Oliver Murray’s documentary debut, The Quiet One (2019), tells the story of an under appreciated musician. In the director’s words, this is a film about “…the quiet Stone – this rock, this motionless half of arguably one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time, standing there at the back providing that spitfire rumble.” Former Rolling Stones bassist and rock ‘n’ roll renaissance man Bill Wyman allowed Murray access to his vast private archive of film footage, photographs, and memorabilia to help piece together his life story, from childhood to the present day.
In conversation with PopMatters, Murray discusses his intent to take the audience on a guided tour through Wyman’s memories so that they, too, may rediscover the story of the band. Wyman is not interested in mythologising his past; rather, his artifacts serve as guideposts to the his place in this portion of music history.
Why film as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you personally?
I grew up on a farm where I had a lot of space to create, in a bit of a bubble. I was always used to creating my own fun when I was younger, and then my working on my own projects in bits and pieces. I guess I naturally gravitated towards music through principally my dad’s record collection, which I think is how most people get into music. I ended up taking that very seriously and forming bands as a teenager. Some of the people I played with went on to be in pretty successful and interesting bands, but I chose to go to art school because I wanted to grow artistically.
I went to the Glasgow School of Art and from there got an exchange scholarship to go to New York, where I got a taste of those amazing American film schools that have lots of fantastic kit and all of that opportunity. I came back to the UK having made in-roads into the music industry, but now with a real taste for filmmaking.
Photo credit: ©Bent Rej (Courtesy of Sundance Selects)
What was it specifically about film that has since held your interest?
I have always felt that filmmaking has allowed me to have a hand in all sorts of forms of creative expression. The soundtrack is a ginormous part of the success of a film, and obviously the visuals, but then the written part of the storytelling is possibly my favourite, because that’s the purest form. When it’s just you, a pencil, and a piece of paper, that first draft is always going to be the purest self-expression that you can hope for. Then you just try to hold on to that original idea as you bring your collaborators on board, and you find your funding.
… A lot of the time as you know, these things take on a life of their own, and they don’t end up being as close to your original idea as you had hoped. But I have to say that my original ideas and treatment for The Quiet One, albeit nearly four years after I met Bill, ended up being a very similar outcome to what I had originally set out to achieve.
I’m only really getting any sense of distance now, and so it’s only now that I have any ability to self-analyse what went on. I have been so close to it for such a long time that I’m looking forward to how I feel about it in maybe five or ten years time, when people will still be able to hopefully watch it, and I’ll finally get some perspective on that rollercoaster of a journey that The Quiet One went on.
We understand a film more clearly once we are removed from the experience, and while for the filmmaker that requires a longer period of time, the audience understand and a have a feel for the film sooner.
… The best advice I got was that you can control the making of it, but you can’t control the distribution. I don’t mean that in terms of you can’t control that from an industry perspective, but the way it’s viewed and consumed. It’s now out there, and you have to let it have its life beyond your abilities to control that experience. Similarly, when you’re making these things, you’ll do anything you can to try to give yourself that fresh perspective. I would go and watch it at a friends house — anything to be in a different environment because you have to constantly remind yourself that you are making these things for an audience.
Archive documentaries are notoriously tricky and can take years, so it was impossible to retain that early perspective of the first few months when you were four years down the line, and also when you’d got to know your subject so well, and what’s in his archive and the stories. Moving forward on the projects I am working on and trying to develop now, it’s all about finding ways to retain that perspective.
How has the experience of The Quiet One impacted your own view on the band and that period of music?
The film had been in the works for a little while, I believe, before I came on board, and the archive at one stage was going to be part of a major exhibition at a large museum. So from my perspective, when I came in I knew as much as anyone else, I suppose.
I wasn’t a ginormous Stones fan beyond knowing the records; I loved the music, but I’m not one of those people to pour over biographies of bands, and make those kinds of links. What this access to the archive allowed me to do was to almost rediscover the story of that band from the inside out, which was fascinating, because once bands like the Stones are mythologised, it’s as if everything was preordained, or somehow meant to be. And what I found fascinating was that Bill’s archive gives you this present tense retelling of that story.
By his own admission, Bill is very matter of fact and doesn’t really talk about things in emotional terms. So I thought of myself as a curator of Bill’s archive with him being our tour guide. I suppose my pitch to the producers, if you like, was that Bill’s archive would be a visual metaphor for his brain, and we take the audience on a curated tour of his memories. And each item we focused upon would act as a chapter marker, or it would provide us with the catalyst for a new memory.
One of my favourite items in his archive, for instance, is the fact that he actually took the time at Hyde Park to keep and preserve one of the butterflies. I had this very tactile experience with something that is so… music is subjective, and so it literally exists in the air, yet I am in this very solid, aesthetically beautiful place that was conjuring up a perspective that I’d never seen or heard of before. I’m trying to unpack something that’s very personal, and I’m sorry if it sounds rambling and incoherent, but it’s a very difficult thing to articulate being in Bill’s archive, because it’s an emotionally-charged place to be.
The camera pans from left to right in the opening sequence in the archive, and you reverse the movement in the closing scene. I was aware of some negative critical responses, one of which was that the documentary was too linear, yet this structure makes sense because in this form, the film connects with Bill’s activity of compiling the archive.
… What I also wanted to get across was Bill’s sort of OCD approach to his collecting. At first I thought that maybe there were quite a few assistants and people working on this thing, but it’s all him for a start annotating all of the items. Each one has a serial number, each one is dated and every day he is diarising on a sort of hourly basis all of these events that happened. As you say, I wanted the film to reflect my experience with Bill.
… I felt my voice was really in the curation of the items I chose to pull out and ask Bill about, but if you ask him about something that happened say in 1970, “Oh you moved to France and this happened”, he’ll start by saying, “Right, well obviously when I joined the Stones…” You can’t start in the middle, that’s not how his brain operates. So even in the way that we conducted the interviews, which came after I’d engaged with the archives, it wasn’t even, “I was born in such and such a place, in such a year.” It was, “Right, my grandfather was…” and you go in a linear fashion from start to finish.
That’s how Bill lives his life and so I’m really pleased that you picked up on that because as I say, I am trying to give the audience a real impression of not just what the archive looks like, but what it’s like to sit with the guy that has built and catalogued the archive. It felt like that was a vital part of the filmmaking.
Picking up on your point about bands like the Stones being mythologised, there’s a line in the film refers to how there’s the life on the stage, and then there’s the life off the stage. Towards the end of The Quiet One, we see Bill become more self-reflective, which offers us an insight into the everyday Bill.
Well, one of the interesting bits about meeting someone like Bill, I suppose, is that like most people of my generation, I knew relatively little about his background and life outside of the Stones. But what I did know of him was that he was the quiet Stone – this rock, this motionless half of arguably one of the greatest rhythm sections of all time, standing there at the back providing that spitfire rumble. And then the guy that I met wasn’t that person. I don’t mean that in a negative way, I just mean that people change over the course of their life.
Bill was in the Stones for three decades, which for most bands is ten careers’ worth of a career. So it was fascinating to see someone so emotionally available and willing to talk, and to not worry about preserving that mythology.
Photo credit: ©Ben Thomas (Courtesy of Sundance Selects)
The moment in the film where he talks about his affection for Ray Charles was something that we filmed quite early. It was before Bill’s prostate cancer diagnosis that we actually did some filming down in France, and that was a fascinating moment for me. I think a lot of the time the stereotype of the rock ‘n’ roll star is often true to some extent – that bravado is required, it’s part of the job. But to hear someone who a lot of people would say has nothing to prove in the playing stakes, it feels like that at the end of his life he’s still dealing with that, which was the heart of the film for me. I remember going to bed that night thinking, ‘This is a different film now. This is something with a much broader scope.’
I hope you agree that there is obviously a lot there for Stones fans because that was my original brief; we were in a lot of ways making a Rolling Stones movie, or certainly a movie that would be filed away with all the other fantastic Stones documentaries in existence. But with this one, it’s also a look at a man looking back at his life. I think you have to live your life moving forward, but you can only understand yourself looking backwards, and Bill is still looking back, trying to work himself out.
… I think Bill lost his sense of self, and that was one of the main reasons he wanted to stop and to leave the Stones. I’m very conscious that I don’t like talking on his behalf too much, but I think it’s safe to say that he wanted to experience something akin to normalcy, something else and, as I say, to step off the merry-go-round. It’s not for everyone and you have to be made of seriously strong stuff to even last four or five years, let alone thirty.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process for you personally?
A hundred percent, and I don’t think there’s any way that it can’t. I was talking to someone from the Doc Society the other day, and they said independent documentaries on average take four years of your life. One of the reasons I wanted to do it was that it was an opportunity to learn, and as I said, I didn’t know much about Bill outside of the stereotype of what I saw of him on album covers, and what I heard of him playing.
It’s a wonderful thing to work with collaborators and I was very lucky that the producers let me work with an editor [Anne Perri] and a sound designer [Jon Clarke] who I had done lots of work with in the commercial and short films worlds. So I had my filmmaking family as I call it around me, and I owe a huge amount to Bill. I lived with him in the end to get all that research done, and to spend as much time as I needed in his archive. Three individual trips were at least a week long, so you have this very intense relationship with your subject and your collaborators, and you learn.
Bill is a guy in his 80s and I think actually he’s been four or five different kinds of people in that time – in a very natural way. I think we all go through cycles; we move into different chapters of our lives, and that was the most fascinating part. I also learned a lot about myself in the way that I interview and I assimilate material, and what resonates with me.
When I started I was 27, and what I have learned now is I actually need to keep my mouth shut and my ears open for as long as possible, just to absorb everything that I can. In my slightly younger days there was a lot of wheel spin, a lot of enthusiasm going into the wrong places and not enough restraint.
I was lucky enough with this film to have the time. If I’d had less time, I may have not made the observations and the decisions, for instance, to try to reflect on my experience with Bill in the film. It might have been very different, but you control the thing as much as you can, then you also have to let go when it’s right to let go. So every film is a ginormous learning curve, that’s for sure.
The Quiet One opened in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Boston on 21 June, and expands to other cities on 28 June, along with a VOD release on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play and Vudu.