The November release of the "last" Beatles song, "Now and Then," along with an accompanying Peter Jackson music video, was a predictably emotional moment for Beatles fans worldwide. Of course, the generations-spanning creation of both song and video left plenty of fans with unanswered questions about exactly how they pulled it off. But fortunately, another lovely present was awaiting in the form of a short documentary film, Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song.
That film was directed by Oliver Murray, whose directing credits include Lang Lang Plays Disney and The Quiet One - Bill Wyman. Crafting an insightful collage of the events that lead to the creation of the song, Now and Then: The Last Beatles Song mixes present-day audio interviews from Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and Sean Lennon with archival visuals that permeate the narrative from a historical perspective. Murray spoke to Q via Zoom from London about the project, where he noted: "I hope that this was an opportunity — the catalyst — for [people] to actually go and check out the records properly."
My first question is, why 12 minutes in length?
The project started out as an EPK [Electronic Press Kit] in its very first instance. It was going to be a three to five-minute piece that was sort of being devised by the marketing department because they knew it was gonna be a special release. And then, quite quickly, when I became involved, I said, "Look, it's just not going to be possible to do anything under 10 minutes. And I also understand that given the timelines involved, we can't suddenly make a 40-minute or an hour-long TV show, because there just isn't the runway left to get to land that particular kind of plane safely." So, 12 minutes became this kind of — you can imagine that for the marketing and the media department here at Universal, they just thought that 12 minutes is suicide when it comes to that viral kind of quality. It's a very odd length.
But then the whole project was so unique that in the end they just went for it. I loved working with [Director of Production for Apple Corps] Jonathan [Clyde]. One of the best things when it came to the length of the piece, he told people it couldn't be cut up. It couldn't be cut into little pieces and put out online. People either took it as a 12-minute short film or not at all. And it was a nice little cultural moment to have the film go live. I think it was 26 broadcasters took it, and it ran in 27 different countries all at once. And that doesn't include Disney+, AppleTV, HBO, CBS, BBC. It was kind of easily programmable for those guys because they didn't have to find space in between TV shows. They just put it up there for people to watch, which is fantastic.
It's quite like a narrative. You can't take things out of context. And there's also a lot of unused footage from Anthology.
I was very lucky in that I got to go to the [Apple] headquarters and look through the rushes of some of those famous music videos. All the end clips and outtakes. Because I wanted to make sure there was a freshness to the content. And then also, obviously, when we're talking about the legacy of the Beatles and what that means, it's important to deploy imagery at the right time. So one image can punch up the whole sound of a particular record, or a whole bunch of different guises that the Beatles went through almost on an annual basis.
It's really fun to play with going back and forth in time with that, and hopefully offer something new to the super-fans, but also make sure that it would be a gateway for the younger, new fans. Sometimes I think people never really take the time to get into them properly. So I hope that this was an opportunity — the catalyst — for them to actually go and check out the records properly.
How did you incorporate those bits of vintage conversations mixed in the background? You're easing narration into the storyline and then John Lennon's voice just appears front and center.
I like referring to the idea of using archive material as a time machine. I don't commonly film the interviews that I conduct unless it's a contemporary story. So, for example, what I wanted to do with this project is just let the audience be in the imagery and the sound of that material. Let the guys narrate the story without breaking the spell of briefly being back in the late seventies. John and Sean, for example, is some of my favorite footage. So there's a real tapestry of sound that keeps you in the moment.
But then because it was a short film and we needed to keep the pace up with this piece, we did quite a lot of work where sound is actually the engine of the piece. It's driving some of these things forward, whether it's Yellow Submarine and those kind of transitions. Being able to sync to the track was an absolute gift because it meant we could map the emergence of John's voice that came out of the scratchy demo tape coming again gradually, step by step. and into that emotional climax of the piece: hearing John step off the demo and into the room.
I was trying to conjure up the way Paul described it, in that back when he was working with John, often you're in these little booths. He couldn't see John, but he could hear him in the headphones, and so weirdly for him, stepping back in, with John in his headphones, was exactly how it was through those amazing records that they made together. It was really emotional for him to have John playing.
I think that was one of the chief motivations, that the whole project is a personal desire on the part of Paul and Ringo. They just wanted to play with their two friends again. They just wanted another opportunity for the four guys to make music together again.
There's footage from 1995 of George, Ringo and Paul, and George is addressing the camera and remarks about Jeff Lynne working on a computer!
So sometimes you're looking through footage and suddenly, something occurred. And you just can't believe that it's there to be used all these years later. They didn't even know! The personality types will shine through in each comment as well. They each say something, and you get an absolute sense of what they are about. Paul optimistically said, "We can do it. We're just gonna have to go with it." George is more methodical, the thinking man, saying, "Well, okay, how are we really going to do it if we are going to have a go at this?" And then Ringo is more concerned that it's going to be quite a lot of work and how long is he gonna have to be in the studio to get this done? It all phased in perfectly. There's no editing involved to make that happen. It's just they had no idea that they were gonna run and run and run for years and years.
The making of the track is appealing to me as a filmmaker because often I get asked to work in the music industry. And sometimes there's great music, but there's no story. It really is such a timely thing to be talking about, whether it's the final piece of music that the Beatles produced or the fact that they use technology... all these interesting story threads came together to create a cultural moment. I felt like I've been a part of something that was important in the history of music, such as the last Beatles record, and the way that it came about.
Tell me about the use of Yellow Submarine in the film.
I needed to divide what was going to move it backward and forward in time quickly. The date scroll was in my original pitch. I was constantly thinking, "12 minutes is a long time in the short-film world." But it needed something to make sure it didn't get even longer. With the year scroll, I thought, well, it's such a gift that Yellow Submarine travels through time and space. What better iconography to use? I love all of that imagery, especially when the story is quite melancholic. So opportunities to use designs and crafted animation to give us a bit of levity at times... that was important to be able to fit that in. You know, Ringo pulling levers and all that sort of stuff. I thought that really softened up the technological aspect of what was going on, which is also something that I wanted to tackle, which is the sort of AI element of it. AI has had such a bad rep in music over the last few months. I thought it was such a nice use of technology with this project.
I hear what people are saying about AI's problems: if we're going to use technology to create voices and things out of thin air with this, but we're talking about musical archeology and the ability to use technology to rip away the frequencies that you don't want and keep the ones you do, and then build back a fully rounded vocal take of John. I thought that was something that needed to be celebrated. And maybe in a small way, try and move the dial back when we talk about technology in the creative industry. You know, there's no black cloud over it all the time. It's something we need to be careful of, for sure. But in this case, it's a really positive use.
Did you have time to collaborate with Peter Jackson as far as what you wanted to use?
He couldn't have been more open to what I was doing. He saw my outline in the same way that Paul and Ringo and Sean had seen it. Once he understood the story, I basically had free range to use whatever I wanted. [Producer] Clare Olssen was fantastic in getting me all the material that I needed. And when we locked the edit, it went down to New Zealand. That's where all the post-production on the short was done.
I also enjoyed how you managed to marry a lot of the old and a lot of the new. The one moment that stood out to me, was '60s footage of Paul in the studio ending a piano chord right when the audio for "Now and Then" stopped, and then he stood up and snapped his fingers.
I think one of the things that I try and do as early as possible if there's a moment or something that I like in footage, I kind of take it out of context very quickly, so that's not something I'm burdened with when I'm putting it all together. It's funny when I get asked questions about the footage, because some, as I say, I usually sort of shred it into little clips, so that I'm not too concerned about where it's come from. I'm just concerned about how it's gonna work in the film I'm making.
Do these happy accidents start to happen as you're putting it together?
It's almost like doing laps on a running track, in that you start with the interview. And you do it kind of podcast-style, editing the audio interviews. And then you start marrying imagery to that. It sort of bubbles up. Sometimes you do get a happy accident. In the last few years I've trained myself to look for things in footage that I know is gonna help me with those kinds of cuts, those kinds of edits. One of my favorites was near the back of the film when Ringo's drumming and he does a little drum fill to finish his scene. Every time he hits the drum, we caught a different session from a different year. He drums with his elbows off like this [demonstrates]. So it was great to lock into those mannerisms.
And they have such a bond between them as well, that it became really noticeable. Putting the footage together, the way they interact and look for each other in situations meant that I had matching eye lines and things like that. I was so gifted because of that kind of unspoken thing that they're doing, especially when they're fighting the level of communication between them.
After the film, you just had this beautiful ear for inserting a lot of environmental dialogue during those closing credits.
I just had access to that stuff, and I thought, wouldn't it be nice having Paul speak, talking about how lucky he was to have met those people and the legacy of the Beatles, and I just wanted to use those last few seconds of credits, getting a sense of that chemistry that they had. I'm very lucky that I got to hear hours and hours and hours of this stuff. But I just wanted to offer up a little glimpse to people into what it is like in those sessions putting the track together.