The Last Repair Shop: Interview with Cinematographer David Feeney-Mosier

”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures


Music is what has helped each of them, individually, throughout their lives, and music is what has brought them together, forming an unbreakable human bond with a transformative power.

The Last Repair Shop, nominated for Best Short Documentary Film for this year’s Academy Awards, grants access to a Los Angeles workshop where a handful of devoted craftspeople keep over 20,000 music instruments in good repair for the 80,000 LA public school children and teens. The film traces the backstories of the workshop heroes and how music has mended and changed their lives and follows them into the present, at work, where their tremendous, specialised work keep transforming the lives of the youth. Music and the instruments they play offer them a freer, more optimistic outlook on life, and room to dream. We get to know some of the students, too, and hearing them and watching them in such close relationship with their music, the feeling is that they are all heroes.

Directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers and lensed by David Feeney-Mosier, who has previously shot the documentary Jim Svejda: Between the Notes and whose work for the big screen and television includes films such as Frances Ha, Lady Bird and Stranger Things, The Last Repair Shop is, with lighting, colour and emotion as key ingredients, a wonderful celebration of music and human connection.

In our interview, David Feeney-Mosier and I talk about why they wanted a narrative approach for documentary filmmaking, why they thought close-ups and darker, warmer tones were more appropriate for the film, how someone’s non-filmic life will always inform their work, and why it is important for a cinematographer to trust a director’s vision.


”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures


David, first of all, congratulations on The Last Repair Shop!

Thank you!


What essential things had to go into the creation of the visual story of a documentary about a workshop that offers free instrument tuneups to music students?

Thankfully, the directors, Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers, and I were on the same page on our visual approach to The Last Repair Shop from the beginning. It was in fact something we didn’t even have to discuss all that much in pre-production, it just sort of organically unfolded as we began to shoot. We wanted to approach this film as if it were a more traditional narrative piece. We favored intentional shot design and a slightly stylised lighting approach over a purely verite approach. We still wanted it to feel authentic, grounded in reality, but at the same time more composed and slightly elevated. To this end, we chose to shoot on anamorphic lenses, creating a bit more of a subjective feel. I enjoy this hybrid approach to documentary filmmaking, even though, of course, it’s not always possible.

We were still coming from an observational perspective, but aside from the interviews, if we thought we could find a better angle, better lighting, or simply get a better take, we would repeat the shot until we had what we needed. This approach allowed us to create a more cohesive world for the film. We leaned into the darker, warmer tones quite a bit. We felt there was a cosiness and optimism that came from that palette, which reflected the spirit of the Repair Shop.

For the interviews, Ben and his team at Breakwater Studios have long favoured the intimacy and confessional quality of the straight-to-camera interrotron setup. We always shoot the same focal length, and place the subject more or less the same distance from camera. Those close ups became integral as we interviewed our four repair shop employees, as well as the LAUSD students.


“That service, that connection, is what is really what’s
at the heart of the film. It’s an incredible act of generosity and hope.”


There is a recurrent phrase throughout The Last Repair Shop, about children who want to play an instrument that they can’t afford and how that can change their whole lives. The most emotional component of the film are I believe the children. Did you know from the very beginning how you wanted to capture that, where these characters were emotionally?

We filmed the four interviews with the Repair Shop employees first, in 2019. We then had probably 3-4 days of b-roll in the shop. All that material (and it was a lot!) was then turned over to our incredible editor Nick Wright and his team, and they began to shape the film. It wasn’t until 2022 that we returned to interview the students. I’m not sure who had the idea, but seeing the completed film, it’s a wonderful balance to include both the repair employees and the students that are directly impacted by the repaired instruments. That service, that connection, is what is really what’s at the heart of the film. It’s an incredible act of generosity and hope. And for many students, it means having the opportunity to play an instrument they could not afford to rent privately, which of course opens up a whole new pathway for them to imagine continuing to keep music in their life, personally or maybe even professionally. All of our interviews were tremendously emotional, but to witness the interviews with the young students really brought home the massive importance of the work being done at the LAUSD Repair Shop.


”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures


Yes, there is a wonderful connection between the staff of the workshop and the students, that easily comes through, the human element. Not just the interviews, but seeing the people at work, doing that incredibly meticulous and passionate work, it’s clear how important that is and inspiring for students to continue to keep music in their lives. The documentary also shows how we can retain the human element of music in the digital age, doesn’t it?

Absolutely. The work the employees at the repair shop do is certainly very tactile and analog, but I think one of the most resonant themes of the film is the human connection between objects. Like how Paty describes her jar of toys found in instruments: “a secret communication between the kids and myself.” Or in Steve’s simple assertion that “when an instrument breaks, there’s a student without an instrument.” It’s a very direct connection, and I think in using a lot of extreme close-ups of the repair work being done we were hopefully able to highlight the physicality and intimacy of their labour. And then, in the credits sequence, we unite the two sides, the repair shop employees and the students, in this wonderful celebration of music and human connection.


“I think the look of the film came largely
when we first saw the Repair Shop itself.”


When was the first time you actually formed a vision of the film?

Going into the shoot, the directors and I did have broader discussions about how we wanted to approach the film, but I think the look of the film came largely when we first saw the Repair Shop itself. We were amazed at how trapped in time the space felt. It seemed relatively unchanged from the 1970s/80s, with a heavy, warm patina throughout. The ceiling- high shelves that filled the shop were lined with leather cases, brass instruments, and the rich mahogany tones of the string instruments. The work stations were almost entirely wood as well, and lit primarily with tungsten work lights. This again influenced us to lean into the warmer hues of the space, and carry that thought the film. Once we completed the interviews with our four main subjects, we were able to take some time to figure out what components of the shop would be relevant and impactful to focus on.


Right, they’s no standard colour palette in cinematography. You have to make that decision based on what you are trying to express in the story and what emotions you are looking for, and you also take into consideration the environment you are shooting in. Do you, as a cinematographer, believe it is important to draw from experiences outside of cinema to inform and bring a certain amount of truth to the work that you create?

Absolutely. Whether consciously or unconsciously, one’s non-filmic life will always inform their work. You can make specific efforts to point to references outside of cinema, whether that’s other art forms or more abstract connections. For The Last Repair Shop, music was obviously a huge inspiration. Ben is a huge appreciator of music, and Kris is a wildly talented and successful composer, so I think there was probably always a background of that going into shot design, editing, etc. A lot of the macro photography and graphic wides have a very specific flow and texture to them, and I think always felt musical to me. For the wonderful end credits sequence, Ben and Kris actually shotlisted right on the sheet music for the score!


”The Last Repair Shop”, 2023, directed by Ben Proudfoot and Kris Bowers. Searchlight Pictures


You mentioned earlier that you wanted to approach this film as if it were a more traditional narrative piece. When I watched it, what I found interesting was exactly this feeling that this was documentary whose makers clearly cared not only about the ideas in it, but about how it looked, too. You’ve worked on other music documentaries, including the wonderful Jim Svejda: Between the Notes. How was the experience on that?

There’s actually an interesting connection there. Ben Proudfoot saw the Jim Svedja doc and apparently liked my work on it, and reached out to me. Not long after we met in 2019, we began shooting The Last Repair Shop. It was our first time working together. So I do think there is a stylistic connection between those two projects. The approach I had with director Danny Zucker on Between the Notes was certainly similar, and it was a nice collaboration. We wanted to keep the camera either locked off, or subtly moving, but never loose and handheld. Both projects are anamorphic, which I find a fun format to work in for documentary. You can have wider static shots, and still allow non-actors to have some freedom to move within frame. On The Last Repair Shop, Ben and Kris were very good at pushing me to be expressive with the camera and lighting. They are certainly not directors to shy away from bold, more stylised work. They had a strong vision for the film, and I think in the end we were able to achieve that vision. Hopefully!


“Whether consciously or unconsciously,
one’s non-filmic life will always inform their work.”


You have certainly achieved that. For the director and cinematographer and the entire team to be on the same page, to go for a singular vision is the most important thing. But every film is different, every film requires something else. Is it difficult to leave a film behind and adapt your visual language to something new with each next film?

I don’t find the transition all that difficult, mainly because what is really required of you as a cinematographer is to (hopefully) connect to the story, and to react to the scene as it develops. Your taste, or instincts, provide a throughline that stays with you from shoot to shoot. The shifts between projects are generally more technical. One project could be film, one digital, one could be very aggressive handheld, one could be locked off wides, and that can take it a bit of mental reframing, but again there are always constants, and those are more intuitive. The Last Repair Shop pushed me to sometimes work in a more stylised way than I may have initially thought to do, but this is also where faith in the director comes in. If you trust their vision, you can step out on a limb with them. And I trusted Ben and Kris.


Thank you, David, for taking us behind the scenes of The Last Repair Shop.



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