ShortList 2020: How Charlie Tyrell Made Beautiful Music Out of Busted Instruments in ‘Broken Orchestra’

Tyrell’s short documentary chronicles the use of discarded instruments from Philadelphia schools to perform a special composition written for them by Oscar-nominated composer David Lang

Broken Orchestra
Charlie Tyrell/Topic Studios

The last time Charlie Tyrell was in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, it was with the 2018 film “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes,” the arrestingly titled stop-motion documentary short that used the objects a person leaves behind — including, yes, some VHS porno tapes — to tell a story.

Tyrell’s  imaginative and haunting new film, “Broken Orchestra,” a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, began with discarded objects, too. But in this case, it was musical instruments that fell into disrepair in the Philadelphia public school system as arts funding dried up. But a collaborative effort known as Symphony for a Broken Orchestra rallied the students to perform a concert with those battered instruments, playing a piece of music specially written for the event by Oscar-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.

“I really like inanimate objects as a starting point,” Toronto-based filmmaker Tyrell said. “I subscribe to the notion that you can tell a whole lot more about an individual by what’s on their desk than by talking to them, and I think objects can do a lot of talking for people and communities. But the moment I knew this was a film I had to make was when I heard David Lang’s score. It’s a wonderful piece of music they were able to create – not just a bunch of weird sounds with broken instruments, but something of merit and worth and artistic value.”

Tyrell initially thought he would use stop-motion techniques to animate the busted instruments and use that as the entry point into the story. But when he went to Philadelphia to shoot interviews with some of the participants, his notion of how to shoot the film began to change. Many of the interviews took place inside the high school – and as the crew was setting up, Tyrell decided the setting could be a key to the film.

“We realized that if we could place it in a high school, it would allow people to access the story a little better,” he said. “I was thinking back on my own arts education, and I thought, if we can float a camera through the school from room to room and have our subjects in monitors on TV carts, that’s how I got a lot of my education. It’s easy to forget nonfiction pieces, and I want people to not forget it after they watch it.”

True to Tyrell’s vision, the camera floats through the empty halls of the school, turning to discover TV monitors where the interview subjects are talking. It looks like one continuous, carefully-choreographed shot, though Tyrell said it includes “five or six” cuts. And all of the TV monitors are actually playing the interviews as the cameras turn to them – there was no after-the-fact compositing to get the timing right.

The shoot took lots of planning, working from the floor plan of a Toronto school that closed for good a month after Tyrell shot there. He and his crew shot for two intricate, “physically exhausting days,” somehow avoiding the rolling blackouts that were hitting the neighborhood that day. “If anything had gone wrong,” he said, “we would have been in over our heads.”

The finished film only abandons the conceit of watching monitors once, when Symphony for a Broken Orchestra project creator Robert Blackson goes full screen as he gets emotional talking about the repaired instruments. “The single-shot, steady-cam, TV-monitors thing is eye candy,” Tyrell said. “It’s fancy and it’s a format I’d never really seen. But I wanted to completely throw that away in the middle of the film and be in the room with Rob. It didn’t need anything flashy to enhance that section of his story.”

In the end, he said, the film was his attempt to do the same kind of thing that the musicians were doing. “What Rob and Symphony for a Broken Orchestra did,” he said, “is that they took this problem and found a creative solution and created a beautiful piece of art out of it. For us, it was, ‘How do we take what these people did and make our own piece of art out of it?’”


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