Peter Jackson On The Making Of The Highly Anticipated ‘The Beatles: Get Back’

The original 1970 film Let It Be has a reputation for showing The Beatles at their worst, months away from breaking up. It’s a hard film to find these days, having never had even a DVD release (a few years ago I resorted to buying a bootleg). When you finally see it, yeah, there’s one pretty tense moment between Paul and George, but other than that its biggest crime is, once the “fly on the wall” aspect wears off, it just becomes a little dull. Not much of anything happens. And even flies on the wall eventually find somewhere else to go. But the thing is, watching the Beatles make an album should be pretty interesting. Especially an album in which, at one point, George Harrison stormed out and quit.

Peter Jackson is adamant that the result of the original Let It Be was not the fault of director Michael Lindsay-Hogg. As Jackson explains, the project changed many times during production, with the final incarnation being an 80-minute feature film that had to feature all the new songs on the album. So this left very little time for anything else so what we got didn’t have much of a narrative. What Jackson did was go through the 50-some hours of footage to put together an eight-hour film showing, yes, some pretty tense parts, but also a lot of footage of a band that is growing apart, but still enjoying each other’s company. By the time they are in their Apple Studio actually recording the album, they look pretty happy. (One of the most revealing moments is, after George quits, Paul and John go off into a cafeteria to have a private argument about this. What they didn’t know was the flowerpot on their table had a hidden microphone, so we get to hear their entire conversation.)

Ahead, Peter Jackson tells us about his misconceptions of what he expected to find, versus what he did find in this footage that not many people have seen over the last 50 years to make The Beatles: Get Back, which will begin streaming on Disney+ on November 25. (When I spoke to Jackson I had only seen a 40-minute preview. As I type this I’m about five and a half hours into the full eight hours.) And, again, Jackson is adamant that Michael Lindsay-Hogg was in a no-win situation and gives the Let It Be director full credit for filming the footage that Jackson would assemble into Get Back. Also, for fans of Jackson’s early films, he said in-between working on Get Back they also worked on 4K restorations of those films, which will obviously look much better than the out-of-date DVD versions.

Before we get to The Beatles, around Halloween my friend let me borrow a DVD of Dead Alive, or Braindead, I know it has two titles. That is a great movie. I hadn’t seen it.

Oh, thank you so much, thank you. Thank you, we’ve been held up a bit by doing this Beatles film, but we are trying to remaster all those early films…

Right, because apparently that movie is hard to come across and I had to watch an old DVD…

Yes. It would’ve been a little bit of a crappy quality for this, because all the DVDs that were out there were done back in the 1990s. So we are doing a remastering and whole digital 4K thing and it looks great. But we’ve been trying to do all that in between Beatles stuff, and that’s been put on a shelf for a while. But, hopefully, within another year or so they’ll come out remastered.

So they sent me about 40 minutes of Get Back. I laughed out loud when Paul is playing “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and he sing the words, “I’ve got a feeling,” over and over. Then George just deadpans, “Is that one called ‘I’ve Got a Feeling’?” I assume there are going to be a lot of moments like that.

Yes, there are. There are these moments where you just are amazed that they’re actually even on film. I mean, that’s sort of one of the things that I love, you see the moment when Paul plays “Let It Be” to the others for the very first time. He’s sitting at the piano, and the others are standing there waiting to be told what to do, or waiting to figure out what to do, and they don’t know what’s going to come out. And he just plays “Let It Be.” I mean, he hasn’t got all the words yet, but he’s got the sort of tune. You see the moment where Paul writes “Get Back.” Literally, he comes in early one day and he’s strumming his bass like it’s a guitar and he’s trying to come up with a new song, because they’ve got to do these 14 songs. He’s not got any particular idea, and over the course of about five minutes – and we showed the whole thing, just one shot with no fancy cutting or anything else; it’s just one shot of him – he slowly, essentially, comes up with “Get Back,” the tune. And he comes up with half the words too, so you see “Get Back” actually being born, so there’s a lot of moments like that.

What is your opinion of the prior Let it Be film? I bought a bootleg online a few years ago. I know it has this reputation of showing them not getting along, but for me, after a while, it just gets a little dull.

I mean, I read in books, oh, they couldn’t stand to be in each other’s company while they were doing this, and they were all just session musicians for each other, and they didn’t want to be here. I’ve read all that stuff for 40 years. And so it’s not the movie Let It Be, particularly, I’m referring to. Because I’ve seen Let It Be, obviously recently, too. And it’s not that bad. It’s not as bad as what people say it is. I think it had two things against it – and it’s unfortunate for Michael Lindsay-Hogg because it’s not really his fault.

Because, I think, obviously, it was released in May 1970. And the press had got wind that The Beatles were breaking up in April 1970. So this fly on the wall movie comes out just the following month. Obviously, back in those days with the lack of information, there wasn’t any internet, there wasn’t any Twitter or anything else. People would’ve seen Let It Be in the cinema and assumed it was filmed in the last month or two, they would’ve assumed it was just shot recently. So, it has to show the breakup of The Beatles – because they’ve just read in the paper that The Beatles were breaking up, so obviously we’re seeing The Beatles breaking up on film. So they projected, and they weren’t even probably aware that it was actually shot 15 months before.

Right, and then they made a whole album after Let It Be, and then Abbey Road came out before the Let It Be album, which added to the confusion…

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m sure most of the audience in 1970 wouldn’t really have even been aware of most of that information. And then the other thing against Let It Be, which I feel sorry for Michael, is that he was originally shooting his footage for a 30-minute TV special. And then, halfway through, it changed to being a feature film because they abandoned the TV special. So they didn’t want to abandon his footage so they said, oh, let’s turn it into the next Beatles movie.

Now they have a discussion, we actually have it in Get Back. We have the four of them, or the five of them, because Michael’s there as well, he’s a character in our movie. They’re having a discussion, “Well, we should have shot this on 35mm. If we’d known this was going to be a feature film we should have shot it in 35mm.” And Michael said, “Well, it’s going to blow up, okay.” And then Paul says, “No, no, it won’t. 16mm to 35 blowups are terrible.” It’s like, we’re actually talking about our filmmakers on film. But of course what happened is they did blow it up to 35, and it didn’t really look that great blown up. So when Let It Be comes out, you’ve got this blow-up, a grainy blow-up. And also, a lot of the colors got lost during the blow-up process, so it’s a slightly gloomy-looking film. So you’ve got people watching this gloomy-looking movie with not a lot of color, projecting the whole breakup of The Beatles onto it. So that’s what I think the problem with Let It Be is, which is not the fault of the film. And the film’s actually fine, I mean, I’ve seen it.

I guess the famous part in that one, the bickering between George and Paul during Two of Us, that gets a lot of the attention…

But, the bickering between John, George, and Paul: I think the other problem with Let It Be, is because it was 80 minutes long, Michael had to just go through the bits as fast as he could. So, that bickering, I don’t know how long it is in Let It Be, and I haven’t timed it, but it’s probably 45 seconds or something.

Yeah, it’s fairly short.

I mean, we’ve got the luxury of having this huge, big length that we can use, which Michael didn’t have. And so, I’ve got exactly those same lines. I tried to avoid a lot of Let It Be footage, because I didn’t want this to stomp out Let It Be from the face of the earth, I wanted Let It Be to still exist. But we’ve got that little 45-second conversation, but we’ve also got it in the context of a nine or ten-minute sequence. So, I show the five minutes leading up to it. Then there’s the bit that was in Let It Be, then five minutes afterwards. So I’ve had the advantage, which Michael didn’t have, of actually putting all this stuff into context. And once you see the context of it, you just shrug and think, oh, it’s just like, who cares? It’s not a thing.

And to Michael’s credit, all the stuff you’re using, he did film it all.

Absolutely, he did. Look, I watch this stuff now and I’m blown away. And it’s not because I’m sitting there thinking, “Oh, Peter, you’ve made a fantastic film.” I mean, it’s not that at all. I’m blown away that this stuff got shot in the first place. I’m blown away that it sat in a vault for 50 years. I’m blown away that I’m able to see The Beatles as a fly on the wall. And Michael deserves all the credit for that. Absolutely he does. Absolutely he does.

But were there moments when you’re watching this footage, even if, let’s say you’re in his situation, and you have to make this 80-minute movie… Were there moments that you’re watching, thinking, even in an 80-minute movie, how do you keep this part out? Were there moments like that?

Well, I think also, and you’d have to talk to Michael – I don’t want to put words in his mouth – but I’ve talked to Michael a lot over the last four years and I’ve met up with him and he’s been very supportive. But, well, I get the impression that he also had a movie that was being released concurrently with a Beatles album. The Let It Be album and Let It Be movie were coming out at the same time. So his movie… he didn’t have a story to tell, particularly. He couldn’t tell a story. He had to structure it, “Here’s a song that you’ll hear on the album,” and you see them playing it. “Here’s the next song on the album.”

I don’t know, I can’t remember whether the songs are in the same sequence as the album, but generally all the songs on the Let it Be album are in his movie. So, he ultimately had the responsibility of his film had to include these eight or nine or 10 songs that were on the album, and entire-length performances. And then he put bits of dialogue in between, of course. But because he was lumbered with having to have these two or three-minute song sequences all the way through his movie, and he had 80 minutes, he had very little time to tell a story.

So, what he ended up making was, it’s just very different to what we were able to make. I mean, we’re making the making of the film. We’re telling the story of The Beatles recording these songs and rehearsing the songs. It’s the story of not just Let it Be, it’s the songs from Abbey Road. Of the 17 tracks that appear on the Abbey Road album, 12 of those 17 are done during the Get Back sessions. So we’ve got those 12 songs. You see them writing “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Oh! Darling” and “Something.”

I saw the “Oh! Darling” part. When John sings about Yoko’s divorce finally becoming official during it.

Yes, that’s right. And we’ve also got several songs, probably eight or nine songs, that appeared on solo albums. I mean, amazingly enough, we have The Beatles doing “Gimme Some Truth.” Which everybody assumes is a John solo song, which obviously was on a John solo album. But we’ve got The Beatles doing “Gimme Some Truth.” We’ve got The Beatles doing “All Things Must Pass,” “Another Day,” “Back Seat of My Car.” So in addition to that, the Get Back part, is also you’ve got Michael Lindsay-Hogg trying to herd cats and trying to shoot his film while they they’re doing all those.

You mentioned Michael being very supportive. What was that initial conversation like? I’m imagining if someone told you they were not just doing a new The Lord of the Rings project, but were using your footage to make something new, that would give you some pause.

Michael was my first conversation after I talked to Apple about doing this, or they talked to me about doing it. Well, first of all, I wanted to look at the footage just to see if I wanted to make the movie. Because I wanted to see if it was as miserable as what I read about, and I soon realized that it wasn’t right. So I got that out of the way. And then the first phone call I made was to Michael. In fact, I went to Los Angeles and I met up with him in the hotel and sat with him. And I said, “Look, are you okay with me doing this?” And if Michael had said no I would have bailed. I mean, I needed him to sign up to do it, because I’m a director, he’s a director, and I’m not going to crap on him. I mean, directors just don’t behave in that way to each other, so it was very important to me that I got his sign-off. But he just said, “Look, I’d much rather you do it than me. I’ve done my film, and frankly, I have no appetite to go back into all that footage again, so go for it.” And ever since, he’s been very, very supportive. He answers all the questions that I have and he’s been great.

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ will begin streaming via Disney+ on Thanksgiving. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.