Hannah Strong


Illustration by

Sophie Mo

Brett Haley: ‘I do like The Backstreet Boys, I wanna put that on record’

The director of Sundance hit Hearts Beat Loud talks about his favourite bands, Stephen Sondheim, and provides an impassioned defence of compilation soundtracks.

How do you make a musical that’s not a musical? Brett Haley seems to have found the answer in his new film, Hearts Beat Loud. A warm, open-hearted take on father-daughter relationships and the joy of musical discovery, Haley’s fourth feature stars Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as Frank and Sam Fisher, as well as Ted Danson, Toni Collette and Blythe Danner. Taking inspiration from his film, we quizzed Brett on his music (and musical) influences.

LWLies: What kind of music did you grow up listening to?

Haley: I was an odd kid in the sense that my older brother – who’s about nine years older – [ed: Man Booker-nominated author Joshua Ferris] grew up in a different town, and the way that he would connect with me was by sending me mixtapes. Those tapes really sort of defined me at a very young age, listening to maybe different stuff than what my friends were listening to. So for me, the big early influences were Pixies, The Magnetic Fields, Tom Waits, and even odd bands like Pizzicato Five. That’s kind of what I was listening to when everyone else was listening to The Backstreet Boys. I do like The Backstreet Boys, I wanna put that on record – I love pop music. Even as a kid I was sort of embarrassed to be into, like, an Ace of Base song, but I look back at one of their albums, and I’m like, “That’s a dope-ass album.” The Sign is a great album. I did have that pop influence on top which was hard to avoid when I was growing up, but I also think listening to 69 Love Songs by The Magnetic Fields, or Doolittle by Pixies, really did kind of show me that there was this other avenue of music that you had to seek out.

Did you have any experience of being in a band as a kid or making your own music?

No. I was never in a band and I’ve never written a song or played an instrument in my life. But I did grow up doing musical theatre in high school, and I love musical theatre and musicals. I think it really helped me define who I am as a person and an artist when I was lost as a 15-year-old in high school. I joined the drama club and started doing acting and musicals, and it was a real lifesaver. So I learned how to sing and I learned how to dance as best as I could, and I think that was a big influence on my understanding of how music can tell stories.

What were the musical movies and stage musicals you looked at for inspiration when it came to Hearts Beat Loud?

Well, I love a proper musical, where people just break out into song, and I really want to do one, one day. Sondheim is the God of Musical Theatre for me, and Company is my favourite show probably ever, but I love almost all of his shows. I think for this, because of the size of the film and what we were trying to do, I thought “Maybe we can ease people in with a film where the songs tell the story, but that everything is coming from a real place.” The biggest influences on this were four movies – High Fidelity, That Thing You Do!, Inside Llewyn Davis, and a great Japanese film called Linda Linda Linda. Those are my real inspirations for this film. I mean, it goes without saying you can’t make a movie about a band or people creating music without mentioning the wonderful John Carney, I think that he’s a master of this subgenre. I think he’s done it better than anybody, so I’d be remiss not to mention him. I think if anything I looked at him as the master and said: “Okay, what has he done, and how can I carve out my own little path, that isn’t just a John Carney-knockoff?”

You mentioned High Fidelity, and when you have a character who works in a record store it’s kind of impossible to get away from that. But there’s this element of pretentiousness about that film, and I felt it was completely the opposite with Hearts Beat Loud. Were you actively trying to avoid talking down to any one type of music?

Yeah, I think it’s such an important part of High Fidelity, and Rob as a character and that whole movie is about becoming an adult and a better person. So in Hearts Beat Loud, I wanted to do something different. When I talk to people and say, “Oh, have you ever heard of Songs: Ohia?” and they say no, I don’t say “What’s wrong with you, you dummy!” I’m like, “Oh my gosh, let me give you this gift, of Songs: Ohia. Let me share this with you because it will probably make you a happier person.” I think that’s the way that Frank (Nick Offerman) looks at music, as something to be shared, a way to connect with people. That’s the way I’ve always looked at it. There’s nothing more joyful than playing a song for someone for the first time or introducing them to an album. I remember my brother walking me through a record store when I was young and he picked up Kind of Blue by Miles Davis, and he said: “You’re going to listen to this.” It’s moments like that when you’re gifting people an experience, you’re passing it down.

I think we all have to look back and say there were certain pop songs that we thought were silly or below us, but they’re actually quite amazing. “I Want It That Way”, Ace of Base, Britney Spears – kind of silly pop songs, the reason that they resonated is that they’re amazing pop songs. There’s a place for that, then there’s a place for Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, and Songs: Ohia, and Animal Collective. Everybody has different taste and likes different things. There are certain things I can’t get into, but I can respect the craft – like I totally get why people love Mastodon. I don’t wanna sit around listening to Mastodon but I get why people would. There’s so much craft there. I try not to be pretentious, but when there’s something that I don’t like, I’m pretty opinionated.

You mentioned Songs: Ohia and it was so great to hear them in the film. We see Animal Collective and Tom Waits, and Tweedy. How did you decide what music you wanted to feature, both as songs and as conversation topics?

It’s a balancing act of what can you afford, and what can you get the rights to. We had a very minimal music budget and I give a lot of props to my music supervisor Chris Swanson and Joe Rudge who really helped me define what I loved, what I wanted in the film, and what we could pull off. But Chris owns a bunch of record labels, and I found out he owns the label that Songs: Ohia is on. So I was like, “Oh my God, Captain Badass is one of my favourite songs, and that album changed my life.” So we started doing research, and he talked to Jason Molina’s wife, and I got all this context for the song that I didn’t know about. So I put that in the movie, and it was this wonderful gift, to put his music on this platform. Then Animal Collective, and Tom Waits’ Rain Dogs, while we couldn’t afford to play the songs, I still wanted to reference the albums. And then having Jeff Tweedy himself in the film – Wilco are one of the best bands ever! Jeff Tweedy is like a rock God to me. It was amazing to have him in the movie.

How did Jeff’s cameo come to be?

It’s pretty wild – it happened because Nick Offerman is friends with Jeff, and I was trying to think of a cameo to have in the movie. That one seemed to make the most sense to me. So I said to Nick, “Do you think he’d want to do it?” and he asked Jeff. Jeff said “Yeah, I’ll do it,” so we flew him in for Chicago, and it was amazing.

One of the joys of all the music in the film is that you namecheck so many bands and songs, and there’s this element of being able to go away and discover them. That’s something you only really get from films with compilation soundtracks. Do you have any favourites?

Early Tarantino stuff like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction – I played those CDs like crazy when I was a kid. It opened up different avenues of music to me that I’d never heard before. Another that I think is a really deep cut and an amazing soundtrack is the first Austin Powers movie. It’s actually an awesome compilation of tunes – I would rock that one out a lot as a kid. I think that the days of the compilation soundtrack are kind of over, which makes me sad, I think Garden State was kind of the last movie to have that impact. But I went on Spotify and I put together every song, that was played in the movie or referenced in the movie in some way, and made a playlist. It’s called Hearts Beat Loud OST. People are curious about the Mike Edge song, or the Roy Irwin song – so they can go and discover that.

You’ve worked with Keegan DeWitt before, who composed the songs for Hearts Beat Loud. With the songs being such a big part of this film, did you give him license to do whatever he wanted, or did you give him some direction on it?

Keegan has a band called Wild Cub and I love their music, so I know what Keegan can do with his eyes closed. He also does an incredible variety of scores for all sorts of different movies. I call him The Wizard – he can do anything. I knew I wanted a big, bold indie-pop sound. Something electronic, with guitars – I wanted a mix of what a dad would be bringing to it and what a kid would bring to it. So we got the MIDI sampler and a guitar over it – a richer, fuller sound by mixing these elements. Keegan would just send me sketches and ideas and I’d gravitate towards certain things, then he’d write the lyrics. But it’s really just him and his bandmates, and I really give them full credit. They created them from the ground up. I’m a huge fan of the songs in the movie because I didn’t create them. And I’m glad I like them, because I had to listen to them about a million times.

Given that there’s a great karaoke scene in the film, what’s your karaoke song of choice?

Aw man. I love karaoke so much, and it’s hard to pick just one song, because you have to read the room, right?

You do.

You have to look at the room and think, is tonight a ‘Just What I Needed’ by The Cars night, do I need to kick things off and get people going? Or do I need to do a little Boss, ‘Dancing in the Dark’? Or some Stones? Or do I need to slow things down – one of my go-tos is Michael Jackson’s ‘Human Nature’. I love it all. My wife and I’s go-to is ‘Suddenly Seymour’ from Little Shop of Horrors. It’s really her song, and I just back her up. But it’s really fun.

Hearts Beat Loud is released August 3. Read the LWLies review.

Published 2 Aug 2018

Tags: Brett Haley

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