Muscle Shoals – Greg Camalier interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
GREG ‘Freddy’ Camalier talks about making the documentary Muscle Shoals through ‘magical happenstance’ and some of the challenges he faced along the way, both as a filmmaker and earning the trust of his subjects.
He also reflects on the lessons he learned, the responses to the film that move him the most and why getting a standing ovation at this year’s Sundance Festival was a surreal and unexpected moment for him.
Q. You’ve said that ‘magical happenstance’ first made you aware of Muscle Shoals?
Greg Camalier: Yeah, absolutely. It really was serendipitous. My best friend from childhood was moving his life from the East Coast to New Mexico and needed help driving his car across the country. So, he recruited me and I begrudgingly went and we got 1,700 miles and decided we’d take the southern route through the US and travel back roads instead of the highways and explore. I begrudgingly went but 24 hours into the trip I could tell it had all the makings of an epic journey and we ended up in Muscle Shoals late one night and spent an extra 24 hours there. We were just blown away by the town and its history and really felt its impact. We were then thinking: “Wow, I can’t believe this story hasn’t been told. We should tell this story!”
Q. What was it like walking into those studios for the first time?
Greg Camalier: It was like you were going into a hallowed ground. You didn’t necessarily know… it just had a sense of history. You could tell that a lot of things happened in this place because it really hasn’t changed much, which is the great thing about it. People tear down and redecorate things, and you almost lose a part of its heritage when that happens, but that hasn’t happened there, so you could feel that right away.
Q. How many years ago was that?
Greg Camalier: I think it was 2008 when we walked into that room for the first time.
Q. And when did you then decide to start making the film?
Greg Camalier: I say 2008 was the trip. It might have been 2009 before we went down there to introduce ourselves. Our first filming was in 2009 but before then, we’d gone down there and met the guys and walked into the studios.
Q. Given that this is your first feature film, how difficult or easy was it to persuade people that you were the right person to tell this story?
Greg Camalier: Yeah, when you’re new like that it can really work against you. Fortunately, for a documentary I think you get a little bit more leeway. If you’re approaching it through a narrative and you’ve never done anything people tend to think twice. But I do think instincts are important. But for a lot of those folks how you come across and just their instincts about who you are I think played a role in how they felt about going into the whole thing.
Q. And Rick Hall? Did he take much convincing?
Greg Camalier: Rick no! As you can probably tell, Rick isn’t easily impressed, so it’s not like he just rolls over when you say “I want to make a movie” and he says: “Oh great, let’s do it.” He did put us through the ringer somewhat and it took a while to earn his full trust, for sure. But it took a long time before I think he thought these guys knew what they were doing.
Q. He’s had an incredible life, which is marked by tragedy and rejection. Does he give off an inspiring aura when you meet him?
Greg Camalier: Yeah. He’s an incredible story-teller, has an incredible aura and magnetism about him and he is much like he comes across in the film. It really is his character and he’s very direct and straight-forward. But those are refreshing qualities. He has a hard outer shell but is deeply soulful.
Q. How was tapping into some of the darker stuff in Rick’s life?
Greg Camalier: That took time. That was a good one or two years in before I think he would have been willing to share some of that stuff on camera. The musical stuff, whether it was the successor failures, he could share right away but the more personal stuff took some time and a sense of trust.
Q. How was assembling the cast of interviewees? You have some great names talking to you. Were there people you couldn’t get? And how was interviewing The Rolling Stones?
Greg Camalier: Oh, it was great. I mean getting all of those guys, Keith [Richards] and Mick [Jagger], and all of those other artists was so great. What I tell everyone is that we had this great story and some musicians who have never gotten their day in the sun, so that’s the real draw. Without that, I don’t think you’d ever get those people. Time is their most precious commodity and they don’t have enough of it, and so it’s a pretty big planet and they get a lot of requests. But it just shows their love for this music and seminal figures in music who haven’t had their stories told.
Q. Robert Redford said that documentaries are a passion of his and he loves the way they are evolving cinematically. You came through Sundance and you have a very cinematic documentary…
Greg Camalier: It’s interesting, it’s been mentioned to me before but it’s really interesting. I do approach it that way. I’ve seen films where it didn’t feel cinematic and, for me, I’m an aesthetic person so if we were going to make a film I wanted it to… it’s a pretty big part of the medium, how it visually looks, so I would watch films and the more visually impactful it was, the more it would impact me. So, I did right from the get-go wanted to make a film that was visually powerful because it’s such a huge part of the medium. So, it was important… even though it was a documentary you don’t have to give up form for function and you don’t have to give up function for form. You can strive to have both.
Q. Did you look at other documentaries? It reminded me a lot of James Marsh’s style?
Greg Camalier: I looked at a lot of music documentaries. I did watch others but concentrated mostly on music ones. And I tried to see what was out there and what people’s approaches were and how to tell a story. I wanted to make a documentary on that subject and tell it in a fresh way. It’s hard to be original in anything anymore because there’s too many damn people doing too much damn stuff but as much as possible that was important to me to have somewhat of an original voice to the film.
Q. How much did you learn from the experience?
Greg Camalier: I learned so much, especially as it was a small team. Boy, in some ways I learned more about filmmaking than I would like to know. I’d like to just direct. That would be amazing. But we learned how to do amazing, which was a great experience, but also exhausting, but very educational because you learn all that stuff. I learned that it’s really left and right brain because you can have the greatest creative visions in the world but if you technically screw it up… it’s very technical at the same time. So, you’ve really got to have both firing on all cylinders to pull it off because they rely on each other. If you have the greatest creative vision, if you technically can’t perform then your creativity is going to suffer and vice versa. If you have great technical form but you’re lacking on the creative side then you’re going to have a film that isn’t maybe going to evoke feelings of emotion. And that’s the main aim. I want them to feel something when they’ve seen Muscle Shoals. If you feel something, then you’ve done something right.
Q. So, getting a standing ovation at Sundance must have been particularly gratifying?
Greg Camalier: That was a surreal moment. It was very surreal. I did not expect that. I did not know what to do. It was gratifying but awkward at the same time. It was very surreal.
Q. Did Robert Redford give you any notes at all?
Greg Camalier: No. He did not give me any notes at all. I would love a note from him. Please, if you have some notes, I’d love to see them.
Q. What was it like bringing Muscle Shoals to London as part of Sundance London earlier this year?
Greg Camalier: It’s amazing. I find the UK audience so intelligent. I’ve got asked so many intelligent questions, both in the interviews and from the audiences… really fresh questions and a very intelligent audience. And that’s great for a filmmaker because you can get tired of the same questions and it’s really great to hear something new and insightful.
Q. Going back to the technical challenge of it, which of the two do you feel you were best at going in?
Greg Camalier: I was most proficient on the creative side going in, I had pretty much zero technical skill.
Q. But you were self-taught? How difficult was that?
Greg Camalier: Um, it’s definitely a learning curve and a steep one at that. I just tried to learn lessons once. There’s nothing worse than learning mistakes and hard lessons twice. Learning it once can be painful enough, but that’s OK. So, I definitely tried not to learn the same mistake twice. I try and have it be a new mistake.
Q. So, who was looking over your shoulder to say you’d made a mistake?
Greg Camalier: Well, technically my director of photography was a guy who is now a dear friend and a beautiful photographic artist. So, working with Tony was a real joy and I learned so much on the photography from him.
Q. As much as this is a celebration of Muscle Shoals and everything it achieved, it’s also a celebration of the unifying power of music. Was that important to bring out?
Greg Camalier: Yeah, I thought that was really a special part. I mean, it’s so true of music in general but especially in this context with the racial thing going on and [being in] the belly of the beast in Alabama, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement… some really special things went on in that sanctity of those studios and I thought that was very special. So, I felt honoured to be a part of bringing that story to the world.
Q. What’s been your favourite response to the film so far?
Greg Camalier: My favourite response? [Pauses to think] Well, I love it when people feel something. I love it when they’re drawn to Rick’s story because I think that’s a fascinating element. Boy, that’s a good question. I feel like I would be able to answer that right away. I like it when people are moved. I like it when it’s more than “oh I learned a lot and what great music”. That’s not my favourite comment. It’s more like I felt something out of that… so, whatever they felt, whether it’s about Rick or the sense of place, or the racism thing or the magnetism of the area, so something that they felt. I like hearing that more than great music or great anecdote that I didn’t know.