So how to explain who Freda Kelly is exactly. The easy answer is that she was the personal secretary for the Beatles for the band's entire existence, even prior to them scoring a record contract. At some point in her career, her duties extended to becoming the charge of the small army of women that acted as the Beatles' fan club, who were tasked with everything from answering fan letters to scoring bits of clothing and hair for special requests to writing up the band's monthly newsletter. But that doesn't quite cover it.
Kelly was so deeply ensconced in the lives of the band that she became close friends with not only John, Paul, George and Ringo, but also their families and closest friends; and she was often charged with keeping secret some extremely personal details about their lives and music. She was so important to the band that when they moved their offices from Liverpool to London, and Kelly was unable to go with them because of her ailing father, they personally paid for her to go back and forth between the two cities every week so they wouldn't lose her.
Even a peripheral Beatles fan will get a kick out of the new documentary GOOD OL' FREDA, directed by Ryan White, in which Freda breaks decades of silence to give us this look at the Beatles short career from a kind of sideways perspective, from getting hand-picked by manager Brian Epstein to being fired at one point by John Lennon, who lived to regret that decision immediately.
Kelly didn't agree to make this film for the money or any level of fame (for years, her friends, family and future co-workers had little to no idea of her role in the Beatles organization); she did it when her first grandchild was born, and she felt compelling to have a record of her story so he would realize she was actually someone special. The most ironic part of GOOD OL' FREDA is that this woman who was charged with not talking about her job is a remarkably wonderful storyteller, and both the movie and this interview I did with her recently prove that.
I had the chance to sit down with Kelly and director White last month, in the wake of a massive Beatles convention in Chicago, and they were both a real joy to listen to. I should that White is in the process of putting together a years-in-the-making documentary for HBO on the history Proposition 8 (with co-director Ben Cotner), a story that clearly was still in-progress until its recent repeal by the Supreme Court. The doc is set to air next year. And now, please enjoy my chat with Freda Kelly and Ryan White…
Capone: Hi Ryan, it’s great to meet you.
Ryan White: It’s nice to meet you. This is Freda.
Capone: Freda, it is such a pleasure to meet you. How are you? Did you have a good weekend?
Freda Kelly: Yeah, it was great.
Capone: Did you actually show the film to the folks here?
Capone: That’s great.
RW: This was probably our biggest audience yet. I think it was over 1,0000 people.
Capone: Wow. Was it just in the hotel here?
RW: It was in a ballroom. They had a big screen. That was by far the most energetic screening we’ve had yet, with people singing and clapping along.
Capone: I guess the obvious first question is how did the two of you find each other?
RW: So my uncle is in the film, Billy Kinsley of The Merseybeats. I’m American, but I grew up going back and forth to Liverpool my whole life, so I knew Freda over the years from parties or weddings, just from the family, but I didn’t know she was the Beatles’ secretary. She really is that private about it.
Capone: It doesn’t sound like a lot of people knew that for a while.
FK: Well you don’t have a badge and you don't gloat.
RW: So a few years ago, I found that out. You’ve seen the film, right?
RW: So Freda had reached that point in her life where she decided she might want to finally do this after saying “No” for 40 or 50 years. So we began discussing it. That was three years ago.
FK: It was really when my grandson was born.
Capone: Right, but you knew he was a filmmaker through the years of knowing him. So because you knew a filmmaker, you approached him first?
FK: Year. Well I wanted somebody that I could trust and that I knew before doing anything like this, and it was my daughter really saying, “Before your memory box goes, mum, you need to tell this story.” Because I don’t write anything down, “You should do something.” Then she said, “Why don’t you just do it [her grandson]? If you wont do it for anybody else, just do it for him,” and I’m a sucker for my grandson. I went, “Oh, go on then.”
Capone: In the film, you talk about how you would go to the Cavern Club on your lunch breaks, but were there any other bands that you were kind of into back then besides the Beatles?
FK: Oh yeah, all the Liverpool bands within walking distance, because people didn’t have cars then. You just got a bus, and so I went to see loads of the Liverpool bands around town.
Capone: Did you get in trouble at work for always going into the clubs.
FK: It was only the Cavern that was open at lunchtime, and luckily enough that was just around the corner; it was a two-minute run from the Cavern to the office that I worked in. But I could never say I had been somewhere else, because I’d have the Cavern smell on me. It had this smell that would stick on you, so you couldn’t say you went to a restaurant or something.
Capone: I assume that smell included smoke.
FK: It wasn’t just smoke. It was a unique smell, a combination of fruit and sweat and cigarettes and disinfectant.
Capone: But clearly you had a favorite in this group of bands that you would go see. What was it about them that you remember responding to? Was it the music or the look?
FK: It was everything. It was the look. It was the way they were with each other. Naturally of course, it was the music and the humor as well on stage and the way they used to talk to the audience. The other groups didn’t do that. They would just get up and play.
Capone: Ryan, were you much of a Beatles fan growing up?
RW: Yeah, I was a huge Beatles fan, but just around Beatles music. I grew up around Beatles music, but I didn’t know a lot about Beatles history. So I did a lot of research before we even began interviewing Freda and reading a lot of books and watching a lot of Beatles films. So it’s been a real learning curve for me, but a really fun one.
Capone: Did you do that learning curve as you were piecing the film together or before you really sat down?
RW: I tried to do as much of it before as I could, because you want to be prepared. We did like 40 hours of interviews with Freda, and I wanted to know what I was talking about.
Capone: But some of it you actually went on location to the places Freda was talking about.
RW: And some of that we did on the fly. You can’t plan a documentary about someone who’s never really spoken for 40 or 50 years, because you don’t know what she is going to talk about. So if we were talking in her living room, and a great story would pop up in her mind from a certain place, then our team would look into whether we could go to that place and shoot in that location, and then we would go to that location, and it would bring even more memories back for Freda and she would remember even more details.
As a filmmaker that was the most special part, getting to go to these places and watching the memories move through her. Ringo’s childhood home I would say especially was a very moving experience for her and for our whole crew that was there, because you can just feel the memories running through her.
Capone: As a filmmaker, because I know that the film you made before this [PELADA] and the film you’re working on now, they are active stories that you’re capturing as they are happening. For this, it’s more about capturing memories, but was going to these locations your way of keeping it active?
RW: Absolutely. Of the three films I’ve made, this one is very different in that the story already happened, and it happened a long time ago, and the documentaries I’ve filmed at least, I don’t typically make historical documentaries; they're events that are unfolding, and you’re following them as you go and you don’t know when it’s going to end and you could be filming for two years or five years.
Capone: It’s history in the making, especially the one you’re working on now.
RW: [laughs] Right, and I began that one, and that was going to be my second film, because I began that in 2008 and I’m still working on it now. It’s just ending and GOOD OL' FREDA came along in the middle and was the perfect second film to get in there, because the story had already happened. It was in some ways--I wouldn’t say “easier”--but you have a lot more control over your story if it already happened. I wanted to balance the past with the present day, and there’s a beautiful symmetry to Freda’s life and that era when she was working as a secretary, and she’s still a working secretary today. So we really wanted to bring in her modern life as well to show the audience what she’s doing now.
Capone: A lot of the documentaries that have been made about the Beatles concentrate on the recording sessions and the tours, the fandom, and this film is so great, because it sort of fills in some of the behind-the-scenes things that we never really got to hear about or seeing some of those bigger events from a new vantage point, from someone inside. Were you at all privy to watching them record? Did you ever go on the road with them when they toured?
FK: No, I didn’t go on tour with them, although I went to a couple of the concerts that were near Liverpool, and I did go to Abbey Road a couple of times when I was called in, but I never actually sat in the recording studio on Abbey Road. I went to see them there, because I lived in Liverpool and I would go to London every six weeks, so if they weren’t in Apple, in the offices, and if they were in the studios, I would call in on my way home to get the train back. Or if I had a friend and she wanted to see them--this was not very often that I would just bring somebody to them, but I did bring a few people to meet them.
Capone: From what I've heard, the way that you ran the fan club set the template for how fan clubs were run from that point forward. Now it’s different with the internet, but at the time when people would still mail things in and get things mailed back, the way you did it was the way people did it for years. It was really professional and was as timely as it could be. How did you come to that style of responding and dealing with the fans?
FK: Well I didn’t start the fan club; I just took it over, and because I had never joined a fan club before, I joined three fan clubs just to see how they did things, so it gave me an inclining. Then naturally it changed as it went along and then "Beatles Monthly" came out, and that saved time with me because I could put something in a newsletter once a month rather than mail everybody, and we’d have discussions with the press office. Tony Barrow [Beatles' press officer], he was brilliant with the fan club and also "Beatles Monthly" with the photographs.
Capone: You mention in the movie things about sending bits of shirts or hair. Were there other weird and bizarre things that people asked for that you were asked for?
FK: I wouldn’t try to say, “Can I have a piece of your nail?” People would say, “Can I have nail cuttings?” I did draw the line on certain things. I always took their clothing though--cut that up and sent a bit of Paul’s shirt or John’s trousers or whatever I had, because I went to their homes a lot. I was very close to their families, so if they had been home, and they’d left a shirt behind, I’d say “Well, I’ll have that.” [laughs]
Capone: I think the most moving part of the whole movie are those family visits and realizing how close you were to the families. Was that just something that came with the job, or did you set out and say, “This will probably be an easier job if I befriended them.”
FK: No, I didn’t set out to get to know the families, but within a matter of weeks I did, because [the band members] would ask me to go to their houses. I would help them if they were stuck on certain questions [during interviews], and I would bring what we call “handout photographs,” because they were always being asked, “Have you got a picture of John?” So I always brought them photographs. And also I used to bring them up to date on what the plans were on tours or where they would be playing next, because either they hadn’t been home and hadn’t told the parents, and I could at least give them the information, because I was typing it in the office, the contracts would come in, and I used to type the contracts.
RW: When you were putting the film together, did you reach out to Ringo or Paul about either being in it, outside of getting the songs, which we'll talk about in a minute?
FK: Originally the idea goes back to my grandson. It wasn’t about the Beatles. I don’t want to be big-headed here or anything, but it’s about me and my life with the fan club for my grandson.
RW: Ringo is in it.
FK: Oh, that's right. He’s at the end, during the credits.
RW: Sometimes we forget to tell people to watch the credits. [laughs]
Capone: I meant more just to be part of your story, because they were part of your story.
FK: Yeah, but if it gets too Beatley, it becomes a Beatles thing, and I really just wanted it to be my story.
RW: But they’ve been extremely supportive of the film. It’s very rare to be able to use Beatles music.
Capone: Was that a tough thing to get?
RW: It took a long time, and we were very happy when we pulled it off, and it’s definitely a testament to Freda that we did pull it off.
Capone: I’m guessing they didn’t bleed you dry for the money for the licensing.
RW: We were a very small-budget documentary, so we're extremely grateful that they were willing to work with us, because they knew we weren’t a Martin Scorsese documentary about George Harrison, and we showed versions of the film, and I think people saw that it was a special story and not scandalous in anyway obviously and a special story that they supported and they wanted to be part of Beatles' history. I think that music makes the film too.
Capone: I like that you supplement that with the original versions of songs that they covered early in their career.
RW: That’s the decision you have to make as a filmmaker; to pull off four Beatles' songs is huge, but for a music documentary, you need about 30-something tracks of music. So then the question becomes, “How do you fill in the rest of the film?” From the beginning, we said we don’t want to do like Beatles' soundalike music. We didn’t want bands that sound like the Beatles, and I always liked the idea of using the original versions of songs that the Beatles didn’t write but they, for the most part, made into huge hits. Those songs are really hard to get too, that’s like Buddy Holly and Little Richard and the Isley Brothers.
So a huge part of our time over the last couple of years has been licensing music and pitching the film to record labels and executives. Again, I think it goes back as a testament to Freda that we pulled off the Beatles' music and once we pulled off the Beatles music, record labels were willing to hear me out at least and take my phone calls and say, “Wow, you have Beatles' music,” and I could say, “Would you consider giving us this Little Richard song that we really love?” We’re really lucky that it all worked out. I’m so proud of the soundtrack in the end.
Capone: Freda, you’re such a natural storyteller. If you were not, this would have been a really boring movie even with this level of access. It’s almost hard to believe. These stories are so perfectly composed and don't run too long and it’s hard to believe you haven’t been telling them for years. Is that something that runs in your family, being natural storytellers?
FK: I think it’s because I’m Irish, Steve. We’re all good storytellers in Ireland. [laughs] But I do wander when I’m telling.
RW: We had a great editor and we covered some detours up with photos, but no I think it’s a Liverpool thing too. Liverpudlians are great storytellers, and Freda definitely has a knack for being able to create a picture ofsomething, even if it’s 45 years ago where you feel like you’re there, and I wouldn’t have made the movie if Freda wasn’t a good storyteller. When we began having these conversations and phone calls with her, it was apparent right away that she knows how to tell a good story, and she’ll only tell things that she knows are true and that she was there for. I get asked a lot about the accuracy of our film and I always say, “Our film is 100 percent accurate, because if you ask Freda something she doesn’t know about, she'll just stare at you.”
Capone: It was fascinating watching you go through the boxes of memorabilia that you kept, and I read somewhere that you gave away a lot of things not long after the group broke up, but obviously you still held on to a few things.
FK: I held on to a few things, like an odd ticket and cuttings and things like that, and I thought, “My children might want to read them when they're older.” But I didn’t keep a lot of stuff.
Capone: But just the fact that you have anything. Did you go through that stuff with her for the film?
RW: Yeah, that’s real in the film, when we go up into the attic. We didn’t know what was up there.
FK: I couldn’t remember what was in the box. I hadn’t opened those boxes since my daughter was born. That's true, because I had no need to.
Capone: You were originally brought in as Brian Epstein’s assistant or secretary. I know there’s that story in the movie about you getting picked out of a secretarial pool. Did the fact that you knew the band have anything to do with you getting picked?
FK: He didn’t advertise for a secretary; he just asked me. I worked for a firm just around the corner from the Cavern, but I knew Brian Epstein before he managed the Beatles, from going through the record shops and seeing him around town. He then got to know me more with going to the bookings that the Beatles were playing, and then one particular night we were just talking at the bar--not an alcoholic bar; we were just drinking orange juice--and he just said he was going to sign more artists and would need a secretary and would I come on and see him. That’s how I got the job. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, probably.
Capone: I know that you won't say if you have a favorite member of the band, but did you have…
FK: No, I do answer the question, because I don’t have a favorite. I did have a favorite every other day, but if I sit down and think about it…because I liked them all individually for various reasons, and when you get down to brass tacks, I just liked them as a group.
Capone: Was there one that you felt particularly close to at the time, that you thought you had the best relationship with?
FK: No, not really
Capone: All about the same?
Capone: The film is just full of these really moving moments, but the story about them moving to London and you wanting to stay behind.
FK: I wanted to go to London.
Capone: But you sort of felt like you had to stay behind. Were taken by surprise with how much they wanted you to come, and how they all kind of came to you and said “Please. We will make it work”?
FK: I was quite shocked, because I had another job to go to already. I was going to be secretary to the guy that owned The Cavern, and he kept saying to me, “Have you handed in your notice yet?” Because I didn’t want to hand in my notice, I left it to the last minute, because I was desperate to go to London. Then when I told Brian Epstein I was leaving, because nobody left in those days--you got the sack. [laughs] I think I was the only one that said I wanted to leave, and I can’t remember, maybe two days afterwards or three days--because my father didn’t tell me--Brian told me he'd been to see my father, and the Beatles definitely didn’t want me to leave. And as he was saying this, I thought “I’ve got to leave.” That’s when he said, “No, you stay up here and go to London on a regular basis and still pick the news [for the newsletter] up that way.” But I wasn’t expecting that, and that was genuine.
Capone: In some of the reviews of the film that I read, you're referred to you as "mild-mannered," and I’m thinking “That doesn’t seem like the right term for you.” I bet at the time you weren’t mild mannered at all.
FK: Yeah, but I was quite shy. I know it’s hard to believe, but years change you. I was quite reserved in those days.
Capone: You were at SXSW with the film. Can both of you talk about that experience? Did you have a distributor at that point?
RW: Magnolia saw it for the first time at the world premiere at SXSW, so we went in without a distributor. We went in with a good sales agent and we had just pulled off the Beatles music a few weeks before, so we went in with a lot of buzz. But the most rewarding part to me about SXSW was that, you know, Freda is the most private person in the world, and it’s not easy to make a documentary about someone that that’s private. Although she was on board with making the film, she also was nervous about it throughout the process understandably, because this was the first time she was telling her story. That was my favorite part about SXSW, getting to watch it with her and watch her take that big sigh of relief when it was done and the audience stood up and gave her a standing ovation, which they do every time she’s there and just getting to see her enjoy the moment, because Freda’s not one who seeks the limelight…
Capone: So let’s throw you on stage in front of a couple hundred people.”
FK: [laughs] I was on edge. I was looking for the exit door.
Capone: You sat and watched it though with the audience, right?
FK: Oh, yes.
Capone: Do you remember what they responded to?
RW: I don’t sit and watch my films. I was by the exit door.
FK: I was with my daughter, because I was seeing it basically for the first time, and although I had seen a rough copy, I hadn’t really taken it on board. Then in the beginning, I see my cat walk in, and I said to my daughter, “Now bloody hell how did he get him there?” I was commenting to her the whole time, and she was whispering things to me and she kept saying “You never told me that!” Then I’d go “Shh.” Every now and then she’d go, “I can’t believe that happened.” I went, “You never asked. You’ve seen it now.”
RW: Her daughter said after the film that 95 percent of it was completely new to her.
FK: Well, you don't. You probably don’t really talk about things in your past.
Capone: Not about my job, not really.
FK: You just get on with life.
Capone: I wanted to ask you, Ryan, about your Prop 8 documentary. I know you’ve been working on it for a while, but it was announced in the last few months that HBO was going to air it next year. Can you talk about what it’s been like working on that, and the way that story has written this beautiful ending for you?
RW: Yeah, I have a co-director named Ben Cotner. We started following the legal team and the plaintiffs in that case in 2009, when they filed the case right after Prop 8 was passed. I have to say my second and third film--GOOD OL’ FREDA and then, we don’t have a title for the Prop 8 documentary yet. We need to come up with one. It’s five years, and we still can’t come to an agreement. But I feel so lucky to have been a part of both of those stories. They're so different, but to me they are both history, like you said history in the making of one, and history that’s already happened for the other.
So to get to make both those films, I feel like the luckiest filmmaker, because I’ve gotten, especially with the Prop 8 film to feel like I’m a fly on the wall of watching history and I’m in rooms that I shouldn’t be in getting to slide in with my camera and watch the best legal minds at work or the best political strategists or follow plaintiffs regular lives with their families. Obviously the huge climax came this year, and it couldn’t have been more rewarding for Ben and myself I think, and we're really excited to finish it.
Capone: What’s interesting is, it’s not just a legal case, like you said the political ramifications are massive. We probably don’t even realize the full extent yet, but that is a fascinating thing, and you’re going to be the first one out of the gate with a proper documentation of the events. Do you know about when next year that HBO is going to try to slot it in?
RW: Well we will try to play festivals in 2014, so we are trying to finish it by the end of the year. Unfortunately, I’m not getting to enjoy GOOD OL’ FREDA as much as I would. Freda is going to Japan in November. They're releasing it in Japan, and I can’t go with her, because I’m in prime-time editing. I think HBO plans on airing it probably in the spring or summer.
Capone: I know they have that little string of docs every Monday in the summer.
RW: Summer Docs, yeah.
Capone: But this feels like something they would want to isolate and let it exist on its own.
RW: I’m not quite sure of the exact plans yet, but I think it will be in the spring or summer.
Capone: That’s great. Thank you both so much.
RW: Thank you. It was such a pleasure.
Capone: It was so great to meet you, Freda. Thank you.