Editor Jabez Olssen took on a monumental task for director Peter Jackson’s docuseries Get Back on the making of the Beatles album Let It Be. In sifting through 150 hours of audio and 60 hours of video, Olssen had to not only match sound to visual, but he also had to find a narrative arc as well. As we discuss here, that arc would often change, and he and his team would have to go back to the beginning and start over. At the end of the production, what he and his fellow filmmakers have accomplished is an extraordinary document on the creative process and the fragile nature of friendship. A film that is far more than a time capsule or a curiosity, but a true emotional and musical journey.
Awards Daily: I’m looking behind you at your animated image of the Beatles so i take it this was a project that excited you. (Laughs).
Jabez Olssen: Absolutely. I’ve always been a big Beatles fan since I was a teenager. I never thought I’d get to work on something like this. You don’t get sick of their music no matter how much you listen to it.
Awards Daily: The challenge as an editor dealing with 150 hours of sound footage and 60 hours of visual footage and trying to make it somewhat cohesive was monumental.
Jabez Olssen: Yeah, we had no script, we had no pre-existing idea what the story or stories were gonna be. So, the first thing to do was just to watch each day’s footage. Then we would start cutting days. We knew we wanted to tackle the footage in a linear fashion. We weren’t going to get too nonlinear and cut back and forth in time. Which at least gave us a framework and made it slightly easier because we could concentrate on just one day at a time and put everything else aside while we worked on that day. There could be a lot of footage for one day. There could be ten hours. Working that way, you look at it all and you find the best material, you find the scenes that you want to include and that you want to cut and you work on that. But, what you don’t find doing it that way, at least in the beginning, is you don’t see what’s going to be the major storylines that you want to follow. Because they might not be obvious on just any one day’s footage. So it wasn’t until we had quite a few days under our belts that we started to see the stories emerging from the footage.
We saw there were stories like George’s unhappiness and leaving the band and then coming back. There’s the story of what is the show going to be? Where will they play? Will they do a final show? Will it be on TV? Will it be a live show in Tripoli or in a children’s hospital? Will the band come together and actually get the songs done that they need to get done by their deadline? There were all these storylines. They need a fifth musician. They want to have bass, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, drums, and a piano. Normally they could do that by overdubbing one of the instruments, but for this they wanted to play everything live. So, they’re one man short. Billy Preston coming in is a whole storyline. Once we identified these, we almost had to go back and start again and look to see if there were things that we had missed. And in doing so we found that they did mention, do we need to get a piano player in? There were other session piano players they mentioned like Nicky Hopkins. There’s a whole day where they talk about Billy Preston being the great piano player. At this point they have no idea that he’s going to be in town. Once we’d identified what the stories were, going back allowed us to see little signposts and mentions of these stories and to make sure we included them in the film too. It was an iterative process, a lot of layers.
In that way it sort of parallels what the Beatles were doing themselves – not to compare us to the Beatles at all. One of the great things in watching this film I think is that you see that they’re geniuses, but they get there by their work ethic, by iterating on their songs and trying things and discarding them and trying new things. They keep working until they find the bit that works, and they keep building up their songs until they’re great. That’s a huge comfort for those of us who aren’t geniuses. To see that creative work, even the best people need to work at it. It’s as much about effort and hard work and trying things and discarding things as it is about inspiration. So that’s what we did with our film. It kept growing because of this. It got a little longer than what we originally planned.
Awards Daily: You were truly finding this film as you were going along.
Jabez Olssen: Absolutely. We’d done one documentary prior to this (They Shall Not Grow Old). We’d been used to working on narrative films. So there was a similar process in some ways and very different in other ways, but prior to that we’d always had a script to follow and we sort of knew the story. Now on all the films I worked on with Peter there’s always been a lot of work in the cutting room. Changing the story, improving it, working with the writers, and a lot changes during the edit. That’s always been the way. I think it probably is the case on all films. But, it’s nothing compared to not having a script (laughs). It’s having a whole bunch of footage and not knowing what the story is. There’s a danger that it could just become many hours of the band practicing songs, which might be nice to listen to, but it is so important that there is a narrative arc and story going through it so that people don’t get bored.
Awards Daily: Get Back is nearly eight hours in total. You let things play out so that lends to it a meandering aspect but there’s a payoff. How many different attempts were there for Don’t Let Me Down? That’s the part of the show I loved the most. I wanted to hear how they got there.
Jabez Olssen: We did have more of it in there and we did trim it down as we would watch and say maybe we’ve got too much Don’t Let Me Down. That’s the art of it and that’s the constant worry. Are you making the right call? Are we just too sick of it now ourselves? Are we just too used to it? I always think part of the art of editing is deciding whether you’re giving the audience too much or too little information. We’re trying to find that line in between where you don’t overexplain things to them and you don’t underexplain. The more you’ve seen the footage, the harder that gets because you understand things a lot more than someone who’s just going to be seeing it for the first time will. So there’s a risk that you will give them too little information. You can do the opposite just as easy. You can overexplain something that an audience is smart enough to get. So I think in this case how many versions of one song will people want to sit through? We always try to have something new in them. We want the story to be developing, not just show another version of the song for its own sake. There needed to be something new and fresh and different and a progression to it.
Awards Daily: You were also, to some degree, competing with a film that already existed, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s Let It Be. so you’re trying to separate yourself from that but also take the most choice bits. That had to be a little bit tricky too.
Jabez Olssen: Yeah, we started off with the idea of not using any of the footage that Michael had used in Let It Be. The idea there was that we wanted these two films to stand together. We didn’t want to be making a film that would just replace the other one. We wanted people to be able to watch both and not feel it was redundant. In a way, our film is the making of Michael’s film Let It Be. He’s as much a character in our film as anyone. The whole “are they going to end up with a film, what’s their film going to be” is one of the storylines in our movie. In a way, ours is the story of the making of Let It Be – both the album and the film. So you can watch our film and then go and watch the end result and see what they actually did produce and what they did come up with. That was the idea. Now in the end, we did actually reuse some of his shots and some of his moments just because they were so good and once we were getting to eight hours, we didn’t want to lose major moments just because the footage had been used before. So we weren’t quite as pure as we had originally intended, but I think largely the films do stand together. You can watch them both and get something out of each.
Awards Daily: I can only imagine, with all the audio and video you had to sift through, there was some effort to match audio to visual and on occasion it’s not possible.so what you are trying to do is contextualize the images with audio.
Jabez Olssen: Yes, that’s right. The majority of it, up until the rooftop concert, they only had two cameras they were shooting with, two little sixteen mm cameras that only held about ten minutes of film each, and film was expensive and the producer was worried about stock so they were quite cautious with how much they shot – at least from my perspective. It was very rare that they would film an entire song. They would tend to button the camera and then button off after a while. So there’s lots of gaps in the footage and it’s also quite rare that both cameras were shooting the same thing at the same time to actually give us coverage to cut between. We had to do a lot of work. How do we put the scene together? We’ve got these lines on camera and then all these black holes for the rest of the lines. So we’d be searching around saying, “oh, do we have a reaction from Ringo from nearby that we could put in here that is true to what he’d be doing?” We don’t ever want to manipulate the truth or construct something that isn’t ultimately true, but we also don’t want black holes just because the camera crew weren’t filming at that time. So it is a constructed film for an emotional experience.
Awards Daily: What I found fascinating about the film as I was watching it it is a portrait of the creative process for one, and for two this is about a band who went from recording live to being studio rats and then trying to force themselves to go back to basics while their friendships were crumbling
Jabez Olssen: I think probably Paul particularly saw this as a chance to get the band back together and get everyone working well together. He probably saw that when they were working independently, each doing their own layer at different times, they’re not spending as much time together and they’re not as close. If they’re going to play all the songs together like they used to they’re all going to be in the same room at the same time and that just leads to being closer and being better friends. It all goes together, it’s all two sides of the one coin. I think they were largely successful in that. They came out of this process on a real high after the rooftop concert. Whatever misgivings and fears that they had about playing up on the roof, they obviously loved it after it was over.
Awards Daily: There’s two particular key pieces for me as a viewer. You really get the sense of George’s disenchantment and feeling of marginalization. And then when they coax him back in and Billy Preston shows up, and everybody’s spirits just lift. It was like he was the secret sauce to finishing the record.
Jabez Olssen: The books have always said for fifty years that Billy was brought in to make everyone behave. I think we have shown that that’s not true, because the moment they move to Apple Studios things are better anyway. There’s a day that the cameras aren’t allowed in, and then the crew are asking how that day went, and everyone’s saying it went great – even George who’s the one who quit. Great vibes. And they worked a long day. They worked till seven o’clock or something. So, I think things were better, but then when Billy comes in, he lifts them musically. Suddenly they have that extra member of the band they were needing. And he’s just so good. He’s adding things that really pick them up. It does kick them into higher gear and makes everyone happy. It’s unfair to say that he was just brought in to do that. He was brought in because of the musical need and they were already better anyway after the break. After coming to Apple, things were really better and he just continued there.
Awards Daily: When you found the audio of John and Paul discussing the treatment of George throughout the life of the band, that had to feel like a major discovery.
Jabez Olssen: There’s always been bootlegs there but of course it’s been very hard to hear, almost inaudible because of all the clatter of the cutlery being cleared away from the lunch room. I think if people listen hard enough, some bits of it have been known for a while. Because of the breakthrough that we had with the machine learning for the audio demixing, the amount the guys were able to clear that up and make it more audible, suddenly you can hear them and they’re saying something different than what you thought they were saying when it was so noisy. There were a lot of discoveries there about what was actually being said. Just the fact that you can hear it clearer gives it a whole new meaning. We originally thought we weren’t going to be able to use any of that because it was too inaudible. The real thrill for us with that was discovering that we were going to be able to clean it up and actually get it to a state where, even though we need subtitles on it, that it was going to be worth including in the film. It’s all credit to Michael Lindsay-Hogg for not worrying about documentary ethics. (Laughs). You wish there could have been a few more opportunities to do that. I’d love to hear what was happening at some of those meetings at Ringo’s house with them trying to talk George into coming back, but that’s all lost to the mists of time.
Awards Daily: It’s funny because if you’re of a certain generation, you grow up and you’re either a Beatles or a Stones person. Not that you can’t like both, but you choose. I tend to be a Stones person – not that I don’t like the Beatles, everybody likes the Beatles.
Jabez Olssen: It’s Pulp Fiction isn’t it? Where John Travolta is asked are you a Beatles or an Elvis person, you’ve got to be one or the other.
Awards Daily: Yeah and it is sort a fiction. You don’t have to choose. You can be both.
Jabez Olssen: You can like them both, but you know which way you lean.
Awards Daily: For me, I came to it like, do I really want to spend eight hours with the Beatles in the recording studio. That was my thought process. I thought let’s give it a shot. Peter Jackson is a great filmmaker.
Jabez Olssen: We definitely may have lost some casual viewers by making it eight hours long, but we hope we made it up to everyone else.
Awards Daily: I can only imagine that this was an incredibly exacting process.
Jabez Olssen: it’s funny we were always working as hard as we can and Peter particularly never accepts something as done just because it’s done. He’s always wanting to make it better, and see if it can be improved and to think of new ideas. So that means we always work right up to the deadline and occasionally across it. Things are always changing in those last few months. In some ways you wouldn’t know that we had over three years to work on the film, because by the time we get to the end, it’s like we haven’t had as much time as we need and we’re racing to the finish. It’s always a big effort and a race to the finish. So things are often changing and to bring it back to what you said, it is exacting, but nobody ever rests on their laurels and thinks that’s how it has to be and it can never be anything different. There’s always a chance and an opportunity to try it a different way and to look for a new way to put something together. In many ways, some of the scenes are put together fairly fresh before we finish.
Awards Daily: At the end it’s an emotionally resonant piece of work. I think it’s largely because of this friendship. When you watch Titanic and you know the ship is going to hit the iceberg. Here. you know that this friendship is going to end and they’re going to split apart. At the end of it, you see this hope because they leave on an up. But it doesn’t last.
Jabez Olssen: We have sown in the seeds of their eventual ruin because we had the scenes where Allen Klein has emerged and won John over. Ultimately I think it’s John wanting to have Allen Klein manage them and Paul not liking Allen Klein that really was the basis for them breaking up when they did. I think if it hadn’t been for that, we might have gotten another album out of them. I thought it was amazing that in our footage, which has nothing to do with Allen Klein in many ways, we get the first hints of him coming into the story. Then you see John having met him and being in love with him and calling him an incredible guy. The seeds of what would eventually break them up are planted, but yet we go out on a high with them being triumphant in achieving what they needed to achieve in the time they had. So it’s bittersweet.
Awards Daily: You get this sense too that as their lives have grown outside of the band, Paul’s with Linda, John’s with Yoko, George is exploring his spirituality, and all of that stuff came into the studio too, right? There’s a Hare Krishna there, Yoko is essentially sitting there for every single song, which felt like such a strange dynamic to me as I was watching it. They learned how to ignore her like she was a post.
Jabez Olssen: Everything was changing and they were developing interests outside of the Beatles. But I think there was a path, if it hadn’t become so litigious and such a harsh breakup because of Paul and John’s differences over Klein, I think maybe there was a roadmap where they could have stayed together but taken breaks. They could have all gone their own way for a year or two doing their own projects and just come back every now and then to maybe do an album or a concert or something. In a way, if they’d all stayed friends, they could have just stopped and never actually say they’ve broken up.
Awards Daily: It makes me think of that scene in Boyhood, where Ethan Hawke is talking to his son about this mix-tape he’s made which is all of the recordings the members of the Beatles made after they broke up. He makes new Beatles albums out of their solo albums essentially. So you start picturing in your head what could have been.
Jabez Olssen: I think we can see it. That’s right, that’s what you do. You take the big songs off your solo albums and you put them all together. The question we never know is how the other members of the band would have elevated those songs and changed them. I do think the Beatles are greater than the sum of their parts. They do come in and work on each other’s songs. Even though we think of this as a John song or this as a Paul song, what our film shows you is how much they bring to each other’s songs. George, particularly with musical ideas. These are songs they all contribute to. In some ways I wonder, and what might have been bothering George too, is that he was working so hard on these songs and really contributing to them, but then they would all immediately for contractual reasons get credited to Lennon/McCartney. There are some songs you can see that he’s working on with Paul, and John’s not really working on them too much, and George won’t get a credit and John will. I wonder if that ever bothered him. I think it must have.
Awards Daily: And the number of his songs that didn’t make the record too, they spilled over into All Things Must Pass obviously.
Jabez Olssen: That’s why he was immediately able to do a triple album release. He had the stuff ready to go.
Awards Daily: Having seen the finished product and having Get Back being received so well and knowing how complex it was to take this chunk of audio and video and turning it into a narrative, but also letting it play out in a way that is unconventional, how are you feeling now that it’s done and it’s out in the world?
Jabez Olssen: We feel great. Part of it is that we feel relief, because you never know how something’s going to be received. Is it just us that likes it? Have we made it too long? Will no one want to watch it? As they say in Hollywood, nobody knows anything. So you never want to assume that it’s going to be successful. So relief is one emotion and it’s just great to be able to share it with everyone. It’s been just ours for so long and stuff that only we knew about and only we could discuss. Now we get to share it with other people and everyone gets to have an opinion. We get to see everyone else having the same conversations that we’ve been having for four years. It’s great seeing all of the podcasts when people watch it and talk about it and getting to listen to those and read what people are writing. Because most of it has been so positive, it’s particularly nice. Often you just want to avoid reviews. It’s been really sweet. It’s been really nice to see what the world’s been saying.