To apply the phrase "an intimate portrait" to a biographical documentary is to wield a white-hot branding iron of critical cliché with nearly sadistic gusto. Nevertheless, the degree of intimacy and the expressiveness of the on-screen portraiture in Scott Hicks's new nonfiction film "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts," which opens Friday at IFC Center, tempts one to state cliché as simple fact. Shot over 18 months, "Glass" follows the influential modern composer Philip Glass through a little more than a year in his life with a casual honesty and deftly shifting distance that flatter the viewer by not kowtowing to its subject. The release coincides with the recent premiere of the Metropolitan Opera's production of Mr. Glass's landmark 1979 opera, "Satyagraha."
"I was terrified of making something that was just a hagiography of St. Philip," Mr. Hicks said recently. "How boring would that be?" The other source of anxiety for the African-born, Australia-raised director of such well-received films as the fictionalized biopic "Shine" and the Discovery Channel's excellent documentary series, "Submarines: Sharks of Steel," was that on-camera scrutiny would expose too much.
"When you meet someone whose work you admire, you don't necessarily come away feeling better about them," Mr. Hicks said. Though he had become socially acquainted with Mr. Glass prior to filming, the director struggled with "conflicting thoughts going into this film, because I would hate to come out the other end and find that I didn't like Philip anymore." Quite the contrary, one comes away from "Glass" with a singularly vivid sense of Mr. Glass's creative process and personality, and an unvarnished — and at times even disturbing — personal inventory of his family history and current marriage.
When approached by Mr. Glass's manager about doing a documentary project to commemorate the composer's 70th birthday in 2007, Mr. Hicks was adamant about his need for access. "I said to him, 'Look, if Philip will open the doors, I would love to do it. I don't want to make something that's just a reverential retrospective of a grand career.'" During the first night of shooting on location at Mr. Glass's summer home in Nova Scotia, Mr. Hicks received more access than he'd bargained for. While preparing a group meal for his family and guests, Mr. Glass began casually holding forth about his practical relationship with his own work — directly to Mr. Hicks behind the camera.
"It was very disconcerting at first," the filmmaker said. "Philip was making pizza for the family and he started talking to me, which I didn't expect. And part of me was thinking, 'Don't talk to me, I'm a fly on the wall!'"
Like much of "Glass," the composer's complete unselfconsciousness allows the scene itself to organically develop a tension between the literal and the rhetorical in a way that mimics the reassuring symmetry of a scripted dramatic film. "It was more than I could've imagined, that it would start to open up like that," Mr. Hicks said. Cooking with Mr. Glass became "a metaphor," the director said, "that was totally natural to the circumstances. Here's a man chopping onions and crushing garlic and frying things and talking about the ingredients of what goes into making his work."
At Mr. Glass's homes in New York and Nova Scotia, and on the road in Europe and Australia, Mr. Hicks was periodically reminded of his high degree of access while shooting. "There are these particular moments where suddenly he has me making the tea or holding the Web cam or whatever it might be because I was in the room," Mr. Hicks said. Never mind that he was in the room operating an HD camera and making a feature film. "It was just his way of being Philip. He treated me the same with or without the camera."
Concurrent with the production of "Glass," Mr. Hicks was also putting finishing touches — including adding a Philip Glass score — on last year's hit romantic comedy "No Reservations." Meanwhile, Mr. Glass was, according to the filmmaker, "writing the scores to three other films including mine." That was, until he received the proverbial offer he couldn't refuse from director Woody Allen to write music for Mr. Allen's most recent film, "Cassandra's Dream." Said Mr. Hicks: "Philip said to me, 'Woody has asked me to write a score.' I said, 'But you're writing my score!'" Mr. Hicks nipped his own professional jealousy in the bud by using Mr. Glass's opportunity as a way to document Mr. Glass at work in Mr. Allen's cutting room. "I said, 'Here's the thing, Philip, can you get me in the room with you and Woody?' And Woody said yes."
Considering the star power of interviewees such as Mr. Allen, filmmakers Errol Morris and Martin Scorsese, artist Chuck Close, musician Ravi Shankar, and others, the net result of Mr. Hicks's 18-month camera safari of an artist in his globe-trotting habitat is surprisingly down to earth. It is also surprisingly inspirational. While searching for additional production funding during and after shooting, Mr. Hicks said, distributors and network executives repeatedly asked the filmmaker, "But what's the conflict?" The source of story tension on display in "Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts" is, in fact, a familiar one. The film is a "look at how somebody is able to synthesize so many elements of their life in a way that we all struggle to do between our work and our family and our recreation and our spiritual world, whatever that may be," Mr. Hicks said. "All of these things demand our attention and time, and most of us have to struggle with it. So does Philip."
Opening Friday at IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave. at West 3rd Street, 212-924-7771).