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Interview with HEARTS BEAT LOUD co-writer/director Brett Haley

June 8, 2018

 

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Three years ago, I was introduced to the work of filmmaker Brett Haley with his wonderful drama, “I’ll See You in My Dreams“. While, it was not his debut, it did indeed place him firmly on my radar. His follow-up came with last year’s “The Hero” and it did not disappoint. In fact, it offered the same kind of good-hearted, authentic storytelling found in his previous film, populated with characters who are at something of a crossroads in life, which we can all relate to at some point. All of that can also be found in his latest film,”Hearts Beat Loud“, which premiered earlier this year at Sundance and a couple months back at SXSW and opens this Friday in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider release on June 15th.

What can also be found in each of Haley’s films are opportunities for actors who are typically considered supporting, or character actors, to take the center stage for a change. This paid off in rewarding ways for two actors who’ve been so good for so long –  Blythe Danner in “I’ll See You in My Dreams” and Sam Elliott in “The Hero” – and now it’s Nick Offerman’s turn. Primarily known for his as Ron Swanson in the NBC award-winning sitcom Parks and Recreation, which ran for seven seasons. Offerman’s choices since that hit show ended have been intriguing, mostly steering clear from comedic roles viewers may expect from him, showing up in indie films like “Me and Earl and Dying Girl”, “The Founder” and in last year’s “The Little Hours”, with some roles lending themselves well to Offerman’s certain brand of wry humor.

 

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In “Hearts Beat Loud”, Offerman plays Frank, a single father and record store owner in the hip Brooklyn neighborhood of Red Hook and during the summer before his daughter, Sam (Kiersey Clemons) heads off to UCLA for pre-med, Frank hopes to start a band with her. After one particularly successful jam sessions, Frank decides to upload their song, “Hearts Beat Loud”, onto Spotify under the guise We’re Not a Band, where it becomes an unexpected hit. Frank sees the song as an opportunity to fulfill a dream to play music professionally with his daughter, but she’s far more reluctant, juggling her desire to go to college as well as a new romantic relationship with local artist, Rose (Sasha Lane). With Sam’s departure looming, the father and daughter must decide not only what they want, but how best to navigate the new status of their relationship during this phase in their lives.

The film also offers some great supporting performances from a trio of talented actors known for consistently delivering great work. Toni Collette plays the record store landlord, Ted Danson is a local bar owner and Danner (who returned to work with Haley again) has a small role as Offerman’s mother, all three of whom are as wonderful as you’d expect.

I had met Brett Haley in person over a year ago at the Chicago Critics Film Festival, where his film “The Hero” was part of the lineup. I found him to be quite approachable, easy-going and intuitive, much like his films. This week, I spoke with Haley over the phone about “Hearts Beat Loud” – the writing process, the music involved in the film, as well as casting the film. He also is patient enough to tolerate my mathematic observation of his films. Below is that interview…

 

 

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DAVID J. FOWLIE: Which came first – an idea for a music-driven film or a story about a father/daughter relationship?

BRETT HALEY: Same. Same time. A father and daughter start a band was the kernel of the idea. So, that’s where it started.

DJF: Did that idea come to you while you were working on “The Hero”?

BH: I think so. I can’t place it exactly when it came to me. But, I wrote the idea down in my iPhone at some point – either before or during “The Hero”, yeah.

DJF: Is there anything in particular that you were trying to avoid in presenting a story revolving around a father/daughter?

BH: Well, look, you always do your best to put a new spin on things without it being unbelievable or ridiculous. What’s important to Marc and I, my writing partner, is that everything be grounded in reality. For these types of films, it’s a pet peeve of ours when they reach too far. And so I’m not opposed to tropes. I think they occur in real life, that’s why they’re tropes. But, you have to understand at what level you allow those tropes to exist in the film. When you go into another direction that maybe another movie would go, you can’t be too calculated about it. It has to be organic and true. So, as we’re writing, we’re just thinking – What is the reality of this situation? How would these characters that we’ve created respond to certain things? What would they do and what wouldn’t they do? You just have to hope that your characters are believable and realistic enough. With any movie, it’s like, you buy the ticket and you either take the ride or you don’t. And we’re always trying to get the audience to take the ride.

DJF: I’ve definitely appreciated the authenticity on display with your last couple of films and with this film. I was wondering if that’s something that you and Marc have really kind of develop over the years – has it been just a natural partnership with you guys that makes it special? Why do you think it works between the two of you?

BH:  I don’t know. I think it really is the latter. When we started writing “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, we wrote that script in like two weeks. And we were just on the same page. Sometimes you just get lucky and find someone that you really see eye-to-eye with, where you’re on the same page. I think Marc and  I have that. We push each other to be better and we do our best to try and make art as good as we can – making the films, for better or worse that we would want to make. Although we’re very different personalities, creatively we really seem to get along. It’s not like we don’t have things that we disagree on, of course we do, that’s part of the process. But, I think we always try not to get bogged down by those disagreements. We can sort of very quickly and easily talk about them and move on.

 

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DJF: You’re also collaborating with composer Keegan DeWitt again, who composed your last two films, yet this time it’s a little different since he’s involved with writing songs for actors and their characters to perform. How was that different for you both and did you have a certain kind of music you were going for?

BH: Yes, we did. I had a very specific sort of idea in mind for the kind of music We’re Not a Band would create and, again, it had to come from a place of realism. How are the songs going to sound full and actually come from two people, especially to perform them live on film? So, Keegan and I and Marc all worked really closely together and I was obviously more involved in the music as a director. The question was how were we going to visualize this and how were we going to make the music a reality. So, Keegan and his writing partner, Jeremy Bulloch, and myself collaborated in creating something that – really it’s Keegan’s creation. Keegan wrote the lyrics. Jeremy helped with certain songs and certain musical aspects and I was just sort of giving my opinion as we went, making sure that the songs did some heavy narrative lifting, yet were organic and believable for the world we had set up in the film. Also knowing that if the song really didn’t work, the movie wouldn’t work. So, no pressure, Keegan (laughs).

DJF: Yeah. It’s funny how, even though you’ve worked with Keegan before, his work with you here is a much more pivotal to the story you’re telling here.

BH: Oh, it’s like – it’s everything. If the music doesn’t work in this film, then forget it. Go home. You know? Don’t bother. Everybody has their different taste in music and you’re either gonna like these songs or you’re not. I happen to love them. They happen to be my cup of tea. They happen to be what I enjoy musically. You have to roll with it and believe in it and hope that we got the right mix of tunes to carry the narrative.

DJF: I certainly feel the tunes here are the right mix and the right fit. Since music was so pivotal here and I know that you wrote this part specifically for Nick after working with him on your last film – did you have conversations with music about the kind of music you’d be incorporating into the film? What kind of conversations did you have with him about the music and approaching performing the music?

BH: Well, you know, Nick had to learn some new skills for this movie. He had never played electric guitar before. So, he had to learn how to do this stuff and worked really hard on that. That was something he had to figure out. He just kind of put his faith in me and Keegan and said, “You guys do what you feel is right and I will execute that music.” He heard the music and was like, “Great! All right! I gotta learn these songs now.” So, he just put his faith in us to do these songs and he then worked extremely hard to learn them. That’s where he put his energy. He didn’t put his energy into giving us his opinion on the music – which, I think he likes. It’s not necessarily his type of music that he would normally listen to, but I think he really likes the music and he was just committed to pulling it off on screen. That was his concern.

DJF: That’s totally understandable. Now, you wrote the part for him. What is it about Nick Offerman that made you feel you this role was specifically for him? 

BH: Well, he’s just a kind person. He’s very giving and authentic. He’s the definition of a real man and I don’t mean that in the Ron Swanson way.  I mean that he’s caring and giving and gentle and sensitive. He’s aware and “woke”, as they say. He’s hilarious and he is so funny to be around and so smart. He’s just somebody that not only do I enjoy so much as an actor, I enjoy him as a human being. He brings a great energy on the set and I knew that if I was going to have a dad in the story, I wanted it to be Nick. The kind of version of Nick that you see in the film.

 

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DJF: And the kind of version of Nick that most viewers haven’t seen before. He’s in a lead role and you even have somewhat of a love interest for him. 

BH: Yeah, I mean, he’ll tell you this is the first time he’s had the opportunity to play someone like that. He was very excited about that.

DJF: Of course, the next big role was to cast Sam, his daughter. Did you have a lot of auditions for that role and how did you finally land on Kiersey?

BH: We were looking for a lot of different types of people. It was just a hard process to find the perfect fit and we knew that it would have to be someone who could act, who could sing and who could have chemistry with Sascha and chemistry with Nick. I knew that I wanted to person to be of mixed race and bi-racial . And so we were looking at various people and bi-racial mixes, to see what was the best fit. We were open to anything. And I had made the decision at some point to try to kind of get a little bit of “a name” for the part. Kiersey as at the top of our list. I didn’t know if she was available and we found out that she was. And then we found out she’s a singer and wanted to do something with music. So, we made her the offer and she said “yes”. We didn’t even audition Kiersey. I just had a feeling about her.

DJF: Well, that feeling served you and the film well. 

BH: Yeah, sometimes you get it right.

DJF: I also thought it was just so great to see Ted Danson behind the bar again. It literally felt like finding Sam Malone thirty years later. How did that come about? 

BH: It’s very simple. Nick Offerman called him.

DJF: Well, fantastic. 

BH: Yeah, Nick thought he’d be perfect for the part as well. I thought Ted would be great behind the bar as well, but I though he wouldn’t do it, because of that. But, he was game. He supported the project and jumped on board and he’s such a treat. Such a great guy. I had a lot of fun shooting with him. It is not lost on me how cool it is to have Ted Danson behind the bar in this movie.

DJF: One thing that was not lost on me was some Brett Haley arithmetic that I worked out in preparation for today, let me know what you think…

BH: Sure.

DJF: So, in “I’ll See You in My Dreams”, Sam Elliott has a great supporting role and wound up as lead in “The Hero”, which had a great supporting role for Nick Offerman, who of course had a lead role in this film. This means that Ted Danson has the lead in your next film. How’d I do?

BH: Uh, I cannot comment on who will be in the next film. But, I would give anyone in this cast a lead role, in a heartbeat. I’ve worked with all of them again in a heartbeat. I like working with good friends. I like working with people that I know and – look, it’s hard to get movie stars to sign on to your movie. I’m not a big director in that way, where I can pull in massive names. But, when someone has worked with me, it becomes clear that they’ve enjoyed it and they’d like to come back.  I’d be happy to work with any of these people again as long as they have me. And I hope to. I hope to work with all of them again.

DJF: Well, I hope they do as well. Brett, you are definitely a writer and director that will remain on my radar and I wish you the best. 

BH: I appreciate it. Thank you so much.

 

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“Hearts Beat Loud” is in theaters on June 8th (limited) & June 15th (wide) from Gunpowder & Sky

 

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