We spoke to Phil Grabsky, producer and director at Exhibition on Screen about his love of documentary making, the latest documentaries he is bringing to Australia and the first for the 2019 season “Degas: Passion for Perfection”.
Since 2011, you’ve been a director and producer of documentaries about artists and art exhibitions. Where did the idea come from?
Haha. I started 35 years ago as a film-maker making only documentaries. Documentaries are my great love in cinema. I started with TV channels such as BBC, Discovery, Channel 4 in the UK, etc.
In 1997, I received a telephone call from a man at Channel 5, who asked if I wanted to make 8 documentaries on the impressionists. The station was required to do at least 26 hours per year on the arts, that is 30 minutes per week dedicated to the arts.
So, I did this series and it was a huge success. It was initially screened on Sundays at 2 or 3pm. After three or four weeks, it changed to 7pm at night – prime time. We had a lot of success with these 8 documentaries and it was the beginning of 6 or 7 years of documentaries on the big artists, exhibitions and institutions.
I’ve made more than 120 documentaries but about 10 years ago, I decided that the future was in cinema. We have had a revolution in cinema – the digital age. Today, my team sends a hard drive to each cinema – for Exhibition on Screen we are in 63 countries and 400 cinemas and almost all of them receive a hard disc- it’s in high definition and of extraordinary quality.
At the same time, I decided that the cinema was also the best place to watch a documentary on the life of Leonardo Da Vinci or about the life of Goya. It’s a lot better at the cinema. 85 minutes in the theatre, without mobile phones, etc.
When we started Exhibition on Screen, cinemas had their doubts but now we also have ballet and art. In Australia we are in 80 cinemas. I bring 4 films each year. We have an audience here.
We had made 126 documentaries for television before starting Exhibition on Screen.
The films for Exhibition on Screen start off in the cinema and 3 months later they are available om DVD, digital platforms, television, etc. But the first place is always the cinema.
You’ve spoken about how you’ve been making documentaries for 30 years and that documentaires are your great love in the cinema world. Why do they represent the great love of cinema for you ?
I love artists’ lives and art history. I have also made two documentaries in Afghanistan and we are currently making a third. I don’t want to make a film with actors, etc. Real life is enough for me.
I love researching each film. For example at the moment I am making a new film about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. We are currently filming all of his paintings in all of their locations – St Petersburg, Firenze, Washington, etc. I love the research – the filming, the set-up. It’s a lot of hours – maybe 16 in 24, 6 or 6 ½ per week in 7. But it’s always very exciting. For me, I love the response from our audiences from all the different countries on our Facebook, Instagram and website. The audience responses and questions. It’s great.
I have a lot of ideas of documentaries to make. I have a list of 30 or 40 possibilities for the coming years. Mountains of work. But I have always in my professional life, woken up each morning with energy for work each day.
Passion. It’s rare because there are so many people who don’t like their day to day job.
Yes. I read a few weeks ago that 95% of people don’t like their job. That’s extraordinary. I don’t know if it’s accurate. For me the problem, as with all artists and all creatives is the lack of money. But I love the film-making process.
How does portraying an exhibition in a film work. Do you film the exhibition as if you are strolling through the exhibition or is there commentary over the top? How does it work?
We make films for the cinema and the films are dramatic and last 85-90 minutes. Two out of three will start in an exhibition – the largest exhibition of the year. The National Gallery in London, MOMA in New York, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. The exhibition is the starting point to make a new film about the life of the artist.
There are 4 films coming to Australia this year:
- “Degas: Passion for Perfection”, which, yes there was an exhibition in England, but it’s a film about the Degas’ life.
- “Young Picasso” – this was not based around an exhibition. Instead it was my desire to understand why him. Why this young man from Malaga became the biggest artist of the 21st century.
- “Rembrandt” – yes, it was the biggest exhibition on Rembrandt’s life at the National Gallery in London and Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. There was between 5 and 8 years of preparation for this exhibition. It was an excuse for us to make a film about one of the greatest artists in history.
- And for “Van Gogh in Japan” – it was an exhibition which started in Japan which then came to Amsterdam. For us it was about two things – to understand Van Gogh, you need to understand the influence of Japanese art. But for us it was also the possibility to go to Japan to talk about and to show Japanese art.
We speak with these galleries and museums daily to better understand what exhibitions are planned for the coming years. Is it possible for me to make a film about the exhibitions that you will have on in 2022-2023? Each week, nearly each day, I receive emails from galleries letting me know their intentions and their plans for the future asking if I could make a film on the exhibition.
And it’s really important that it’s not just London. I want to make films about the artists, their movements, their exhibitions. Everyone. It has taken me 5 years til today. If the audiences come, I can, together with my team, make 4 or 5 films each year.
How many hours of work go into a single film ?
Ooh ! A lot, a lot. Sometimes, 4 years. The film of the life of Young Picasso was a project over 4 years. Van Gogh I think was a 2 year project with 13 or 20 employees who worked on it. It’s very important for us that we make a film that you can still watch in 20 years. We must make films of lasting quality. As with the big artists, I want to make films that have value and legacy.
Of which documentary that you have made for Exhibition on Screen are you the most proud and why?
Well, that’s difficult. This year I am very happy with the film about Young Picasso, one of the biggest names in the history of art but in this film you will see a lot of paintings that I am sure you have never seen before. In order to understand Picasso’s life, you need to start in Malaga, in his father’s town, and in the cities of Coruña, Madrid, Barcelona, etc. It’s very interesting. And the film finishes with the painting called “Les demoiselles d’Avignon”, one of the most important paintings of the 21st century.
Degas is the 21st film that we have made for Exhibition on Screen. They are all my favourites. The film about Monet’s life is purely based on letters – 2300 letters that still exist. So it’s a film only about these letters and the paintings of course! Michelangelo, is a beautiful film. Many, many.
At the same time, before starting Exhibition on Screen, I made 4 films of which I am very proud, being films about composers Mozart, Beethoven, Heydn, Chopin, … As well as the two films about Afghanistan and as I said we are currently making a third one. There are many… It’s important that after investing 3 or 4 years in the films, to be proud of the finished product.
For sure! Who is your audience?
I’d like to say that it’s everyone. I make films for my children, for my parents for my neighbours. But the reality is that the majority of people who come along are 50+. But I think that everyone should be interested in artists and art history. But at the cinema, the majority of people who come to watch the ballets, the operas and the films about artists are 50+. Not exclusively, it depends a little on who the artist is.
For Matisse, Van Gogh, I can see a lot of young people too. The demographic of 50+ is expanding. People are living longer. I am very happy to speak to people who are 40 or 50+. Why not?
But with trends towards people not going out as much and watching films on Netflix, etc. it must be getting harder and harder to get people to go to the cinema?
No, because it’s completely different. At the moment you cannot see films about artists’ lives on Netflix, etc. It’s different.
Personally, I love Netflix. But the cinema is a dream place to escape daily life for few hours and the quality of cinema has improved significantly in the last 10 years – the chairs, the screen, the projector, the sound. Now you can see paintings in high definition and hear from the world’s greatest experts.
My audience loves seeing films at the cinema. It’s also a community place. In our houses, we have Netflix but we are all alone. At the cinema you are with 200 other people like you who are seeing the same film. You can have a coffee after the film to chat about the subjects raised by the film. It’s very important.
Tell me about Degas: Passion for Perfection.
Degas: Passion for Perfection is the first film of this season of four new films. Degas: Passion for Perfection, Young Picasso, Rembrandt and Van Gogh in Japan. Degas, is one of the biggest impressionist artists, one of history’s greatest artists. I love making films on the impressionists because they are all so different. We know their names: Monet, Manet, Degas, but the films that I offer you have their biographies and their works.
The film starts at a large exhibition at the FitzWilliam in Cambridge, the university museum. They have the largest collection of Degas’ art in England – the paintings, sculptures and drawings. It was an excuse to make a new film on Degas’ life. Why did he create these pieces? His life is an extraordinary story. He is one of my favourite artists.
You can see “Degas: Passion for Perfection” in cinemas across Australia from 6 June. Cinemas and screening times available at http://www.exhibitiononscreen.com.
Who is your favourite artist?