Celebrity Interview: Tom Volf Talks on the Making of Maria by Callas, the Process, and the Surprise Acceptance

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Tom Volf the first time director behind the international sensation Maria by Callas, the documentary from Sony Pictures Classic of the immortal Opera singer, recently sat for an interview as his film completes an unbelievable year of global premieres.

We met just as the film was chosen as a Gala screening at The Los Angeles Film Festival and preparing for its US theatrical opening. Volf who undertook this project naively, one may say he was blinded by passion, has celebrated the past year with a surprise global acceptance of the film that was once scrapped mid-project and remade.

Maria by Callas, which is due to be released in the United States on November 2, tells the story of the famed Opera singer, Maria Callas, whom some say no other voice could compare. The film opens with footage of Ms. Callas explaining how she is two people.


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She, throughout her entire career, wanted the world to know, even after the most passionate operatic performances, she was still human, a person and wanted the world to know her also. The film humanizes her and we see she is gifted, talented and while extraordinary, she was also without pretension.

Below is our interview.

Janet Walker: Congratulations on the film.

Tom Volf: Thank you.

JW: The film humanizes Maria Callas. Describe your process. It sounded like it was a three fold process. So how did the project come about? And then describe the process of making the film? and then from my understanding you ditched the whole process and then decided to redo it with an entirely different film.

TV: Okay so do you have three hours ahead of you. (Laughter). I like what you said, "The film humanizes her." Because it was really the goal. That was definitely the goal. You see in the film how much she needs for people to understand that human aspect of her and often times people thought of her see this diva, the semi-goddess, and artist that would be capable of everything the greatest performances of all times. And people misunderstood her human vulnerability. I really wanted to show that in the film because I think her vulnerability as a human being makes her performances  more moving and more beautiful than it is.

Blinded by Passion . . .

But the process shall we say started accidently, fatefully. Because five year ago I barely knew who she was, I didn't know anything about Opera and barely knew about classical music and then stepped into the Met Opera [Metropolitan Opera, NYC] not knowing what I was going to watch and hear. It was an Italian Opera by Donizetti with Joyce DiDonato singing who is today doing the voice over in the film and so when I came back to my room that night I just searched the internet for everything on Italian Opera and Donizetti and the first thing that came up was Callas singing and that was a real revelation. And that was the beginning of this journey. And so the first part of the journey, first there was the process of discovering it and all that and by the time I realized there was a really film that didn't exist that could be made about her.

I started on a quest to find and retrieve all the friends and loved ones who were still alive. So that was a quest going all around the world. And interviewing them and gathering material. I was very lucky to have been entrusted with personal and private material from them that they had never shared to anyone.

The Decision . . .

It was with this material that I realized about a year later that it was more challenging but also much more beautiful film that could be made which would not rely on testimonials but would actually rely on her own stories and being in her own words.

And yes so I decided to put aside everything I had filmed and start from scratch and with the material I had been entrusted and additional material that I started searching all around the world in various achieves private, public and in institutional and from other people who knew her and create this film entirely from the achieves, from her own words with her letters too, and bring out every intimate layer to the film, and that alone took another two or three years including six months we had in editing to put all the pieces of the puzzle, the scattered pieces together and then make sense of them, and make one story that could be made very accessible to anyone knowing her or not knowing her necessarily.

An Evolution . . .

JW: Sure. So with all of that, describe some of the challenges of scrapping, mid-process you scrap your entire plan, and decide to go in an entirely different direction so describes some of the challenges of that?

TV: Not so much of a scrapping rather than an evolution because over the first year I actually was nourished by everything I was reading, researching, listening and also the meetings with her friends, I was very lucky to meet over thirty people around the world who were close to her and knew her well. And being nourished by all that this kind of breaks through that the film would have to be made in an entirely in her words, rather than I was initially planning to make it was like a natural evolution because I came to understand her better, I came to understand how a film would need to convey her in a general way, in way anyone in the audience can really relate to and really understand for who she was and having that inner look instead of that outer look on her came at me in editing, something obvious.

So it was an evolution I don't think I would have started off with it. I would have probably found it too challenging, too difficult, and I think that's way forty years since she has passed and no one has attempted to do a film like that because it was a lack of material, lack of everything. So it was an evolution and thanks to the help of the people who were close to her who I came back to them saying "I had changed everything up" they all unanimously said "well done, this is what she would have wanted." This is the only thing she would have wanted.

The Starving Artist . . .

JW: So were you contracted professionally?

TV: Oh my God. I was on my own for three years. Completely and entirely. No one believe in this project. No one and I never thought I would spend so much time making the film and I just had to go through with it. It was very difficult. I had the support, tremendous of her friends. But I no support whatsoever in the profession and when I went to see different people and producers and all that, they both thought of me as being crazy and how can you tell this story the way you want without a narrator, without someone making comments and making people understand, and all that.


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And eventually I was really lucky to find a producer who believed in it, who is a woman and is nice, Emma [Lepers]. Yes, she really believed this it was possible and that kind of helped to start the last phase of the film. The film was almost ready and it needed to be edited, Basically, then produced actually.

So she helped to get to that phase. I have to say surprisingly the way the film was being able to is to reach completion is not only thanks to her and to Janice Jones, the beautiful editor of the film, who stayed with me and bared with me for six months making the film, editing the film, but also that the film got attention of all the countries.

Almost Derailed . . . Then Success

While it was being edited, and we were still looking to finish up the financing of the film, and also the buying of the archives. The rights were extremely expensive. It was such a challenge to be able to pay the rights for all the archives we wanted to use, outside of the private archives that we wanted to use, the performance and everything.

We were really challenged financially in the last stage and then suddenly while cinematically the film started to be sold in various countries. So I had distributors from Germany, Italy, half of Europe, than was beginning in Asia, Japan bought distribution from the film, and ultimately Sony Pictures Classic. That was amazing to get their attention.

The fact that the film started to get this international attention was so heartwarming if felt like suddenly that people started to understand how precious this work I could really relate to the fact that she was an international figure and that for the audiences worldwide she wasn't dead. Ultimately we distributed the film in 40 countries.

Maria by Callas opens November 2, 2018 in select cities. Check local listings.

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