Paul Wager played the drums professionally for over 40 years, performing countless gigs and sharing the stage with the likes of BB King and Isaac Scott. However, after suffering a minor stroke he discovered that he could no longer keep the beat and with that painful realisation, his professional career was over. In filmmaker Leo Pfeifer’s documentary short Lost Time, Wager reflects on a life of music which was lost and whether the term drummer still applies to him. Premiering on Directors Notes today, we spoke to Leo about bringing this intimate exploration of what happens when a drummer loses his time to screen.
How did you first discover Paul’s story and what made you want to document it?
The whole process started with a chance hearing of a radio story. It was about Paul and his loss of the ability to drum. I was moved and fascinated but also felt like there was a lot I didn’t hear, that there was a ton of depth to explore. His story drew me in because it’s this incredible journey of loss and perseverance. So many of us have lost something central to our lives and been forced to learn a way forward without them. Paul’s story spoke to that in a really engaging and visual way.
I got in touch with Paul and drove to his house the next weekend. Once we got to know each other, we recorded the first of a few interviews, most of which were just audio recordings. That’s when I learned about his experience on the boat and how exactly he had been able to hold onto his passion for playing. As I drove away that evening, I immediately picked up the phone and called Morgana McKenzie, my friend and the film’s eventual director of photography. I said: “We absolutely have a story here, we absolutely have a film, we need to make this”. And a month later, we were filming.
Did the highly personal and delicate nature of this film influence the way you approached the shoot?
The shoot was super barebones because of the budget but also because of the intimacy it creates between the audience and subject. When your crew is small and nimble, the process of on set exploration and discovery that’s so important to docs becomes quicker and faster to reach.
Everything besides the stylized imagery close ups (where we had one PA) was just myself and Morgana on the crew. She shot it, pulled focus and gaffed. I was directing, charging batteries, helping set up lights, recording audio, etc. People stress a lot about the technical side or how legit their crew looks and for me, this film is one example of how that isn’t the only way to make movies.
There were times we had to get creative. We didn’t have a follow focus or a matte box, so when we’d need to use a diopter, we’d just hold it in front of the lens or gaff tape it on. We wanted to light one of the shots of the drums in Paul’s garage from above, so I stood on top of the stool, head in the rafters (I’m 6’6″), holding a light up in order to get it. We shot the film for three days and used an Alexa mini with a set of Lomo anamorphics.
There was no shot list or premeditated specific shots to get but leading up to shooting I made a list of the film’s scenes. Then Morgana and I had a lot of in-depth conversations about what those scenes felt like and looked like and how they fundamentally worked. Once we were filming, we were able to talk in a shorthand and the instinctual choices made were in line with the vision whether or not we knew it at the time.
You can’t make a doc that brings catharsis to the audience without your subject going through something similar during production.
A big moment in making the film was shooting Paul drumming. It’d been years since he’d played in front of anyone, so it took a lot of vulnerability and bravery on his end to let that be part of the film. We didn’t want to force or stage that scene, so we waited until Paul was ready. It was the very last thing we shot and a really wonderful way to end the filming. Probably one of the more exhilarating moments I’ve had in documentary. I’m forever grateful to Paul for allowing us to capture that.
What was Paul’s reaction to seeing his life depicted in Lost Time?
Before I showed the film to Paul, I was honestly really nervous — it’s incredibly personal when you take a huge part of someone’s life and present that in an eight minute film. There are things you have to leave out, years you have to condense into seconds. Paul is the one who entrusted me to tell this story, so more than anyone else who would watch the film, I wanted him to feel that it was true and authentic to his experience.
When I showed the film to Paul, to my delight, he loved it. We talked a lot about what it meant to relive his past painful memories in order to make the film. You can’t make a doc that brings catharsis to the audience without your subject going through something similar during production and often times that’s not easy. He told me it was hard and unpleasant at times, but as a whole, felt it was a good thing and a needed thing for him to do. The subject’s ‘stamp of approval’ can be one of the most treacherous things to go after in a doc, but it’s the highest honor Lost Time could get.
Do you have any new projects in the works?
I do! I’m currently in the early stages of my next doc, which I’m also tackling with a story based cinematic approach. I’m working on a commercial project and music video as well. Beyond directing, I also freelance edit and have a few projects I’ve cut releasing soon that I’m incredibly excited for.