Chronicling the five decade long songwriting journey of a legendary piece of music, Oliver Murray’s documentary short Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song is a definitive record of how it all went down. Now and Then is a song of legend to many Beatles’ fans, a demo John Lennon recorded and one that was tinkered with over the years but could never be utilised due to the technological challenges of separating his vocal from the music. Now however, thanks to a software system developed by Peter Jackson’s team for his Get Back documentary, the vocal could be separated and The Beatles were able to collaborate for one final time. Watch this historic track take shape and then dive into our conversation with Writer/Director Murray where we discuss the responsibility of working with such legendary musical icons, the decision to keep the interviews in the doc intimate, and the importance of being economical when faced with the vast amounts of Beatles footage available.
Could you take us back to the beginning of this project? How did it come to be?
I’ve been very lucky in the last few years to work with some real legends of the music world and Universal Music invited me to pitch my vision for a short film exploring the story of the last Beatles record. I talked through my ideas with Jonathan Clyde at Apple Corps and Sophie Hilton at Universal Music who both produced the film and then I wrote a script outline that went to Paul and Ringo as well as the other key players looking after the Beatles’ legacy.
Paul and Ringo kept an eye on things as you might imagine but they had no editorial notes and ultimately it’s the director’s cut that you’re seeing.
How involved were Universal, Paul and Ringo throughout the making of the doc, did they have much creative involvement with the project?
Universal were amazingly open to ideas and taking a big swing at something ambitious so I really felt very supported in the endeavour. Paul and Ringo kept an eye on things as you might imagine but they had no editorial notes and ultimately it’s the director’s cut that you’re seeing.
How have you been describing the documentary to people? And what has it been like working on a project that will hold such emotional weight for fans of the band?
Now and Then is a documentary about a brotherly bond that created some really amazing art and technology that enabled a kind of musical archaeology that gave them one last chance to play together on record. It was a great honour to be given the responsibility of bringing this moment to the screen and I think it will conjure up a lot of different emotions for people.
When your story takes place largely in the past and you have access to great archive material I always prefer to stick to audio interviews.
Once everything was agreed with Universal Music and Apple Corps, where did you begin from a practical standpoint?
First I had a writing job to do. I had to condense a lot of information into as small a duration as possible and then when I had the story laid out I started to identify who the eyewitnesses were. I wanted the film to feel very intimate so I didn’t want any outsiders’ opinions and when your story takes place largely in the past and you have access to great archive material I always prefer to stick to audio interviews. I think the interviewees prefer it and the results are more relaxed and emotional. Plus it isn’t such a problem to ask follow up questions. With the audio interviews in place, I started pulling material together that would illustrate the story and bring the journey of John’s demo to life.
When you’re working with a legacy as large as The Beatles I imagine even a project like Now and Then could easily become a feature with the wealth of footage and interviews available but I like how concise the film is and how it takes you on this whistle-stop tour of the song’s creation. Was it a challenge distilling everything you had at your disposal down to the length of the short? Or, rather than distilling everything down, did you see it more as a case of building the documentary from the ground up?
I relished the challenge of making a short film. In a number of ways they’re more difficult than a feature because you have to be so economical with the storytelling. I built it from the ground up because I didn’t want to get distracted by so much great material and so many fascinating stories. I went scene by scene, story beat by story beat and tried to keep the script as lean as possible.
I built it from the ground up because I didn’t want to get distracted by so much great material and so many fascinating stories.
How did you decide on what to use from the archives of Beatles footage available? Was it about finding those connective moments to lay out the history?
I used shots from all over the Beatles’ archives as puzzle pieces to build out the world of the story and also shot new material down at Paul’s studio and at Park Road Post. I love working with archive because it’s like having a time machine that you can use to step back into the past. I was able to build whole scenes out of archive and use the iconic Beatles yellow submarine as a transitional tool to move back and forth in the story. Finally, we shot new material on a host of different formats that acted as connective tissue to tie the story together.
I read that you completed the the film in Peter Jackson’s Park Road post house, what additional possibilities did that open up for the film?
When I locked our edit we relocated the project to New Zealand in order to work with Peter Jackson’s Park Road Post. They were able to do the most amazing things with the media. We ultimately pulled over 30 different sources into the film, all different aspect ratios and frame rates, and delivered a 24fps 4k picture and an Atmos mix which looks and sounds unbelievable.
What’s next for you after this? Will you be working with any more legends of the music world soon?
I hope so but to be honest with you I’m going to enjoy this unique project for a little bit and take a breath. I’ve been very fortunate to be busy since I made my first feature doc in 2019 and now I’m going to take stock and see what’s out there. I have a real compulsion to make something short again, maybe a drama this time so I’ll look at that this Autumn.