looking at a molecule of the whole structure,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying for. I don’t know if we’ll get there, but that’s what we’re going for, over and over again.”