Joshua Dylan Mellars: The Music to Film Interview

by Don Schwartz – CineSource Magazine

I must confess: I’m jealous of Joshua Dylan Mellars. He’s young, handsome, tall, strong, talented and intelligent. He has way-cool parents, plays musical instruments, speaks three languages, and has experienced a cornucopia of cultures in the United States, South America, Europe and India. Had enough? No?

Okay. He acted in and directed plays in high school and college, and was an international journalist for six years after college. But most importantly of all, from my envious perspective, he has deftly fused two of my life’s passions: music and film.

To date Mellars has written, produced, and directed a trilogy of music-based documentaries. His first, “Tango Illusions,” explores the dance, music, and world-view of the tango—set against the 2001 political upheaval and riots in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Shot in the United States and Portugal, “Heaven’s Mirror” explores the Portuguese musical and vocal tradition called ‘fado.’

“Play Like a Lion: The Legacy of Maestro Ali Akbar Khan,” serves as a biography of the legendary musician and a profile of his son, Alam, who is carrying on Khan’s classical Indian musical tradition. All three of Mellars films present passionate musics and beatific visuals. An accomplished cinematographer, he has the eye of a professional photographer.

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, Mellars was, understandably, a busy boy in high school. He was a competitive swimmer, played varsity baseball and varsity basketball, wrote articles that were published in Santa Rosa’s “Press Democrat,” and was Rancho Cotati High School’s Valedictorian in 1994. Between all these activities Mellars learned the guitar.

It was also in high school that Mellars met his friend and producing partner Mojib Aimaq —’Mo’ for short. Aimaq was born in Afghanistan, and was brought to the U.S. around the age of 4.

By his senior year, Mellars knew he wanted to act and to produce films. He attended Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island and, although he took many filmmaking and drama classes, his major was Hispanic Studies with a minor in Modern Culture and Media. As part of his undergraduate program Mellars spent most of 1997 studying in Spain.

Having learned it’s best to know what you want to say before you start making films, Mellars decided to go into journalism. Since he had a solid background in Hispanic Studies, experience in Spain, and an interest in covering tango, he decided to go to South America, and work as a journalist. Between 1998 and 2004, Mellars lived and worked in Caracas, Venezuela; Buenos Aires, Argentina; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. During that time he filed reports to UPI, BBC, NPR, Bridge News, and Andante Magazine.

We met up in my Larkspur lair which, coincidentally, has way too many CDs literally papering the walls. That seemed like a good place to start:

CineSource: How did music become a driving force in your life and filmmaking?

Joshua Dylan Mellars: “My parents were both into music. They met at a rock concert, in Texas, on July 4, 1969. So I grew up in a household full of all kinds of music. My dad was constantly taking me to blues festivals and folk festivals. He plays several instruments, but guitar is his primary instrument. He was influenced by folk music, by blues, by everything that was going on in the sixties.

So that was the environment I grew up in. Although it wasn’t intentional, I think it makes a lot of sense that now I’m making documentaries about music.

What brought about your first film, ‘Tango Illusions’?

I knew I wanted to get to South America, I had this idea for a documentary on tango. I’d almost gotten a grant to do it, they picked three people, and I was the fourth one on the waiting list. So I just missed it.

But I’d done that study abroad in Spain, published articles there, did some production work, all in addition to my studies, and that opened up a lot of things to me, including my interest in tango. I saw tango shows there, and then I also met some Argentines there. So, for me, it was tango, but it was also Argentina. And at the time, tango and Buenos Aires went together.

I found a posting on my school’s job-search website for Reporter, Caracas, Venezuela, The Daily Journal. I applied for and got the job. This was in 1998, and it was the start of my journalism career. This was at the time that Hugo Chavez was running for president.

But it wasn’t my objective to become a news journalist. It was a great experience, but I had that tango documentary in my mind. So I found a way to create a couple of freelance jobs. And basically the tango was very romantic to me, and Buenos Aires had a very romantic mystique to me, and I went down to Argentina. But I wanted to test my romantic notions with what was really going on there.

I didn’t even have a camera. About a year into it, I got a mini DV camera and started filming my tango documentary. I ended up shooting in two different cycles. I shot for at least a year when I was living in Buenos Aires, and then I’d moved to Brazil for a couple of years, and was editing it there, in Rio.

It was in Rio that I really started to make the full transition from journalism to filmmaking. I started meeting filmmakers there, and so I started getting more into the film world, and I worked on some films, I worked on a Hollywood production. At the end of my stay in Brazil I felt like I needed a few more images, so I went back to Argentina and filmed a month more to get some additional footage and interviews. And then I was in the editing studio a long time with it. (laughs)

When I’m making a film I like everything to be as essential as possible; and anything that’s extra, I prefer to cut it out. I’d rather have it be too short, and have people wanting more, than just to go on and on. And so I wanted to make “Tango Illusions” short and sweet, and try to get at the root of what was going on at that time—some of the emotional life.

What do you mean when you say, ’emotional life’?

I think the emotional aspect of filmmaking is something that I find in whatever project that I’m working on. And at that time in Buenos Aires, there were a lot of high emotions going on in the street, a lot of the things that we’re encountering now in the U.S. were happening to a certain extent in Argentina. A massive shift of people worrying about not having their retirements, losing their savings.

When you’re facing an economic crisis, you have to look inside, and look at who you are at that particular moment. And they were going through that, and in that way I think that there was a bit of an identity crisis. And so I really wanted to capture— as much as I wanted to tell the story what was going on through the lens of the tango—I wanted to capture what those feelings were. So that you would learn something, but you would also have some sense of what it was like to be there, what it felt like to be Argentine at that particular time.

So you have images of tango, the sound of tango music, and you have images from the street. What’s the relationship between those two?

I think a songwriter in the fado film says it best. He said that fado’s great singer Amalia Rodrigues, she started singing poems of famous poets, and at that point the music took one foot out of the street. But she knew that she always had to keep at least one foot in the street to keep the music authentic. And so I think that with any art form that comes from the people— and tango certainly did—it’s always gotta have some kind of a connection to what’s going on in the street. And that’s what I was interested in exploring—how does the tango mind set play into what’s going on in the street, how does it not?

So, at what point did you decide you wanted to do a piece on fado?

It was right at the point I started to show “Tango Illusions” at festivals. I had been thinking about fado music for a long time. There was something about the music that really struck me. The first time I went to Portugal—it was the fado music, but it was also Portugal. There was something that was just very inspiring about the place, and very mysterious, because I couldn’t quite trace where things were coming from—the architecture, the way people looked, the food. It had elements that were familiar and elements that weren’t familiar.

I think a lot of European countries, although there’s a lot of elements to delve into—we sort of think we know what France is, England, or Germany. But Portugal, I found myself feeling, ‘where is all this coming from?’ And whenever there’s a mystery, I want to dive further into it. And in the fado, for me, this is a very mysterious sounding music, the Portuguese guitar, the way the singers wail. That mystery was always there, and after I did “Tango Illusions,” it was kind of like, ‘Hey. Why not?’

Did you get introduced to fado music by virtue of having gone to Spain, or had you heard about it earlier?

I’d heard about it before. Providence (Rhode Island), where I went to Brown, has a large Portuguese community, so that was my first exposure. I got a sense of the Portuguese immigrant community there, but it wasn’t ’til I went to Portugal, when, really, I just felt the whole thing. It was beyond fado, it was the culture. That was the start. And then, obviously, in Brazil, you get a certain amount of a feeling of Portuguese culture.

So, what was the inspiration for the Ali Akbar Khan piece?

I would have to say Mo is where the idea came from. He grew up with this music. His father is a connoisseur of classical Indian music, and his grandfather was, as well. When they had to leave Afghanistan, on the eve of the Soviet invasion, his father found a way to get all of his Indian classical music albums out of Afghanistan. That was a priority for him. He has an incredible collection, he knows all the great musicians who are performing, and a lot of times when they tour in the area, they’ll stay at his house in Cotati, and the musicians will give a private concert in his living room.

So, it’s a big part of Mo’s cultural background. So, when I’d finished “Tango Illusions,” and was starting to get “Heaven’s Mirror” rolling, and we were going to go to L.A. to meet some people, Mo said at dinner, the night before we left, “Why don’t you do one on Indian classical music? That’s my tradition.”

I thought, ‘great idea’, but I knew enough about the music to know that that’s not necessarily going to be an easy subject to bring to a seventy or eighty minute documentary. The idea seemed incredibly daunting. I liked the idea, but I wasn’t sure how we were going to approach it. But Mo challenged me. I suppose I’m not someone who shrinks away from challenges. He also knew how difficult it would be to make it. The fact that we both knew it was going to be difficult was not a reason to not do it. That was actually a very good reason to take it on.

I think filmmaking is about challenging yourself, taking the film and yourself to places that are not necessarily comfortable. It’s when you get to that unfamiliar territory that the true discoveries come. And to a certain extent it was something that just fell into my lap, and once it was there, I felt I had to do it.

And, so, what’s next?

Well, I have a couple of ideas. Music is a big inspiration, but I don’t know if it would be a music documentary or not, or maybe even something that’s fictional, but definitely music is going to play a big role in it. I think it’s nice to change things up a little, and I really have been in this world of Indian music and fado for a long time. It’s basically been six years of production for both films, and now they’re both premiering. And so, I’ve got a couple of ideas, but I think it would be interesting to mix things up a bit, and maybe go into some new directions.

Joshua, can you give me your philosophy of filmmaking or say what you want to express overall with your films?

I think, having lived in a few places, having met a certain amount of people, there’s a lotta stuff going on in the world, a lot of real stories going on. It may sound like a cliché, but I guess I’d like to find those stories, whether I express them as documentaries or narratives. I want to find real people, genuine people, and let things go from there. Sometimes I think filmmaking can become a little bit self-reflective, our society can become self-reflective.

Everyone’s looking at their navel. We can become so self-absorbed, and that self-absorption finds its way to the screen. Maybe we forget there’s still a lot of fresh stories, fresh people out there. I guess I’m interested in finding genuine people. I try to present myself in a genuine way.

What does ‘genuine’ mean to you?

It’s hard to encapsulate, but I think, you know, we meet a lot of people, and sometimes, you meet someone, and you just feel like you’re talking with them, and you’re getting a very genuine vibe off of them. Those are the people that I like to talk to. Those are the kind of people that I want to put into my films. It’s something that I noticed when I came back to the U.S., there’s always been a bit of a celebrity culture, but I think that it’s grown a whole lot, even since 2000 and on.

Part of that, perhaps, has been propagated by the social media which has its good aspects, it helps independent filmmakers to get the word out about their films; but at the same time, it’s created an odd phenomenon where it feels like there’s a whole generation, or many generations of people who are very much obsessed with being famous, with looking at themselves, rather than looking at what’s out there.

And I think that there’s so many fascinating things and people that are out there, but when you’re always looking at yourself, I think that it almost creates an illness. And sometimes it seems like that generally that’s a road that we’ve been heading down as a culture. Where you find that even the kinds of news stories that you see on television or movies, everything’s just all focused on ‘me’, or on celebrity.

I really like things that are in the root. I think what’s been great about having the experiences I’ve had in some of these other places is that I’ve gotten to meet people who are really, [pause] there’s no real facade. You’re just talking with them, and you get who they are. And I’m sorry if this is sounding very convoluted.

[pause] I guess there’s something refreshing about that. When you watch a movie, when you read a book, when you talk to somebody, that connection that you get from them is really the most important thing. That for me is what makes life worth living, that’s what gives it some meaning, are those interactions. I think that they can come, obviously, from talking to somebody, but when you put it into film I think it’s also important that, in a way, the filmmaker is, (pause) I look at, when I make a film, as starting a conversation.

Now, I’m not necessarily going to be on the other side of the conversation, whoever is watching it is going to be on the other side of that. But, it’s opening up a dialog, and whenever I read a book that I like, or watch a movie I feel like the writer or the director or the person that I’m talking to is actually engaged, and is talking to me, and we’re sharing that particular moment.

I think you can only get out of something what you put into it. Whether you’re having a conversation with someone, or whether you’re filming them. So, if I’m not going in there with some kind of a real desire to understand where they’re coming from, and a genuine interest in listening, and listening as you’re doing to me now, of just being there and letting the person express who they are, I think that that’s, that’s fundamental, and I don’t know why you’d want to watch a movie or read a book or watch a play where that wasn’t the root of what was going on—where someone is really trying to communicate something to you. I’m hoping that my films start a conversation.

The three films that you saw—tango, fado, Indian music—by no means am I saying this is the definitive about this stuff, these are beginnings for me. It’s all about starting this conversation. And then when you finish it, the process that I like the most is, you’re just giving it to whoever wants to see it, and then that becomes theirs. And to a certain degree I work very hard to try to make the films layered, and to bring some emotional depth to them

It’s not really bringing emotional depth—it’s just finding the emotional depth by being there, being there through the process. I mean that’s in a way why these particular [films] have taken so long, ’cause I felt a really great responsibility, particularly because they’re dealing with other cultures, to try to do justice to these cultures, but also to try to really find what is my personal connection to the subject. I think at root, that’s what it’s about. And all that I really want to do is I want to make some kind of a connection.