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Scott Hicks’ lens turns back to music

Shine director Scott Hicks reflects on his return to the world of music for the documentary Highly Strung.

Scott Hicks in Highly Strung

As a teenager, you were just as likely to find Scott Hicks watching classical music concerts as rock’n’roll gigs.

It was how he met pianist David Helfgott – the man who would inspire his 1996 biopic Shine, which won Geoffrey Rush an Oscar and saw Hicks nominated for both directing and screenwriting.

But Shine did not satisfy Hicks’ fascination with classical music. A decade later he returned to the hypnotic world of woodwind and brass for the documentary on composer Philip Glass.

Now, his new documentary Highly Strung marks what he jokingly refers to as the third in his ‘trilogy’ of music films.

“I’ve always been drawn to that world,” Hicks says, reflecting on his life.

“Music and classical music have always been a big element in my life.”

But he says it’s more than just music. He finds he’s drawn toward creative people and how they devote their lives to their work. In Highly Strung, a man spends more than four months carefully hand carving a single cello and musicians take out mortgage-size loans to buy million dollar centuries-old instruments.

Through media interviews, Hicks has actually noticed common themes amongst his works he was never conscious about at the time of filming.

“You look at Highly Strung and reflect back on what happened in Glass and it goes right back to Shine – I feel as though there’s something about the whole balance of life that seems to be a common thread,” he says.

“How do you balance work and art and family and a social life? I think it’s a question that preoccupies a lot of us, not just artists.”

For Hicks, it was a question that came up in the making of Highly Strung.

The filmmaker’s career has encompassed everything from big-budget studio films such as Snow Falling on Cedars, Stephen King adaptation Hearts in Atlantis and No Reservations, to large documentary series for the Discovery Channel and more intimate Australian stories like Shine. Many of these, including Highly Strung, were made with producer Kerry Heysen-Hicks.

Hicks says he enjoys the process of creating big budget movies just as much as independent films – it’s all about striving for that balance.

“In a sense it’s like creating a sort of patchwork, between ‘Hollywood’ for want of a better word, and things that are more immediately personal in their appeal for me,” he says.

Highly Strung was most certainly in the latter.

Hicks had just come off the back of directing a major studio movie, The Lucky One with Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling, and all the red carpets and mayhem that come with it, when he discovered something extraordinary was occurring close to home.

Philanthropist Ulrike Klein was gifting the four members of the Australian String Quartet (ASQ) with (incredibly expensive) instruments crafted by the G. B. Guadagnini in the 18th century.

“I was intrigued by the whole idea of these ancient instruments and the people that play, work with and collect them,” he says.

Because while Highly Strung revolves, in part, around the ASQ and the clashing personalities of its members, it also looks at the people who invest millions in Stradivari and Guadagninis, and even those commissioned to recreate the instruments.

In Highly Strung, what is clear is how these creative people are all being driven by a kind of obsession to achieve something greater than perfection.

“It’s a prerequisite for high artistic achievement… to be sort of possessed by what you’re doing,” Hicks says, adding that it’s people like this that also make fascinating subjects for documentaries.

“Certainly that’s what I’ve tried to do in Highly Strung, because everybody’s obsessed, not just the musicians… and that’s what I think made it so rich.”

Hicks can also relate. With Shine, it was ten years before he was able to get the film off the ground – four of which were spent trying to convince people Geoffrey Rush was the only person to play David Helfgott.

“You sort of have to be obsessed to make a film – to put the amount of energy into every frame you create to make it as good as you feel it can be,” he admits.

“It does require a certain amount of obsessiveness.”

Highly Strung is playing in select cinemas from Thursday, May 19.