Like the greatest musical experiences, you can’t recreate your first listen. This is how I felt conducting my second interview in 24 hours with Brett Haley, the director of the Nick Offerman/Kiersey Clemons-starring musical Hearts Beat Loud. Brett and I chatted the day prior about all manner of things, but an audio hiccup saw me lose the audio to the big technical malfunction in the sky. But, because Brett is awesome, he offered to redo the interview all over again. What you’ll read below is fantastic, but it’s hard to recreate the magic of that first interview. No matter, because Brett Haley is one of those directors who understands the power of connection, whether it’s creating magic with his performers in Hearts Beat Loud, filming a musical sequence, or redoing an interview with a flustered journalist. Haley sat down with The Young Folks to discuss all manner of musical appreciation, including his desire to take on the greatest of musical mavericks, Stephen Sondheim.
You and I got to talk about how Inside Llewyn Davis was an inspiration for this movie. How did that film play into the process of making Hearts Beat Loud?
One of the elements of the movie is lost dreams or aspirations where the character played by Nick Offerman, Frank, has these dreams of being a successful musician and he never really quite got there, and something happens between him and his daughter that reinvigorates that dream that maybe he could fill. The Coen brothers’ film is so beautiful in what it is like to chase that dream and not quite get there, the reality of not quite reaching the stars. I think that’s a beautiful and realistic, important thing to discuss in movies. It’s a beautiful theme that a lot of people can relate to, including myself. In my own work you’re always trying to reach for something, and a lot of times you don’t quite get there. There are all sorts of things that could happen to remind you of “Well, I’m not quite getting there. I’m trying, though. I’m trying.” I find a lot of joy in seeing characters try to do their best and try to reach for the stars, but I think the reality is we don’t often get to make that reach. It can be a difficult journey. So I found that to be an interesting parallel between the two films.
Well, and Inside Llewyn Davis is about a man running away from his problems, particularly the women in his life, yet Frank doesn’t do that. Frank actually draws inspiration from the women he knows.
I think Inside Llewyn Davis is one of the finest films ever made, for the record, but it is quite different in terms of feeling and tone. It does not share that element of the movie, but I think I was inspired by what the Coen brothers did with that film. It is a piece of the pie of Hearts Beat Loud. There are other movies that are monumentally huge inspirations for this film like That Thing You Do, Once, a great Japanese film called Linda, Linda, Linda, High Fidelity. It’s all those movies in a blender; my take on this subgenre.
The musical is a tough nut to crack and while so much of this movie works because of the music you never overload the movie with it. How did you strike that balance?
That was a challenge. I really wanted to try and tell the story through song, but I didn’t want it to be at every turn that we were singing a song. The most important thing to me and my co-writer, Mark Basch, was that the film felt steeped in reality. That everything in the film came from a real, and organic, and honest, and grounded place. The challenge was to do that, to have the songs do heavy narrative lifting, but not have them be like, “Wait, why is a character singing a song right now?” You have to fold that in but the songs do serve that purpose. They move the plot along and have big character movements, and rather than dialogue scenes there are these songs which say what can’t be said. It was a challenge to fold them in, but I hope that we succeeded in making it organic and real, and really ingrained within the film.
What compelled you to transition to making a father/daughter musical drama after your two previous films?
I’m a scene-driven filmmaker and there was just something about the idea. First of all, to be completely honest, I wanted to make something fun. I felt like I needed some fun in my life. I needed a break from reality. I wanted to play in this fantasy land, although my movies are not fantasy films; they’re not heightened. They’re very real and grounded. But for me, this is the most fun and effervescent film I’ve ever attempted to make. I wanted that good vibes, love and music, creation. There was a part of me that came from a selfish place in wanting that in my life, wanting to be around that kind of energy because I feel it’s a film right now that’s needed. I think a lot of people are responding to the film because it gets their mind off their problems for 90-minutes, makes them feel good, maybe reminds them about the love in their life or the relationships in their lives that they cherish. Today was a really dark day, I’m still reeling from it. [It was announced earlier in the day that Anthony Bourdain had died.] Art like this is really necessary, and I knew what kind of movie I wanted to make and I think I certainly made that. I think the father/daughter, the music, that subgenre I was interested in; it fits the bill, so I leaned into that and this is what I came up with to investigate those themes.
This is coming out around the same time as Ocean’s 8, both of which are very positive, fun movies. Peppy and upbeat movies can be great!
It can be! I’m a big believer in it. I’m not going to apologize for making a film that makes people feel good. There’s a lot of cynicism in the world; there’s a lot of cynicism around film criticism, and that’s fine. Everyone has their right to say, “this movie is too sugary for me” or “too light. I need something that’s heavier and more serious.” That’s fine. That’s why there are so many different types of movies for different types of people. But I did exactly what I wanted to do, which was make something that would make people walk away from the theater and say, “Man, I just feel a little bit better about the world. Just for a little bit. If I can just carry that feeling with me; I heard some great songs, saw some great performances. Maybe I laughed, I cried a little bit. I was moved. I felt emotionally engaged.” I don’t see any problem with that and I think films can do so many different things. What I set out to do I achieved, so I have to stand by my art and say, “This is the kind of movie I wanted to make, and if it’s not for you that’s fine and if it is for you, great. I’m really glad you feel the same way about it that I do.” I, personally, felt like I needed this movie to be out in the world, so I went out and made it. It’s a movie I just wanted to see.
What was the process of shaping Kiersey [Clemons] and Nick’s performance?
Anytime you’re making a film you’re collaborating the most with the actors. They are the extension, what people will see. They’re the vessels for your story; that’s what people connect to more than anything; more than a camera angle, more than a set design, more than the lighting. They’re gonna connect with the faces on-screen and what they’re going through. I obviously had very specific ideas about what I wanted from all these characters and worked very closely with my actors to achieve that. I like to consider myself a very collaborative filmmaker. I like to hear what my actors have to say. Mark and I really listened and took notes very seriously from Kiersey and Sasha [Lane] about their relationship in the film because they’re both women of color who identify as queer. That relationship in this film is the romance at the center. Rather than say, “It must be this way,” I said, “How did we do and could we do better?” We simply listened to them, and had long conversations and worked on the script, and rewrote it and got it down to something that they felt like “Yes, this reflects my experience. This is something I would like to see on-screen.”
For me, it’s always about the collaborative process. The filmmaking process is the most collaborative artform there is. You’re not an island when you’re a director; you’re a leader, but you’re encompassing everyone’s opinions and everyone’s thoughts, and you’re distilling it down and you’re trying to make the best product as a team. It’s a team sport, filmmaking. Working with my actors is some of the most fun I have. We play and we try different things. We surprise each other and we push each other. It’s a very free and open environment on my set. At the same time you also have to have a vision. You do have a vision and ten times out of ten my actors and I are on the same page when we step on-set. We’ve already discussed what the scene is and what it needs to be, so that’s very important, too.
I have to ask about filming the concert scene in the record shop. What was that like to film?
It was a huge challenge, especially on our budget and time constraint. We shot this movie in 18 or 19 days so we had to really work to achieve the sequence. I wanted it to feel real and authentic, so we did all live vocals. The actors are wearing earwigs, which are these little, tiny earpieces that you can’t see on-camera. They were hearing the music and singing a capella, singing live so we could get the vocals live. They were almost in a studio booth so we kept everything quiet. We did take after take after take after take of these guys singing the songs. It was a challenge on the actors; it was a challenge on background; it was a challenge on me, to make sure we were getting all the pieces. But we made the effort and hopefully it comes across on-screen, and hopefully that feels like it’s happening right in front of you, like you’re there and not like a slick music video. I really wanted to avoid that when I was doing the sequence.
The movie shies away from doing the big fairy-tale ending. Was there ever a draft or time when you thought about going that way?
Spoiler alert, but it was always intended to end [the way it does on-screen]. It was inching towards that. You’re always thinking, “Well, should they get this? Should Jeff Tweedy discover them?” We are sometimes frustratingly committed to the reality of any given situation, and to us this was what we call in the screenwriting business “surprisingly inevitable.” To me, the ending is inevitable, but I think it is surprising how it gets there. It shows that people are made of more than just one thing – that’s actually a line from the movie that Sasha says to Kiersey’s character. You don’t have to choose one artform, or one passion over another passion. You can do more than one thing in this world. You can have hobbies. Look at my leading man, Nick Offerman, who is an amazing woodworker, a humorist, a writer, and an amazing actor. He doesn’t have to choose one of those things; he can do all of them. He can continue his pursuits in whichever way he wants, and I think we wanted to get that message across in this film that she has a passion for both of these things, so why give one of them up? You simply don’t have to, especially if you’re as talented and smart as someone like Sam. You can do both.
You see that a lot with female characters especially, that they can’t have it all.
Yes, and we were not interested in telling that tale. We were interested in this idea of following the reality of the situation and making it more complex. I think the reality of any given situation is always more complex than something that’s convenient for the plot.
You’ve mentioned a few things you’ve wanted to do in terms of doing a big-budget musical. If money and time were no object what other properties would you like to explore?
My favorite musical of all time is Company,by Stephan Sondheim. It’s my all-time favorite and that would be a dream project for me. If someone were to allow me to make that film I believe I would be overwhelmed and so moved. It would be a dream come true. I love musicals. I grew up doing musicals and I still watch musicals everyday. My wife and I just recently saw My Fair Lady on Broadway which was incredible. I was like, “Man, maybe we should remake this.” The film version is beloved, but there was all that stuff with [Audrey] Hepburn and being dubbed, so it’s got this cloud over it even though it’s a beautiful film. When I saw Lauren Ambrose I thought, “Oh my goodness, this would be amazing.” I do have the desire to make a big, bold, break out into song musical, but they are few and far between in Hollywood. The select people who do them continue to get those jobs, but I would certainly throw my name in the hat and say, “I’m ready to make a big musical.” I’d be happy to.
Hearts Beat Loud is in limited release today