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The Challenge of Making a Music Documentary and Why ‘The Winding Stream’ Took 12 Years to Make

The Challenge of Making a Music Documentary and Why 'The Winding Stream' Took 12 Years to Make

Beth Harrington’s “The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes and the Course of Country Music” premiered at SXSW 2014 and had its theatrical premiere last night at the historic Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Oregon, where Harrington is based. But getting to this moment has been, you might say, a long and winding stream. It took 12 years to make the documentary about the American music dynasty, the Carters and Cashes, and their influence on popular music.

The film features interviews with Johnny Cash, Roseanne Cash, George Jones, John Prine and Kris Kristofferson, among many others. In fact, Harrington’s interview with Johnny Cash was one of the last before he died in 2003. 

Along with Greg Snider, the film’s editor, Harrington, who was nominated for a Grammy for “Welcome to the Club – The Women of Rockabilly,” participated in a Q&A following the screening of the film.

READ MORE: How a Series of New Music Documentaries is Shaking Up the Genre

Below are some highlights from the discussion:

On how she got involved in the documentary in the first place

“Originally, I had made another music documentary prior to this, ‘Welcome to the Club – The Women in Rockabilly.’ I worked on that film for much less time than this film! But in the making of it, I met a bunch of women who had grown up with this music and some of them had toured with Johnny Cash and the Carter sisters and spoke of it. I also had the dumb luck to be able to have Rosanne Cash to narrate that film. Those two things came together in my mind. There have been documentaries about Johnny Cash and there have even been documentaries about the Carters, but I thought wouldn’t it be cool to do this epic saga?… I didn’t realize the epic saga would be the making of the film!” – Harrington

Lack of funding along the way made the process arduous.

“I was so stuck at one point, I’d been chipping away at this and [trying to] interview whoever I could. I’d scrape up money and talk to a historian. It was a painstaking process in terms of not being able to accomplish a lot at any one point.” – Harrington

“I think the biggest challenge was the amount of time that we had to spread it out over, and finding the money for this kind of production was remarkably difficult.” – Greg Snider

On getting Johnny Cash to participate

“I was amazed that he just got out of the hospital and would talk to us. It wasn’t out of a sense of self-aggrandizement, but it was a chance to talk about June, who he had just lost a few months prior, and he could talk about Maybelle, who you could tell from the film, he revered.
He was gracious and wonderful to us and really funny and he was delighted to not be talking about himself, but to be talking about these two women.” – Beth Harrington 

Collaboration was key

“Filmmaking is a collaborative process, but there were days during this film that I was very, very lonely and the only reason I was able to keep going for many years was because of this guy [Greg Snider].” – Harrington

On the decision to use animation in the documentary

“We were struggling because there were places we knew there was no footage. The Carters were never filmed. They didn’t do a lot of that in the ’20s, making music videos about old-time bands. We talked about doing re-creations, but Greg said ‘no way.’ And we were kind of stuck. I thought we needed some animation. I also felt there were parts of this that were a little heavy and a little gothic, I felt like we needed something that would lighten it up.” – Harrington

Advice for aspiring filmmakers

“It’s a funny time right now. There are so many great possibilities for new filmmakers because the technology is so available. That part is awesome. The tricky part is anything that cost money – travel, archival rights… I guess my recommendation is don’t make big, archival-based music films unless you want to take 12 years. Shooting things that you have much more access to is probably a way to start off.” – Harrington

The times have changed in terms of funding.

“All the things I tried that worked back in 1999 when I made the other music documentaries didn’t work… there are so many more people making films that the gatekeepers who give funding are overwhelmed and often are scared. They don’t know what they’re deciding on, a lot of them. They don’t have the courage of their own convictions. Fortunately, crowdfunding emerged during this period, which helped us a lot and really got us to the finish line.” – Harrington

Budget for music rights.

“Music and archival was half of the budget of the film. If I hadn’t made a music film, I could have made two films!” – Harrington

Tips on interviewing

“The big thing for me is doing my homework ahead of time, trying to keep the interview, as much as possible, a dialogue and not “I have a question, now you answer.” I’d much prefer to sit there and make it much more free flowing. It’s the dialogue that really brings out the best stuff.” – Harrington

On what’s next

“I feel very frustrated that the thing I would like now is to make another music documentary, but I’m so gun-shy now, I’m not sure. If you’ve got a big truckload of money, come on over!” – Harrington

Watch this excerpt from “The Winding Stream” below:

“The Winding Stream” will be screening at theaters around the country. Find out more here.

READ MORE: Here’s How This Hard-Hitting Documentary Made a Difference

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