By Edward Douglas
If you’ve seen either of filmmaker Brett Haley’s previous two films – 2015’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams” or 2017’s “The Hero” – then you already know that he has a knack for simple character pieces that have a way of hitting you right in the heartstrings.
His new film “Hearts Beat Loud” follows in a similar trajectory as “I’ll See You in a Dreams,” as it’s another film about two generations connecting through music. It also premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, this time in the prestigious Closing Night slot.
Haley’s film stars Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher, owner of a record store in Red Hook, Brooklyn, which he’s seriously thinking about closing after 17 years, but he finds a new lease on life when he starts writing songs with his daughter Sam (Kiersey Clemons from the Sundance breakout film “Dope”). One thing leads to another and their band (called “We Are Not a Band”) ends up getting one of their songs featured on Spotify. Toni Collette ("Hereditary") plays Leslie, Frank’s landlady, who has some ideas to try to make the store profitable, as she and Offerman also start getting closer. The film also stars Ted Danson, Sasha Lane (“American Honey”), as well as Blythe Danner, who appeared in Haley’s earlier film “I’ll See You in My Dreams”
It’s a movie about the changing face of Brooklyn, the relationship between fathers and daughters and the early stages of romance, all driven by a series of the catchiest pop tunes written by Keegan Dewitt -- who has composed the music for all of Haley’s films. These songs are so catchy that the “Hearts Beat Loud” soundtrack could end up being commodity similar to the soundtracks for “Once” and “Sing Street” a couple years back.
Back at Sundance, we spoke with Haley, Offerman, and Clemons about the film. As these things go, our interview began with just Haley and Clemons, since she had to dash for a plane, then we were joined by Offerman shortly into the interview.
Brett, last year while we were hanging out at the Sarasota Film Festival, you mentioned a movie you were going to film in Red Hook. Actually, I can’t remember if you had filmed it already or were about to shoot it.
Brett Haley: At that point, it was a pipe dream. We didn’t have financing, we had a script. It was obviously what I wanted to do. I had the goal of making a film that summer and then getting it hear. It worked out, which was great. We were writing this. As soon as “The Hero” got into Sundance at the end of 2016, we started writing this, and then we made it summer of last year, 2017.
Kiersey, how did you find out about the movie, and what did you know about what would be involved as far as performing?
Kiersey Clemons: The script was sent my way, and Sasha [Lane] who plays Rose in the movie texted me and said, “Hey, the script is coming. I’m going to do it, so you should read it.” And I did, and I loved it, and I trusted Brett, and we met and had a great conversation. I think that Nick is fantastic, and I was excited to make music and play this young brown queer girl.
When you were deciding on what story to tell and the characters, how did you decide on Sam and her sexuality and the fact she comes from a bi-racial marriage?
Haley: My wife is of mixed race, and we were actually talking the other day, and she said, “There’s a great quote or tweet…” where someone said, “Being half of something is kind of sad, but you’re fully both of those things.” Instead of being half-this or half-that, you’re fully…
Clemons: Which is true!
Haley: You can be fully Caucasian and fully African-American, and I think that’s a really nice way of looking at it. My wife and I were talking, because her mother is from Taiwan and her father is from the States…
Clemons: The half and half, that’s a good thing…
Haley: It’s an interesting way to think about it.
Clemons: It’s interesting because growing up, you’re told…. Kids are just bullies… and you’re told that you’re not black enough or Chinese enough…
Haley: Or you’re too white or whatever.
Clemons: So that’s a good one. I’m going to tell my sisters that.
Haley: It is cool. I like that. You’re fully both of those things, so obviously, I love my wife, I’ve been with her for a long time.
Clemons: Do you love your wife?
Haley: I do, very much. She’ll read this and be very happy. To me, it was obviously something that was important to her. I have two nephews that are of mixed-race that have a Caucasian parent, and I’ve seen what that has been like. I didn’t want to make an issue film. I didn’t want to say, “Oh, this movie is about being biracial or it’s about being gay or queer or whatever you want to call it.” Simply, to me, that’s the world right now. People are more and more and more allowed to be who they are, and I think that’s a good thing. And representing people who are who they are and who are not straight and white and male for the most part is a good thing. I think that represents the world right now. I want to be a filmmaker that gives representation, it’s as simple as that. Again, it’s not like I’m trying to shine a light on it. I’m actually trying to normalize it, because to me, it is normal.
Kiersey, when did Brett first play you the songs and what were your initial thoughts on the music?
Clemons: I was actually very intimidated because it’s a genre that, although I listen to [it], I have a hard time singing. It’s just different, but I practiced, and I worked on it, and I think once we started getting into the performance aspect of it. Also understanding Sam, because once we started filming, that helped, and I was able to take it on a bit more confidently I suppose.
Haley: Yeah, she worked really closely with Keegan Dewitt, who wrote all the songs, and Jeremy Bullock, who is Keegan’s partner. She’d go over and work with them, and I would be there, either by Skype or in person, and we’d all kind of talk about it and make sure Kiersey was comfortable, because it was also about Kiersey making those songs her own. How she sang them changed the nature of each song so we really tailored it around what she was bringing to the table, which was amazing. Have you seen the movie? So you’ve heard the songs – she kills it.
I actually saw the movie at the same time slot as when I saw “Once” whenever that was, at 9 AM on a Friday.
Haley: I’m going to take that as a good omen for the future of our movie.
You should, because I think the songs are great. Did you have any musical aptitude beforehand, Kiersey? I remember you played in a band in “Dope” too, but for this one, you seemed to really be playing and singing.
Clemons: I did musical theater, and I’m classically-trained, although I never applied. I mean, you apply the technique…
Haley: Yeah, you do. You did.
Clemons: (laughs) Yeah, I’ve always sung. I think I started wanting to be a singer, which is funny, and then acting kind of became the priority, and now, they kind of share equal space.
Haley: Well, it’s certainly opened up… when people see Kiersey’s pipes or hear them, rather, she’s a performer. She owns that sequence in the film. Obviously, she owns the songs that she sings but that sequence she carries and she did everything live. It’s a phenomenal thing that people are connecting with that because they know it’s real. They can feel it, I think. That was my goal to make people go, “That’s happening. That band is actually playing that song right now.”
Clemons: Yeah, you feel it.
I can play enough instruments that I could see when Nick was really playing by looking at his fingers on the guitar neck. In terms of balancing the acting and music, do you have that thing where if the music side takes off, you have to set aside acting to pursue that?
Clemons: I just kind of go with the flow. It depends on where acting is at the moment. I was just saying that for my age, I’m not really impressed with the scripts that come my way that often, but I’m producing and doing my own stuff, and if there’s time for it, then yes. I honestly can’t imagine myself… this is the part where everyone that’s going to try to offer me a record deal is like “Let’s not.” [I don’t have] the stamina to tour and stuff. I’m just too f*cking sensitive (laughs) and I don’t know if that’s my lifestyle.
Haley: And Kiersey should not stop acting ever.
Clemons: That’s why someone put me on Broadway. Then we get it done at the same damn time.
Haley: Just screaming that in every interview and somebody’s going to call you up.
Clemons: I will, yeah.
(At this time, Nick Offerman strolls into the room and joins them on the couch.)
Nick Offerman: Frank Fisher… is that the question?
Kiersey has to leave, so I’ll ask a question I wanted to ask the two of you about performing together. Are there nerves performing in front of people even if it’s miming at times? Is it different playing music in front of people vs. acting?
Clemons: The miming is embarrassing. I think we can both agree on that. But it’s also nice to have each other when we’re doing the performing stuff because I think we were equally nervous and unsure of… not unsure of our instruments, because you’re good at guitar, but the bass was new? Your electric guitar was new.
Offerman: Sure. Yeah, both were new.
Clemons: See? I know everything about Nick.
Offerman: But you’re right in that having each other to depend on making it comfortable. To look at each other and say, “This is weird” in front of these people. I believed that we were awesome.
Clemons: (laughing) Let’s do it!
Haley: Let’s just keep going, yeah.
Are you ready for your performance after the premiere next Saturday?
Clemons: It’s next Saturday, and we have to do like a rehearsal stuff. I think we’re ready. I don’t know. It could be really cool or really awkward or a mix of both, who knows? Either way, we’re going to do it. We’re going to kill it. It’s going to sound awesome, and I’m just excited to be up there with your man Keegan.
Haley: Yeah, so Jeremy and Keegan are going to be onstage with them playing with them. It’ll be really fun. I’m excited, and Kiersey’s already had a rehearsal and Keegan texted me and said we had nothing to worry about. We’re all good.
Since you have to go, I do want to ask a “Flashpoint” question, specifically what’s going on with that movie? Although they keep changing directors*, are you still going to be involved? Have you met with Ezra at all?
(*Note: This interview was done before Daley and Goldstein came on board.)
Clemons: I always speak to Ezra, but with “The Flash,” I came on when Rick [Famuyiwa, the director of “Dope”] was attached, so that was when I was really passionate and excited about it. Who knows? We don’t have our script yet, but I love Warner Bros. and I love the superhero world, so wherever I end up with that and with them, we will see.
(Clemons says her goodbyes and heads out, as we continue the interview with Haley and Offerman.)
Going back a bit, you had Nick in your previous film “The Hero.” At what point did you know that you wanted him to star in this movie as well?
Haley: We knew as soon as Nick wrapped his last day on “The Hero” that we were going to work with him again. Mark Houston, my producer, talked it over immediately. Nick is a delightful human being and an incredibly talented actor and I like to give actors something they don’t normally get offered every day. I enjoy that. I don’t think of it as giving them an opportunity – I don’t think of it that way – but I like saying “Hey, let’s go do something different. I love you, and as a fan of yours, this is what I would like to see you do.” So that’s how it came about. This was a story that I then slotted Nick into. I knew I was going to make this father-daughter band movie at some point, and then when I worked with Nick, I said, “We’ve found our Frank.”
What were your thoughts on playing a Red Hook record store owner and part-time musician?
Offerman: I’m just deeply grateful. I love that I get any work at all as an actor, and when I get to work on good stuff that comes to festivals like Sundance, like “The Hero,” that’s a tempered dream as a middle-aged character actor. Maybe someday one of these sharp people will give me the Sam Elliot treatment, so these guys decided to, and I love Brett’s last two movies. I loved working with him. I loved seeing “The Hero” go from script to picture, how much pathos is in his films. Reading this script, I just felt really grateful. I said, “This feels really special. There’s so much heart in this, and I’m really touched that these guys want to do it with me.”
There’s a line in the movie about something being complicated or simple, but what I really like about the film is that it seems really simple, but then…
Haley: Yeah, I think all my movies seem like that, at least the ones I’ve written with Marc [Basch]. I mean, even my first film seems, on paper, quite simple, but that’s sort of the thing that interests me the most. It’s that you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I know what this movie is going to be. A woman in her 70s starts dating again – I know that movie.” Well, you haven’t seen my version of it. I think when people see “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” they have that same – for good or bad – there are certain people who want that comfort food, and there are other people that are really blown away by the fact that we don’t just take the well-beaten path. Same thing with “The Hero” and obviously, the same thing with “Hearts Beat Loud.” You think, “Oh, father and daughter start a band. It will be kind of cute, kind of clichéd. It will follow the trends of band movies.” It’s not like I’m trying to avoid cliché, but what Marc and I do is we put all of our energy into making things real and honest and believable and grounded, that it comes from a human place, and that the emotions of the characters all come from organic, honest places. If anything, I think people are surprised that we don’t just do what has been done before over and over and over again.
I have to admit that there was a point when their song was on Spotify, and I was like, “Oh, crap. Are they going to become the biggest sensation and play Madison Square Garden?” Because you would have lost me if that happened.
Haley: It’s the same thing that happens in “The Hero” where everyone’s like “Oh, he’s a viral sensation…” and some reviewers were like, “Oh, they follow this thing of him becoming a viral sensation…” Did you see the film? Because the whole point is that he doesn’t become a viral sensation. It could be. We don’t follow it and do the trope of what that usually follows. Yes, we use a trope. Yes, we use a cliché, but those are there because they happen. People do become viral sensations for doing crazy things at a speech. It happens all the time.
Offerman: And then you do the opposite of it. Answering those critics, I would say, “Then he gives an awesome practice audition for the movie, and then he tanks the audition.”
Haley: There are all sorts of twists and turns that are human. You understand why he does it so well with Nick’s character and why he crashes and burns in the audition. There’s so much more to it than just… so yes, the song goes on Spotify, and you think as a viewer, “I know where this is going.” I will not go there, because usually, things don’t go there in real life. I think of “What would happen if that happened in real life?” That’s the equivalent of getting your song on the radio in 2018, so to me, it’s like, “What would that actually do?” Yeah, a record guy comes a knocking – there’s some opportunity there, but it isn’t that suddenly they’re touring with Bruce Springsteen or something. It’s not how life f*cking works. To me, as a filmmaker, I’m all for heightened and other types of films that use tone and can make a satire and show me something different, but for what I want to do, every genre that I make, I’m interested in things that I buy, that I believe. It can be in space with aliens, but I want to f*cking buy it.
Going back to the simplicity of the film, most of the scenes are just two people talking, although it’s always a different combination of two people. What’s that like to make a movie like that where you’re doing one day with Toni Collette and one day with Ted Danson?
Offerman: It’s really nice. I mean, I’ve never had a job where I had this much storyline. I’ve never been in such a central role. There was a funny day on set where we were shooting me walking down the sidewalk, and I said, “You guys, I’ve never played a character that we gave enough sh*t about just to see how his day is going, and you just see him walking down the sidewalk.” The combination of Brett and Marc’s great scripting along with the astonishing cast just makes it a joy day in and day out. Like today, I have scenes all day with Ted Danson. Tomorrow, Blythe Danner, then Toni, then Kiersey. It’s just an absolute feast.
Haley: It was fun for me, too, because when you have those two-person scenes, you’re like, “This week is Toni Week. We’re doing the love story or the awkward courting between Nick and Toni’s characters, and that’s one kind of movie, and then I’m doing the Sasha and Kiersey movie, which is a totally different thing.” And then I’m doing the Ted and Nick movie, the buddies at the bar, and they go way back and they’re funny, and we’re joking about this and that. And then I’m doing the mother story with Blythe. And then you go, “Holy sh*t. All of this is the same movie, all of this is the same story!” It’s really fun, and we didn’t do that purposefully. We had written the script that we want, and then I realized that the majority of the scenes are two-person scenes. I didn’t think past that. I just thought, “Well, this is the tale, and it does the job,” and it is a joy to work with two [actors] – it’s really fun! You can play more, you can get more, you can try more things.
Offerman: It’s a great answer, too, because we’ve talked a lot about how we shot this in 19 days, and the way you shoot a movie that looks this good and makes your days have two-person scenes, so you’re not doing a dinner scene for six where you’re resetting plates.
Haley: I was thinking about when I did “I’ll See You in My Dreams” those bridge scenes, so I had Blythe, Rhea, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb, and you have them all around the table, and I was like, “Oh my God!” It was insane, you know, just doing five pages and you have four people and all the coverage and all the things you need to do. I try to tell young filmmakers, I say, “Hey, write what you can do. Don’t try to get ahead of yourself. Really take a step back and ask if you need to do this,” because you want to give yourself every upper hand you can on a quick shoot. You want to be able to get it right. But like I said, it wasn’t a conscious decision, but I did notice that as well, but I was fine with it. I was like, “That was this movie.”
Was it hard to get Ted Danson to go back behind the bar? It is probably the first time he’s done that since “Cheers.”
Haley: It is the first time since “Cheers.” It’s pretty f*cking amazing. Nick convinced Ted to do it. Basically just called him and said, “Listen, I’m doing this movie with Brett, and you should come play with us,” and he graciously agreed. When Ted and I talked about the character, when we first talked on the phone, he had agreed to be on the film based on Nick’s really generous pitch about me and about the movie. We talked, and he really got excited about playing someone… He’s not Sam Malone in this movie, so he wasn’t the same character. Yeah, it was a bartender, but it’s Dave. Dave is not Sam Malone. We talked a lot about how we were going to make this guy his own unique fun thing. It was something again that Ted got to do something in this that he doesn’t normally do. Yes, he’s played a bartender, obviously, but not this type of guy. This type of guy was something that I think Ted wanted to play. He wanted to play in that space and be a wacky guy and wear sandals with socks and sh*t like that, and it was really fun to play with. He didn’t have any hesitation about it, which is amazing, and I hope that people enjoy it as much as I do.
I doubt anyone under 40 will make that connection.
Haley: Well, I don’t know. “Cheers” is on Hulu, and kids are watching it again. It’s a treat, it’s a real treat.
Where do you go from here? You worked with Sam and made a movie for him, you worked with Nick and made a movie for him, so who’s next?
Haley: I mean, sh*t, I can write a movie for Sasha and Kiersey. I could write a movie for all of them again, and it’s wonderful. Marc and I, to a large degree, have to write what’s in our guts, and sometimes, it starts with an actor like “The Hero” did, but “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and “Hearts Beat Loud” didn’t. They started with what was in my gut, and it just happened that the right guy was with me, but I don’t know what’s going to come up. I have a play that I want to write that Kiersey would be amazing in. I haven’t even told her that, but I can see her in this role, and I’ve always wanted to write a play. I thought of it as a movie, and I thought, “You know what? Maybe it’s too small, and it would be great as a play.” I’m always thinking of them. I want to work with Sasha again. I was joking with Nick and Ted that I want to put Ted Danson and Sam Elliot in a movie together as brothers, and I want to put Nick with Jack Black and Zach Galifianakis as brothers, as well. Maybe that will all be the same movie, just a bunch of rad dudes being brothers.
“Hearts Beat Loud” opens in select cities on Friday, June 8, and will expand to further cities over the next month. You can check out DeAnne's review of the film here.
You can follow Edward and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @EDouglasWW
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