The 2015 edition of the Sundance Film Festival is in full swing, but my favorite film from Sundance 2014, Kate Barker-Froyland’s exhilarating debut Song One, is just hitting theaters now. The film stars Anne Hathaway as a young woman rocked by the death of her brother. She goes on a journey to discover more about who he really was, as a person and as an aspiring musician. (The stirring music for the film was written by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice.) We sat down with Barker-Froyland to talk more about the film.
Paste Magazine: We’re coming full circle here, because I first met you on the phone before Sundance, right about this time last year. And now here we are talking about the release. Why don’t we start out where we sort of started out the last interview, which is the original impetus for the film, and how everything got started?
Kate Barker-Froyland: I was really fascinated by music’s power to really connect to people and to connect disparate worlds, and that’s really what inspired me to write the story. Because I think music is so universal—it’s this gateway into emotions and memories. That was sort of the impetus. I wrote a treatment, and I wrote a script, and I sent an early draft of the script to Jonathan Demme, whose stuff I’m a big fan of (and he’d seen some of my short films). He really connected with the script, and he told me he wanted to produce it, which I was over the moon about.
So then for a couple of years we developed it together—he would give me notes, and I would do rewrites. We would have these big notes sessions, and then I would go back to the drawing board and cut a lot of stuff and rewrite. And then he sent the script to Anne Hathaway and her husband, Adam Shulman, because he knew they were interested in producing a film. I had actually known Annie on Devil Wears Prada when I was the director’s assistant, and he kind of reconnected us. They read the script and loved it and wanted to produce—they’re very into music, as well. Annie really loved the part of Franny, and she happened to be the perfect actor for it, so I cast her and started a whole other process of rewriting with her in mind. We had, really, a year and a half to delve into that character of Franny, so that when we started shooting a year and a half later, she knew that character so well.
Paste: I don’t think I’ve ever asked you this question, but was the character called Franny before Annie came on board?
Barker-Froyland: Yes, the character was always called Franny. I loved JD Salinger stories, and Franny was always my favorite.
Franny and Zooey, that’s great. Well you know, speaking of the music being the start of all this, you already have such an uphill job as a screen writer, writing scripts and sort of getting into a believable place, making up a world that would then become believable to the viewer. But then you at least double your degree of difficulty when you’re writing a story where one of the main themes is the power of music, because that music has to be really powerful. In the last couple of years, there have been some films that have tried to do that, and have failed in the music part. It can really fall flat, and it can take you completely out of the story. Then there are the films like Once, and your film, where the music absolutely does capture that magic, and it really transports you. You had a couple of pretty great partners developing the music.
Barker-Froyland: Yes, yes I did! It’s really true what you were saying, because when you read a screenplay, there’s only so much you can understand about music. So when I was writing the script and all of these drafts, I named the songs and I would write something like, “James plays the song and it’s beautiful” or “James play the song, and the crowd is moved and it’s poetic.” So the translation of that into real music is another thing altogether.
I was really lucky to meet Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice; they were friends of Annie and Adam, who introduced me to them. They had read the script, and we sat down to talk about James’ backstory, and his character, and what his album would sound like. And then we took a hike close to their house in the canyons. I got on a plane the next morning to go back to New York, and I found in my inbox a song from them. It was “Little Yellow Dress,” which James plays in the movie. I listened to the song on my headphones right before the plane took off, and I was like, they may have to write all the music! So that’s how it started with them. Then you know the music sort of percolated over the course of a year. They would send us demos and wherever I was, I would just stop and listen to them. And the music really evolved in that way, based on discussions we had about James’s character and what he would have poured into this first album.
Paste: It’s got to be an interesting process for a musician, again, just like what we just said about screenwriting. It’s hard enough as a musician to write a great song that expresses what’s in your heart, but to write a great song that’s made up of what’s in a fictional character’s heart is something else.
Barker-Froyland: Right, I think it’s a challenge, and they really did such an amazing job of getting inside the brain of this character, James. Same with Henry, you know, Henry is this 19-year-old guy who is trying to find his own voice. They wrote his song,“Marble Song,” which he plays at the beginning of the movie, which Franny listens to on that CD. And they did such a good job of going back to their 19-year-old selves to think about how would I, how would he, have written that song at that age. So I think they were tapping into a lot of their own personal…
Barker-Froyland: Yes, their own youth.
Paste: After I saw the movie, I went to the after party and I think I ended up being the first person Annie talked to when she arrived there. And I told her how much I enjoyed the movie, how much I loved the movie, and this weight fell off of her face. And I said, “I really loved the confidence that Kate showed as a director to really stay on your face for long shots, and to really let us see you, really let you show us what was going on with that character’s emotions.” And I saw that relief even more in her face and she said, “Oh my gosh I thought people were going to come out of the movie and all I watched was Anne Hathaway make sad faces for two hours!”
You’ve done shorts before, but as a first-time feature director, it’s a really ballsy choice to make on your part. And you nailed it, I mean it really, really worked. Tell me about those choices. Were they part of your design from the beginning, or did they just come naturally as you were in the moment shooting or in the editing room?
Barker-Froyland: It happened before, as I was preparing, you know, and thinking a lot about the movie. And also preparing with our DP, John Guleserian, who shot Like Crazy. And of course during the shoot, you discover more things and you’re working with the actors in the room, so it’s a different thing from just thinking about in your head. But it is an intimate story, I think, and that way of shooting it for me was the best way to tell Franny’s story and her journey throughout the film. And I saw Like Crazy, which won Sundance a few years ago, and I loved the way it was shot, loved the intimate nature of it. Then I was reading an interview, and I found out they shot that on the Canon 7D, and I was like ,wow this guy’s really talented! So that was sort of how was started working together.
In terms of Franny, Annie and I talked a lot about her journey as we were preparing her character, and throughout the shoot. She really starts out as this kind of icicle, and she thaws throughout the movie. The way that she listens to things at the beginning of the movie is totally different by the end, and that’s a journey that she goes on, and that we watch her go on. And for me shooting it this way was a way into that.
Paste: You know that’s, that’s beautiful.
Barker-Froyland: Yeah you know, like at the beginning of the movie we actually, the first scene with her we see her listening to these women singing in Morocco. And she is recording and analyzing and we see her later transcribing, and it’s very analytical.
Paste: It’s all a head thing for her at that point.
Barker-Froyland: Exactly. Then when she starts to explore her brother’s world and tries to see the world through this 19-year-old’s eyes, she starts to record. That first time she records it’s Elizabeth Simon from Elizabeth and the Catapult—she’s playing and recording in the subway and Franny feels like she wants to record. She takes out her recorder, and that’s really the beginning of her bringing back these sounds for her brother, too. The movie is not just about music, but the sounds of New York.
Paste: That’s absolutely right. I would not have been able to put my finger on it, but as you say that, my memories of the movie even a year later are almost as much about the sound design as about the actual songs on the soundtrack.
Barker-Froyland: Yeah,it’s more about that than it is about, you know, a cool Brooklyn scene, you know what I mean? I didn’t set out to make a movie about this cool hipster scene. I think there is so much sound to be explored and so much great music, and it’s really about Franny seeing this world through her brother’s eyes. Whose eyes are 19-years-old and unjaded—he’s trying to find his own voice.
Paste: I think that most people who have not been around the industry, when they get a film into Sundance they sort of think, “Well this is going to be great. I’m going to go to Sundance and, you know, Harvey Weinstein is going to sign my movie after the premiere and then we’ll be in theaters a couple of weeks later and everything’s going to be great! Now you’ve been around the industry since birth, and so I’m assuming you had a more informed view of what the process was going in. But I’m curious, what it is like to be a filmmaker when there’s a year between your Sundance premiere and your theatrical premiere. What kind of journey is it?
Barker-Froyland: Going into Sundance, any filmmaker is hoping to find distribution for their film. That’s what I think any filmmaker would want. And I think that being at the festival, there’s the business side of it. You feel this pressure to sell your movie really quickly, and there’s a lot of attention paid to that. For me, one of the things I love about Sundance is that it is very filmmaker-centric, and you feel that people really love the movies, too. And what I loved about being there was watching the films with audiences.
We finished the film about four days before we showed it at the Eccles Theater, which is over 1,000 people, so going from this little tiny room, this color-correcting room with a few people, to showing it there—it was a surreal experience. I watched the movie at all of the screenings there, and it’s great to really watch it with an audience and to really feel their reaction, and to get to talk to people afterwards. Then in terms of after Sundance—yeah, it has been a journey. A year seems like a long time, but I’m so grateful that I was able to make this film, and I think it’s a miracle that any movie gets made. I’m just so happy that I was able to make it with these wonderful people and that people get to see it now.
Michael Dunaway is the producer and director of 21 Years: Richard Linklater , a New York Times Critics Pick starring Matthew McConaughey and Ethan Hawke; Creative Producer for the “Sarasota Film Festival”:www.sarasotafilmfestival.org; Movies Editor of Paste; host of the podcast The Work; and one hell of a karaoke performer. You can follow him on Twitter.