An e-mail exchange with John Lennon’s ex-lover May Pang set Seth Swirsky on a crash course in documentary filmmaking.
The singer-songwriter with both a bevy of chart toppers and a respected solo career to his credit, met Pang about six years ago following an email introduction. Swirsky asked Pang if they could take an impromptu tour of Lennon’s infamous “lost weekend” hot spots circa the early 1970s.
Camera in hand, Swirsky captured some of Pang’s memories on film as merely a video scrapbook, nothing more. He figured he might make a short film from the experience - “A Day with May in LA” sounded about right.
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But when he started quizzing other rock luminaries on their favorite Beatles anecdotes, like Justin Hayward of The Moody Blues and Denny Laine from Wings, he realized he had the makings of a documentary.
“I’m an artistic person,” Swirsky tells Big Hollywood. “I never know exactly what I’m doing at any moment. I allow that process to occur.”
,” the culmination of six years of guerilla interviews, recently had its world premiere April 3 at the European Independent Film Festival in Paris. The film, dubbed an “epic and timeless masterwork” by director Cameron Crowe, lets the famous and not so famous share their connections with the Fab Four.
Swirsky didn’t want to hear people talk about a Beatles song playing during their high school prom. He wanted more personal stories, tales that illuminated the band’s influence as well as the speakers’ hearts.
The film will play at 6 p.m. April 29 and at 3 p.m. May 2 at The Newport Beach Film Festival
Swirsky’s only other film work came with a short dubbed "The Last Giant," which focused on 1930s era New York Giants standout Harry “The Horse” Danning. So when he got access to Hayward, he surrounded him with lamps - any source of light - he found in the hotel where the singer was staying and started shooting.
“I didn’t know anything about lighting,” he says. “It was complete indie filmmaking.”
Some great Beatles tales started to emerge, and when Swirsky used a tenuous connection to interview Brian Wilson the project finally took off. He ended up with so much material he had to leave a chat with Rascals singer Felix Cavaliere on the cutting room floor.
“There were many people I could have filmed, but I’d rather film someone without no fame but a great story,“ he says. One such story involves Mim Flynn, who worked the Chanel counter at a Saks store in New Orleans where she met the “cute” Beatle, Paul McCartney, when she was only 15.
Swirsky says some interviews took a while before he got the kind of colorful responses he sought. He interviewed Jack Oliver, who was president of Apple Records during the late 1960s, and wasn’t making good progress. Then, Swirsky asked Oliver about the day the rumor broke that McCartney had died.
Oliver said the phones to his office lit up with American girls bemoaning the Cute Beatle’s demise. So Oliver called up McCartney to make sure he was still among the living.
“[Expletive] off, I’m not dead. Why are you waking me up for,” McCartney barked into the phone, an anecdote which caused roars of laughter during the film’s Paris premiere.
Swirsky is now a bona fide filmmaker, but he isn’t ready to get his own director’s chair quite yet. It would take a “special inspiration” for him to start a new film project. He’d rather be making music.
“I have to write songs,” he says simply.
His upcoming record, “As Far As Yesterday Goes,“ is the second he recorded with fellow singer/songwriter Mike Ruekberg under the name The Red Button
The band started unofficially during the sessions for Swirsky’s first solo album, “Instant Pleasure” in 2004. Ruekberg was one of many musicians on hand who contributed to the disk. Later, Swirsky rang him up with an offer.
“I was wondering if we should do an album of songs we’re not supposed to do, Beatle-like in a way,” he told Ruekberg. Swirsky added he had a few incomplete songs they could finish together.
“I was thinking he loved the Beatles very much, and so did I,” he says. But neither wanted to create a Rutles-like project. They were dead serious about making music that reflected the Beatles’ spirit.
The result was “She’s About to Cross My Mind,” 11 infectious songs marrying Swirsky’s melodies with Ruekberg’s gentle cynicism.
If “Mind” hearkens back to the early Beatles days, “As Far As Yesterday Goes” takes listeners to the late 1960s and early 1970s. Swirsky promises you’ll hear a bit of Paul Simon here, some Cat Stevens there, but that Beatles jangle is still front and center.
Swirsky is currently adding some string arrangements to the album as a final tweak, and he expects the disk to drop in the beginning of June. His next solo album won’t come out until 2012, but he wouldn’t mind pressing the Red Button a few more times.
“I’d love to keep this going,” he says.