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Interview with Stephen Walker, director of Young @ Heart

Stephen Walker directs Young @ Heart, a warm, funny and poignant documentary about the Young at Heart Chorus, a group of senior citizens from Northampton, Massachusetts who bravely sing popular rock & roll songs live without lip-synching. Chorus director Bob Cilman "chews nails and spits rust," according to a chorus member. Stephen Walker has previously directed documentaries, such as Hardcore, which debuted on British television. I had the privalege to interview him.

Fox Searchlight Pictures releases Young @ Heart on April 9th, 2008.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you come up with title, Young @ Heart?

SW: I didn’t; it was [Fox Searchlight]. We had real problems thinking about a title for this film. One of the great ones that [chorus director] Bob Cilman came up with was Rocking at Heaven’s Door which I quite liked at that time.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like editing the film?

SW: I spent 6 weeks in the cutting room to make the film work for the cinema. I made it a much more theatrical opening and lost about 20% of my commentary. Most important of all, besides putting it on 35mm film, I completely changed the sound. We had very good 24-track recordings and I recreated the sound in theatric 5.1. I wanted people to feel [like] they were in the moment.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you feel when you first heard the Young at Heart chorus?

SW: My initial response was, “I’m not going to like this at all.” I kept an open mind and went to the theater. It was really packed with every age group you could think of. Then I started to watch the show. The most extraordinary thing about it was the power of these people’s voices. These were complete reinterpretations of well known songs. I remember watching 93-year-old Eileen Hall step up to the microphone to sing “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by The Clash. It was an immediate shock value, but it was obvious to me that it was about life and death. It isn’t a song about a relationship. At the end of the song, she called out to the audience one more time, “Should I stay or should I go?” and the entire audience shouted back, “Stay!”, which is, essentially “Live!”. I was terribly moved by that. It’s a really interesting way to explore issues about old age through rock music that people can identify with.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you gain the trust of Bob Cilman, the chorus director?

SW: Bob Cilman is a very tricky guy. My first meeting with him was absolutely dreadful. I took my [14-year-old] daughter to the first theatrical performance of the choir in London and she really didn’t want to go. We went to Diane Porcello, Bob’s administrator. She told us 2 years later that there were 15 production companies after them at that time. She turned to my daughter and said, “What do you think of [the choir]?” and she said, “It was awful. I really hated it.” That made Diane decide to go with us. She thought that if their daughter could be that honest, then these are people to trust. We thought we lost the gig right there. We then met Bob the next day and was incredibly bleary-eyed the next morning. He just got less and less interested. Then we started talking about the music, which is what he’s really interested in. I had made a number of documentary film about music and things that I could show him that I had done. [Producer] Sally [George] had made a really good film for the BBC about poetry where she used really interesting actors like John Hurt. She showed him that and he was intrigued by both of the works that we showed him. We were running out of time and money and were very pestering in a nice way. I’m sure that Sally, [not me], won them over.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was most difficult for Bob Cilman to understand about your ideas for the film?

SW: What he found difficult to understand is that we also needed a narrative. I said, “Look, this is just a collection of pieces of music. Everyone is going to be bored out of their minds.” We worked very closely to construct a narrative.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Will there be a narrative feature based on Young @ Heart?

SW: Working Title snapped up the story rights very quickly as me as the director on it. So, there is a narrative feature and there’s a writer attached to it. I’m co-producing with Working Title, which is essentially Universal [Pictures]. Everything depends on what happens with Young @ Heart.

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