In the latest episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, Jackson and editor Jabez Olssen discuss using machine learning to isolate previously inaudible “get back” tapes.
In this episode of the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, we chat with Peter Jackson and his longtime collaborator, editor Jabez Olssen, about their work, which combines hundreds of hours of audio, dozens of hours of video, and 40 years of mythology about the “Get Back” sessions documentary that tries day by day to describe the experiences of the sessions leading up to the Beatles’ final live performance. Jackson and Olssen discuss what changed when they combined familiar audio with visual elements, how they bypassed seemingly inaudible or unusable material, and why they set out to make a documentary that wasn’t a Beatles breakup story.
Listen to the full episode below or continue reading excerpts from our interview.
Partial transcript below:
Jackson and Olssen on the making of The Beatles: Get Back:
Olssen: Well, first thing I ever heard [about the project], Peter, was that you emailed me because you were in England and you went to the Apple offices and started watching them on videotape in their conference room there. I’m sure you remember that, but you set aside a few days for it and thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll probably see most of it.” But because of the crowd, you know, I think you stuck it out for a few days , before you had to move on, but I just got emails from you in the evenings describing what you saw, you know. And the first thing you said to me is, you know, despite all the mythology about what the time was like and how miserable it was, that’s not what you see in the recordings. And you couldn’t believe it.
Jackson: You must also consider the common understanding, or mythology, if you want to call it mythology, of this period in Beatles history. You know, as a Beatles fan, I’ve been reading Beatle books for over 40 years and like most people, based on all the books, I’ve built a picture in my head of the “Get Back” sessions. We went into it with a perception, and I didn’t agree to do the film because I said to Apple, ‘Can I just watch everything? Because it would be a lifetime dream of mine to do a Beatles movie, but I don’t want to do the Beatles breakup movie.” And if that footage actually shows them breaking up – as we all believe – and if “Let It Be” that represents what they liked to see, what the heck will be in that footage that they haven’t seen? Don’t you want people to see back then? How bad will it get? So I sat down and was afraid to look at her stuff. I was excited on a level because it’s all Beatles stuff I’ve never seen before. But I also had a heavy heart and said to them, “Please, just let me look at it.”
So Jabez and I had 130 hours of audio and the camera is going on and off. But if you view the audio like a timeline, and then turn the cameras on and off at various points during those 130 hours, there’s around 57 hours of image in total. But the story is obviously in the sound, not just the picture.
So Jabez and I started out by sitting down and looking at everything – and when I say looked at it, we had it set up so we could sit in the editing room and where there was an image, we looked at the image and as we went audio only, we just had a black screen. Even though it was audio, we watched everything. So we’re looking at every 130 hours, because of course you have to, and we didn’t know what the story was. I mean, Apple kept saying to me, “Well, what’s the story? What story are you going to tell?” I said, “Well, let’s just wait.”
And I realized that none of the books I’ve read over the years can contribute to what this was about because the books were so inaccurate about what actually happened that month. And then what happens is you get to the end of the 130 hours and towards the end you see and hear conversations, you know, in the second half you’re like, ‘Wait a minute, back then they were talking about something related to that could.” So you kind of have to go back and look at all this again because you now have the knowledge of the full 130 hours that you didn’t have and now you want to listen to the entire first half with an understanding of what’s going on will happen in the second half because there are things being talked about that didn’t mean anything the first time that now have a more interesting context or meaning.
So we looked at everything twice, really, in a sense, to actually get a handle on it [the material].
Jackson and Olssen on finding traverse lines for the material:
Jackson: To answer Apple’s question they kept asking me, “What’s up?” we just felt good, [the story] must be the simplest story, which is a linear story starting on the first day of the “Get Back” sessions and continuing to the end. And in doing that, we, the audience, the viewer, experience things happening at the same time as the Beatles. So you see day 6. No one knows Georgia will stop the next day. You know, we don’t know. They do not know. If you’re a Beatles fan, you probably know it. But only from that point of view [the average viewer], we’re not ahead of the Beatles. We just wanted [show] the whole monster you know [and the audience watching “Get Back”] At some point we have to believe that they will go abroad. They’re going to play in an amphitheater because they think it’s possible at some point. So we just wanted the audience to experience it the way the Beatles experience it [it] itself.
Olssen: An example is because they wanted to play live they were missing a musician because they wanted piano, bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar. Five instruments. And there are only the four of them. In the past few years they’ve solved that with overdubs and a second pass, but here they wanted to play like a normal band. Eventually this is resolved by bringing along Billy Preston, an amazing piano player. And I remember quite late in the play Peter went back and reviewed the footage. When he says we’ve seen it twice. We have seen the rushes more than twice in the four years.
And I remember Peter saying late in the process, ‘I went back through the rushes and there’s this great part that we didn’t know.’ Early on in Twickenham, John and Paul debated, ‘Well how are we going to play this? We need to bring in a piano player.” You didn’t mention Billy Preston. There was another famous one [pianist] I think they might have mentioned. but [they spoke about], you know, ‘We can’t do everything. Maybe we just have to let them play along.” And those little ideas trickled through, but we missed it on our first run because it didn’t seem like a big conversation or anything very important. And it wasn’t until the Billy Preston story later became apparent that this became a great setup. This turned into a great little play that just showed you things were transpiring in those storylines. And that was happening all the time with the different storylines that we discovered at the end.
Jackson: I became afraid of the sheer amount of material that we would always miss something that we shouldn’t miss. We gave away a lot of material early on because it wasn’t audible, you could hear them talking. And I think that conversation with Billy Preston, they mentioned it early on day two or so, it’s drowned out by the strumming. I know some [the strumming was done] intentionally because I think George and John in particular were overly sensitive to being overheard by Michael Lindsay-Hogg. And they started strumming the guitar.
So for the last eight months we’ve been developing the software that allows us to separate and isolate things that we didn’t understand. We worked on this for four years and [didn’t let them] into our lives up to about eight months before the end of the project. So I started to panic and I was like, “God, did we miss out on some things we shouldn’t have done earlier?” Because you could barely hear it. So I went back in the evening and with my headphones on I listened to [and listen to stuff] from the early days, stuff that we had already cut and finished. And I tried to listen through all the noise of what was being said. And if I found something kind of interesting, I’d say, ‘Can we broadcast these conversations through our audio technology? Because I think they might say something interesting. I can’t understand everything, but we should hear it.”
The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the score Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.
https://www.indiewire.com/2022/05/beatles-get-back-peter-jackson-toolkit-episode-155-1234728966/ Episode 155 of The Beatles: Get Back Director Peter Jackson’s Toolkit