Faculty of Music

Barbara Willis Sweete

barbaraAward-winning filmmaker weds music and images

There was an audible sigh from the audience of filmmakers, producers, screenwriters and actors. They knew they’d seen some impressive footage by one of the best in the business: Barbara Willis Sweete’s (BMus’75) director’s roll, a quick compilation of sequences from her films.

Willis Sweete, one of the founding partners of Rhombus Media, received the Honorary Director award at the 10th annual Female Eye Film Festival in Toronto, June 24, 2012. At Western, she dreamed of becoming a concert pianist – until her fourth year.

“I started wondering how I would structure my life without piano lessons. I made the decision on the bus from Ottawa to Western to go into film. I hadn’t even made a home movie, but thought I had the visual instinct, the musical instinct and was used to working with teams of people. I never changed my mind.”

She was accepted into the film program at York University but had to wait a year due to other commitments. “It was all mapped out in the stars looking back,” she said. “The two people who became my business partners with Rhombus (Niv Fichman and Larry Weinstein) were at York. They also have backgrounds in music.”

Their first film was about an 11-year-old child prodigy at the Royal Conservatory of Music. “It was fantastic – the synergies. We tried out different functions.”

A summer grant allowed them to hire another student. They continued with support from a youth employment program through the National Film Board, the Ontario Arts Council and Canada Council. They sold a student film to the CBC. It was the start of a long partnership that remains today.

“It was called Opus One, Number One,” said Willis Sweete. “It was a short documentary about three children rehearsing and performing Beethoven. We went to the CBC children’s department, film reel in hand, and asked the receptionist to show it to the head of the department. They told us it was too dry for children.”

When the young filmmakers returned for their reel, they noticed a sign for Music and Arts. So they went in. “Roger Kennedy liked our naïve enthusiastic energy. He loved the film and said he’d run it in the Sunday afternoon slot if we added some interviews and behind-the-scenes shots.”

R. Murray Schafer was looking for a filmmaker - nobody wanted to tackle the logistics and insurance risks of 12 trombonists around a wilderness lake. “We said Yes!” said Willis Sweete. “We were star-struck and said we’d put in our own money. Michael Koerner contributed the rest of the budget. So then we had two music films and people started coming to us, even from out of the country. We had a closet at CBC as an office.”

CBC also sent the young group to an international organization of music broadcasters, buyers and recording companies. “We were the first to attend as makers of product,” said Willis Sweete. “So we got a lot of attention and very quickly became known to opera companies, orchestras, dance companies and public broadcasters.”

They also worked with the BBC, Bravo! and formed a distribution division, an idea from John Frizzell who was a fourth partner at the time. Frizzell also came up with the name Rhombus, a quadrilateral whose four sides are all the same length.

“I did not realize how my music training would inform every moment. My choice of subjects is often musical. I can speak the language of the maestros, and with comfort comes trust. I can navigate backstage. I know when to disturb and when not to when they’re preparing to go on stage.”

Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, persuaded Willis Sweete to try filming live opera that would be screened live to Time Square and Lincoln Centre Plaza, rather than the 16,000 cinemas. “I was never interested in live filming – there’s a lack of control,” she said. “I sort of took to it – but it was terrifying.”

Many broadcasts later it’s still terrifying, directing 10 to 15 cameras from outside. But her score-reading skill helps. “I write every shot on the score. I pull the score apart and space the staves to write the shots, descriptions and camera numbers and then time it.”

Some of the fear recalled Willis Sweete’s early phobia for performing – part of her decision to give up the dream of concert artist and move behind the camera. Conquering it through the live broadcasts gives her some sense of the rush after a performance. “It’s like anything live – something always goes wrong but you have to save it without anyone knowing. You cope by trusting your teammates. The score-readers are all Juilliard collaborative pianists, mostly doctoral candidates and they’re highly skilled. They keep you in your place. The technical director (who also does the Colbert Report) switches cameras on my cue. I use wrist action like a conductor and tap for each cut. The actual experience of sending it out to the world is thrilling.”

Willis Sweete has created adaptations of dramatic performances, such as Elizabeth Rex and Billy Bishop Goes to War.  “You have to make sure the audience is aware and feels the emotion directly from the actors, not secondhand, or it’s just an archive of a performance. We use the camera to create the visceral response. Music was better training than film school that way. You need to pick people up and put them down in another place emotionally.

“It’s a life lesson making a film. You are so involved with people and the subject, and then you have to let it go. I love being on set. I love the actual shooting and editing – the craft of making a film. I enjoy traveling with the film. I love the danger and the beauty.”

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