A Film in Sonata Form: Director Ted Braun Offers a Glimpse Behind the Scenes of ¡Viva Maestro!

Acclaimed director Ted Braun engages in a Q&A with Colburn Board Chairman Andrew Millstein following a screening of the documentary ¡Viva Maestro! featuring Gustavo Dudamel.

When conductor Gustavo Dudamel’s international tours were disrupted by deadly protests across his native Venezuela, filmmaker Ted Braun was there to document how one of the world’s finest and most beloved musicians would face a set of daunting challenges. In his new documentary, ¡Viva Maestro!, the acclaimed director follows Dudamel around the world as he responds to unexpected and imposing obstacles with stirring music-making that celebrates the power of art to renew and unite.

In late October, the Colburn School hosted a special screening of ¡Viva Maestro! followed by a Q&A with Ted Braun and Colburn Board Chairman Andrew Millstein which explored the art of documentary filmmaking and its similarities to music.

Watch ¡Viva Maestro! December 5 at USC’s Norris Cinema Theatre.

This Q&A is edited for clarity and space.

Andrew Millstein: How are filmmaking and music similar?

Ted Braun: I had a teacher in graduate school, Frank Daniel, who was Czech and had come from a long line of musicians before he turned to filmmaking. He explained to me that film structure is a lot like sonata form. If you look at a film it has three parts like a movement in a piece of music: exposition, development, and recapitulation. I heard that and a light bulb went off. I was like, oh my god, film is exactly like that. He went on to say if you think of the drive of a character as the melody of a film, in other words, that what a character is pursuing gets developed and tested in much the same way that a theme in a piece of music would – that too is similar to the classic sonata form. And if you look at the second theme as a kind of subplot, with a different character and a different but related drive – well suddenly the whole basic structure of cinema and how movies are shaped and affect audiences unfolded for me. And it opened the door to becoming a screenwriter and a filmmaker. So that was an analogy and an understanding that was really influential and helpful.

Millstein: Now, it’s an interesting place to go with the next part of the conversation when you talk about theme and subplot. Especially in the context of the arduous and unpredictable journey of making a film like this, a documentary. It’s a difficult and zig-zaggy endeavor. I was wondering, would you describe how both the pandemic and the political turmoil in Venezuela influenced the choices you made in making the film and also the approach to the subject matter?

Braun: This may be the only context in which I’ll ever say this, but the pandemic was the least of our problems. The film was intended to be an exploration and a celebration of Gustavo’s work as a conductor, and particularly his work as a conductor with the LA Phil and with the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela. We had intended for the film to be released during the hundredth anniversary of the LA Phil, which was the 2018–19 season. We were aware of the political, social, and economic problems of Venezuela. It was a difficult place to work when we shot the rehearsals of the Beethoven symphonies. And we had no intention of ignoring those problems. But when we set out those were imagined as a kind of backdrop to the basic drama of making art.

But as the film brings to life, the situation of Venezuela spiraled out of control very quickly. The day after the Bolivars (the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela) returned from that European tour, which was either March 31 or April 1, 2017, the street protests that you see depicted in the film erupted all across Venezuela and lasted for almost one hundred days. They were massive and widespread protests that engaged and involved people from all walks of life and all political sides. They were violent and many people died. And as a consequence, Gustavo was moved out of a position that he had tried very hard to maintain of staying adjacent to, but not involved in political questions. He spoke out. And this in turn led, as the film shows, to a couple of his important tours being canceled. And then members of the Bolivar Orchestra began to depart Venezuela. So a film that we thought was going to take us to Venezuela three or four more times became impossible to make – because we couldn’t go back and Gustavo couldn’t go back.

And now we were faced with a different kind of problem which was: what is the story of Gustavo’s life at this moment and can we bring to the screen? And I spoke with Gustavo in the middle of that summer and then in the winter after the Bolivar’s China tours had been canceled about whether we could ignore these interruptions and just continue on. We came to the shared conclusion – it was a difficult one – that this disruption somehow or other had to become part of the film. And then we were faced with a question: what is the story we’re telling now? And how do we schedule and shoot it? With a documentary film, there isn’t a script, a set, a general set of events that you are going to precisely film. You launch with a plan and a rough idea of what’s going to happen, then you respond to events as they unfold.

Millstein: At one level, I’m listening to you describe your creative process: You made a movie, a film about a creative process, but also you’re describing an improvisational creative process as a sensitive, documentary filmmaker.

Braun: Well, it’s really interesting, you should use that word because if there’s a musical analogy, it’s that scripted filmmaking—the kind that you see most often in the multiplex—is a lot like orchestral music making. There’s a script. Everybody knows what it is. All sorts of plans and resources are built around bringing that to life. With the doc, it’s much more like jazz. Here’s our subject; here’s what we’re following – him pursuing this one thing. He’s going to be doing this today; let’s see what happens. And you kind of let it go….

From a filming [perspective], the art of Gustavo conducting alone was enough to entice me. But having grown up watching televised orchestral performances – which I’m sure many of you have seen – well, they’re very specific. The instrument groups are cut to when a certain part of the piece is featured, and they’re very illustrative of the music. I was interested in the creative challenge that would take that circumstance, and approach it differently, and not just illustrate what was in the score, but get inside the dynamic of what was happening between the conductor and the orchestra. In particular, get the audience inside Gustavo’s head. Because if you think about a great feature film, a scripted feature film, you’re kind of with the character; you’re seeing the world the way that character is seeing it, and you’re hoping they’ll get what they want.

I very much wanted an audience to feel that with Gustavo for all sorts of reasons: thematic, musical, and human. I knew the only way that would work would be if, when he was on the podium, we weren’t out there in the audience watching somebody with magic hands pulling sounds out of an orchestra with some sort of dictatorial presence, not that Gustavo’s anything like this, but you know, the sort of fantasy of a conductor commanding people to do things that he or she wants them to do. So getting into a subjective relationship with Gustavo and the audience was super important. And fortunately, Gustavo was totally game for us putting the cameras wherever we wanted to, and micing him up whenever we wanted him to.

We, through a process of trial and error, came up with an approach where we had a cinematographer who was freely roaming around the pit area between Gustavo and the players and also able to pop up behind Gustavo’s shoulders on a set of little boxes. A great documentary cinematographer is really an artist because they have to both inhabit the drama of what’s unfolding, anticipate where the next exciting thing is going to be, and frame it all in such a way that it looks beautiful and is clear and Buddy [Buddy Squires, Cinematographer] is all those things.

Millstein: In the film, you get a sense of the growth of Gustavo as an artist, as a young man, and as he progresses. I’m curious about your arc and your creative evolution.

Braun: To spend five years around Gustavo, as a fellow practitioner in the arts, was a great privilege. Because of his ability to understand and articulate an artistic process, to share it in a very inspirational and open way—a collaborative way with a group of musicians—and then to present that to an audience in a way that’s electrifying. It’s incredibly rare and is part of why he’s a celebrated figure. And one of the things that I was able to learn from him is how fundamental a feeling of joy is; if people, regardless of the emotional color of the work that you’re producing, if people feel and share a sense of joy in the enterprise, the work rises to a different level. And that [joy] comes out of a really deep understanding of the place that art has in all of our lives and of its social value. Watching Gustavo during these two most challenging years of his life, to watch him understand and navigate all of those challenges and still see that what art offers the world is unique and that, however we respond to the problems of the world, if we respond as artists with an artistic contribution, we know where we are. We know what it is that we are doing and why it’s of value. And that in and of itself is a joyful endeavor.