Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers will be seen as a great achievement for a lot of reasons, not just because it manages to take the nearly 50-year career of Ron and Russell Mael, collectively known as Sparks, and compiles it into a sharp, entertaining and very funny 2+ hour documentary.
Much of the heavy lifting was done by Film Editor Paul Trewartha, who literally had so much material to work with — interviews, concert footage, archival footage, animations, more interviews — and had to help Wright figure out how to cut it together in a way that could appease the band’s diehard fans as well as the many, many, many Sparks newbies who would be watching the movie.
As Below the Line learned when we spoke with Trewartha over the phone a few weeks back, the guy has a brilliant way of tackling material like what was presented to him for The Sparks Brothers, but we began our interview with a funny story of what instigated us wanting to talk to him in the first place.
Below the Line: I saw Oliver Murray’s doc Ronnie’s, and I spoke to Oliver for that, and when I posted it, Edgar mentioned it was edited by the guy who edited his Sparks movie. This was last year before Sundance, so I decided I definitely should try to talk to you.
Paul Trewartha: Awww, that’s really cool. It’s funny, isn’t it? You work on different projects, and they’re close to your heart for different reasons, and stuff like that. I have particularly fond memories of Ronnie’s, because it was just a wonderful production. It was such a small team, such a tiny little team, and I have such a genuine affection for Ronnie. He was a real legend., yes, lovely one. I’m glad you got to see that
BTL: I’m not sure if Ronnie’s has found distribution here in the States, but I was really impressed by what I saw. If it was on TV or streaming, I’d watch it again in a second. Hopefully that will happen.
Trewartha: I don’t really know what’s going on in America. I did hear that it did have distribution, but I don’t know what’s happened since then. In the UK, the deal was that it went straight to the BBC, so it’s been on I-player for some time now, which is great. Because people have got to see it, which is lovely, but it did the Everyman Cinema here, a smallish national cinema chain and a limited run, but it was great that it would get to the cinemas just before the first lockdown, basically.
BTL:I saw that you did a documentary on Scott Pilgrim, so is that how you originally met Edgar and got into his circle to edit Sparks Brothers?
Trewartha: So originally, what it was, my first dealings with [Producer] Nira [Park] and Big Talk [Productions], and that was to do with Attack the Block. That was happening at the same time as Scott Pilgrim, so Nira asked me to just jump over and help on Scott Pilgrim with the behind-the-scenes featurette. Edgar has always put a huge amount of effort into the behind-the-scenes content for all of his discs, because I’m sure you’ve seen that they are always double discs, and a lot of time and effort and love has gone into those. They’re great grounding for feature documentaries, because obviously, what you receive is hundreds of hours of shot footage, that is grabbing whatever is available, whatever they can at the time and then obviously, my job was always to try and find threads, find themes, identify those things and create something that’s entertaining. I’ve always had a soft spot for those, because I sort of enjoy special features myself, and it’s quite interesting as well, because Joe Cornish who obviously directed Attack the Block, he actually had directed special features for Edgar, as well. So it’s quite funny, really — it’s all round and round.
BTL: What was your familiarity with Sparks beforehand? I feel like they have obsessed fans and then people who have never heard of them. There’s nothing in between. You either love them or you have no idea who they are.
Trewartha: I was definitely more towards the latter of those two groups. I was aware of them, and I fall into the camp of people who would recognize a handful of songs. And like many people, they had huge hits in individual countries and then would have a hit in a different country. Obviously, for me in the UK, it’s “This Town [Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us]”, and I really like the song, it was on playlists of mine, but I hadn’t actually pursued or investigated them as a band and I hadn’t followed… I hadn’t pulled at that thread. And it has been fantastic to read reviews that people who have seen the film at Sundance and SXSW, and to hear that people have actually come to the film and engaged with the music, and it sent them off on this crazy adventure through their back catalog, and how much they’ve enjoyed doing it. So it’s a real pleasure to hear that, because that’s one of the major motivations for making the film, really.
BTL: What did Edgar have in hand as far as footage when he first came to you, and you got involved? Obviously, there are so many different elements from the interviews to the concert footage, animation. So much stuff.
Trewartha: When they originally approached me to work on the film, I wasn’t available. I was actually working on Ronnie’s and finishing that up, and then I was approached again at the very back end of Ronnie’s, actually, asking if I could come on board. What they had done at that point is they had shot the interviews. I don’t know if you’ve heard that there were like 80 interviews in total. They’d done 11 separate interviews with Ron and Russell — there were 18 hours of interviews just with Ron and Russell alone. They’d gone around the world. Five cities they shot in: L.A., New York, London, Mexico, and Tokyo, and interviews in three of those countries.
The sheer quantity of interviewees, when I sort of heard that they had shot that many interviewees, I knew this was going to be something different. Just the fact that Edgar’s doing it, I knew it was going to be something different from the get-go. When I saw the quantity of interviewees, I was like, “Okay, okay…” There were so many that actually one of the first things I did is I actually sort of transcoded the interviews as mp3s, and I was in the earliest stages of the edit, I was actually literally listening to these interviews all the time. If I was on a train on the way in, I would have it playing in my headphones. So, I had just familiarized myself with the sheer quantity of assets available. There had been a degree of prep work ahead of time. And then I had a couple of weeks to sort of really pull the project into shape before I kicked off. The numbers are fairly staggering. I mean, in the final cut alone, there are over 2,000 individual cuts of archives material that had to be eye-matched, because obviously, you get burnt in time code screeners. However, quite often, more often than not, the actual time code of the files themselves don’t mean anything, and so they all have to be eye-matched. Andy, my amazing assistant, went through that process. There were north of 6,000 individual archival assets of all durations — a whole concert could be one asset. And yeah, there are over 6,000, and another interesting statistic, just to show the scale of it, is the fact that in the final cut, there are 108 music tracks used across the film. Apparently, the music supervisor said that’s definitely a record for him, and apparently, BMG had said to him that they’ve never licensed as many tracks for one film either. So yeah, the numbers are big.
BTL: How many of those tracks are Sparks songs? It’s gotta be at least 50 or 60 of their songs alone.
Trewartha: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, most of them are Sparks songs. I would say all but a handful, just over a handful. You’ve got like Bill Evans, Little Richard, Bill Haley, a few people like that at the beginning, the Kinks and things like that, and the Yardbirds, and James Brown, people like that. I think it’s an important point to make really is the fact that people sort of look at Edgar’s projects externally, and I think it’s pretty clear to everybody that he’s an incredibly creative filmmaker, and certainly in terms of Sparks, he’s incredibly knowledgeable. I mean, he’s the encyclopedia you can go to at any point, and he’ll give you the information. He was completely fastidious about order. If there was an archival clip that was just throwing me. That was great to have him as a meter, but I think, the most important facet that he brought, to me, enabling me to make, the film that we did together, is very much to do with the environment that he actually creates, which is that he creates a sort of environment where creatively, you feel that anything is possible. If you have an idea, and you think that it’s going to use a piece of archives, in any other circumstances, you wouldn’t even consider using it. He would say, “Give it a go, give it a go, let’s try it out.” So that was great, because we could just let imagination run wild, basically. That’s why you see elements in there, like the beautiful 3D animation, which really does so much.
BTL: Does he write out some sort of script or structure, or just something about where to begin and where to end and certain key moments? Is there something in writing, or did you just go through it and cut it down and find the best bits?
Trewartha: I always think it’s quite interesting, actually. Obviously, we had the treatment at the beginning, and Ron and Russ, they were really hands-off. They weren’t applying any pressure for us to structure the film in any particular way or show any particular moments or anything like that. They were really cool in that regard. Edgar, his big thing, and I think it’s critical really — it actually took me a little while to get up to speed with this, because I tend to like to trawl through all the archive, and I like to get my hands on everything, and I like to feel like I’ve seen everything, because I don’t see how you can judge it… so that process takes time. Normally, what I’m doing and what I’m doing on the film I’m currently working on now, is the fact that you’re identifying repeat themes and motifs that resonate for you, as you’re watching through all the rushes, and then you break them active apart in that regard, and then, construct the narrative from those pods effectively. Edgar’s sort of only dictate, which is consistent from beginning to end, was the fact that he felt that it needed to be chronological. He couldn’t see another way whereby we could tell the story unless it was chronological. As I say, it took me a little while to sort of get my head into that mode, because obviously, there are benefits to working in a chronological way, because it’s a very natural way to organize archives and rushes that you have available. However, once you’ve done that, you’re backed into a corner whereby you’ve got to try and find a through-line and an arc that will see you through but maintain the fact that it is chronological.
What we did is we actually cut a sequence for every single album, so we did a deep, deep dive into every single album. At that time, we would investigate and cut and work out the motivation of the album, make sure all the best archive that we could get for the album was in there. So there are fully-edited timelines — beginning, middle and end — for every single album, and then we had this hugely long, fully cut and mixed film that was purely chronological, and then it was a case of whittling it down from that to the film that came out in the end really.
Having said that, my interview breakdowns were thematic, so I was always able to draw out a theme. Once we realized what a particular album needed to bring to the arc, I was then able to go back into the interviews and find supporting comments that would bolster that aspect of it. So it was then repurposing these albums, not to just do justice to the album in their own right, but to actually sort of enhance and elaborate on the arc.
BTL: You mentioned earlier the 18 hours of interviews Edgar had done with the Maels, so had he sat down with them and talked to them about each album for a certain amount of time as well?
Trewartha: Yes, he did. Absolutely. He was incredibly diligent in that regard. Very much for them, that was the case. They did pick themes, I’m trying to think now whether all the interviews ran from top to tail, I don’t think that’s the case but certainly, it was structured so that there was a period of time dedicated to every step of their narrative, basically, every single album, favorite songs from the album. And then, what he would do with an earwig [a hidden earpiece] for all the contributors is the fact that he would give people an opportunity to listen to various songs, and he would then film it, and respond to them listening to the song. So quite often, when people are responding to lyrics, they would, he would have all the tracks on his iPod or phone, and then they would actually say which track they liked it, he would line it up, and they’d have an opportunity to listen to it, and actually talk alongside, and then obviously, I had many, many tracks of audio per interview, and I could actually hear the track that they were listening to. So quite often, when you hear people referring to songs, they’re actually simultaneously hearing the song itself. Obviously, we don’t hear that, and then obviously underlaid with the original tracks, when we actually put the edit together.
BTL: It’s a two-hour movie and while some people might grumble about that being too long, I’m sure there are fans of the band that would gladly watch 18 hours of interviews with Ron and Russ.
Trewartha: I think that’s exactly it. I think it was really, really important to Edgar that he felt like this was obviously going to be the definitive documentary for the band. That motivation is currently resonating through the behind-the-scenes that are being worked on now. A lot of the things that are being considered now as assets to be able to put out there in the world. For Edgar, and for everybody involved in this project, there’s so much love, and so much care, and there’s so much gold. People are always fascinated about what ends up making it into the cut. From my perspective, it’s often more interesting to sit and think after the event about what didn’t make it in for various reasons.
People always say, “Did anything hit the floor that you loved?” Absolutely, absolutely, like so much. There are whole sequences that Edgar and I absolutely adored. You could argue that some of the sequences that didn’t end up making it into the final film were some of our favorites. We had this amazing sequence that we loved on “Suburban Homeboy.” There was a great sequence on “Waterproof,” “Funny Face,” “Moustache” — that was really funny — “Sextown U.S.A” There were really lovely sequences. For example, with “Suburban Homeboy,” obviously, what we were doing with that particular album, with “Lil Beethoven” was very much sort of trying to pick out and identify for the audience how they had moved on musically. Because “Suburban Homeboy,” it stands out from the rest of the songs on that album, it didn’t really help for the understanding, for people who aren’t aware of their work, it would have thrown [them] off. What was the core drive, the major motivation for them, acoustically, and in terms of that album.
The beauty of being given license to look at a career in a 50-year career and approach it chronologically and be given the time to do so is the fact that what I hope is that at the back end of it — although people have actually only watched two and a half hours condensed from their 50-year career that –because they’ve watched it chronologically — they’re able to find their own links, find the continuity. Because the music changes so much album for album, if you take it out of sequence, I don’t think you’d be able to understand why they have moved on in the way that they did, album for album. You wouldn’t see the development. But equally, there is continuity. They’re sort of punk-like disruptive motivation that resonates in different ways at different times. I think that it’s really nice for an audience to be able to sort of find the links for themselves, identify those links and see the relationship with the brothers develop over time, through their lyrics and the music. And hopefully, we’ve provided a platform for people to be able to do that.
BTL: I’ve had different revelations about the band each time I’ve seen the movie, which is three times. This last time I realized that the whole Giorgio Moroder phase predated Depeche Mode and other sequencer-based bands of the ’80s. If this was a thesis paper about the band’s influence, it definitely got the point across.
Trewartha: I think that’s the thing. Also, when you’re trying to do something that does educate an audience in that regard, because there’s so much education that’s going to be required for most people who will come to this film. A lot of people who will come to this film come to it fresh. So it’s important to actually sort of make sure you guide people through the narrative to a degree, but actually, as I say, really importantly, allow people to find their own way. And that means that at the back end of it, hopefully, it does benefit from a couple of viewings or more, because, yes, hopefully, people will pick out on different things. Also, visually, because we pored over these sequences, there are so many little jokes, visually and juxtapositions and visual parallels being drawn.
Kate and Tess [McNally-Watson], the archivists on the project, did such an amazing job. Tess was in suite with me every day, so I was able to have an idea, turn around to Tess, and she would go on a mission. An hour later, I could be looking at the fruits of her labor in that regard, and then these ideas, were translated straight into the screen, which was a really satisfying process. It’s just a fun way of visualizing their story, which we were given license to, because the guys themselves were happy for us to, at times, take a fun approach. People are often so sort of serious. If it’s your life story, it’s a serious business, and I think it takes a very distinctive personality to be able to approach somebody’s life story in a way that we did with Ron and Ross. And I’m very grateful that they were up for it.
BTL: Did they have some of their own footage and archive materials, as well?
Trewartha: Yeah, absolutely. There were boxes and boxes of personal photographs and collated video. It’s an interesting one, though, from an archivist perspective, it’s sort of an easy win at the front end of the job where you go, “Oh, that’s fantastic! There’s a VHS here, and it’s got a series of performances.” What comes in as an easy win at the beginning often is the most complicated thing to actually track down in the long run. Quite often, anything like that was used as inspiration for Kate and Tess to then go off and do the research themselves and find the best version of those particular performances.
Certainly, I work on Avid, and Premiere, and that particular project had started in Premiere. I’m happy jumping across the two, and there are benefits to both in regard to Sparks. It was actually a huge benefit that it was done in Premiere, because all the graphics that you’ve seen with a dictionary definition and everything, they’re straight from the offline straight through the online grade. They’re all the original graphic that we worked up, so I was just able to do those as we’re going along, because there’s so many. All the name straps [lower thirds], we were coming up with, I was working them up, and they are the same ones you see, at the end of the day, so they weren’t recreated. And also with all the contact sheets — and this is the critical thing — when you’re working in a standard offline environment, and you get a contact sheet imported in, when you’ve got one or two, that’s absolutely fine, you can go back to the original source, look at it, work out which one you want and reimport, or pan and scan it. BUT, if they’ve reimported, to high resolution, and you can work with an independent resolution with those contact sheets, what I was able to do is scale into 100%. Often you see, where there’s a contact sheet, and it looks like it’s animated, we were actually able to do that on the fly. I was just doing add edit, basically, and then moving the contact sheet to the next one and lining it up to people’s faces and bodies. We were in the fortunate position that there were so many runs of stills taken of them in the early days, we were actually able to sort of effectively bring some of those stills to life by being able to just sort of quickly animate through all the takes on the contact sheet
BTL: That sounds amazing, but I have to say that most of that went right over my head. I’m sure there’s some editor reading this going, “Ah, interesting, so THAT’s how they did that.”
Trewartha: [Laughs] That’s fine. We were just really lucky. Quite often, in the early stages of people’s career, it’s not a process that’s really been documented. So we were really lucky that they had actually documented the early tours and things like that. That was a real gift for us, and those things came from various sources, but Ron and Russ certainly had a lot themselves, both of them, they collect them. If you look at the studio in Ross’s house, if you look around there, what’s so lovely is that you can see artifacts there throughout the film. I don’t know if you’ve noticed towards the back end of the film, but there are dolls of the Beatles, and I was going through, and I was like, “Hang on a second, that’s in Russ’s studio now.” And then I saw them in the background of another image, and then I saw them in really early Half Nelson [a Sparks precursor band] days, and in the corner of a shot. There were a couple pictures of the Gilded Prunes [another Sparks precursor], and then one of those in the window. It’s the same dolls. At the back end of the film, I actually flicked through all the time, I was able to spot these mementos that they’ve held on to for their whole life.
BTL: That’s something I’m going to have to look for when I get to see it in a theater on a big screen. Have you thought of doing something easier, like a narrative feature? It seems like everything you’re doing is so complicated and time-consuming between Sparks and Ronnie’s.
Trewartha: I mean, personally, I never say never, because I think everything has its own challenges, and there have been opportunities in the past which just haven’t come to fruition. Directors have spoken to me about those sorts of things, but I have to say that I really love working in documentary, because from an editor’s perspective, it’s the storytelling that I really like. I have been asked on several occasions about favorite sequences in films. I do have favorite sequences in Sparks, but I have to say that I derive greater pleasure from the storytelling aspect. Because that is where the real work goes. That’s the hard graft, really, especially with archival docs, because quite often you’re working with what you’re able to receive. It’s really about sort of stitching those elements together in a way that conveys the narrative and simultaneously entertaining. So, it’s definitely a challenge, but it’s pleasurable, and I love it.
BTL: That sounds like a great place to end this. It’s absolutely brilliant talking to you both about Sparks Brothers and Ronnie’s, and I’m excited to see Sparks Brothers again in a theater to catch some of the things I missed the first three times.
Trewartha: That’s great. I mean, the only other thing to say, another point to note is that just structurally, I think it’s always super-satisfying when you’re able to sort of let the structure of the film reflect the subject. I always try and do that as well, so with Ronnie’s, I really wanted to make sure people sort of understood the context of the club and all of those sorts of things before we moved through, and you actually uncovered secrets about a man who was extremely private and wouldn’t have conveyed those points to you. It’s the same with Sparks as well. I think that sort of chronological approach, it does reflect points within their career, like the 21 nights where they actually felt like they wanted to track through their albums one by one. And so it’s kind of cool that we’re actually able to reflect that within the narrative of the film itself as well. So hopefully, it’s working on lots of levels in that regard, and does justice to the guys who truly deserve it.
The Sparks Brothers is still playing in theaters nationwide and will probably be made available via On Demand fairly soon.