The Planets, a TV movie, was produced in the early nineties. Its director, Barbara Willis Sweete, has directed and produced a lot of films on music and her filmography is long and rich. We think that music is Barbara’s planet, but this is what we plan to ask her about. The Planets is a great movie, where the famous music by Gustav Holst is expressed by theatre, ballet, synchronized swimming and last but not least – figure skating on ice. All of these art forms are blended and woven into a beautiful, fabulous spectacle.
Władysław Rokiciński: Did you, or do you, practice figure skating on ice?
Barbara Willis Sweete: I have never practiced figure skating and I have never practiced dance or synchronized swimming either. But I love music – particularly classical music – and have studied it formally and for enjoyment all of my life. I have always tended to see visual images while listening to music so you can imagine how much I enjoy collaborating with choreographers, dancers and skaters who are so adept at making music visual through movement. You could almost say that I see music and hear visual images.
Was it a process in time before you came to the full appreciation of figure skating as a music visualization?
Yes, it was. Coming to film from the world of classical music and dance, and before beginning to work on The Planets, I was a little bit snobbish in my attitude to figure skating. I appreciated it as spectacle and as a sport, but thought it fell short as a sophisticated and expressive art form. But through working on this project I very quickly discovered that figure skating is highly expressive and artistic, especially when drawing its impetus from great music and from the interpretive imaginations of such accomplished choreographers as Lar Lubovich and Doug Varone. When given the opportunity I fell in love with the speed, the danger, the lyricism and the weightlessness of skating.
Since The Planets was released, what has changed in the attitude towards skating as not only a sport but also an art field?
As you know, we first released The Planets more than twenty years ago; since that time skating choreographers and skating music have become increasingly valued and respected as pivotal components in this art form. Torvill and Dean and Toller Cranston played seminal roles in this shift in attitude.
My personal practical experience with skating has been none either. But, strangely, I have always had a true admiration for figure skating. During the first half of my life, I used to watch a lot of TV transmissions of the world and European championships, as well as Olympic Games. And I still remember, and can say the names of many skaters from those times. These include your soloists: Paul and Isabelle Duchesnay and Brian Orser. They were masters in their days. They must have been a pretty natural choice for you?
I was approached by IMG, the agent/manager of Paul, Isabelle and Brian to create a television special for them. The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) was immediately interested in becoming involved – even before we had fleshed out the concept because these skaters were so famous and popular. My background had been in films related to music and dance. My appreciation of figure skating really started to grow while I was researching and developing this project.
The Planets is a seven-movement orchestral suite, which was composed by Gustav Holst during World War I, between 1914 and 1916. Its roots are said to be astrological. Do you think this as well?
I dug right into both the astrological and astronomical/mythological possibilities – any extra-musical associations that might guide me to a storyline, metaphor or conceit around which I could build an archetypal story.
I changed the order of the movements for storytelling purposes, taking into account Holst’s subtitles for each movement, the characteristics of each planet in astronomy AND the qualities of each astrological/mythological God.
Neptune (originally the 7th movement) is first because I imagined the mythological brother and sister (Paul and Isabelle) being born out of the water (synchronized swimming in Neptune’s domain).
I placed Uranus (originally the 6th movement) second because Uranus represents the magician. I imagined him using his magical powers to transform the under water dancing pair into skaters and setting them free to live on the ice.
Mars, originally the 1st movement, is the God of War and his music is so violent and dramatic that I felt it needed to be the climax of our skating story. Hence I placed it fifth (out of seven).
Saturn feels like healing and the rebirth of spirituality after the destruction of Mars.
I placed Jupiter last (it was 4th in the original) because the idea, mood and structure of this movement generates a feeling of celebration and of spectacle.
Of course, it is nothing more than a guess on my part, but I think that The Planets would not have been composed, if not for the war. The violence, madness and destruction, which flooded Europe, must have caused a lot of despair and confusion among the people. In your movie, even Mars, the God of War, seems to be horrified by what is happening in front of his eyes. This is the part of the spectacle which moved me the most. I will never forget the horrifying sound of the marching warriors.
In my work on The Planets, I was really just responding to the music – to the sound, mood and structure of it with the added knowledge that Mars is the God of War. I have no doubt that the situation at that time in the world had a big impact on Holst’s writing.
And in the realization of the film, with all those practical things that have a direct impact on its artistic shape and structure, what was the main issue, the main challenge for you?
We had to design and build a skating rink, a dance floor and a swimming pool all within the same space. The air had to be warm enough for the dancers and swimmers, while being cold enough for the skating rink and the skaters. The entire show was set within a giant abandoned ship building warehouse on Toronto’s harbourfront during the coldest February on record in the city. We used broomball shoes to walk around on the ice. The shoes had cleats on them so we wouldn’t slide, but our feet got very cold when we had to stand for many hours on the frozen ice.
How would you rank The Planets among your filmography, do you consider it to be important for you?
The Planets was an important breakthrough for me. It was quite ambitious, expensive and logistically complex. It presented classical music while being quite commercial. It attracted a rather wide audience because of it appealed to lovers of classical music, of sport and of figure skating. This was something quite new for me at the time and it opened up many new possibilities.
Before we say good-bye to each other, may I ask you: is music your planet? This is what I think, but I might be wrong, of course...
Yes, you could definitely say that I come from the planet Music. Music inspires everything that I do in film, even if the show is not about music or is not presenting music. I find that all of my creative ideas are triggered by music. It is everything to me.
Thank you very much for our conversation.
Polish verion of this interview can be found HERE