Music has always been a constant in my life, somewhere to escape to, a sacred and holy space no matter the occasion and whilst I have never been able to play a musical instrument, not for want of trying, the musical instrument repair shop, an underground world of marvel in Los Angeles offers children from all across the school district an opportunity to envelop themselves in the mighty power of music. Oscar winning documentary short The Last Repair Shop, from 2021 Academy Award winner Ben Proudfoot and accomplished composer, pianist and documentary director Kris Bowers, is a lovingly crafted opus shining a bright light on the humble people who work in the shop and the students whose lives are so deeply affected by the opportunity to play these beloved instruments. The Last Repair Shop showcases the delicacy of the pair’s combined documentarian style as they weave together the inspiring stories of four master craft people with luscious visuals of the instruments they tirelessly renew for young musicians they never meet. We sat down with Proudfoot and Bowers who spoke to us about finding the perfect ending after having screened at the Telluride Film Festival, how serendipity led them to the incredible life stories of their four interview subjects and how their collaborative partnership has grown and evolved.

[The following interview is also available to watch at the end of this article.]

Welcome to Directors Notes, please introduce yourselves and your film The Last Repair Shop

Ben Proudfoot: The Last Repair Shop is a short documentary about the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) musical instrument repair shop. It is the last of its kind in the country and keeps over 100,000 instruments in good repair for schoolchildren in Los Angeles. Our film focuses on four master craftspeople, one in each department, woodwinds, brass, strings, and piano, who tell their life stories. Throughout the film, you learn how they were broken in their own way and repaired by music. We also get to meet the students who benefit, and then there’s a special big concert at the end of the movie, where we gathered generations of LA’s public school graduates to perform a big magnum opus at the end of the movie as a tribute to the power of music.

That ending is such a beautifully grand emotive conclusion to the film!

Kris Bowers: It was pretty incredible. Ben and I talked really early on about wanting to have an ending that really capped off what this film is saying and speaking to, and finding a way to say thank you to these craftspeople and for them to really feel the impact of their work. All of their work takes place in a warehouse without being able to hand that instrument back to a child. They don’t ever see how that child feels when they receive that instrument or what that instrument means to that child. So we wanted to find a way to connect these two parts of this story that don’t often find a way to meet.

We didn’t actually put it together until the very end of the process. We finished the film and got into the Telluride Film Festival with a version of the film that we submitted with a standard end credits crawl. Once we got in, I think the excitement took over and Ben and I just thought, “All right, we have to take a swing for this, let’s see if we can pull this off.” So we just started brainstorming and we came up with this idea which I don’t think has actually ever been done before.

We have a multi-generational orchestra, ages ranging from 7 to nearly 70 filled with LAUSD alumni recording in a beautiful space like Eastwood Stage at Warner Brothers. The response to that concept is maybe the thing that I felt most emotionally moved by. The process of making it was amazing. Peter Rotter, one of our executive producers who’s also an LAUSD grad, immediately called every other person he knows in this industry, the best of the best musicians who went to LAUSD schools and managed to put this group of people together with remarkable speed.

In that space, everybody felt so warm and filled with gratitude for this repair shop, for these craftspeople, and so happy to find connections with other musicians who they had no idea also went to LAUSD schools or went to the same exact school, but 15 years later. It just felt like such a warm environment and on the day, so many of those musicians came up to us and announced they were volunteering their time because of the impact the repair shop had on them. That amount of love that flooded through to these craftspeople was one of the best parts of the whole project by far for me.

BP: The thing that I always like to bring up is, because of time restrictions, that piece of music that you hear was written by Kris over a weekend, which just kind of blew me away. It speaks to Kris’s amazing talent as a composer as he could reach into the hat and pull out this amazing orchestral suite that blew everybody away. It was such a fun process for the music to inform the visuals and then the visuals to spark their own ideas and then come back and inform the music. I’ve never been a part of anything like that and I’m proud watching it because I like remembering how it all came together. It was a real mix of a lot of really incredible people and resources and spontaneity to play and change things and throw things out and put new things right up until the last second. It’s emotional for us too, those are all real people, they’re not actors. They’re real people experiencing that in front of the camera, in front of your eyes. That’s really Steve and his mentor at the piano who he didn’t know was going to come. The emotion in that room is not staged, it is real and I think that’s what makes it so emotional.

It was such a fun process for the music to inform the visuals and then the visuals to spark their own ideas and then come back and inform the music.

I was so impressed by the stories of the four master craftspeople you focus on. How did you find them and how do you, as documentary makers, draw out those beautiful stories they share with us?

BP: It’s actually a really interesting story because it was up to fate. The initial idea for the project came from one of the producers Jeremy Lambert, whose brother is a luthier and makes guitars and stringed instruments. He saw an article from 10 years ago which spoke about the repair shop and it being the last in the country which sparked my attention. I then brought it to Kris who went to LAUSD and didn’t know about it. When we first went in to talk to people at the repair shop, they were reluctant to participate. That article had come out a while back and was talking about the backlog at the shop at the time. Now it’s very efficient, but back then there had been budget cuts and there was a long wait time for instruments to come through and they didn’t feel like that reflected well on them so they were very reticent of anybody coming in to tell the story. So, I got up there and did my song and dance of why they should participate, how this was going to be great for the shop and explained that we wanted to show the skill of the process and the beauty of the people and advocate for music education.

Four people raised their hands to participate and those are the four people who you see in the movie. Nobody else agreed to be interviewed, just those four people. As the interview process went on and we gave them the floor to tell their life stories, it was just one home run after the other. These individuals were all really good at telling their own story, had emotional stories all interwoven and embroidered with music – you just couldn’t write it. We both look back and reflect on how blessed we were with these storytellers because that’s when you get a good film. When the material that you’ve collected is so good that you feel really responsible to do a good job. We spent four years working on the movie, honing it, our editor Nick Garnham Wright, did an amazing job crafting it. Then the interviews with the kids were another gift. This was not a casting call for thousands of people, we talked to 10, 20 students so we were lucky and the winds were in our favor on this project.

These individuals were all really good at telling their own story, had emotional stories all interwoven and embroidered with music – you just couldn’t write it.

I don’t think you could have found those stories if you had looked for them.

BP: Exactly! I remember sitting there talking to Duane Michaels and he started talking about being on stage and opening for Elvis thinking how nuts it was. Both of us have gotten this feedback from a lot of people. If you’ve ever lived in Los Angeles, you kind of know people like these right? They’re very Angelino. Like Steve Bagmanyan, we have one of the largest communities of Armenians outside of Armenia. People like Duane who had a brush with the entertainment industry who have got an incredible story about their time in LA. The immigrant story of coming from Mexico to Los Angeles and making a go of it and the difficulty and struggle of that experience is something that people can see in their neighbors and in their friends and the people that they meet when they come to Los Angeles. I’m proud of the fact that the movie shows the breadth of our neighbors here in LA.

Let’s talk about your images, not only is it a fabulous story but everything looks stunning. Focusing on the curves and lines of the instruments. How did you go about shooting everything?

KB: We have to mention our cinematographer, David Feeney-Mosier, he can look at a space and know the best way to capture it. The first thing that David did in that space was turn off all the fluorescent overhead lights and I think that the warm glow that exists in that space adds to the mystery that we see in the film. David was able to figure out how to capture all those little things and find little bits of inspiration – like how it looks when the light goes in the saxophone or a flute to find a leak and just what that imagery looks like is something that I’ve never seen before. He was able to take us inside of a cello which looks like this huge, massive interior space until the little mirror comes in. The three of us had a lot of fun just seeing what was possible in that space. And then with the end credits, David tried to get it as dark in there in terms of practical lights, but then had this huge helium balloon above the whole orchestra which created a pool of light over everyone and has a great cinematic look.

BP: As you said, the bold move of turning lights off, single source incandescent light bulbs creating that warm glow and our colorist, Stephen Derluguian did a great job in creating this sort of brassy golden hue that’s just so warm and inviting. The shop is a classic, it’s the kind of place that you’re attracted to, it’s warm, it’s a storybook place, they might as well have a candle sitting there which they do, they have little flames for their torches. David captured that beautifully which also spoke to the story. These people are squirrelled away in a fenced-in, gated central shop, tucked under the freeway, South of downtown with no windows in the building. So their obscurity is part of the story, they’ve never been thanked, they’ve never been seen, they’ve never been heralded before and this was underlined by the intimacy and darkness that surrounded them. I also think that’s why the ending is so great seeing them all together. In the movie, you see them individually and then suddenly they’re all together interacting with each other and it’s so fun to see them out in the world, getting to play together, to appreciate each other, to look each other in the eye – that’s part of why that ending is so satisfying.

Let’s talk about the music. It’s uplifting, it’s emotive and your ebbs and your flows work so beautifully with every single frame.

KB: Our composer, Katya Richardson is so amazing to work with, she’s so incredibly talented. Ben and I were considering who to bring on, who I would be able to collaborate with in a very easy way and we immediately thought of Katya. I’ve been a fan of hers for a while, and I loved what she did on a couple of other Breakwater projects before. When writing the score for the end credits, I just gave her piano versions of the themes. Then Ben and I talked about wanting it to be almost a Peter and the Wolf experience, where you’re hearing the instruments that are being talked about with each department being accentuated and featured in that. Having the strings and woodwinds and brass and piano be the focal point in each of those palettes of those sections. She didn’t have much time and she did such an amazing job immediately taking these themes and really crafting so much emotion and shape out of it.

Then the process was really just about nudging things here and there, and talking about how we could maximize timing, pacing, emotional swells and when do things land, when do we want to pause, when do we want to hold for a moment? That collaboration between the three of us was so fun and for me as a composer and musician, it’s always amazing to have a melody and think about how I might treat it and it’s such a fun surprise to give it to another incredibly talented composer and hear how they do it, in a way that I never would have done.

And you two, am I right in saying this is your second collaboration together following your other Oscar-nominated short A Concerto is a Conversation? How has your shared language and the way you work together evolved?

BP: Peter Rotter, a music contractor, who plays Clarinet in the end, put me and Kris together because Kris wanted to make a short film and his vision for the short film was very clear. He wanted the music to lead the story and to allow for a real integration where the music was written before, and there was a real dialogue between the story and the music. As time has gone on and now having completed our second project, we’re just getting closer and closer to the first thing that came out of Kris’s mouth six or seven years ago now, which is a cinematic experience that combines both of our obsessions. Mine are the true stories of real people and how amazing, emotional, full, rich and mythological everyone’s story is. Kris’s incredible talent and passion for how music can tell the story then both of our interests in all of the craft of filmmaking. The experience of the audience, how we can take them on a story and so as time goes on, we just get better at achieving Kris’s original idea.

That shared appreciation and deep love for filmmaking, specifically directing and music, allows us to have this bridge of communication that feels really fluid.

KB: I totally agree. Both our backgrounds are in improvisation. Me as a jazz pianist and Ben as a sleight of hand magician which really lends itself to that flexibility and having a detailed plan for something, going into a space and then being really open to how it might feel best and what feels right. That’s our North Star, these humans that were so vulnerable and honest with us, wanting to serve that. There’s never an issue of ego. When I have an idea and I mention it, Ben’s immediate response is to try it and see if it works and vice versa. I think that that type of interaction is so conducive to really great collaboration and partnership. We know what the story needs to say in terms of the emotion or tone so it’s easy to judge intuitively whether or not we can tell if it’s serving that larger goal.

I think that because we have such a deep love for all the crafts of filmmaking, specifically film and music, we can talk to each other in languages that we understand. Ben is a musician at heart, even though he can’t sit down and play, he knows music so intimately on an emotional level, on a timing level, pacing and how it works in the context of film and concerts. He’s able to articulate a filmmaking concept to me in a musical way which is so helpful for me as I get more and more into filmmaking. That shared appreciation and deep love for filmmaking, specifically directing and music, allows us to have this bridge of communication that feels really fluid.

Music is such a universal shared language that everyone can tap into.

BP: Yes, and something that everyone should have access to – which is really what our movie is about, right? Almost no one is going to be a professional musician or can interact with the piano the way that Kris can, but it could be the thing that keeps you in school. It could be the thing that helps you learn how to collaborate or that gets you up in the morning to have discipline or shows you that you can accomplish something that at first seems like an impossible mystery. Those things are just as important as the music, right? It’s just the act of the fun of it and the practice of it. And that’s why it’s so important to have that equal opportunity available to everybody.

I think it’s so beautiful that there’s something like that in LA which for me, perhaps an ignorant Brit, comes across as somewhere more vacuous.

BP: I didn’t think about that, but yeah it’s a city. Rodeo Drive etc. is a very tiny part, obviously an important and well-known part but essentially it’s a city of people who work for a living. It’s a city of people whose family goes to public school. Los Angeles is an amazing place that’s far bigger, richer and more culturally expansive than I think a lot of people realize. I’m Canadian, so it certainly was that way for me coming from Nova Scotia and I thought the same thing. Beverly Hills, Rodeo Drive, Hollywood was pretty much what I knew but it was awesome to come and see that it’s a real city with real people.

They have been working for decades, just for the purpose of making sure that these young students have access to working instruments to be able to express themselves. For them to now be recognized in this way has been so amazing.

The Oscar nomination is huge for both of you, but what has it meant for the repair shop and for everyone who was involved in the documentary?

KB: Again, that’s been one of the greatest parts of this. We started working on this just because we were so in awe of these individuals, we didn’t have a distributor, there wasn’t any sort of consideration for how this might proliferate in terms of being recognized in our industry. But for us, it was just being in awe and inspired by these people who work on these instruments day in, day out – not thinking about whether or not hundreds of thousands of people will be able to celebrate them doing that. They have been working for decades, just for the purpose of making sure that these young students have access to working instruments to be able to express themselves. For them to now be recognized in this way has been so amazing.

We go to screenings and people talk to them about being from LAUSD and the instrument that they played when they were younger and what it meant to them. Or how inspired they are about their process or how much they were moved by their stories and their openness about what they went through. Each of the individuals represent a community of people that feel seen. We put on a screening with the Armenian Film Society here in LA and their response to Steve and embracing him and his story was so beautiful. Watching their faces when we were at the repair shop early in the morning for the Oscar nominations when they all had a huge group hug felt so emotional. It’s also the other repair people in that shop that aren’t filmed, talking about how they feel like this film represents them as well. It’s hard to articulate it other than just, emotional and feeling a lot of gratitude and pride and appreciation for them trusting us with that.

So are you two collaborating on anything else?

BP: There are many ideas floating around so it’s safe to say there’ll be another Ben and Kris joint coming out sometime soon.

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