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‘Once Were Brothers’: Exclusive interview with writer-director Daniel Roher

The film opened last year’s TIFF and is available now.

We chatted exclusively to Canadian filmmaker Daniel Roher about his new documentary Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band and what it took to make the film, which has just been released in the UK. Since opening the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, it’s earned rave reviews.

Inspired by Robbie Robertson’s memoir, Once Were Brothers is a confessional, cautionary and occasionally humorous tale of Robertson’s young life and the creation of one of the most enduring groups in the history of music, The Band. The film is a moving story of Robertson’s personal journey, overcoming adversity and finding camaraderie alongside the four other men who would become his brothers, together making their mark in music. 

Featuring rare archival footage and interviews with Robertson’s friends and collaborators including Bob Dylan, George Harrison, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Peter Gabriel, Martin Scorsese, Taj Mahal, Ronnie Hawkins and more, this must-see documentary is executive produced by Martin Scorsese, Brian Grazer and Ron Howard. Roher tells us more…

How did you come to be involved in the project?

Robbie Robertson wrote his memoir, Testimony, and I completely devoured it. I went to my agent and said, “I’d love to make this movie.” I even tried to connect with anyone I could who might have a hand in making the film later, for example I figured it might be a Canadian production company because of the Canadian content in the story. 

Lo and behold, six months later, I heard another director was doing the film. Obviously, I was very disappointed but that’s part of the business, so I kept on grinding. Later, I heard the original director didn’t get along with Robbie, they just didn’t hit it off. So, after the other director left, I had the opportunity to meet with Robbie, we got along great and we really took to one another. He gave me the job, and the rest is history.

How long did it take to shoot?

The film was shot over a year and a half but was very sporadic, every few months or so we’d be travelling around to shoot interviews with Eric Clapton, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morrison and all the other guests. The film was very much constructed in archive. A lot of time and attention was spent going through footage in New York and Los Angeles. That was really interesting and a super engaging part of the process for me.

As both director and editor, were you shooting with the edit in mind or did you shoot what you wanted, knowing you’d find your story later in the final edit?

It’s both. You construct a certain edit and then suddenly find a new piece of archive material and “boom”, you have to make a left turn. In the beginning, Robbie’s memoir was very much my spiritual guide, so that’s what I stuck to.

You have a lot of great interviews, how tricky was that to coordinate?

It’s great to have so many legendary contributors. Guys like Bruce Springsteen, one of the greatest songwriters ever, really wanted to participate for Robbie and I’m so grateful they were all a part of it. As I mentioned, we’d travel around filming interviews. Sometimes we had short windows in which to shoot because the guys were busy. But I think it adds so much to not only tell the story of The Band, but hear from these influential people, and how the music affected them. 

Was there unused footage or anything on the cutting room floor you wish you could have kept? 

I would’ve liked to include certain songs which are special to me, and through time or budget we couldn’t include them all. However, in terms of the film, we really went deep into the archives and packed in as much great material as we could, like Bob Dylan’s office making their archive available to us, which is amazing. So, this is very much a director’s cut and I’m very happy with it. 

What was the most interesting discovery you made during the film?

It was a very profound experience on a personal level. There’s me, a young man, making a film about an older man, back when he was a young man. It made me frame my own life differently and think about time. I think we get caught up thinking over the next five years, but you can potentially live a lot of life. What about 20 or 30 years ahead? It made me think about the future and my time on earth in a different way.

The film opened the Toronto International Film Festival and has rolled out all over the world, finally arriving in the UK. What’s this process been like?

It’s indescribable. Opening Toronto was beyond anything I could have ever imagined. It’s also about right time and place, but being a Toronto kid, that festival is everything, it’s the biggest thing we’ve got. I’m overwhelmed and happy it’s had such a great response. In seeing the film, I hope audiences not only enjoy this iconic music, but embrace the personalities of these young guys. It’s their story I wanted to tell and it’s a labour of love. 

Dazzler Media presents Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band out now on Blu-ray, DVD & Digital Download


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