ShortList 2020: How Charlie Tyrell Made Beautiful Music Out of Busted Instruments in 'Broken Orchestra'

Tyrell’s short documentary chronicles the use of discarded instruments from Philadelphia schools to perform a special composition written for them by Oscar-nominated composer David Lang

The last time Charlie Tyrell was in TheWrap’s ShortList Film Festival, it was with the 2018 film “My Dead Dad’s Porno Tapes,” the arrestingly titled stop-motion documentary short that used the objects a person leaves behind — including, yes, some VHS porno tapes — to tell a story.

Tyrell’s  imaginative and haunting new film, “Broken Orchestra,” a finalist in this year’s ShortList Film Festival, began with discarded objects, too. But in this case, it was musical instruments that fell into disrepair in the Philadelphia public school system as arts funding dried up. But a collaborative effort known as Symphony for a Broken Orchestra rallied the students to perform a concert with those battered instruments, playing a piece of music specially written for the event by Oscar-nominated and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer David Lang.

“I really like inanimate objects as a starting point,” Toronto-based filmmaker Tyrell said. “I subscribe to the notion that you can tell a whole lot more about an individual by what’s on their desk than by talking to them, and I think objects can do a lot of talking for people and communities. But the moment I knew this was a film I had to make was when I heard David Lang’s score. It’s a wonderful piece of music they were able to create – not just a bunch of weird sounds with broken instruments, but something of merit and worth and artistic value.”

Tyrell initially thought he would use stop-motion techniques to animate the busted instruments and use that as the entry point into the story. But when he went to Philadelphia to shoot interviews with some of the participants, his notion of how to shoot the film began to change. Many of the interviews took place inside the high school – and as the crew was setting up, Tyrell decided the setting could be a key to the film.

“We realized that if we could place it in a high school, it would allow people to access the story a little better,” he said. “I was thinking back on my own arts education, and I thought, if we can float a camera through the school from room to room and have our subjects in monitors on TV carts, that’s how I got a lot of my education. It’s easy to forget nonfiction pieces, and I want people to not forget it after they watch it.”

True to Tyrell’s vision, the camera floats through the empty halls of the school, turning to discover TV monitors where the interview subjects are talking. It looks like one continuous, carefully-choreographed shot, though Tyrell said it includes “five or six” cuts. And all of the TV monitors are actually playing the interviews as the cameras turn to them – there was no after-the-fact compositing to get the timing right.

The shoot took lots of planning, working from the floor plan of a Toronto school that closed for good a month after Tyrell shot there. He and his crew shot for two intricate, “physically exhausting days,” somehow avoiding the rolling blackouts that were hitting the neighborhood that day. “If anything had gone wrong,” he said, “we would have been in over our heads.”

The finished film only abandons the conceit of watching monitors once, when Symphony for a Broken Orchestra project creator Robert Blackson goes full screen as he gets emotional talking about the repaired instruments. “The single-shot, steady-cam, TV-monitors thing is eye candy,” Tyrell said. “It’s fancy and it’s a format I’d never really seen. But I wanted to completely throw that away in the middle of the film and be in the room with Rob. It didn’t need anything flashy to enhance that section of his story.”

In the end, he said, the film was his attempt to do the same kind of thing that the musicians were doing. “What Rob and Symphony for a Broken Orchestra did,” he said, “is that they took this problem and found a creative solution and created a beautiful piece of art out of it. For us, it was, ‘How do we take what these people did and make our own piece of art out of it?’”

Watch “Broken Orchestra” above. Viewers can also screen the films at any time during the festival at Shortlistfilmfestival.com and vote from Aug. 6-20.

The Scene at ShortList 2019: TheWrap's 8th Annual Short Film Festival (Photos)

  • In the top row, ShortList 2019 filmmakers, from left to right: “Hula Girl” directors Amy Hill and Chris Reiss, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa, “Sister” director Siqi Song, “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez.

    In the lower row, TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman, ShortList host Harvey Guillen, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas,  “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall, “Departing Gestures” co-directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano and TheWrap writer Steve Pond.

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  • ShortList filmmakers attended the ShortList opening night dinner, presented by Amazon Alexa, on Wednesday, August 21 at Eveleigh West Hollywood.

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  • TheWrap awards editor Steve Pond, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas and TheWrap head of operations Claude Memmi at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • Guests enjoyed an intimate evening of dinner and conversation at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • We’re Magnetic global director of consumer research and insights Rachel Krautkremer, “How Does it Start” director Amber Sealey, Amazon head of entertainment & culture, XCM Andrew Saunders and Endeavor (WME-IMG) senior global marketing manager Alexandra Stabler at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa and “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas speaks at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman speaks with ShortList filmmakers and jurors at the ShortList opening night dinner.

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  • “What We Do in the Shadows” star and ShortList host Harvey Guillen poses with TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman.

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  • “Departing Gesture” producers Thomas Harrington, Brian Bolster, Jonathan Napolitano and Kayleigh Napolitano.

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  • ShortList jurors Landon Zakheim, Todd Berger, Wendy Guerrero, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Steve Pond, Gena Konstantinakos, Orlando von Einsiedel, Sharon Waxman and Tristen Tuckfield.

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  • Host Harvey Guillen and jury member and actress Marsha Stephanie Blake.

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  • “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “How Does it Start” director Amber Sealey and “Departing Gesture” co-director Brian Bolster.

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” composer Britta Phillips, director A.M. Lukas, and cinematographer Meena Singh.

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  • “Sister” director Siqi Song.

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  • “What We Do in the Shadows” star Harvey Guillen, while hosting at the ShortList ceremony.

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  • The ShortList 2019 jury panel.

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  • Jurors Tristen Tuckfield, Gena Konstantinakos and Todd Berger.

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  • Director & co-founder of Grain Media Orlando von Einsiedel speaks during the jury panel.

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  • Jurors Wendy Guerrero, executive vice president of 30West Tristen Tuckfield, and Gena Konstantinakos.

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  • Gena Konstantinakos, vice president of Development & Video Programing of Topic.

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  • Jurors Gena Konstantinakos, Marsha Stephanie Blake, and Wendy Guerrero.

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  • Guests mingle with food and drinks at the W Hotel Hollywood.

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  • ShortList film curator Landon Zakheim.

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  • Guests chat with wine in hand at the W Hotel Hollywood.

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  • Steve Pond introduces ShortList finalists during the filmmakers panel

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  • “Sister” director Siqi Sing, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, and “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey

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  • (L-R), “Departing Gesture” co-directors Jonathan Napolitano and Brian Bolster, Siqi Song

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  • “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa

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  • “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas

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  • Senior Vice President Original Programming of Starz Karen Bailey announces the finalists for Telling Our Stories, a new film competition by Starz and WrapWomen

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  • “No Sanctuary” takes the student prize, accepted by producer Moriah Hall

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  • “Departing Gesture” takes the audience prize, accepted by the co-directors Jonathan Napolitano and Brian Bolster

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  • “Enforcement Hours” takes the industry prize, accepted by director Paloma Martinez

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  • Guests mingle at the W Hotel Hollywood

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  • Guests pose for pictures after the awards ceremony

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  • (L-R) Senior Vice President Original Programming of Starz Karen Bailey, “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall and Sharon Waxman

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  • Sharon Waxman and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez

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  • “Departing Gesture” directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano

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Finalists and jurors come together to celebrate this year’s finalists

In the top row, ShortList 2019 filmmakers, from left to right: “Hula Girl” directors Amy Hill and Chris Reiss, “Cat Days” director Jon Frickey, “Green” director Suzanne Andrews Correa, “Sister” director Siqi Song, “How Does It Start” director Amber Sealey and “Enforcement Hours” director Paloma Martinez.

In the lower row, TheWrap CEO Sharon Waxman, ShortList host Harvey Guillen, “One Cambodian Family Please for My Pleasure” director A.M. Lukas,  “No Sanctuary” producer Moriah Hall, “Departing Gestures” co-directors Brian Bolster and Jonathan Napolitano and TheWrap writer Steve Pond.

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