Getting to know Suzi
Interview with Tait Brady, producer of rock'n'roll biopic Suzi Q
Ahead of the world premiere of Suzi Q - a tribute to trailblazing rock star Suzi Quatro - at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), we spoke to producer Tait Brady about how the project came about, how to navigate making a biopic about a living person and the challenges, and eureka moments, of working with archival material.
What drew you to this project and how did you become involved?
Director and co-producer Liam Firmager had talked with me about working on a music-based project, and a year later he serendipitously made the connection with Suzi, through a friend in Australia. Soon after meeting with her he asked me to be involved. We are both drawn to music-oriented material and our interest was initially in just telling her story, given she was such a pioneer for women in the rock music industry, and to be perfectly honest, as fans. This evolved considerably over the next four years.
Suzi Quatro is a pioneering female rock performer with a huge fan base in Australia. Why do you think audiences connect with her so strongly?
Suzi was hugely popular here from day one, which was 1973. It’s often said that Australians respected her gutsy, pure rock’n’roll attitude and music, which defines a lot of Australian bands too. In making the film, we were astounded by the number of people here, especially women, who responded so immediately and enthusiastically the instant we mentioned Suzi’s name. Her breakthrough in the 70s had a profound impact on young women then, as they had never seen a woman in rock music like this.
Why did Suzi agree to this approach from this filmmaking team at this stage in her career?
I think maybe Suzi is at a point where she is reflecting on her life - she was 65 then and just turned 69 and had written a very frank autobiography the year before. And maybe she was still seeking some recognition from the contemporary industry and media? I know that after working on the film for so long, we certainly gained some recognition, especially in the US.
Suzi is very candid about her musical life and family in the film. How did you go about earning her trust?
Getting to know her over several years certainly helped in gaining her trust, and proving to her that we had done our homework and knew our stuff. In the end we filmed with her maybe seven different times over four years, in the US, the UK and Australia, and we kept digging away to go deeper and deeper. We also showed her an early rough cut about two years ago, so she had a clear sense of what we were doing and where we were going.
What’s the hardest part of making a biopic about a living person?
Definitely getting the distance and objectivity that a filmmaker requires. We weren’t there to make a promo for Suzi. Developing trust was paramount, after all we were asking Suzi to emotionally expose herself to us and then releasing those insights into the public domain – that’s enough to make anyone guarded. And like any seasoned entertainer it was a challenge to dig deep into Suzi’s psyche and peel back the layers of 50 years of professional stock answers. The other element – and this was a challenge but also liberating – was that the story was unfolding as we made the film. We weren’t locked into a pre-written, traditional, often tragic, life and career trajectory. Suzi recorded a new album late in 2018 and surprised us with how vital and energetic it was.
One of the themes of the documentary is the nature of persistence – what makes Suzi Quatro resilient. In what ways does she exemplify this and do you think there are any parallels with the resilience required in the music world and that required in film production?
Absolutely! Suzi is very forward looking and positive and infectiously energetic. Over more than four years we had to draw on Suzi’s positivity and determination more than once. There was a point about two years ago when Liam and I wondered how we would ever complete the film - it felt as if it had stalled and we just had to keep searching for any little element that might give it momentum. Like Suzi we stuck to our guns and our intent to make the complete, definitive film, not a watered down TV version based around talking head interviews, with six songs and a bit of archive, which would have been the tacky, low budget option .
Can you tell us about the path to sourcing the archival material for the film – were there any obstacles or rare discoveries?
There are more than 375 individual pieces of archive in the film - stills, video, artefacts, ephemera – all of which we had to research, source and clear. We couldn’t afford to bring on an Archive Producer until late in the day, so Liam, and to a lesser degree myself, researched and sourced much of the material, then the incredible Lisa Savage came in and sorted out our mess! Lisa’s knowledge and contacts were invaluable both in tracking down the rare material, and cutting deals with suppliers. In the end material came from broadcasters and archives in the UK, US, Czech, Germany, France and Australia, plus Suzi’s and her sister Patti’s personal archives. In a way, these personal photos are the most valuable and certainly the most evocative. My favourite footage is Suzi and her sisters’ first band performing on an obscure regional US TV station in 1966, but discovering photographer Roger Gould alive and well and living in Red Hill, along with his negatives of Suzi live at Festival Hall in ‘74 and ‘75, was possibly the ‘eureka’ moment, as the shots are sensational and little seen elsewhere.
Have there been any particular challenges in making this film? How is it different to your previous projects?
See above, especially the archive work, but really, the financing of the film was the toughest element by far. Films with this much archive, and 41 songs, shot 60% overseas across several trips, aren’t made cheaply. And we weren’t interested in making a lesser version. Film Victoria’s early development support, though modest, was crucial in helping shoot the initial research interviews, much of which remains in the final film. Liam and I funded the rest of the direct costs for more than three years, while everyone told us they loved the film but no one would commit to a dollar.
It was central to our progress that Liam could not only shoot, but also edit himself, thus we were able to present a solid rough cut. He even taught himself basic VFX, so the rough cut had a lot of sparkle and trickery, much more than would normally be expected at that stage, and clearly laid out the visual style and approach he wanted to take with the film, which is channelling the 70s pop / glam era.
Film Victoria supported Suzi Q with development and production funding. What was the impact of this?
As mentioned above, the initial development funding was just crucial, as was the ongoing interest in the project from the Film Victoria documentary program managers. Later when we came in for Production funding, again the response was really positive and injected the momentum and encouragement we so badly needed after further knock backs.
What advice would you give early career documentary filmmakers?
Make something you can love, about a subject you truly connect with, as that knowledge and insight is the valuable personal IP you bring to the table. And that may end up being the sole element that justifies the huge personal contribution you make to the film.
Suzi Q premieres at MIFF on 15 August. Visit the MIFF website for tickets and other session times.