SXSW 2018 Interview: Nick Offerman and Brett Haley on HEARTS BEAT LOUD
In Brett Haley's Hearts Beat Loud, Nick Offerman plays Frank Fisher, a record store proprietor coming to terms with an end of days. Professionally he's reckoning with the growth, or perhaps decline, of an industry that isn't leaving much room for the ancient ways of music peddling. In an era when music is growing evermore invisible, Frank is as old as many of the classics he peddles.
The times are a changing and Frank has grown tired of swimming. Considering he’s simultaneously battling the deflating feeling that comes with sending one's child away to college, there isn't much left from the old days to keep him engaged in the day to day of a once fulfilling life. Frank's daughter Sam, wonderfully played by Kiersey Clemons, in addition to being an aspiring doctor, is also an incredibly talented singer/songwriter; a talent her dad wants nothing more than to nurture to the fullest.
In an effort to hang on to the best thing in his life, Frank proposes the birth of a band with Sam, both as a means to support her talent, and more selfishly, to keep the last treasure of his adulthood close at hand. It's a heartwarming, if not sobering, film about passion and coming to terms with letting go of one's salad days for the sake of engaging in the present. It may tread on uneasy ground, particularly for those who can relate, but Hearts Beat Loud is a very watchable and moving story coming from a deeply sincere place. It also makes for a damn fine soundtrack.
I was able to speak about all this and more with the film's director, Brett Haley, and star, Nick Offerman:
To start off I would love to know how this film came about?
Brett Haley (BH): I mean, I love musicals and I love movies about music or about bands, so I've always wanted to do something in that space. Much like I want to make an action movie, or I want to make any number of genres. Subconsciously it came to me and sometimes my subconscious tells me what I need to do. It's not a very scientific process. I'm just sort of like, "Oh, a band movie about a father and a daughter." You know, that kind of thing. It just sort of happens.
Do you have kids?
BH: No, but I am a kid. I mean, I have parents and I know what that's like. And I have nephews, and I think that the parent-child relationship is an intense one. Most people are in therapy because of those relationships so there's a lot to mine there, and thematically I just think this lived in a space of stuff that I was interested in exploring. Not only about the family dynamic and the music but the creative process. Really a big part of it is about the creative process and what that brings out, and how it brings people together, and you name it.
Nick, can you talk about your first impressions of the project or the script?
Nick Offerman (NO): Well, sure. It did not come to me in a conventional manner because working on The Hero - Brett's last movie - was a very joyous and fruitful collaboration. I was really grateful for the scenes I got to do with Sam Elliot in the movie, and then seeing the film made me doubly grateful to Brett for that movie, as well as I'll See You In My Dreams - his tendency to use actors that you wouldn't expect to be in the lead roles.
And so I was told by Brett and his writing partner, Mark, that this was coming down the road so I was pretty much on board before I ever saw the script. When I did get the script I was just thrilled. I mean, it didn't really matter what Frank was about, my character Frank Fischer, because no one had ever written me a multicolored, realistic character before. So when I read it I was like, "This is the best piece of writing I've ever seen."
Were you excited by what I like to refer to as the HIGH FIDELITY element?
NO: Yeah, I mean I loved that aesthetic. And coincidentally, Red Hook is the neighborhood where I built my first canoe about 10 years ago, and so a lot of the spots in the movie were my own spots. The coffee shops, Sunny's Bar. It was really charismatic, it was almost like they saw inside me.
Brett, why did you want to make a film about somebody who runs a record store?
BH: Well, it's the idea, I think, of those who had an aspiration or a dream that did not come to fruition, and what do you do with that? And how do you proceed with life without jumping off of a building? I think most people deal with some version of that, of like, "Well, I'm not doing exactly what I wanted to be doing." It's a very hard thing.
But, I'm still in music to some degree.
BH: Yeah, I'm going to stay close to the thing. And sometimes you've got to let that go. This movie is a lot about letting go, it's about moving on, it's about changes that occur that are outside of your control and how you adjust. How are you going to be when something cataclysmic happens in your life? How are you going to respond as a human?
I'm fascinated by that, and I think most of my movies in some way or another deal with that. You know, in The Hero, Sam's character gets a diagnosis and it's like, are you going to accept it with grace and dignity, or are you going to kick and scream your way into the grave and be a miserable, angry person?
I'm not saying one way is right and one way is wrong, I'm just interested in the effect of it. The cause and effect. And this movie is the cause and effect of certain failures, of having to say goodbye, of having to let go, of having to deal with grief. And also with having to deal with the possibility of new beginnings, of new success. I mean, it goes both ways.
An end is also a beginning.
BH: Totally, and it's cyclical and that's life. While people say my movies aren't exactly plot driven, I tend to disagree. I think a lot happens because they're all about changes. Big things shifting and moving throughout the film.
Absolutely. Nick, are you a father?
NO: I'm not. Not to my knowledge.
But you are a musician, I think. Or you play guitar anyway…
NO: I do.
Was it fun getting to do that for a change?
NO: Well, it's super fun because I play acoustic, and pretty specifically, simply, folkie, country style to just accompany my stupid country songs when I tour. And so I had never played electric before so I actually had to work really hard to achieve the rudimentary riffs that are required for the movie. Keegan DeWitt wrote the songs, his writing partner Jeremy Bullock coached me through the guitar. I mean, I worked really hard to teach my hands to make those foreign gestures.
Well, you sure sold it.
NO: Thank you.
Can you tell me about working with Jeff Tweedy - for just a moment there?
That must have been fun…
NO: I mean, I worked with Jeff when I cast him on Parks and Recreation.
Oh, cool. You cast him?
NO: Yeah. I was directing that episode. Harris Wittels, the late, great Harris, actually was responsible. It was his idea to get Jeff. And then through our friend, Flanny (Mark Flanagan), who runs Largo, we got in touch with Jeff, and his family said that they would disown him if he didn't come do the job.
So that was where Jeff and I met, and we fell in love. We were warmly reunited on the set of Hearts Beat Loud. It was the fact that the movie opens with a Tweedy video that Jeff showed up for the cool rockstar cameo. Brett and I both feel that ... in the moment we said, "This is our life. Jeff Tweedy has voluntarily come to be in a record store." We were feeling pretty damn lucky.
BH: It was my birthday so it was especially sweet. I can tell you that I've gotten to work with some of the greatest actors, who I'm such a lover of... but meeting somebody like Jeff, who, to me, is an icon, who's just a rock icon, I was so nervous and he was such a kind, and gentle, and easygoing guy and was so fun to work with, and hung out pretty much all day and just kind of had fun with us. It was great.
Can you talk about building the musical world of the film in terms of what Nick's character would be recommending? Things like Animal Collective or whatever they're listening to in the store?
BH: I mean, that's all me. The music in the movie is me for sure. I mean, I'm a really, really opinionated self-described music snob, if you will. I love music and if there's a song in the movie, or especially a scene about bands - Animal Collective, Sleater-Kinney, Tom Waits, Jeff Tweedy - those are my jams. And also, what we could clear, because there is an element on this budget level that you cannot get everything you want... As much as I would've loved a Kendrick Lamar song, or something, or let's talk about the new Beyonce, or the newest whatever, you name it, big, big artist.
What do you think all that stuff you were able to clear says about Nick's character?
BH: I'm into a lot of different types of music and I think Frank is too. I wish I had more. He is more, like you were saying, from High Fidelity, like Rob Gordon. He does listen to everything. But you're not going to get a Michael Jackson song, or a Prince song, or a David Bowie song, you know what I mean?
BH: Those belong to the corporate overlords and there's only so much you can do, so we kept it indie, we kept it pretty grounded. I also did want to educate the audience. And it's cool to be like, "Oh, I'm going to check that guy out."
Nick, did you have a favorite scene to be in? A favorite day on set, perhaps? Jeff Tweedy excluded.
NO: Gosh, I mean every single day was either all day Blythe Danner, all day Ted Danson, Toni Colette, Kiersey Clemons. The two things that spring to mind, one is this scene where I'm drunk and vulnerable on Toni Colette's threshold, which is actually Brett's house. I've just never gotten to do a scene like that in my career where I'm a guy trying to get a woman to love me.
To be vulnerable.
NO: Yeah. It was so exciting. I'm usually there for a specific, specialized reason instead of just being the emotional center of the moment, so that was just really a fun, new thing to get to do. And getting to actually shoot creating the music with Kiersey, I keep feeling like it was a superhero version story. It was like, "Look, these people really have magic. They have bass drums, bass guitars, and this keyboard, and look what they make. Keegan Dewitt’s songs - they're that amazing."
And you get to watch it in real time, watching the film, you see that magic. So, that's got to be fun to take in after the fact.
NO: It's super fun. I mean, that's the weird thing about being an actor is when you're convincingly made to look like you can do things you can't do. And then, on top of it all, Kiersey starts singing and my hat flies off. It's like, "Oh, my god. Score."
Do you have a scene in the film that you're always excited to get to, for the audience to watch? Whoever you're screening it for?
BH: I mean, I really love the music sequences. I love the songs. I think Keegan DeWitt, who wrote all the of the songs, did such an amazing job. I think Kiersey is such an incredible performer, and it's just so fun to see. Those are the scenes that are the most powerful and memorable, and the ones that you remember, and the ones that you come back to, and I think people will see that there's so many layers to those scenes beyond just a cool song.
Like they narratively do a lot of lifting and character work. To me, it's definitely the songs, but I also have to say that it's hard to pick a favorite scene when you've got Ted Danson being amazing, you've got Toni Colette being amazing, Sasha Lane being amazing, Blythe Danner being amazing.
Oh, I loved seeing Sasha Lane in there. AMERICAN HONEY is a favorite of mine.
BH: Yeah, she's incredible. And it's so nice to see Sasha not be in misery. She told me that, she's like, "Man, I've never done a movie where I just get to be like happy, and excited, and in love, and loved back. And no one's fucking me over." Obviously, I love American Honey, too. Andrea Arnold is one of my favorites. She's incredible.
I've loved her from the day I saw RED ROAD onwards.
BH: Oh, yeah. Incredible film. You know, Fish Tank is an all-timer for me. It's why Sasha is in the movie. But again it's like, "Hey Sasha, you've been doing this one thing. Let's try this other thing."
How much did you want to apply that thinking to Nick?
BH: Well, it's huge. I mean, you know, people know Nick obviously for how they know him, and I think when they see him in this it's a different side, and I think they're excited. Fans are excited to see their favorite actors do something different. We don't want to see them do the same thing over and over again.
No, that's absolutely true.
BH: I think it's really fun. And I think everybody in the movie to some degree gets to kind of do something a little bit different. I think Kiersey -- that's always been in Kiersey, but Kiersey, by the way, plays 17 or 18 like a champ in this movie. I've done some thinking, she's nothing like Sam, really. I mean, she is strong, and opinionated, and vocal, and just an amazingly powerful woman. Capital W. And she plays this kid with vulnerability and sweetness and shyness and it's so incredible that she was able to transform like that.
I think I probably have time for one more and I'm going to end with a fun one in keeping with the topic of Nick sort of playing against type. Thinking about a film in film history, what's a role you would've loved to play from like the 70's or before; something that is not in keeping with the persona you've found yourself inhabiting?
NO: I guess Donald O'Connor in Singing in the Rain. That's how I feel inside. I don't honestly even feel particularly typecast. I know a lot of people think of me as a meat-eating, woodcutting lumberjack. But even so, occasionally I see on social media people say rude things about me having temerity to appear without my mustache, but generally I feel like my audience is very accepting. I feel like, in my soul, I'm a singing and dancing Vaudevillian.