TBB Talks to … Renee Edwards British born director of New Orleans set doc ‘One Note at a Time’

One Note in Time is an award-winning documentary set in post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans.

Centered on the musicians who returned to New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, ‘One Note at a Time’ was roughly 10 years in the making from filmmaker Renee Edwards.

British-born to an English mother and African American father, Edwards started visiting New Orleans as a child. What happened to the people, and the rich historical traditions and culture, resonated so strongly Edwards felt compelled to make a documentary.

TBB Talks spoke to Edwards to find out more.

Who are you?

I was born in Leicester in the 1960’s to a black and white couple, so I’m of mixed heritage. My father’s African American and my mother’s Caucasian British. My maternal grandmother, to whom I was very close, was an Irish Catholic, one of 18. My family is enormous, on both sides of the Atlantic. I lived with my mother and younger sister, and my sister and I spent a number of summer holidays in New Orleans.

In the UK we’re the dark ones in the family, and in New Orleans, we’re the light ones! I appreciated the vibrant New Orleans culture as I became an adult, particularly in recent years whilst making my documentary feature One Note at a Time. We also spent summers in France with my mother’s brother and his wife; one summer we snuck into Nice Jazz Festival and saw Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. We moved from Leicester to Brighton when I was 17, Quadrophenia comes to mind. Some of my fondest memories of Leicester are going to gigs at De Montfort Hall, like Talking Heads and The Police, and from age 12 to 17 I’d been part of The Phoenix Youth Theatre.

You decided to get into the film industry because?

I wanted to act and didn’t follow that through. I’m not sure how good I was, although I did receive an A grade in California, at UCI Summer Acting School one year. In my teens, I was told there wouldn’t be many parts for someone who looked like me. When it came to choosing a degree, and it was always a given that my sister and I would continue our education, the one which jumped out of the ‘Which Degree?’ book was Photography, Film, and TV, BA (Honours) at LCP, now London University of the Arts.

I was accepted at interview, and during the course, I realised I loved directing. The path I followed led me to become a successful editor, in long-form news and current affairs documentaries. I thoroughly enjoy the challenge of making something editorially and creatively sound, in a restricted time frame, as part of a phenomenal team. Directing is a natural step for some from editing. I always planned to direct, since college. I love film-making, it’s fun and enriching.

How influential is your heritage / where you grew up, on the work you do?

With One Note at a Time, it’s been very influential because it was partly believing I’d lost something (the chance to explore New Orleans further as an adult) which motivated me to make a film about some of the effects of Hurricane Katrina. The films I want to make explore elements of my history; I like making films which include the positive contribution of African American people; those I have been fortunate to be close to have been very positive influences in my life. I’m drawn to courageous women as subjects; a reflection of some of the women in my life. I like to explore and be part of, environments where races are mixed together.

Jazz soundtracked your life who are your top three artists?

It changes, and three’s not enough. Right now I’ll say, The Hot 8 Brass Band, The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and Christian Scott. That’s because of recent memories of listening to them all live. I love the brass band culture, in New Orleans, and increasingly in the UK, with bands like Sons of Kemet. There are several featured in our film One Note at a Time, and on the soundtrack which is now available, like the To Be Continued Brass Band (TBC), I love the rawness and high energy; I’ve danced to the brass bands on the streets and in clubs, in New Orleans and London, it’s impossible to stand still. Christian Scott’s music was introduced to me by the poet in One Note at a Time, Shelton ‘Shakespear‘ Alexander; Scott and Trombone Shorty (oh go on, let me add him too!) are among my current favourites.

When Hurricane Katrina hit, where were you, and what kind of impact did it have on you, your narrative, family…?

When the hurricane hit I was in London, phoning my Dad to make sure he’d left. It was stressful. He’d gone to Memphis in plenty of time and made his way back to New Orleans over several months. It was a bit abstract for me because I didn’t go back until 2008, by which time I knew I wanted to make a film there. During that period my Dad’s sister Helen had passed away, and she and I had, had a long conversation about the funeral tradition in New Orleans, and that was the seed of the film – what had become of the Jazz Funeral Tradition?

My Dad moved back to the same home, and made it livable again; obviously, there were many changes with regard to family and friends, it was chaotic. The one thing he still mentions is the loss of many photographs; the tall concertina display was left with blank paper, instead of the many family images it had formerly displayed. The effect it has had on my narrative is to bring me to this point where I have made a film, which reveals what it was like to be a musician in New Orleans post Katrina; I’ve led a large team through the process, and spent more time than I otherwise would have with my American family; it’s also been the source of what I anticipate to be some lifelong friendships.

Your CV boasts, editor, actor, director, writer, producer – is that because you want to do it all, or to get to where you want to be you had to do it all?

What is involved in a film’s job title varies according to the individual film. My stand is to put the film first, and see what I can best bring to it. There are about 150 people involved in One Note at a Time, which I produced, directed and edited. I’m honoured to have led the project. As I funded most of the film, it made sense for me to edit it, as I could do so between edit jobs, when I could afford to take the time. I’d been editing professionally for many years, so although I knew I’d be relying on the executive producers, my editor friends, and other colleagues to give me feedback along the way, I was confident about editing the film, and it would have been impractical to do otherwise.

There are films like the Panorama Specials, where the editing is what I love to do, and I’m sought after for what I can bring to a film; my mind doesn’t work in a way which would enable me to produce one of those films. My producing experience comes from my very first job after college, at a small corporate video company, GHA Group, where I was a producer for three years; I gained a lot of experience there, as we multitasked on the films.

As for writing, I’m writing a children’s’ novel; I’ve been doing it for a few years; I have a children’s brand I’m developing called Magic Wanda which encourages children in the arts. You can do so much work from home these days, and research, I don’t think we need to be pigeonholed. This is very different to being employed on a film, and having numerous extra roles dumped on you, which you weren’t expecting, and you know will compromise the film and your expertise.

9/10 years in the making, One Note in Time is your debut directorial feature… highs and lows of bringing this project to life?

The making of the film has been one of the highlights of my life, being trusted to tell the stories of these musicians and their supporters. There were many moments of serendipity and generosity which made the film possible, and these were all high moments. Completing the different stages, and in particular watching the final grade and listening to the final mix were exciting; the film being screened (in a longer unfinished version) as part of the 10th anniversary of Katrina, when then President Obama was in New Orleans, was a highlight, and seeing the film in 2017, at the New Orleans Film Festival on the IMAX screen with over 250 people was very celebratory; certainly Dr. John giving his approval for the film to be released was momentous.

It’s really touching to see how many people were behind the film being made and completed, and even now supporting its release. At the Oxford International Film festival the film won 3 awards, Best Score, Best Feature Documentary and Film of the Festival, I was stunned, it was an amazing night for the film; it’s won 6 awards, and received some extremely positive reviews, I’m thankful for those, it helps to bring an audience to the film. The low times were mainly associated with musicians passing away. Regarding the stressful times during the production process, there were several; pulling the filming together, finding funds to continue, securing permission to use certain music, even being told by a broadcaster that the film has too many black characters.

Most memorable experience on making One Note in Time and as a filmmaker, important lesson learned?

I don’t have a most memorable experience; I did love interviewing Dr. John as I have been a fan for so many years, and he is such a wonderful spirit to be in the presence of.

The most important lesson I learned was to go for what I really want in life.

What’s next for you?

I’m making a film about one of the subjects in One Note at a Time and developing the children’s brand, Magic Wanda, among other things.

One Note at a Time is screening at select cinemas across the UK. Find out if your cinema is showing it here.

The film is also available to watch via the following platforms


Latest articles

Related articles