Director Mary McCartney Collects Music Royalty to Sing the Praises of Abbey Road in If These Walls Could Sing
Paul McCartney, Elton John, Roger Waters, John Williams and more on the famed studio's 90-year historyPhoto courtesy of The Walt Disney Company Music Features If These Walls Could Sing
A lot of incredible talent has walked the halls of Abbey Road Studios (formerly EMI Recording Studios) in the span of its 91 years of existence. In the case of Mary McCartney, she actually crawled the halls as an infant as her father, Paul McCartney, recorded there in the waning days of The Beatles. Born in 1969 at the Avenue Clinic in St John’s Wood, London, England, literally near the Studios, Mary was a fixture there whenever her father used the studio to record his solo projects, or her mother, Linda, took seminal photos of other rock bands in the ’60s and ’70s.
With that kind of tangible connection to the now legendary recording facility, who better than Mary McCartney to direct a documentary about the history that has been made inside its walls going back to 1931. She followed in her mother’s footsteps and is an acclaimed portrait photographer in her own right, and the director of short films and music videos for artists like Elvis Costello and Diana Krall. And after years of establishing her own career and space apart from her famous parents, McCarttney said at the recent Telluride Film Festival that the offer to direct If These Walls Could Sing felt like the right time and the right topic.
But what that actually entailed ended up being its own journey, some of which McCartney shares in this Paste chat.
Paste: When someone asks you to distill 90 years of venerable music history, and you say yes, where do you even start?
Mary: That’s exactly how I felt! I was like, “Oh, I’ve said yes, but now what do I do?” What we did was we had a process. I didn’t just dive into doing the interviews. First things first was to have a good story producer and we locked ourselves in a room. We got a pad and paper and we went through all of the history, all the people that recorded there, all the things that had happened. We stuck it up on the walls all around the room. And it covered all the wall space. Then we were like what do we want, looking at everything.
Because this is the first documentary I’ve directed, at first, it was a bit overwhelming. It’s got such a rich history. But then, in a way, it sort of came together and told itself. For certain things, there was no footage, or no photographs. But then certain things like the [cellist] Jacqueline du Pré story worked perfectly full circle because it was elevated by [cellist] Sheku Kanneh-Mason, so that came together. And I was like, “But I want to put that in. But I want to put that in. But I want to put that in.” In the end, I had to rein myself in. I think it’s a good amount, but you can’t bombard the viewer with everything.
Paste: It’s airing on Disney+ so was there ever a conversation about expanding it into a series?
Mary: When it was commissioned, it hadn’t been sold as a documentary [ed. Note: to a distributor]. I was asked to do it with the production company, with the producer, John Battsek. And then it was sold to Disney, which is incredible for me. To have my first documentary on a platform where so many people are gonna see it is pretty exciting. And to have been at Telluride Film Festival with it. I’m in the great position where I got to go to that festival. I was nervous. Luckily, people turned up and it was busy. And then it was like, “How are they going to react?” I was in that space watching people react, and the feeling of what I had in mind did come across.
Paste: What was your ultimate goal?
Mary: The viewer is always very important to me, within my photography work, within directing, and my cooking show. Doing something for the viewer, that’s the point of doing it. And to make that connection. So it was not just about growing up going to Abbey Road. I grew up in that area and I see people making the pilgrimage there. And from seeing people there, I can see how much it genuinely means to everyone. And how it means that much to me, so that was the purpose. I could make it very historical. I could make it much more technical. But I’m not a technical person, so it needs to be more about the musicians and the collaboration because that’s how I worked.
Paste: How often do you visit Abbey Road Studios as an adult? Is it a regular visit or did you return for this with fresh eyes?
Mary: I’ve had a bit of time where I hadn’t gone there. Although, I was sort of there every few years. I grew up going there when mum or dad were recording there more. I have memories of going in and seeing all the pictures of all the people; the musicians that have recorded there. I didn’t know a lot of the history though because I would go in on a day he was recording and I was going to visit them. Or, someone was performing. Or, I went there for an event because they also have events. Over the years I’ve been going there maybe every few years, or like every year or two. But it meant that when I went in, I knew the space. I knew a lot of the people that were still working there. But as you say, it was fresh enough that there were enough new things happening there. It had new management. It had a lot of new people working there too. And I didn’t know a lot of the actual facts, so I went in with new eyes.
Paste: Did you go to your own family pictures of Abbey Road Studios first when you started researching? Did you ask your interview subjects to bring photos and items with them?
Mary: I tried that but they often didn’t. One thing that was interesting and quite a learning curve was I thought that Abbey Road would have this huge archive itself. I imagined my archive of all the pictures I’ve taken over the years. But no. And it made sense that when you’re in a recording session, the etiquette is to not really take pictures and record. You do not want to distract. It’s about creating and making music. So historically, you don’t really do a lot of recording there for photographs and stuff. But I was able to go to my mum’s archive and include a lot of The Beatles recordings. And I knew in the back of my mind for me being there and taking pictures over the years, I knew the space well. Then I had a great researcher, so it was about researching. It was about finding photographers who had photographed there and contacting them. Then going to the BBC finding out what they had in interviews, or anything. It was a huge process to bring together lots and lots of interviews, watch all of them, see all the pictures that we did have and then decide.
Mary: But for instance, the Fela Kuti section. I was determined to have that section in there. I just thought it was so incredible. I didn’t know that he’d recorded three albums there. And the space where it’s in the documentary, it just really kind of surprises. But I couldn’t find anybody from that time to interview. He’s not alive anymore. For ages, I couldn’t find anyone. And I could only find one contact sheet from a woman that had taken pictures, but she didn’t know where the negatives were. I had one little contact sheet that we scanned. So really, that whole piece is built around those images. But I think that it’s a really strong part.
Paste: That’s astounding. You’d never know watching that segment.
Mary: That’s the caliber of the team that I was working with. I had a great researcher. I had a great editor. A great producer. It was a small team, but we worked very closely together. We met up a lot. And we went off in COVID and then I met them on Zoom. And then eventually it was like, “We need to get in a room.” We would have lunch together asking, “What do we need to do? What’s interesting and what’s not? Like I love this, but really, is it just too much?”
Paste: Who was your first interview?
Mary: My first interview was, I think, Ringo because he lives in Los Angeles. He came there and he was like, “Fine, I’ll do it.” With a lot of the people in it, you had to strike while the iron was hot. They’d say, “Yes” and six months later, many of them aren’t there anymore, or they’re going off on tour.
Paste: Let’s talk about interviewing your dad, Paul McCartney, in that space. How did you get him to bring up the memories that he shares?
Mary: I was really mindful of bringing him into that space. When I got there, it’s an empty space so I actually set [decorated] it. The Mrs Mills piano, his Hofner bass, all of that I purposely put into the set to make him feel nostalgic, or bring back memories to set the mood. And that’s something that I do within my portrait photography which is creating a comfortable space so that people can relax and then you get more out of the subject. I used that same technique with dad, and with all of the interviews, making it nice lighting and a calm space, so you could relax and we could just develop the conversation casually.
He really impressed me because he arrived on the day and he was really ready to talk about Abbey Road. He was very giving and what he talked about was very open and honest. I think you really got that. And it was a very important interview for the story. That one and the one with Giles Martin were very important interviews from hitting the beats of the story.
Paste: I have to ask, when your dad says the title of the film, it’s like he coined it. Did he or is he just that good in giving you what you need in the shoot?
Mary: I was so happy when he said that but no! When I was asked to direct it, when I was next with him, I was like, “I’ve been asked to direct this documentary about the 90-year history of Abbey Road. It’s called If These Walls Could Sing and he was like, “Oh, I like that title!”
Paste: In every project, you have to cut things for time. I love that in the credits you have Elton tell your dad that story. Was there anything you wished made the cut but didn’t?
Mary: There was so much more that I wanted to include, but there wasn’t necessarily footage of all the things I wanted to include. But the main thing was editing it down. The Jacqueline du Pré section was four times longer initially. And with all The Beatles, we put it together and then we just sort of trimmed and trimmed. But I think it’s the perfect length. I think it’s enough. I think if we’d made it a two-and-a-half-hour documentary, it’s very hard to sustain concentration.
If These Walls Could Sing premieres globally Dec. 16 on Disney+
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe, The Story of Marvel Studios and the upcoming Avatar: The Way of Water. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett or Instagram @TaraDBen