Backstage Interview | 86th Academy Awards

Documentary (Feature)


BACKSTAGE INTERVIEW
CATEGORY: Documentary (Feature)
INTERVIEW WITH: Morgan Neville, Gil Friesen and Caitrin Rogers
FILM: "20 FEET FROM STARDOM"

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Q.    What was one of the best experiences when you saw it completed and you saw the audience reaction to it? 
A.    (Morgan Neville) To the film?  You know, we ‑‑ like most documentaries, you make them in dark cubbies for years on end and you don't know what people are going to think.  And we finished it right up until we premiered it opening night at Sundance, and I'd not shown it to any of the women in the film.  And they all came.  I called them all and said, Okay, you're going to go to Sundance.  And they said what's that?  And I said it's in Utah, and they said, You've got to be kidding me.  So I had to convince them all to fly to Utah in the middle of winter.  I said, Trust me, it'll be worth it.  And it was opening night film, they all showed up; there were 1,200 people in the theater.  We got five standing ovations and it was a night that changed all of our lives.  I mean, since then, from that moment to this moment, it's been the most incredible ride.

Q.    Do you feel like after this documentary has received these accolades and everything that you brought, allowed those background singers closer than 20 feet from stardom?
A.    (Caitrin Rogers) I think so.  I think one of the most amazing things that happened with this film is that all of those women have now gone on with their careers and are doing amazing things and it sort of brought them a little closer to the spotlight.
A.    (Morgan Neville) Yeah.  I think we're going to have to change the name of the movie to "Stardom" because it's amazing.  To make a film about people who have so much talent but have been overlooked or had bad luck and then have that film create new opportunities for them and new luck is the best reward we ever could have gotten.  And then there's this too.

Q.    I've known many of these women for a good portion of my life.  I told them tonight on the [red carpet] they were going to win, which you did.  But this tells an even bigger story.  It tells the story of American music.  Could you speak to that?
A.    (Morgan Neville) I mean, it's about music.  I mean, it's the secret history of pop music.  But to me it's about more than just pop music.  The thing I realized when I was making it is that we're all backup singers.  I mean, most of us aren't rock stars; most of us aren't presidents.  Most of us are backup singers.  I mean, I've identified with them and what I've found is, I've taken this film out and shown it to people, is the people see themselves in this experience.  And we had a screening in Minneapolis and I brought Merry Clayton with me.  And I remember a gentleman stood up at the end of this screening and said, I just want to say that I've been working at a software company for 25 years and I'm proud of what I do and I'm proud of the team I work with.  I'm the middle manager.  I don't get all the money or credit in the world, and today I'm a backup singer and we're all backup singers.  In that moment, I realized that's what works about this film is that we're all backup singers.

Q.    Did you know that Darlene Love was going to sing during your acceptance, and what was your reaction when she did?
A.    (Morgan Neville) I had a hunch.  They sing all the time.  It's what they do, you know.  The question was, was the orchestra going to drown her out and would she start singing lyrics over the orchestra.  I don't know.  She can do that too.  She can do anything.  That's the thing, that's how they express joy is music, and I'm so happy she had the chance to do it.  And I just had the biggest goose bumps, I mean that was an incredible moment for me. 

Q.    You know, in a previous awards show, you spoke to the challenge of coordinating the schedules of all of the singers, especially of the caliber that they live within.  But to me it seems like it would be an incredible challenge just to gather the rights for all the music that you used.  What kept you motivated through the course of making this documentary with those types of challenges?
A.    (Morgan Neville) I mean, Gil, our producer, we couldn't have done it without him.  I mean, this was an incredibly difficult film to make and it took every connection.  You know, we used guilt mercilessly on people to tell them this was their chance to give back to backup singers.  But the thing really that kept us motivated was that when these people opened up their lives to us, they had given us their stories.  And we felt like caretakers of what their lives were about.  And they said over and over, we're praying for you.  They would call me all the time and say, we're praying for you, we're praying for this movie.  It's the most prayed over documentary in history.  And I think they're on to something there.

Q.    There were no documentaries before that about backup singers.
A.    (Morgan Neville) No, none.


Q.    It was actually difficult to get to the archive footage because there was not really footage.  But you interviewed Mick Jagger and Sting, so can you tell us a little bit about that when you approached them, what was their reaction?
A.    (Caitrin Rogers) They were amazingly willing to do it.  I think they recognize what their backup singers do for them and the talent that their backup singers have, so actually that was one of the easier parts of making this film was getting them to be involved because they were more than willing to give back to the people who have given so much to them.

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