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“We Wanted the Film to be Available for Free”: Kris Bowers & Ben Proudfoot on The Last Repair Shop

Mar 8, 2024

The Last Repair Shop

On an unassuming downtown block, the Los Angeles Unified School District (L.A.U.S.D.)’s Musical Instrument Repair has excelled for many years. A big fuss is never made by tireless employees (former musicians or quick learners who grew on the job) working long hours while tending to the wear-and-tear of damaged instruments public school students have relied on. Arts programs are severely neglected and underfunded in the United States; this repair facility—essentially a warehouse with minimal lighting but hundreds of tools and thousands of spare parts—provides an essential if underappreciated essential service.
Hoping to enhance the visibility of these dedicated craftsmen, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers’s The Last Repair Shop is a thoughtfully made documentary short boasting impressive production and sentimental values while establishing a throughline between student-musician and repairman. Following their Oscar-nominated A Concerto is a Conversation (starring Bowers’s grandfather, Horace) and Proudfoot’s Oscar-winning The Queen of Basketball, the Oscar-nominated The Last Repair Shop is the latest film from Breakwater Studios, the shortform nonfiction production company that Proudfoot discussed when I last spoke with him in 2022. Following its world premiere at last year’s Telluride Film Festival, The Last Repair Shop was acquired by Searchlight Pictures and L.A. Times Studios and is now readily available on numerous free and paid-subscription platforms. 
I recently spoke with Proudfoot and Bowers (himself an accomplished musician who has composed scores for feature films from Blitz Bazawule, Lee Daniels, Ava DuVernay, Reinaldo Marcus Green, and Justin Simien) about the craftsmen who make up The Last Repair Shop—Dana Atkinson, Paty Moreno, Duane Michaels, and Steve Bagmanyan—Interrotron usage and getting the cut down to an industry-standard length.
Filmmaker: Kris, I know a little bit about your history with L.A.U.S.D., but I believe this project originated with you, Ben. It’s been in the works for over four years, so I wanted to hone in on its origins. Was the idea of linking craftspeople to a specific instrument they know how to repair apparent from the start? 
Proudfoot: The idea originally came to Kris and I through our producer, Jeremy Lambert, whose brother Joey is a luthier who builds guitars. As we were going through an onslaught of newspaper articles about [other potential subjects], this musical instrument repair shop snagged Jeremy’s eye and he brought me an older article about how there was a backlog at this musical repair shop about 10 years ago. The shop was in L.A., the last in the country—which really appealed to us, like “Oh my gosh, ‘last in the country’ and it’s in L.A.?” I love “craftspeople movies,” as they’re a great world for a documentary to explore as you have a chance to make visual the internal story of whatever’s going on inside [this place], which is obviously a constant work in progress. And [with this story], we’d also get [to work with] music. 
I was working with Kris on A Concerto is a Conversation at the time and asked, “You went to L.A.U.S.D. Were you aware of this repair shop?” Kris said, “No, what is it?” and we got interested in learning more. In particular, Kris was adamant that we had to also talk to students and that became the core mission of the film, to understand this golden thread between the repair people in their “windowless house” and the music students whose instruments [needed repair].
Filmmaker: Right from the start, the film captures the surgical care and precision with which the men and women repair these instruments. Your camera similarly often takes an invasive, microscopic approach to showing us how their tools get in and out of these very tight crevices. I was curious as to why you felt it was important to show that right upfront?

Bowers: It really sets up the analogy of these instruments being representations of ourselves, of the individuals we’re about to learn the stories of. David Feeney-Mosier, our cinematographer, was incredible at helping us find some of those images you mentioned. When we went into the space, David immediately turned off all the lights so that we could see what the space could look like. Ben often tells the story of how the first time he saw Duane Michaels put the light inside of the saxophone to find the leaks, it immediately struct Ben as something he thought could be really visually interesting. That shot you mentioned at the beginning of the film, where it looks like we’re seeing a searchlight before realizing the camera is actually inside a cello…there’s a photograph in the shop that used that same type of macro photography, where it looks like you’re in this huge, massive space but you’re actually inside of a violin, and that was [our inspiration]. The space provided so many fascinating shots and images in terms of us wanting to achieve that closeness.
There was also the aspect of knowing that, sonically, we wanted the film to be a very tactile experience. A lot of that close photography really lended itself to the post[-production] side, to creating an ASMR-type of experience for the viewer. Like Ben said, when making films about craftspeople, [it’s important] to show that the external world can become a representation of whatever is happening internally so that the viewer gets a sense of the closeness and intimacy these people have with those instruments. It provides a nice pairing with the conversation about the broken internal parts of ourselves.
Filmmaker: Whenever I think of the film, I’m first reminded of the orange color palette that envelops the look and feel of it. Some of that is [ambient], i.e. the lights placed above a musical stand that illuminate someone’s sheet music, but a lot of it, like in the repair shop itself, seems set as a way to visually group all of the [scenes] together. I’m curious if the “orangeness” came organically through visiting one of the film’s central locations or if you chose that palette at the outset?
Proudfoot: The warehouse itself is a large windowless room with a “daylight” color temperature [to it], fluorescent lights that are, if anything, a little green. The first thing we did was turn those lights off [laughs], and what was left were all these little task lamps that had incandescent light bulbs that were very warm. That’s where that golden, warm glow comes from. The light bulb down the saxophone is a little incandescent refrigerator light bulb and it became [the de facto lighting] for this world, giving it a warm, “Geppetto’s workshop” vibe,  a candlelit environment that creates little pools of light where the craftspeople are working. 
We tried to recreate that feeling on the Eastwood Scoring Stage [where the film’s finale was shot] for the end credits, as well. In addition to the little music-stand lights, we had a large, warm, floating helium light placed above the orchestra. For the interviews with the students, same thing. I think that golden cast, that caramelized look takes something you might initially expect to be rather cold and scientific (the machining and fixing of things with screws and nuts and bolts) and brings it into a world of humanity and romance. The film looks more like a sweeping melodrama than it does a documentary about technicians. That was intentional in order to bring you into the feeling of what it was like for Kris and I to walk into that space, which was one of humanity and generosity and commitment to these students. We wanted to communicate the warm feeling we felt for this space, for these people, through the cinematography.
Filmmaker: I know Ben has spoken about initially resisting the urge to include students in the film, so I was curious as to what lead to the ultimate acceptance of bringing them in. And once you came to that acceptance, what made you choose to interview them in what appears to be a kind of theater space, on a stage with rows of seats lined up behind them?
Bowers: One of the things that really stood out is that while these two sides never meet, there’s an intrinsic link between them. Paty talked about their “invisible communication,” but to me, there was this other side of the conversation that felt important to further contextualize what they’re talking about when they’re talking about who [the craftsmen] are doing it for and the “why”  behind what they’re doing. When we decided on that end credit sequence, it also creates this cathartic moment where we finally do see them [the craftsmen and the students] together and in the same space. We get to see the students that were impacted by this repair shop in the same space as those technicians. 

As far as choosing the space [to interview the students in], we reached out to the Colburn School in L.A., as it’s the school I attended when I was a kid. They became integral in helping us find some of those students. They have a beautiful hall on their campus, so that’s where we filmed them. In a lot of ways, the [location] was chosen because that’s what/where the repairs are preparing for, a [performance]. It’d be different if [the interviews] were set in a classroom setting or in someone’s home. The fact that these kids are largely working on their performance ability, to play in some sort of a concert hall, then means that the space [we chose] should feel like a representation or [manifestation] of that. The look and the warmth of the space was important (as it was with the repair shop Ben described earlier) while, at the same time, feeling like it served as a connection to the idea of performing in front of a large audience. That’s what made the space we chose for the interviews make a lot of sense.
Filmmaker: To film the interviews, it appears you’re using an Interrotron, something you’ve used on several of your previous shorts. It obviously creates an instaneous level of extreme intimacy and closeness between the interviewee and the viewer, and I’m curious if there were other reasons you chose to implement its use on this film.
Proudfoot: Errol Morris gave a gift to documentary cinema when he connected two teleprompters together and invented the Interrotron, probably coming up on 50 years ago. The reason I really love it is because it helps dissolve the artifice of filmmaking, right away. If you’re looking off-camera in a documentary interview, the first question the viewer asks themselves is “Who are they looking at? Well, obviously, it’s the filmmaker.” What the Interrotron does in creating the direct eyeline is make it so that the viewer doesn’t [think to] ask that question. They know who [the subject] is looking at—they’re looking at [the viewer]. It erases and dissolves that barrier [between interviewer and interviewee] and itdisintermediates the filmmaker from the connection between the audience and the person on screen. It allows for this very intimate, immersive experience, where the subliminal unrest of this unseen third party is never introduced.
We also push in close on their face so that you can see all of the emotional detail and nuance we’re used to seeing when we have the most emotional conversations of our life. When we think about the most emotional conversations we’ve ever had, is it saying goodbye to someone for the last time, or when you first fall in love with someone, or when somebody is telling you something that’s really hard for them to tell you? In those moments, our genetics, our animal instincts are reading these little pieces of information on somebody’s face, whether that’s the depth of the crow’s feet on the edge of someone’s eyes or the little twist of the lips or the flare of the nose. We’re decoding all of this micro-information to try to understand the subtext of what someone is really saying and how they’re feeling about it. In most documentary interviews, you are so far away from the person that’s speaking that the information is not making it to the viewer. By keeping it close (and by having that direct eyeline), what we’re trying to simulate is the experience of the most intimate, personal conversation of real life [you could have] and trying to erase us as filmmakers. That’s the goal. You don’t want to be sitting there thinking about how the filmmakers get that shot or if that’s an interesting place for an oboe solo. You want to be in the story. All of our choices are subordinate to that.
Bowers: One other thing I’ll quickly say about the Interrotron is that, practically speaking, it probably makes it much easier for the kids to be interviewed that way rather than looking [directly] at a camera. For them to feel like they’re just having a conversation [directly with us], I’m sure that’s a much more comfortable situation to be in. I thought about that a lot with Concerto and my grandfather, who at the time [of filming] was 90 years old. I think the Interrotron allowed him to feel much more comfortable in that setting, and I imagine it was the same for the kids on The Last Repair Shop.
Filmmaker: The personal stories these men and women share with you provide the film both with individual threads [how they each overcame adversities which lead them, in some way or another, to working in this repair shop] and a larger throughline. Regarding the stories the interview subjects share (and the personal connections you made with them as a result) that feel fully formed in the final cut, I was curious how you arrived at each. I’m reminded of Paty’s personal story of growing up in Mexico and struggling to provide for her children as a single parent once they moved to the United States or of how a scene from James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein stuck with Duane for decades…
Bowers: Some of those things stuck out from the first assembly cut and have always been there. The Bride of Frankenstein thread has always been there [courtesy of] Nick Wright, our editor. That [thread] possesses such an understanding of the power of music, i.e. Duane took from that film that music can make the monster cry, that music is a language that doesn’t need any words for it to communicate feeling and connect people from different backgrounds.

There’s just so much to Paty’s story too, her perseverance through the challenges and obstacles she took on for the sake of her children and to make sure she could provide for and take care of them. Then, with Steve, there’s this kismet in how music was taken out of his life when he escaped out of Azerbaijan during [the war] and then brought back to him [later in life]. That always felt like the core emotional aspect of his story. 
Our first cut of the film was over an hour, and even when we added the [interviews with the] kids and added that end credit sequence and the thirty-second Searchlight logo at the front of the film and then had to get the cut down to 40 minutes, those threads never changed. That goes back to Nick and how we all got to work together to figure out, “Can we continue to refine this or take certain things out and still feel the same emotional impact we did when we watched the longer cut?” We obviously were able to include many details of each of these stories, but many little tangents that added so much color and context unfortunately had to be left on the cutting room floor. At the same time, I was just so nervous when we saw that first cut that we wouldn’t be able to get it down to a shorter length and still retain the emotional impact. But for me, to still watch the film and cry at Paty’s story and feel emotional when Steve talks about losing his father felt like such a huge win, and we made that happen largely with the help of Nick in the edit.
Filmmaker: Regarding the film’s final length [39 minutes and 58 seconds], there’s a strict 40-minute cutoff to qualify [for the shortform categories at the Academy Awards] and I know debating the ideal length of a short is a talking point within the filmmaking community, especially as it pertains to visibility or playability when submitting for festival consideration. “The shorter, the better” feels like a mantra that’s beaten into filmmakers very early in their careers, so I wanted to ask how you got The Last Repair Shop to its ideal length while keeping it classified, officially, as a “short doc.”
Proudfoot: It wasn’t a strategic decision in our case. It was always going to be a long short. I mean, it has eight characters, the end credits alone are five minutes long, the Searchlight logo [that opens the film] goes 30 seconds, etc. We always knew it was going to be long. Our core principle, which is guided more by the movie business than anything else, is that we wanted this film to be accessible, as it’s a movie about equal access to music. We didn’t want this to be a commercial thing, where in order to watch it you say, “OK, you can watch it but only on a streamer, on ‘fill-in-the-blank-+.’ You have to subscribe, you have to pay to see this thing, and then you can watch the movie, a story about how someone can’t afford to pay $20 for a clarinet!” That wouldn’t make any sense.
We knew we wanted the film to be available for free, and that is a strong and proud tradition of the short documentary. All of our films at Breakwater can be viewed for free on YouTube in perpetuity. That was more of a driver to keep it short than anything else; we didn’t want it to get sucked up in the feature documentary industrial complex. As artists, we’re just trying to achieve elegance. We don’t want anything extra in there that doesn’t need to be there. So yes, we are totally up against the wall of the 40-minute requirement for the Academy [Awards] qualification. But in the end, the film that we liked the best was around 38 [minutes] and something, and then, once we added on all the [production] logos and Special Thanks and whatever, it turned out to be right up against the limit. When we submitted the film to Telluride, it was 38 [minutes] and change, something like that.
Filmmaker: Kris, in addition to yourself, there’s another composer credited on the film [Katya Richardson], and you’ve admitted that had you been the sole composer, it may have turned out differently. What prompted you to bring on another composer to score the film? And have you seen your vast experience as a composer influence your work as a director? 
Bowers: In terms of choosing Katya, she’s just an incredible composer. When Ben and I talked about bringing somebody else on—I mean, some of that was for me personally, knowing that to write the score for this film would prove to be a heavy lift and something that would need all of my attention and take me away from the edit. I wanted someone that could 100% dive into just the score and really give it the attention and love that it deserved. Once we decided on [bringing someone else on], Katya was the first and only name we thought of, and luckily, she was down to jump into it. The reason I say I’m so glad that she did (and why I feel like it’s a better movie because of it) is because I would’ve done something completely different [with the score] but I love what she did and wouldn’t want to change it. It’s about wanting to have a different perspective brought in. That’s why I love collaboration. I can give Katya a melody or a theme, then she’s going to reimagine it in a totally different way and bring another voice to the project. Bringing someone in from an underrepresented background in that field also felt like a contribution that was very important to have on this story. 

In terms of [myself] being a musician and director, when talking to Katya, I really wanted to do my best to talk to her like a director and not like a composer—because, again, that’s why we hired her, for her compositional mind. If I tell her, “Oh, you know what? Actually, I think you should use this progression and then maybe change it to this harmony here and then this orchestration might be better for this section…” I think that would be getting too deep into her creative process. Once I gave her those themes, I backed off and chose to talk to her about the shape of the story and the shape of the scenes, like, “at this point, maybe we should have a bit more of a resolution. However you want to arrive at that resolution, whether it’s via a cadence or something with the dynamics of the instrumentation, whatever you want to do to get to that feeling of resolution, I’m open to, but that’s the feeling we need here when, for example, Steve mentions that his son has the same name as his father.” Those were fun moments where I could let go of my own thought process, in terms of “How would I approach this as a composer?,” and really talk about it more from an emotional standpoint and then be blown away and surprised by what Katya does. That’s what was so exciting about collaborating with her.
On the filmmaking side, that’s also what’s so great about my collaboration with Ben, as he loves and knows music and can also articulate some of these things to me in a musical way. If we’re in the mix, we can talk about the dynamics of the sound design in a certain section and how those dynamics are going to swell over the course of a montage in the film or when we’re thinking about the pacing of somebody’s voiceover and how that pacing can be adjusted in a very musical way, or how [to construct] the overlap between music and sound design and dialogue and seeing how those things all play together. We’re able to talk about those things and it helps me think about it much clearer. Take the craft of [film] editing, for example. As soon as I thought of that craft in a musical way, I was like, “Oh, okay, I understand. I understand pacing, I understand when it comes to changing the tempo of something to give it a certain type of effect,” etc.  I can understand it much clearer when we talk about it in musical terms. As collaborators, being able to go in and out of talking musically and in “filmmaking language,” has been really helpful for me, coming from the composition side, to understand these concepts in a deep way, very quickly, because it has such a clear analogy to music.

Disclaimer: This story is auto-aggregated by a computer program and has not been created or edited by filmibee.
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