Wholly Cinema Exclusive Interview with “That Higher Level” filmmaker John Bolton

Blog post by Ross Munro for Wholly Cinema.

The esteemed National Film Board of Canada’s new documentary follows 100 musicians of the National Youth Orchestra of Canada as they prepare and, eventually, undertake a historic summer tour.

I always harboured dreams of classical music myself but was thwarted tragically back in high school when I ended up laying in traction for two weeks as a result of constantly having to lug my tuba to one too many beach parties.

Now years later, and mostly recovered, I had the distinct pleasure to conduct (see what I did there?) an interview with Vancouver filmmaker John Bolton about his inspirational new documentary “That Higher Level”.

Wholly Cinema: What inspired you to make your new documentary “That Higher Level”?

John Bolton: Over ten years ago I approached the National Youth Orchestra of Canada about doing a documentary about them. And I was just getting started in my career as a filmmaker- I had made a couple of short films about classical music and musicians- and I always wanted to make a film about an orchestra. And I felt the easiest way to do that was to make a film about a youth orchestra because I thought it would be difficult to get access to a professional orchestra. But I realized that I might’ve bit off more than I can chew- in hindsight I was still honing my craft as a filmmaker and I probably wasn’t ready to make that film just yet.

So in the spring of 2017 I got a call from the National Film Board of Canada saying that the National Youth Orchestra had received some funding to produce a film about them and would I be interested in writing and directing it. After that, everything happened very quickly- but this time I really was ready to make a film about an orchestra. Everything happens for a reason and it was just great timing.

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John Bolton, Photo: Emily Cooper

WC: Do you have a background as a musician as well?

JB: I first started playing viola through the Vancouver School Board “Strings Program” back in elementary school and all through high school and my viola teacher then thought it would be a good idea for me to audition for the National Youth Orchestra. He said I probably wouldn’t get in but it’ll be a good experience. So I went in and it was a pretty traumatizing experience- I’m sure that they knew on the very first note that I wasn’t good enough to get in to the orchestra. So that was kind of a turning point where I realized I wasn’t going to make it as a musician but I had a lot of other interests and one of them was filmmaking.

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French horn section rehearsal. Photo: © Jeff Topham

WC: What was the most challenging aspect of making the film?

JB: Probably figuring out who to focus on in the film and what story to tell. And drama comes from conflict- so where’s the conflict? I wanted to focus on the musicians as young artists. We decided to focus on three different kinds of conflicts. There was inner conflict- where we showed the students overcome their own fears and anxieties. Also their conflict with the music itself as it’s very difficult, challenging music. For them, playing Strauss in an orchestra is like an actor’s theatre performing Shakespeare. And then, finally, the conflict within the piece of music which is Strauss’s “Death and Transfiguration” which tells the story about an artist on his deathbed looking back at his life. The idea of the film was that we’d get to know that piece of music while we were getting to know the students while they were getting to know their parts of the music. So, by the end, hopefully, you’d not only know the students but you’d also appreciate the piece of music and you’d be able to sit back and enjoy it just like an audience member.

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Harp section rehearsal. Photo: © Film grab

WC: What were some filmmaking influences in your documentary? In style, your film reminded me of American documentarian Frederick Wiseman.

JB: I’ll take that! (laughing). Wiseman’s an inspiration for sure- it’s about immersion in the subject and if you’re there all day everyday with them they get used to you. Also, another influence was a fantastic film about the Berlin Philharmonic called “Rhythm Is It” which I found very inspiring- not to mention Fellini’s insane “The Orchestra Rehearsal” to name a few.

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Behind the scenes / Vince Arvidson shooting from the crane at the Chan Centre.
Photo: © Jeff Topham

WC: What’s your next film project?

JB: I’m busy. I produce, write and direct and right now I’m really focused on adaptation. I’m currently adapting Timothy Taylor’s novel “Stanley Park” as a feature which I just recently optioned after years and years of trying to acquire. I’m also hoping to make another classical music film about the Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt.

That Higher Level | Special event screening at Vancity Theatre – Sep 8
Buy tickets here

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V i v a   l a   C i n e m a !