Director and writer Brett Haley’s work is filled with light. Whether that be natural light, artificial light, or the inner light that comes from the characters he creates. there is just that element of his films that aims to uplift our spirits. His work is often described as “warm,” which is an apt description giving how inviting the worlds he crafts are.
Haley’s newest film, All Together Now, comes at a time of great uncertainty. Our world is seemingly in a never-ending spiral of negativity, but Haley’s work aims to cut through the noise and bring in some lightheartedness.
I—Mark Wesley—had an opportunity to take part in a roundtable discussion with Haley and lead actress Auli’i Cravalho to discuss the film’s creation, diversity, and reminiscing about working with Carol Burnett.
This interview is edited for clarity and brevity.
Brett Haley: Auli’i is in my movie, you guys. I don’t know if you knew that. She’s pretty good in it, I think.
Auli’i Cravalho: I made it. I am in a Brett Haley film.
Press: So Auli’i, what was your experience taking part in this heartwarming film and how is it different from Moana?
Auli’i Cravalho: The two films are very, very different. I am so blessed that I got to start off with Disney. I was 14 when I was cast and 16 when the film came out and it is all voice acting and then singing. Brett and I actually talked about it, it feels like a really great next step where I get to still sing my heart out and still connect to fans that way, but I also get to take a step in a more serious direction and continue my career with beautiful, strong leading heroes.
Press: I am always curious about what it like playing a character from existing source material. Did you draw anything from the book for Amber and is there anything you feel like you added to your performance that wasn’t the book?
Auli’i Cravalho: I did buy the book Sorta Like a Rock Star, but I will be honest, I skimmed through the very beginning, and once I got the script I realized these are two very different stories. I definitely love Amber and the way that she was written. I feel like I still kind of exuded that hope. She has a real grit to her, but I think our film is very different from the book actually, but I really liked both of them, so I’m glad.
Press: I wanted to know if there was anything unique that you discovered about yourself while making this movie.
Auli’i Cravalho: Well, thank you, I love Amber! I thought that she had a lot of hope and resilience, and I love that her story had hardships, it had difficulties, but her circumstances didn’t hold her back from her dreams and her aspirations.
She’s so passionate, and [she’s] such a great friend. She also needs to learn a thing or two about being honest and open and connecting to her friends in a real way, so I definitely related to that.
I am 19, I don’t have shit figured out, and I am trying to do it also during a global pandemic, and I am in my own apartment missing my mom. So there were a lot of things to connect to. What I’m really grateful for, especially right now, is Amber’s hope and the understanding that when my hope starts to dwindle, as Amber’s did, that you can reach out to those closest to you. You are not meant to walk through life alone.
Press: Carol Burnett, what an amazing treat. How fun was she to work with and when you were writing the screenplay, who did you have in mind for these parts? Were they all of the people you got or did you write the part for anyone?
Brett Haley: Well, Carol Burnett is–you would think she would be amazing to work with. She is even better than that. Auli’i and I were very intimidated and starstruck by Carol, the idea of Carol. I remember we went to her hotel to meet her and we were like giddy kids. She was so kind and warm and lovely. We were just so overwhelmed by her spirit, her generosity, and obviously, her talent.
She is truly one of the kindest people I have ever worked with, and I have worked with really kind people, in fact, I work it make it a rule to only work with kind people.
You know she’s very picky about what she does. We were like, “let’s just see of Carol Burnett will do the movie”, and she said “yes”, which we were just blown away by. I think she really responded to the story and to the message of the film and the hope in the film.
In regards to writing, Auli’i really became my Amber. She was always in my mind. I knew that [Auli’i] could do this and she was my first choice, but she earned the role fair and square. A lot of amazing actors auditioned for this role, but Auli’i really won this role. So once she came on, I started writing around her. She became my Amber, and then I started building the cast around her.
It was really important for me to build smartly around Auli’i’. I really brought her into the conversation and I think we have this wonderfully diverse cast that it happened very organically. It was not forced in any way. I like to build my movies from a centerpiece, and in this case, the centerpiece was Auli’i.
Press: What do you want teenagers to leave this movie channeling? It’s such a different world, and this was so inspirational, what is your goal?
Brett Haley: I appreciate that. I make movies from my heart and from my gut. I try to make really universal films that I think all human beings, regardless of age, regardless of gender, regardless of background, will just enjoy because they are human stories. That is the goal, and this was no different.
Auli’i Cravalho: You just got one of Brett Haley’s inspirational speeches that I would get before a scene.
Press: So my question is about one of the heaviest scenes in the movie that comes toward the middle where Amber learns some information about her mom. Tell me about what it felt like to film the scene that day and how you directed it, Brett, and, Auli’i, how you acted it out because that was a really intense and powerful scene.
Auli’i Cravalho: Working with Brett is really very special because he is very collaborative in every way, basically. I think one of the things that really stuck out was that he would say, “…if you are not ready, don’t go to the line until you are ready. There is a lot of emotion in the scene, find it, and let it be new every time.” That was really helpful.
The cast and crew really created a comfortable environment for me to be vulnerable but yes, Amber goes through the gamut of emotions in this film and so did I.
I remember calling my mom the night before we were going to shoot that day and basically going through it with her. And so I just had that frank and honest conversation. I understood Amber and her mom’s relationship where it is the two of them against the world.
Brett Haley: I think what you have to do when you have any emotional scene on a day is [to] allow yourself or certainly for me as the director to not have expectations. And I always tell actors I am not interested in the result of this scene. I am interested in the truth.
I am interested in your truth, specifically, not some idea that is in my head. and it has to be this way. So, I always tell my actors, “it’s got to come over you naturally.” That scene was no different.
It’s an incredible performance and a real collaborative effort, but that’s all Auli’i. I’m there to help set her up for success, but she’s got to deliver and I personally think she delivered as she has tended to do in this movie.
Press: I wanted to ask you about the diversity in this movie because it really, really blew my mind. You had a bunch of Latinos, you had a bunch of Asian women, you had disabled people. How did you change your experience on set with having so many diverse people?
Auli’i Cravalho: Can I go first?
Brett Haley: Yes, please.
Auli’i Cravalho: It was awesome. Like it was really, really great to work in an environment where creative expression is just that. It doesn’t matter who it’s coming from. Everyone’s ideas are heard and working with Brett, it’s always a discussion. That is truly lacking in some sets that I have been on and my career hasn’t spanned very long, so let’s just say that.
But yes, I am so proud of our cast. We all really connected as friends. We are differently-abled, and non-neurotypical and people of color. It felt real. That was actually diversity. It was so fun, and it felt great. It felt like I was listened to.
Brett Haley: So often people in my position and I don’t think they do it maliciously they just simply feel like well, “I’m the leader, and I’ve got to make these decisions.”
They take their privilege a little bit too far and I think that it is a learning curve for all people with privilege especially a white cis-gendered male to say, “hold on a second maybe I don’t know.”
That is my goal with every project that I do. It is important to me that I don’t, with my privilege, say I’m going to go make a film about what it means to be something that I am not. I can have empathy, I can make a diverse film, I can give voices to other artists within my story and all you have to do is listen to get it right.
As Auli’i said, we didn’t just check boxes on diversity. It is organic, it comes from a conversation I had with Auli’i, “who would you like to be your mother in this movie? What do you want this film to look like?”
Press: First of all, the movie was fantastic. My husband and I both loved it. With this cast of characters and the actors that you had, were there any fun onset stories that happened while you guys were filming?
Auli’i Cravalho: Yes. Brett Haley, can you tell us your three rules of shooting for shooting, please?
Brett Haley: Yes, so I have three rules of shooting, and I announce them a lot but I do it traditionally right when we set up the first setup day one, and I get the entire crew around the camera, and I say okay here are the three rules.
So the three rules rule number one is be kind, it’s pretty basic. I don’t allow anything other than kindness on my set because I think kindness goes a long way, I don’t like rudeness.
Rule two is be gracious, just be gracious, just say please and thank you, and that will go a long way too. Then rule three is what I call “ABS”, which is “always-be -shooting.”
We will always be shooting if we can. I am not going to waste your time because your time is valuable. It’s kind, be gracious and be ready to work and I’m not going to waste your time. Right?
We try to have a kind and wonderful and open set. Auli’i is the other leader of the set. Everyone looks to her, and I think that we laughed a lot on this [set]. I mean Carol Burnett did her Tarzan for us! We were in this small room, and she did her Tarzan. I mean, we were losing our minds.
So yes. This was a lot of fun, you guys. Thanks, everybody.
Auli’i Cravalho: Thank you. Take care.
All Together Now is now streaming on Netflix.