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Tom Volf talks Maria by Callas
by Danielle Solzman
2018-11-15

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Maria by Callas filmmaker Tom Volf recently chatted with the Windy City Times ahead of the film's Chicago release. Featuring footage from the Chicago Lyric Opera, the documentary focuses on legendary opera singer Maria Callas. Sony Pictures Classics will release Maria By Callas in Chicago on Nov. 16.

Windy City Times: Congrats on the release of Maria by Callas. When did you first learn of the singer?

Tom Volf: About six years ago.

WCT: In making the documentary, what was the most fascinating thing you learned about Maria?

TV: I guess it's what's in the title of the film, Maria by Callas—the duality that she had between the woman and the artist throughout her whole life, and the fact that she had to make for one another.

WCT: I found the whole relationship with Aristotle Onassis to be quite interesting, as I only know of him because of the late first lady, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Can you talk about their relationship as far as new insight that we get?

TV: Well, I think that I the film shows the true story that is not exactly how the story was through the media over the years. It shows a love story, but also shows a review of what happened afterwards, when he left her for Jackie Kennedy and how their relationship … [would] actually continue after the breakup. Perhaps it shows at the end they were soulmates. They never really left each other until he died a year and a half before her.

WCT: This film tells the film in Maria's own words and through never-before-seen material. What was the research process like?

TV: It was a rigorous process that took over four years. First, as a quest around the world to find and meet her friends—those who are still alive—who entrusted me with a lot of the personal material that is in the film: the home movies, the letters, all of the parts covering Maria's personal life. Another part of my quest was again around the world—this time all the possible archives being television, institutional, or private connections to cover the rest of the material, which would allow me to make the film 100% archives and 100% her own words.

WCT: Some of these songs are presented in their entirety. Did you ever think of shortening them down?

TV: No, I didn't because from the very beginning I preferred to include less songs and have them in full, rather than a display of excerpts, because I think that's really what makes us understand what an amazing artist she was. When we see her perform—especially when you watch her perform a song from beginning to end—you see all the variety of the colors, the expressions and the gestures that make Maria Callas come to life. I think it's quite a privilege for the young ones today to be able to be in the theater and see on the big screen talent performing. It's almost like an experience for them like the audiences in this back in the days at the opera houses and concert halls when she was there in front of them. That's the closest experience that they could get through the film.

WCT: As a filmmaker, what was the toughest decision to make as far as what footage went in and what was kept out?

TV: Well, it was inspiring to me that the film still shows every aspect of her—every aspect of her personal life and her as an artist and a public figure—and covers not necessarily every area of her life, because that would require probably a six-hour or more film. … So that was a thought, but I think I really managed in including rather than cutting out, including all the footage and documents and ledgers of material in the film that presents her as a complete figure, as a complete portrait showing truly who she was.

WCT: What led to the decision to keep the archival footage with the original frames and sprocket holes?

TV: Well, every material we've had to deal with for the film—because it's 100 percent of archive—it's all material coming back from the '50s and '60s mostly. It was really important to present the Super 8 millimeter film because this is part of an era of a certain time that doesn't really exist anymore. And I'm sure that the younger generation might not even know might not know what a Super 8 is. And I think it was quite beautiful to present some of them—especially the home movies—in that full frame because, again, everything in the film is genuine. It's truly how the film reels worked back in the day.


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