Whenever guitar is featured in a movie, there are talented guitarists on the set making it all run smoothly. For the upcoming family film, August Rush, TrueFire and Premier Clinic instructor Jeff McErlain worked behind and in front of the cameras to ensure six-stringed brilliance. The movie revolves around a guitar-prodigy orphan’s (Freddie Highmore, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) search for his birth parents with the help of a “mysterious stranger” named Wizard (Robin Williams). We got together with Jeff to chat about his roles as Freddie’s guitar teacher, Robin’s body and hand double, and musical consultant.
This is a pretty cool gig – how did you find out about it?
I was referred by my friend Matt Smith, who got the call initially but sent them my way, as he had a conflicting tour scheduled. In a way, it took me years to get the gig, if you know what I mean. I’ve built a strong resume over the years teaching and performing in New York City, but part of being a working musician is selling yourself. I was confident I could do the gig and put them at ease that I was the right choice – plus, the production manager and I hit it off right away.
What is it like as a musician on a movie set?
I have to say I really enjoyed the experience. There is an energy on the set that was very cool – everybody sharing a common goal. I was treated very well; I had my own (part of a) trailer and handlers escorted me to the set. I can see how stars can become removed from reality.
The teaching part of the gig was easy. Consulting and doubling was completely different –12 to 14 hour days mostly spent waiting to do my job. I’m definitely not complaining, but it was pretty exhausting. It’s fascinating to see what goes into one scene. It would literally take a whole day for a ten minute scene. The most difficult day for me was a night shoot, which I didn’t realize means sundown to sunrise. I was being filmed as Robin Williams’ character in a distance shot, standing in Washington Square Park from 9 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. wearing a light jacket and playing guitar with numb fingers, while the crew wore parkas and gloves. It was brutal! I couldn’t feel my fingers, but at least I wasn’t really playing the guitar track – they would overdub that later.
What were your responsibilities as music consultant?
When I first met with the director, Kirsten Sheridan, she stressed how much she wanted it to look like Freddie was really playing the guitar in all the scenes. I was on set to make sure that all things guitar went well, and that things looked real and relaxed.
On occasion, Kristen would ask my advice or have me work with Freddie. One moment I was particularly proud of was a long shoot where everybody wanted to go home. Freddie was getting very frustrated because it wasn’t coming together guitar-wise, so I sat down with him and told him to relax and he would nail the part – we had worked on it for months. They took one more pass and it was the one. Afterwards, Robin Williams pulled me aside to tell me how impressed he was. It was very humbling and I’ll never forget it.
What kinds of things did you end up teaching Freddie?
There were no basics, chord names or note names. The music Freddie had to learn was in the style of Michael Hedges and everything was in an open tuning – very difficult by any standards. I learned the material, tabbed it out for Freddie and showed him how to play it. Though he didn’t play the actual parts for the movie, he could play some of them for real.
What exactly does being a hand double for Robin Williams entail – just how much fake hair did they have to apply to your hands?
It’s funny you ask that! I made the same joke to him. Fortunately he has a good sense of humor.
See Jeff’s hands at work in August Rush opening November 21. For more information visit augustrushmovie.com.