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Ken Wardrop is 'Making the Grade'
04 Apr 2018 :
Ken Wardrop's 'Making the Grade'
The documentary is released in Ireland on April 13th and has recently screened at SXSW.

IFTN caught up with Ken Wardrop ahead of the release of his film 'Making the Grade', which opens on Friday 13th April. Ken and his producing partner Andrew Freedman at Venom have made several feature and short documentaries (Undressing My Mother, His & Hers, Mom & Me) which have won many awards at home and internationally.  Element is distributing the film.

IFTN: ‘Making the Grade’ is such a beautiful film, and I'm sure you're delighted with the response it's getting from audiences and from festivals ahead of the release.

Tell us about the Reel Arts funding for the Arts Council. Is that the first time that you've gotten funding from the Arts Council for any of your docs?

Ken: “Yeah, it's the very first time that I've had the opportunity to work with the Arts Council, and it has been a really wonderful experience. I think their scheme has been running quite a few years now, but from the very early days, I wanted to apply and never really had an idea for it. The nearing deadline which I didn’t want to miss, co-incided with both my partner and my mother having things happen to their pianos (long story!) and it got me thinking about pianos and how people connect with them, and obviously some being worked daily like our piano my partner would have played a lot, and then the ones that are often easily forgotten about. And that was the start of pianos and having an interest in them and seeing if there was anything in that that I could create a documentary out of.

“As I explored further, I discovered the grading system. Now, I'd never played piano in my life. I didn't know about this grading system, and as a filmmaker, you're always looking for a narrative threads or spine for your film. And, here it was, straight in front of me, a grading system that moved from beginner all the way through grade one, all the way up to grade eight. And I knew I'd have a beginning, middle, and end. And I kinda latched onto it. And therefore I wrote the idea and thankfully got selected.

“And the great thing about the Reel Art Scheme is, you know, it gives a lot of freedom to the filmmaker, it's a small fund but at the end of the day, the Arts Council, their support is for the creator and therefore, they're happy if the filmmaker is happy with the outcome. And I think that's wonderful freedom because when you have the opportunity to make a film, there's a lot of pressure on your shoulders. There's a lot of people, a lot of money invested in you, and this way, I just felt a little less pressure. Obviously, I'm always going to deliver it because I am an ambitious person and I want to make the best possible film I can, and I wanted to reach an audience and I think that's something that hopefully we've achieved with this.”

IFTN: It's interesting that you had no real knowledge or insight into playing the piano and the grading system that's involved. So, that must have influenced the casting of the film.

Ken: “When it came to the casting, I am just excited by people, so if I connect to them and I like them and I think they've got something to say and there is a bit of synergy between me and the person, you know, that's really all that matters.

“I never get bothered about the playing status. What it did do, the fact that I have no knowledge of music or I could read music, I think that was a real advantage because it meant I shied away from the academic. I didn't get too bogged down in that. And I never wanted the film to be about that, anyway. But I think if I had any interest, I would have been going off in tangents - left, right, and centre. And it actually kept me more focused on what was part of the relationship between teacher and student. And I was kinda chasing that all the time. Though, obviously, you'd enjoy hearing the process, and how teachers may have adopted styles, or how they may have found certain challenges with students. But I would be a bit lost in that conversation-so I tried to go back into the territory that I would enjoy and I'd understand, I knew if I kept in that zone, I'd make something that was universal, because it is really important to me that I wasn't preaching to just to people who played piano and had gone through the system. I wanted to make sure that an audience, even if you'd never played piano, may get something from the film.

“And I think that's what's at the heart of the relationship between the teacher and the student that we've all had that relationship, be it good or bad, you can connect with that, and you understand it, and you appreciate the dynamics of what's going on.

“With this project, in particular, it was so easy because it's a celebration of music and learning and going on that journey, and there's no villains, there's no real drama. It is quite an easy process to go into someone's world and discuss something they absolutely love. And I found that out of the three projects I've done to date, I think easy is the word I'd use because it wasn't like I was going to difficult places. In the most part, we were discussing the everyday things they do, which is practice piano and go to their lessons and come home and talk to the mommies and daddies about that and what may be going right or wrong. It was commonplace conversations and I enjoyed that. And I do think that's a window into deeper stories can be evolved from having that simple window open up.”

IFTN: And tell me a little bit about the team involved in-in the production.

Ken: “Oh, yes, I have to give a big shout out because obviously, as a filmmaker, you get a lot of street cred which is undeserved sometimes because you're only as good as the people around you. And I had an amazing bunch of people helping me - a very small select bunch. So, I have to start with Seamus Waters and Brian Raftery who were the researchers on the project, and both of whom are just the best in the business. For me, they were just great, great-- they just got me and understood the type of people that I would click with. They also are great listeners and enjoy the banter. And when they were on the telephone, I'd be like, "Give me the telephone, I want to talk” You know, the three of us would be very similar that way. So, that made the research base quite straightforward.

“They were great at finding people and explaining the project, explaining what I'm about, and just generally encouraging people and to excite people. And I suppose also to try to translate what I'm about and what I want to achieve from the film and to make sure that that's coherent and understood so that when like when I get the opportunity to speak to them, they’ve done all the hard groundwork and I can just connect with them.

“Also Steve Battle who was across sound and really, most of the production side of it as well. So, it was only myself and Steve traveling. And I've been fortunate. Every time I've made a film, I've just worked with great people. You know when you walk into someone's house and you are worried about maybe the other person, they could maybe having a bad day, or may-- But Steve is brilliant. He just clicks; he enjoys, like me, listening, and just appreciated the opportunity to be invited into someone's front door. We’re entering these people's lives. So, I think that makes the process so much easier when you're working alongside people that are on the same page.

“Previously I had the opportunity to work with cinematographers and not an editor. I would have been editing my previous work myself. On this occasion, though, I opted to go the other way around as I knew the turnaround was quite quick and I'm so slow at editing. And I worked with John O’Connor, an editor in Windmill Lane, and what a revelation!  Now that I've worked with an editor, I'll never go back! It was just like suddenly I had something to bring to the table.

“Previously, I'd just been banging my head off the table, but I'd be able to come in day with fresh ideas. We just really clicked, and it was really a much more satisfying experience that I ever thought it would be; because I thought by giving the material over to an editor, I was taking away my biggest asset as a storyteller; that I was giving over control, 'as that is where it all happens in a documentary. And I felt I was risking a lot. But in the fact, I gained so much more from that experience.

“It was Andrew [Freedman], the producer of this film who has been encouraging me to do that for some time, and I fought against it. But now, I understand his argument for it. And moving forward, I think, I will continue on this journey.

“I'd love a scenario where I could afford both a cinematographer and an editor - someday!!

I’ve worked with Andrew across all of my projects. We have such a tight relationship, working relationship. And we're completely on the same page, and our aspirations and desires across projects or- just coincide, thankfully. And-he makes it very easy too.

IFTN, Ken, thank you very much for your time now today. I hope the release goes really well; I’m sure people will respond very warmly to it.

Ken: “Thank you. It seems to be starting to connect with people now. I appreciate your support as well. It's much-much appreciated all the work that IFTN does.”

Element Distribution release ‘Making the Grade’ in Ireland on Friday April 13th.


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