Axe Men

DPs Erich Roland and Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC pump up the volume for a new documentary about three legendary rock guitarists

When you consider the varying styles of rock guitarists Jimmy Page, The Edge and Jack White, it’s no surprise a new documentary feature from Sony Classics profiling this terrific trio was shot in assorted formats by two different cinematographers. Erich Roland was the primary DP, shooting much of the location footage; Oscar-winner Guillermo Navarro supervised the jam session/interview footage shot on an L.A. soundstage. Director Davis Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for his last documentary, the landmark global warming doc An Inconvenient Truth, states that he “wanted to use (Page, The Edge, and White) because they each bring completely different talents.” The result, entitled It Might Get Loud, is a rich pastiche that showcases the immense talents of these iconic musicians as well as the equally impressive skills of the behind-the-camera team that captured the dialogue and action.

Whole Lotta Love

Thomas Tull, chairman and CEO of Legendary Pictures, and It Might Get Loud’s producer, recalls that about a year and a half ago, “Guitar Hero became the number one video game and I started thinking, ‘What is it about this particular instrument that’s so emblematic of rock ‘n’ roll?’ It became the inspiration to make a movie that was both a celebration of the guitar and the great artists that make it come alive.” Tull says he knew it had to be a documentary, yet adds that he didn’t want to do a “Behind the Music treatment, where the movie ends with everyone going to rehab,” he laughs. So he called his old friend Guggenheim. “I said, ‘I can’t get this out of my head and I’ve never done a documentary.’ The next thing I knew Davis had agreed to direct it!”

Tull, Guggenheim and business partner Lesley Chilcott decided to avoid all the clichéd approaches in favor of focusing the narrative on just a few legendary and groundbreaking players. “We picked (the subjects) based on era and style,” Tull says. “Jimmy Page is up there on Mount Olympus – and he doesn’t put himself out there much, so I wanted to learn more about him. I’m a huge U2 fan, so The Edge and his very different playing style were in. Of the three, I knew the least about Jack White, but he’s really a guitar hero for this age.”

Mysterious Ways

The production team behind It Might Get Loud insists they were determined to make a new kind of rock documentary. “We decided to look at why these three guys are icons, their love of music and their need to create,” Chilcott says. “You go in thinking rock and roll is this huge artifice and our hope is to penetrate it enough to make you go, ‘Ah! This is what it is.’”

To do that, they eschewed all previous rock doc examples and instead drew on An Inconvenient Truth. “That’s a very different movie, obviously, but one of the obstacles in that film was telling the story of a person everyone in the world thought they knew,” the filmmaker points out. “I think that’s true with these electric guitar players. Even if you aren’t a fan of the music, you feel you know them. That’s the real exciting thing. After An Inconvenient Truth people said, ‘Wow, I never knew that part of Al Gore.’”

It Might Get Loud even includes multiple international locations, just like the Oscar-winning Gore documentary. Footage was shot in an abandoned ramshackle abode in White’s adopted home of Nashville, in the music library at Jimmy Page’s country estate in the U.K., and in the high school where U2 was formed in Dublin, to name just a few.

And like An Inconvenient Truth, each player’s story is told in a variety of formats (with, thankfully, no PowerPoint!). “Davis likes to mix mediums and I do as well,” notes Roland, whose extensive nonfiction background includes an Emmy Award for lighting direction for National Geographic Explorer’s “The Secret Life of Cats,” and an Emmy nomination for cinematography for HBO’s One Survivor Remembers. “Often we wanted to shoot film and sometimes HD or digital made more sense,” Roland says. “Especially when we needed to shoot longer takes in an interview or use multiple cameras where budget or practicality came into play. The 10-minute limitation of a film magazine is a deterrent in an interview situation. Everything these days goes through a digital stage, so mixing mediums becomes an easier choice.”

The requisite archival footage from performances, tours and home movies makes an appearance alongside some kooky animation that was used to illustrate key points in Jack White and The Edge’s histories. “I wouldn’t have dared do that 10 years ago,” Guggenheim admits. “But documentaries are evolving more these days. It’s not necessarily about accurate truth; it’s about human truth. If you feel like you’re telling that story of Jack White in his bedroom with drum sets and can animate it in a way that feels truthful in a human way, the audience can absorb that information and understand Jack better.”

It Might Get Loud

Ramble On

That was all part of the production team’s decision to let the story tell them how it needed to be told, so many of the film’s most memorable moments weren’t planned. “The most important thing for us was to capture the truth of these human beings who are so brilliant,” Navarro says. “We’ve all seen those prefabricated scenarios – we wanted to create more of an honesty to this film. So everything’s transparent. The only effect was putting these people together and allowing the audience to watch.”

Roland puts it another way: “When we roll the camera, we don’t know what’s going to happen, so I need to be ready to discover the jewel that can be hidden within the circumstances of a scene and not let technical issues trump the moment” he says. “Stylistically, I like to allow the story and situation to speak to me in some way, so a style can develop organically.”

This mix-and-match mentality meant that the shooters’ gear list rivaled that of The Edge, whose own amazing array of effects pedals and other equipment makes a notable appearance in the film.

“Sixteen millimeter was our first choice for most shooting and we also carried a VariCam for when we needed more runtime or another angle of something and didn’t have another 16 mm body,” Roland reports back of the film’s location shoots. “I use an adapter for the PL mount 16 mm cameras, which allows me to use Canon high definition B4 mount lenses on 16 mm cameras.”

Not only did the formats mix well, but also it made things easier for Roland to bounce between formats when pulling his own focus. “I usually carry two Canon HD lenses, a 22x telephoto, and an 11x wide-angle zoom,” he says. “Being familiar with a lens and how far or fast to turn the focus barrel becomes very important when you’re shooting something that won’t happen a second time.”

For the L.A. portion, when all three of the fret masters are gathered on the same soundstage, Navarro used five Sony F23 444 multi-frame rate cameras for the round robin. Also deployed were a mélange of Super 16 mm cameras – ARRI SRIII, ARRI 416, and Aaton – for stand-ups because of their cinematic feel, and a Sony HDW-F900 camera for ENG-style walking around shooting.

“The story or mood or scene you’re doing tells you what camera to pick up,” Guggenheim explains. “I hate when someone says, ‘This is the perfect camera. I’m never going to change.’ I think that’s bullshit! It’s the storytelling that tells you what to use.”

Salute Your Solution

Following the story as it transpired required the DPs to be ready for almost anything, and that’s one reason Chilcott and Guggenhein chose Roland. “Erich’s ability to listen and compose outweighs camera choice – and he continues to impress us no matter what format we choose,” Chilcott says. “He just slips in there and gets shots.” [Aside from the It Might Get Loud collaboration, Roland worked with Chilcott and Guggenheim to shoot President Barack Obama’s 10-minute film, A Mother’s Promise, for the Democratic National Convention.]

Roland’s talent was evident in capturing challenging yet unplanned scenes like this one: “I was shooting from the passenger seat as Jack White was driving along a country road in Tennessee, and Jack’s nephew was in the back,” Roland begins. “The shot starts looking out the front windshield as the sun is setting through the trees and coming right down the barrel, so I’m stopped down to bring out the color looking out to the countryside. Then I pan to bring Jack into frame as he’s driving, at the same time pulling the focus into the car from distant countryside and opening the aperture to accommodate the darker interior, all while trying to make a decent frame in a bouncy old car.”

Not content to stop there, Roland panned to the back seat to see the boy. “Since the sun was setting, I knew there wasn’t going to be a take two or three of this shot,” he admits. “I turned into a pretzel following my desire to keep panning when I wasn’t really prepared in any way to do it. So it was mind over fingers and body strains, in extremely limited space in this old car! If a director had asked for this shot I would have tried to talk him out of it,” he laughs.

Going to California

Navarro – an old friend of Guggenheim’s – consulted on the overall look and feel of the project, and was the first choice to shoot “The Summit” sequence, where all three rock gods came together on an L.A. sound stage to talk shop, swap tips and stories, and ultimately jam their assess off! Guggenheim says that the big challenge was “not only to make one person look great from one angle; he had to make three rock stars look great from every angle. We had cameras looking at every single angle, shooting every single second. How do you make every angle look beautiful? There are only a few people in town who can do that.”

Having an Oscar-winning cinematographer on the team came in handy (Navarro won for Pan’s Labyrinth two years ago).  “The biggest challenge was to photograph them interacting with each other simultaneously,” the DP reflects. “We were running four or five cameras and what favored one didn’t favor the other; that’s a situation you normally wouldn’t run into. So we built an elaborate lighting schema to fit all of them. We used tungstens and treated it as a stage set. In the end, they were all receiving favorable light regardless of where they were.”

The result is a warm, intimate feel that exudes the camaraderie evident in this elite club of musicians. “It doesn’t play like they’re on a stage,” Navarro reports.  “It’s more comfortable and relaxed.” He says the production team was, “just trying to get everything at the same time and capture the moment so you could experience what we were experiencing.”

And that visual motif plays out in the form of a crane shot near the end of the film, which reveals the three rockers on the small set ringed by the crew just taking it all in. “That’s an honest and true shot,” Navarro recalls. “You see us watching, and you are really peeking in. You’re there with us and there’s nothing awkward about it. There are no groupies yelling. It’s just them playing.”

Another shot that illustrates this fly-on-a-wall approach even better also occurs near the end of the film. Guitar techs are loading out the electric guitars and suddenly Page, Edge and White begin playing The Band’s classic 1968 anthem, The Weight (which may be better known for its chorus, which begins “Take a load off, Annie”), on acoustic guitars.

“It just suddenly happened,” Tull admits. “They wanted to play. We were just standing there thinking, ‘This is incredible! Let’s hope we’re rolling.’” Luckily, Navarro had the Super 16 in hand and captured the spontaneity of the moment. “On set, everybody had goose bumps,” Tull continues. “When it was over, every one of us looked around and said, ‘I just witnessed something special.’ Hopefully, people will enjoy it with the same sense of joy and awe we did.”

By Margot Carmichael Lester / photos by Eric Lee