Director Zoe Lister Jones has an enigmatic film on her hands with Band Aid, a comedy-drama hybrid that utilizes music in an inspired way. While the plot on first glance is familiar, studying the arrested development of a couple in their late 20’s, early 30’s who have been fighting a lot lately based on her pushing him to get a job and him not doing the dishes, Jones manages to find new ground in a pre-existing format. The protagonists, played by Jones and her co-star Adam Pally, decide that to heal old wounds they’ll write songs based on their fights, giving their anger and frustration a creative outlet. It’s a delightful little film that promises big things for Jones, a triple threat. We got to talk to her about her creative process, her all female film crew and casting Pally.
What was the inspiration for making this film?
Music has always played a big role in my life and for me I think I wanted to have fun in the writing process again. Screenwriting had started to feel more like a chore so I wanted to figure out what it would take for me to have fun in the process again, and that was music. I started through the songs and I was interested in the power dynamics through a couple and at that point in my life I was in a long term relationship and it was the intersection of those two elements where I created “Band Aid” where a couple explores their fights through song.
So did you have musical experience prior to making this film?
I was in a band in high school and college. After that I did a cover album of pop and rap songs as piano ballads with Kyle Forrester who co-wrote the songs with me for this film. Also, for a film called “Breaking Upwards” which was the first feature I co-wrote, produced and starred in I wrote all the lyrics for our all original soundtrack. It’s always been a part of my life. I never learned how to play an instrument so that was a really fun part of this process since I got to learn how to play bass.
Do you see yourself going forward in your career continuing to incorporate music into your storytelling approach?
I don’t know. I’m not sure how music will play into my future films. I do think music whether or not it’s original in a film is such a powerful storytelling tool. I think music always plays a big part in films that I’m apart of making but this one really has it at the forefront.
Did you always know while you were writing it that you wanted to direct it as well?
As I was writing it I think there was always a little whisper in my ear that maybe I would direct it but I was worried from a producer standpoint that it would be harder to get made with a female director. Once I finished the screenwriting process I realized how much I did want to direct it and that I was willing to take the risk both on myself and also producers and financiers who might shy away from taking a chance on me. It was a chance well-worth taking.
Beyond telling your story through your voice do you think this film benefited from having a female voice telling it?
I do. I think that stories written by women are generally distinctive, whether or not they’re overtly female stories. I think this story is about a relationship and it’s pretty balanced between the two protagonists but I do think my writing, my exploration of characters is done through a specific lens and probably infused with a certain element of feminism.
I found that wonderful because a lot of fights – where in other films the female character may have been portrayed like a “shrew” – in this case she felt honest and believably angry.
I appreciate you saying that because I think as an actress so often I’ll find myself playing that role which is like, the nagging wife or the hysterical wife or the wife who is a drag and I think it’s so important to break those stereotypes for women on screen.
Part of what made that work also it seems what the chemistry between you and Adam Pally. Do you want to talk about how he came on board?
We had never worked together before. I had watched him from afar and had always admired him and I thought he was really funny and had a “star quality” to him in everything I’d seen him in. We met at an industry party and we vibed and laughed, we had a similar sensibility. I think that was the moment where I thought “oh, maybe this is Ben”.
It was really such a joy to work with him on this. I wanted to portray a couple that felt really authentic almost to the point of the viewer feeling voyeuristic. I think setting that tone was intentional but I needed an actor who could capture those feelings from a very real place.
Talk about the premiere at Sundance.
Premiering at Sundance is a dream for any filmmaker. It was really so meaningful and powerful. Then Fred [Armisen], Adam and I played a live set that night at our after party which was the first time we’d really played a show. We had played all the music live in the film so our crew might’ve danced to it but we also got second takes so this was the first time we were really going for it. So it was terrifying but really fun.
What were some of the surprises that came with directing your first feature length film?
I was armed with enough knowledge about the ways in which a set can be disturbed or how they meet their downfall I was able to go in actively avoiding those pitfalls and part of that is who you hire in your film crew.
I read that you hired an all female crew for your film, can you talk about why you made that decision?
It has to be intentional when you’re hiring all women, there’s no doing that accidentally. As an actor and a writer who has been on previous film sets I was just so aware of under representation of women on TV and film crews. I also just really enjoy the experience of being in a community of women, I think a real sense of magic occurs.
So I wanted to give women chances in departments that they may not have otherwise but also just wanted to see what the experience would be like creatively and it totally exceeded all of my expectations.
Did that change the energy from what you’ve experienced in the past?
Yes, it changed it significantly. At least in my person experience. It was interesting because Adam Pally had been on many sets and was working on another at the time where he was producing and would come back and be like “I just came from an all male crew and it’s so different I just want to be here!”
But you know I didn’t do it as an indictment of men because I think there are wonderful male crew members but I do think that women, generally speaking, have a nurturing quality, a patience and openness. I think there’s a greater sense of listening rather than asserting opinions and I think that in the creative process all of those attributes are incredible efficient because it makes the experience just that much more collaborative and encouraging and I think everyone from top to bottom felt that specific sense of community.
Is this something you could see yourself doing again?
Absolutely. I think we’re still at a time in history, unfortunately, where the pool of experienced women in a lot of departments – especially camera, grip, electric and sound is much smaller because they have not been given the opportunities to gain experience. For me that was a huge part of this, to open doors for women who don’t have what studios or producers might consider sufficient experience on her resume and hopefully giving her access to bigger productions both larger in scale and budget.
So I definitely want to continue to create opportunities for women in those positions
The film, in broad strokes, is labeled as a comedy. Even the fights between the main couple have familiar comedic edges to it but of course we grow to learn that there’s an element of sadness that’s creating these fights. I was curious about how you managed to balance those two opposing tones.
I personally love when films can navigate both comedy and drama sort of effortlessly because I think that if films are supposed to be reflections of authentic lives then that’s the only way to portray lives authentically. It was intentional to create a story that did take viewers on a journey that was complex in terms of the characters emotional arcs. I also didn’t want to shy away from the heartache. I wanted to see what it was like to create a movie that was really funny but also raw and immediate. I think the fight scene at the end that was shot in one take was definitely very much inspired by [director] John Cassavetes.
I wanted to ask about that scene in particular because it’s an ugly scene and hard to watch and I was curious about how it was writing that scene because it’s pivotal to the film. Did you always know that was going to be the emotional climactic moment?
In the writing process that was always the crux and I think it was important for me to kind of just see what’s under the rock in all of its ugliness. I didn’t want a film about relationships to whitewash how dark fights go because I don’t think that’s true to the reality of being in relationships. When couples fight sometimes it can be funny and sometimes it can be about superficial elements about domestic life but sometimes it can be raw and real and you say ugly things to the person that you love. That was essential to me in telling these characters stories to not shy away from that.
What do you hope is the takeaway for viewers who go and see this film?
I always want viewers to go on a journey, to be invested in the characters stories so by the end they feel sufficiently moved. When I leave a film I want to feel that I have been transformed. Whether that’s through humor or drama I think it’s about going on a journey and leaving feeling “I’ve been there and I’ve seen that”.
Band Aid starring Zoe Lister Jones and Adam Pally is currently playing at the Coolidge Corner Theater.
You can catch Band-Aid in theaters now.