Good Ol’ Freda, an engrossing character study of Freda Kelly – the Beatles’ secretary, head of the fan club, and living time capsule of Beatlemania – is only Ryan White’s second feature documentary, but he’s already making a name for himself in the world of non-fiction. His first film, Pelada, premiered at SXSW in 2010, and he’s already hard at work on his third film, one that focuses on the lawsuit challenging California’s controversial Proposition 8 making its way to the Supreme Court.
During SXSW, I sat down to talk with White and producer Kathy McCabe about the difficulties and surprises of documentary filmmaking, especially when it comes to the Beatles.
With your first film, Pelada, you were documenting this as they were happening. But Good Ol’ Freda is a historical, retrospective-style documentary. How did you find making that transition to be?
Ryan White: Yeah it’s very different. My third film is more like Pelada. I don’t know where it’s going to end or when it’s going to end. Kathy [McCabe] brought me Freda and I wanted to do it because the Prop 8 film was taking so long. I didn’t want to take five or six years for my second film. Part of the appeal of it was that the story already happened. I knew at least the Beatles arc of the film. It was already contained and I had a little more control over it than I did, so we could actually have a schedule [laughs]. I wasn’t sure if it was going to be a Beatles story or a Freda story, and it’s 90% a Freda story. Once she started to share her life with me, I knew I wanted to go in that direction.
How did you encounter this project?
RW: My uncle is actually in the film. He’s Billy Kinsley of the Merseybeats [a Liverpool-based band that arose contemporaneously to the Beatles], so I’ve grown up going back and forth to Liverpool my whole life. Freda is amongst my aunt and uncle’s group of musician friends, so I’ve known Freda growing up, but I didn’t know that she was the Beatles secretary. I knew everyone in that group was connected to the Beatles in some way.
Obviously she’s extremely private and didn’t talk about it. I just knew her as someone I talked to at weddings or Christmases until Kathy, also a family friend of Freda’s, who had started talking to her a few years ago. They discussed that, “Maybe it was time to put this story down.” Freda jokes in the film that she’s “living off borrowed time,” and I think she’s reached that age where the story would get lost forever and she wanted a legacy for her family. So I stated having phone calls with Freda across the pond, and right away I thought, “This is good.”
I had no idea of the scope of her role with the band, or with music history. She created a model for how mania is dealt with. She also has a way of storytelling that’s appealing to an audience.
It does feel like you’re sitting down with her for a cup of tea while she talks about rock history.
RW: Yeah, that’s good. That’s how I used to pitch the film, actually: sitting down with your grandma for a cup of tea and she tells all these crazy stories.
Kathy, how did you decide that now was the time to tell Freda’s story?
Kathy McCabe: Oh, I didn’t decide. Freda makes the decisions. We learned that right away [laughs]. Knowing her over the years, I could see that, first of all, she has to trust someone to let them know what she did. And we were around her for years without knowing. I think the real key point was when her grandson was born. It really clicked with her about how much time she has left and that she might want to tell these stories. I did two private talks to see how she was received. I did two at my house, and they loved her. So we brought Ryan into the picture and, to our surprise, she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”
She’s a great storyteller, so it’s surprising that she’s so reluctant to tell these stories.
RW: Rachael, her daughter, is in the film. After the premiere, Rachael came up to me and said, “95 percent of that film was new to me. Thank you for making that for our family,” and I said, “Thank her for telling it to me.” That was the closest person toe Freda in the world, and 95 percent of it was new to her….She didn’t know her mom was pregnant when Freda quit the fan club. So then I felt that, as a document of her family, it was even cooler.
The Beatles story has been told so many times. How did you know how much to make it about Freda and how much to make it about The Beatles? Did you find the structure in post-production?
RW: When I was pitching the film, people would ask me “What’s new?” And I would say, “Everything is new. Nobody has heard these stories before.” This mainly began in post-production, but what I tried to do was tell the Beatles story through the eyes of the secretary and to tell the Beatles story for an audience that might not know. But I gave up on that [second part] because her stories were so good that I made a decision not to recap Beatles history unless Freda was firmly cemented in some way.
We kept it to Beatles details that involved her personally. And we do have plenty of Beatles stuff. We use Beatles monthly as a way to do that through Freda’s voice. So we kept these amazing moments with the Beatles but in a way that Freda was involved.
As you show in the documentary, Freda’s avoided much of her post-Beatles life in the spotlight. How is she dealing with this transition to being a public figure?
RW: At SXSW, I’ve seen an evolution of her coping with it. We’ve received standing ovations at both Q&As. Making this movie hasn’t been easy for her, to get all that out there. But once we had that night where she watched it with a crowd, I knew she would breathe a big sigh of relief. And she did. She hugged me after the premiere and said, “I loved every minute of it. Thank you for making it.” And that was the first time she’s ever said anything like that because she was so nervous.
In the first Q&A, she was a little nervous and speaking into her microphone in a hushed tone. But by the time of the second Q&A last night, she was sassy with the crowd and making allusions to hooking up with certain Beatles without giving it to them. And I was thinking, “What a difference three days make” [laughs]. She’s very personable, but putting all that out to the world can be very scary, but I think she’s enjoying it.
KM: Part of her aim in talking with us was to humanize The Beatles. She always said, “They’re not gods. They’re human beings. They’re not perfect.” And she wanted them to come across that way in the film.
Have you been in touch with Paul and Ringo?
RW: We’ve been in contact with them. We recently got The Beatles’ music, four songs, which is big. But yes, they’ve been supportive of the film. It is extremely rare when The Beatles are on board. And we filled out the rest with other songs, nine that The Beatles covered – the original “Mr. Postman,” Little Richard, Buddy Holly. Massive bands that are extraordinarily expensive, but they were willing to work within our little budget. And that’s my proudest thing about this film is the soundtrack. Licensing music is one of the worst parts of making a film.
This thing was all coming together pretty quickly, and I had experience with licensing music on Pelada, but we brought somebody on later. We have a music supervisor named Matt Lilly that has been great, who came on during editing. “Love Me Do.” It was a headache to find who owns “Love Me Do.” Nobody knew who owns the publishing to it, as these things switch hands so often. We eventually figured it out. But yeah, it was like a crazy Venn diagram where you have to figure out where the overlap is for every song.
What ended up on the cutting room floor that fans may have liked, but may not have worked with the film?
RW: Yeah, we call that “Beatles Porn” [laughs]: stuff that’s great, but didn’t really fit. I hope they’ll be DVD extras. One is a show called “Jukebox Jury,” panel game show where panelists vote on songs, and Freda was on a panel with The Beatles. We filmed it on the stage where it happened. Another that comes to mind is How I Won the War, the John Lennon film. She has a lot of great stories about parties. She was talking about the premiere party after that film, and there are stories about a drunken ruckus where everybody is wasted.
It just came too late in the film. That was 1968, and didn’t work with the arc, with the downturn of the band in film. Her recollections didn’t really come in chronological order so we had to go back and piece it together and ask, “when did this happen?” The focus of the film is 61-65, and that’s before the move to London, so I focus on those years, which is the bulk of her story. But also the part where she has a completely unique take.
Good Ol’ Freda is currently making the festival circuit in search of a distributor.