During IBMA week, I had the pleasure of attending the Nashville premiere of The Porchlight Sessions, a new film which digs deep into the roots of our music while also looking forward to its future. The film blew me away. (See our review.)
I had the opportunity to talk with the film’s creator, Anna Schwaber, and learn more about this exceptional film, which took nearly four years to complete.
DM: First of all, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It was outstanding!
DM: What was your inspiration for creating The Porchlight Sessions?
AS: I worked on many various aspects of Bonnaroo under Danny Clinch, who was an inspiration for me making this a feature-length project. I was living in Australia studying Photomedia at the ANU when I met a banjo player who loved the music I grew up around but overlooked. It was through his interest that mine was rekindled. We came up with the idea together to create an AV (audio visual) project that updated the look and understanding of what bluegrass and old-time is. In early concept development, I was drawn to 1970’s music documentaries like Wattstax and Woodstock, as well as newer music documentaries like Heima. I loved how the culture was captured in these films as well as how they were stylized and wanted to make my film contemporary yet nostalgic.
DM: You have such a myriad of special guests in the film. Everyone from Ralph Stanley to Mumford & Sons! How did you determine who you were going to interview?
AS: Hustling bluegrass music every day, you pick up on what people are interested in and are listening to. The funny thing is a lot of people don’t make the connection that a lot of the young acts are pulling from these older generations of musicians. I consciously looked to different influential musicians to speak to certain points of history but wanted a good balance of influential people in the film and people talking about influential people. I purposefully tried to curate as much as possible as we developed the story and as the trends shifted on the music scene. Also, I have to mention that not everyone was available for filming. Tracking musicians down with all the variables of tour, recording, and shooting schedules was not always easy.
DM: Along those same lines, what were your criteria in deciding which songs to include whether through archival footage or performances shot for the film? There is such a nice variety, I’m curious as to how you chose them.
AS: The archival performances were very limited as we always tried to showcase performances from the acts during the time periods people were talking about them. For the performances shot for the film, I gave a lot of freedom to the musicians to play something they were really close to. Then there were choices we made that were very specific like the songs performed by the Gibson Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, and Steep Canyon Rangers as we aimed to film examples of songs popularized by the act mentioned in that scene. By having them do these “covers,” we were hoping to bring the old and the new together and to make the scenes more dynamic instead of mostly fact based.
DM: A film highlight was the interview and performance by Doc Watson. What was it like to spend time with a musical icon like Doc, and, in hindsight, conducting one of his final interviews?
AS: Doc was very charming when we met with him before a sound check in Ohio. He was excited to talk with us about why he loves mountain and home life. He was very humble and he laughed a lot. For me, it was just so strange to sit down with him after spending so much time with footage and photographs of him over the years. I don’t really think about that being one of his final interviews as he still feels very much alive and well to me as I live with the footage everyday. That’s one of the hardest realities of capturing something on film.
DM: Other than Doc, what were some of your favorite interview sessions and why?
AS: There are so many great memories with each session we did. Its hard to pin down too many favorites. We did have a great time interviewing Erik Berry of Trampled by Turtles and Jeff Austin of Yonder Mountain String Band. They both spoke so passionately about the evolution, growth, and future of Bluegrass music. Chris Thile’s interview was very rushed but the result was something very meditative as we took his performance one time and from one angle. All the interviews I did were really great experiences but these three were unexpected gems.
DM: What did you find most surprising while conducting the interviews?
AS: Since I decided early on that I wanted to tell the story through the voices of the community without any narrator or voice-over to fall back on, sometimes I would go out and film for hours with someone who I was certain would be able to nail our target questions. Oftentimes, however, musicians wouldn’t be able to remember 40 years ago to the detail that we’d read about it in books or online. That was frustrating and also meant more work for us in the editing room.
DM: You worked on The Porchlight Sessions for nearly four years. What was the defining moment in the creation of the film?
AS: The night we successfully completed our Kickstarter campaign was by far the defining moment. That was a serious game changer for me. I went from working on the film whenever the time and resources aligned to working on the project with a whole team of people around the world. It just still amazes me how much momentum that effort brought and I am still filled with immense gratitude for the community who believes in my work.
DM: The film is shot at such a wide variety of locations: artist’s homes, festival grounds, tour buses, Bill Monroe’s front porch, cow pastures, etc. Was this planned, or did it just happen this way?
AS: This was entirely planned. My background is in photography and cinematography so I knew each frame was an opportunity to tell a story. I put interview subjects in front of compelling scenery to help capture a filmic world. I would take musicians into the campgrounds where they would otherwise not go just so we could have kids running around or people cooking in the background. Exposition like this helps stylize the interviews so each person is more of a character in the film world than some seated expert “talking head.”
DM: What was the most difficult place you had to shoot?
AS: The Telluride Bluegrass Festival shoot was probably the most challenging shoot we did. We were there a full week, camping out with a tent big enough to let us sleep next to our camera gear. The 9000 ft. elevation coupled with the intense pollen in the air, all kinds of weather conditions (summer weather to snow), and no access to a vehicle around the town meant that I carried a ton of gear all day in harsh conditions. The footage was really worth it in the end.
DM: I’m sure wagging cameras around places such as Telluride and Festy resulted in some unique experiences. What’s the most interesting behind the scenes story from filming The Porchlight Sessions?
AS: Yonder Mountain String Band was a good one. We drove 10 hours up to Northern California to a festival (not a bluegrass festival) called Gaia Festival. It had a great lineup but was completely different than all the other festivals we’d shot and the people did not look like the familiar “bluegrassers.” The festival grounds were pretty small and we had to find a good place to film that wouldn’t have any sound bleed from the main stage. Like the performance we shot with Crooked Still at the Festy, we went deep into the campgrounds to film. At this particular festival, there were people on the nude beach by the river, people blasting hip-hop around the site, and a lot more general craziness. We had a great time running interference, making sure a lot of those elements didn’t get in the way of the filming once we finally got the band to the location we chose to shoot.
DM: All in all, what do you hope The Porchlight Sessions will be able to accomplish?
AS: I hope to bring bluegrass into the world of mainstream cinema, appealing to a whole new audience of music-lovers while introducing people to where bluegrass came from and where perhaps it can go. I think the message of the film will help broaden opinions on the scope of what bluegrass is today and will also be a catalyst for people everywhere to get together to celebrate the music. I believe this film will be a great resource for generations to come.
DM: Thank you so much for your time, Anna. I hope to be able to see you and The Porchlight Sessions again very soon!
AS: Thank you.
As you can tell, Anna did not cut any corners in the making of her film, and it definitely shows on screen. Her attention to detail pays off dividends. The artistic quality of The Porchlight Sessions elevates it from merely a documentary to a cinematic masterpiece. Anna does nothing but portray our music with professionalism and class. Hopefully, this film will spread a greater appreciation of our music to a mainstream audience. If you have the opportunity to see the movie, you will not be disappointed.
For more information on The Porchlight Sessions, be sure to visit porchlightsessions.com.