The director speaks to Sarah Cooper about his forthcoming George Harrison project and how he balances making features and documentaries

Director Martin Scorsese was in Cannes to discuss his latest project, Living In The Material World: George Harrison, a music documentary about the late Beatle.

The film, which is currently in post, is being produced by Harrison’s widow Olivia, together with Exclusive Media’s Nigel Sinclair, who produced Scorsese’s 2005 Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home. It will feature never-before-seen footage and interviews including Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton and Yoko Ono. Exclusive Media Distribution is handling international sales on the project.

Why did you decide to make a documentary about George Harrison?

His music is very important to me, and I’ve been a great admirer of his music for years, so I was interested in the voyage that he took as an artist. The kind of music that was so distinctive and so unique to him that came through the group first, and then ultimately was fully expressed by him in a number of his albums, particularly of course the first solo album, All Things Must Pass.

When did you first come into contact with his music?

I remember I was going to school, I was getting ready, in the Lower East Side, the radio was on, and [the DJ] said they were going to play the first song of this new group The Beatles. It was interesting and unique, because the music before that from England was not.

Is the film just about his music?

That’s one aspect, the other aspect was his own quest for spirituality. My background is Roman Catholic, I was interested in being a priest, and it never left me. The more you are in the material world, the more there is a tendency in my mind for a search for serenity, a need to not be distracted by physical elements around you. This is stuff that I’ve always been interested in going back to my own upbringing and going through films, The Last Temptation Of Christ, Kundun and even Mean Streets, and that is interwoven through my movies. It seems that his work lends itself to this exploration. 

What structure does the film take?

Maybe it’s ambitious but we are trying to go from the early days, to the beginnings of the band, through the band to the break-up of the band, all the way through, but not necessarily in chronological order. Ultimately we are trying to have the development of his own music tell the story, if we can. There are some famous bits and some very interesting new material.

You were making this documentary at the same time as Shutter Island. How did you manage to combine the two?

Shutter Island took a great deal out of me. On the weekend l was looking at footage and cuts, doing research for this. This is a labour of love. Even though it’s complex and hard to do, in a very complicated way, it frees me from the strictures of a feature and makes me think, I hope a little clearly about the feature, there is something in these films that has a narrative freedom. It was the same thing with No Direction Home, I started during Aviator and went through The Departed.

The Stones, Bob Dylan, now George Harrison. Are you trying to make the definitive collection of rock legend documentaries? 

We certainly haven’t done it intentionally as series of documentaries. Each one is different, I never really intended to make a chronicle of rock music, but the music inspired so much of what I do in my fiction films that they both seem to be blending now and interweaving.

When will the film be ready?

We have been working on it for three years, and it will be out in 2011. And we are almost through the final cut of the second part of it. David Tedeschi, who was the editor of No Direction Home, is working on it as we speak.