Q&A: Christopher Nupen
Ahead of a career retrospective at the Royal Albert Hall, documentarian Christopher Nupen talks to Rick Burin about crowdfunding, Chopin in Majorca, and his close friend Jacqueline du Pre.
When did you first meet Jacqueline du Pré?
I first met her backstage at the Royal Albert Hall when she was 19. I’d heard her on the radio, playing solo Bach, and I felt that it was something different: I heard cello sounds which I hadn’t heard before. After the Albert Hall concert, I went backstage just to say thanks – even though I didn’t know her and she didn’t know me – and we became friends. I was close to her for 23 years.
What was she like?
What really struck one about Jackie was her honesty: she was the most honest person you are ever likely to meet. She was simple, forthright, uninhibited in her judgements, and able to say critical things without ever giving offence, because it was so clear that it came from honesty inside her.
I started filming her when she was 22, and traveled to many countries with her, and with Daniel (Barenboim), including the United States. We were incredibly lucky to be there at a time when the new silent cameras were created and could do something to preserve that astonishing artistic persona in a way that not one of the other media is quite able to match.
Why do you think The Trout has endured as it has?
The artists were young and exuberant, and they were my friends, so I was able to shoot them doing things which no camera had ever seen before in a performing musician. Because of those cameras, we did it with a closeness that had not previously been possible. Also because I had a different idea of how to do it, I was told by the BBC that what I was planning would not work – that is to say, combining documentary film techniques with straight performance – but we did it anyway!
The musicians were conscious of the benefits of the publicity – after all, nobody makes art for a vacuum – and that helped to persuade them to do things for the camera: Jackie imitating Casals, and Itzhak and Zubin performing on the same violin, with Itzhak playing the left hand and Zubin with the bow. But really they were behaving in front of the camera in that very uninhibited way because we had created the right atmosphere and we all enjoyed the experience of doing something new.
What challenges do you face when filming musicians?
The first challenge is to win the confidence of the artists and the second is to know your craft. Jackie was astonishingly good at knowing what worked and what didn’t work on film. There is, in the great performers, something that radiates from them, an extraordinary feeling that comes across when they are at their best. The camera sees it, and film remembers it.
What are you working on next?
We’ve just made two films with Daniil Trifonov, the most talked-about young pianist in the world today, and they’ve won three international prizes. That has fired up an enthusiasm to make a new film with him and so we are now working on a third.
This one will be about the visit of Chopin and George Sand to Mallorca in November of 1938 and the composition of the 24 Chopin Preludes. The couple wanted to escape from the Paris gossip – because they were both in existing relationships – and from the Paris winter, hoping to find a climate more suitable for Chopin’s failing health, and creating a better atmosphere for him to complete his Preludes. They arrived, in late November, to find themselves in summer weather: their expressions of their happiness in their letters and George Sand's writings are memorable and beautiful.
Suddenly, everything changed. Winter came with violent force. Chopin fell ill and was coughing up three bowls-full of blood nearly every day. Three of Mallorca’s leading doctors declared that he was dying, but he pulled through and, in spite of all, he completed his 24 Preludes, which have become one of the jewels of the piano literature. We have Juliet Stevenson for the voice of George Sand, Donald Macleod for Chopin and Trifonov for the Preludes. We’ve already started work on the film and we are hoping to find crowdfunding – the first time in 87 productions that we have needed to do that, because television is paying so much less than it used to, but the idea does not want to go away. It is one of the most touching stories in music.