Interview: Brett Haley Talks the Musical Magic of ‘Hearts Beat Loud’


One of the best films of the year so far is “Hearts Beat Loud.” We’ve already said as much in our rave review. A major part of that is the crowd pleasing direction from filmmaker Brett Haley. It takes just the right sort of sensibility to put out the adult aimed works that Haley does, and there’s really no one else out there doing what he’s doing. So, it was a pleasure to get to sit down and talk to him about that. Yours truly moderated opening weekend Q and A events last year with him for “The Hero,” so there was some familiarity. Haley is a great artist, but an even better person, so this was a pleasure.

As a reminder, Haley co-writes with Marc Basch and directs the film. The cast is led by Kiersey Clemons and Nick Offerman, with supporting turns by Toni Collette, Blythe Danner, Ted Danson, and Sasha Lane. The music and original songs were composed by Keegan DeWitt. All will be discussed below in a casual and freewheeling chat. “Hearts Beat Loud” is in theaters now and is an absolute must see.

Here now is our interview with “Hearts Beat Loud” co-writer/director Brett Haley:

Brett Haley: Good to see you again buddy!

Joey Magidson: Likewise. I noticed, and it’s funny, everyone has a different thing that they take from a guy, but I notice that you look at your last movie and almost pick the star of your next movie.

BH: Yeah.

JM: People saw “I’ll See You In My Dreams” and thought Sam Elliott deserved a juicy leading role and you’re like “Hang on!”

BH: (Laughs) Just you wait. There’s more there.

JM: Then “The Hero” and folks notice that Nick Offerman should be in more movies. So it’s funny to watch “Hearts Beat Loud” and wonder…

BH: You know, I would work with all of them again, in any capacity. I love the cast. It was like, I met with Toni (Collette) talking to her about wanting to give her a movie, that I think you deserve a bigger movie. And she came and did this supporting role, which is obviously great, and here she has a big movie coming out this weekend (“Hereditary”) that she’s the lead in and is getting a lot of buzz about, and that’s great. She deserves all the movies in the world, in my opinion. But, so does Sasha (Lane) and Kiersey (Clemons) and Ted (Danson), and obviously I’ve done with with Blythe (Danner). I like working with the same people. It’s fun. It’s like a family environment, and I enjoy having my friends around.

JM: And it shows. Even if the role is on the smaller side, it does a lot of the work for the character. When you see someone show up again and again for a filmmaker, there’s almost a shorthand.

BH: Right. Like, you see Blythe and you get it, almost immediately. There’s a history behind it. Correct.

JM: Coming up with this cast, there’s obviously people you’ve worked with before, but also, I imagine you wrote yourself a character that’s very hard to cast…

BH: Yeah!

JM: Did you write Kiersey’s character specifically…

BH: I wrote her specifically to be biracial. I was open to whatever that was, and we looked at almost every kind of combo. At least, we auditioned, you know, certain people. Then we started doing a wider search and I opened it up and realized how difficult that role was to get right. Not only was it that you’ve gotta act, you’ve gotta be this part. You’ve gotta sing like crazy, these songs are not easy to sing. And, you’ve gotta have good chemistry with Sasha Lane. You’ve gotta have good chemistry with Nick Offerman. These things were already in place. So, when Kiersey was available, I was kind of under the assumption that she was not available. When I discovered she was available, we made her the offer, and same day she said yes, and we were like off to the races. That worked out!

JM: I didn’t even realize how well she could sing!

BH: She can really wail. We knew she could sing. We didn’t know she could sing like that.

JM: Historically, you’d cast a musician and just hope they could act.

BH: Correct.

JM: Sometimes that works. Sometimes, not so much?

BH: Yeah, exactly. She’s a true double threat. She’s probably a triple threat. She probably can dance too. She can kind of do it all.

JM: I remember the Coen Brothers talking about “Inside Llewyn Davis” and how they wrote a character and then realized they actually had to cast it. At the New York Film Festival, they talked about how they initially figured they’d have to cast a musician and hope they weren’t terrible actors.

BH: Yeah! “This is going to be a tough one”. But that’s how Oscar Isaac became Oscar Isaac. “You know, I can play the guitar, and sing, and act like a motherfucker.”

JM: “Come with us!”

BH: “We can actually get the movie made now, because we’re the greatest directors alive.” They’re up there, for sure.

JM: That’s my favorite of theirs.

BH: That’s one of my favorites too, and I admire the hell out of those filmmakers. They’re up there.

JM: Not only did you write yourself this character to cast, you gave them a non traditional relationship, without ever calling attention to it. In another movie, that would be a huge factor.

BH: It’s a fucking plot point in most movies, and Marc (Basch) and I went out of our way to make sure that it was not a plot point, that it was just simply existing in the world, as romances do.

JM: When Frank asks her…

BH: Do you have a new girlfriend?

JM: Before he asks…

BH: Before he says boyfriend. And he’s cool with either one. It’s clear to the audience that they’ve had this conversation before. Maybe it’s “Dad I like girls.” Maybe it’s “Dad I like girls and boys.” We don’t know. It’s open. We don’t label her, nor were we ever going to. Because, that’s the way it should be. And maybe it’s idealized, but I buy Frank as that guy. That’s the kind of dad I want to be.

JM: That’s something you can do with film too. You can sort of correct the wrongs you see in the world, while still setting it in the real world.

BH: Correct. 100%. That is totally it. It’s not an idealized version, it’s certainly in the world, but we’re not seeing enough of it. And certainly, most people quote unquote in this world, might have a bigger issue with it than Frank does, but they shouldn’t. So, we’re going to put out that positivity and that representation. That’s part of my job, as a person with privilege, is to give representation to things that are not me. That’s part of the deal. At least, I make it part of the deal.

JM: Something I didn’t ask you last year but wanted to. You have a writing partner. How does that work? Are you in the same room? Are you writing separately?

BH: Marc and I do not work in the same room. Sometimes, with rewrites at the 11th hour when we’re about to shoot, we’ll work in the same room. It depends on who’s on the keys and who’s not. We go back and forth. We send pages back and forth. We text a lot. Talk on the phone. We go back and forth. There are no rules. There are none. It’s just who has the best idea, and best idea wins. Can you fight for it? Can you convince the other person? We, like any marriage, and that’s really what I would compare it to, like being married, you have to be a team player. You have to understand that there’s a greater thing happening, and that you can’t get too selfish or too lost in the plot. These are the things we’re trying to do, let’s work together. We’ve been lucky in that we’ve written so many things together and we still like each other quite a bit! (Laughing)

JM: Super simple question. How did the idea for “Hearts Beat Loud” pop up? With “The Hero” it really did feel like it was a way to give Sam Elliott a leading role and build around that. What about here?

BH: Our movies are not very plot heavy, and I’m very proud of that. Plot, the word plot, I mean, it can be misconstrued for a lot of things, but for us, it’s about character journey. We take that, I love that Linklater position. It’s not like there’s no plot, there’s a lot that happens in our movies, but they aren’t plot driven. They’re character driven.

This one came about, I think because, you know, we’re movie lovers, and a lot of the time you look at movies like “High Fidelity” and “That Thing You Do!” and “Linda Linda Linda” and “Once” and “Inside Llewyn Davis” and you say that you want to do something in that space. As much as I want to do something in the “No Country for Old Men” space or the action movie space or the horror movie space, that’s sort of a thing. I just really wanted to do something in the music space. You know, I don’t even really remember how or when, but sometimes ideas just hit you. With “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” the idea just hit me one day. This would be interesting! I want to see this! The same thing happened here, it just hit me, and then the specifics of it start coming together when I talk to Marc about it. We sort of start developing it. You know, what are we actually saying? What is this movie? Red Hook was always definitely going to be a part of it. We though record store, Red Hook, father/daughter band. But, you know, the inside of it, of what that looks like, was an unknown. It was just a kernel of an idea Then, we worked with Nick on “The Hero” and we knew that’s who we wanted to be our dad. And that helped us write it! Just having Nick in mind really helped grow it out.

JM: And then setting it on the East Coast instead of the West Coast?

BH: Yeah, I needed to do a New York movie now. I’m a New Yorker, I’ve lived in Brooklyn the whole time I’ve lived in New York, which is about 13 years now. I wanted to make a New York movie. I wish we could have done more New York stuff, but on this schedule and budget, there was only so much that we could do. I wish we could have shot more around Red Hook, to be honest with you. I wish we had more local flavor. I think there’s just enough in the film, but I would have loved more. It’s just very difficult with locations. It’s like, you can only have X amount of locations, because every one is a move, money, and in many ways, we had to back into certain things. We can get this record store, have some scenes take place in the record store! (Laughs) It’s like, we have this record store for five days, maybe we should move this scene that’s here to this, because we don’t want to be moving, etc.

JM: That sort of choice comes with experience too, doesn’t it?

BH: Correct. You sort of have to put your eggs in certain baskets and look it and think about what you’re going to sacrifice as well as what you’re going to gain. You have to look at the positive/negative, and a lot of the time I choose the least resistant path that also happens to be a smart narrative path. Do we really need this scene to be in a moving car? No, we don’t, so unless there’s a very good reason, let’s put it somewhere else that will make it easier on everyone. That’s the kind of stuff you have to do at this level. Period. I like to try to find the ways to get the best performances out of my actors and the best work out of my crew. Making their lives miserable because I have something in my head that doesn’t mean anything to anybody but me? That doesn’t seem like the best path.

JM: The other thing I went deep with you on during those Q and A’s last year was music. I was huge on Keegan last year with “The Hero” and it’s even more so now with this one. Music and you go together well.

BH: Well, I love music. I got to direct a music video for The War on Drugs, which was so fun. I love music. It’s a big reason why I made this movie, a love of music. I got to put certain references into this film that meant a lot to me.

JM: The records in the background?

BH: Yes! And that is not easy. You have to get the rights to show stuff. Sometimes it costs money. You have to have the right to talk about something a certain way, or obviously songs cost a lot of money to play in your movie. It was a challenge in that way. You can’t just talk about a David Bowie song while Ziggy Stardust plays. You can’t afford that. That’s my entire music budget. We probably, our entire music budget couldn’t cover that, which, hey, Bowie deserves it. It’s just part of the way that stuff works. For me, it was like a real moment to have fun and put music, the creation of it, the love of it, at the center of this movie. In many ways, when this movie starts, you think it’s like “High Fidelity.” You see this record store, there’s this music snob. But then you see his love for it. And then you see that he is a creator as well. It was very exciting for me to play with all of that.

JM: The songs do a lot of heavy lifting here too.

BH: Yes. You let the songs do the work. You’re not going to try to overcook what’s already there. Because, every song in this movie serves a very specific character and narrative purpose. Like a proper musical. It continues the story. It isn’t there to just be a cool song, though they happen to be cool songs, in my humble opinion. All music taste is subjective, but I like the songs a lot. I’ve lived with them a year. I’ve heard them a million times and I still like them quite a bit. So, I don’t get tired of them. When Hearts Beat Loud comes on, I’ll listen to it. I love all the songs. So, we were very specific with him about what each song needed to accomplish. Keegan really brought, lyrically, so much to it, and musically, so I could capitalize on it, cinematically.

JM: The music catching on would really be something great to see. Especially here, since there’s a soundtrack to be excited about. We used to see that happen way more often.

BH: Well, it happened. It happened recently. With “The Greatest Showman.” That was a movie that, whatever you think of it, you have to look at it and say, here’s a movie that opened quote unquote soft, and that music, people discovered it. People went more and more, back to the theater, to sing along, it just kept going. People don’t realize, that movie outgrossed La La Land. That movie is huge, and it just rode under the wave of all these bigger movies, even though it is a bigger movie, and it just kept riding it.

Our movie certainly has that possibility, on an indie level, to get discovered through the songs. You have two ins. You have the movie and you have the soundtrack. Either one can lead you to the other. Or, if you just want to experience the movie without committing to seeing the movie again, you can listen to the songs and be hopefully brought back to the feelings that you had watching the movie. Someone can hear the song and find out that it’s for a movie, that it’s from a movie. So, we’re excited to see what happens with these things. I have no clue. I’ve never done this before! (Laughs)

JM: You could see a Best Original Song nomination for the film…

BH: I long ago realized, when you’re competing for awards, at this level, it is sort of a miracle if you can break through. Even the ones that have sort of done it got money behind them and said “We are fucking going for this!” And it doesn’t always work. I think awards are great and necessary and they bring a lot of attention to a lot of great movies, but I can not as a storyteller, be too concerned with them. It’s not healthy. That can’t be the reason that you do something. You just have to go and make your art. If people respond to it or people want to give you awards for it, that’s great. That’s a lovely gift. At the end of the day, you just have to do your art, and it’s not up to me anymore.

JM: How meta is it that you can actually buy a vinyl of it?

BH: Oh, there’s so much meta. You can listen to it on Spotify. It is on the New Indie Mix, which we reference in the movie. You can buy it on vinyl from, you know, American Apparel, to directly your local record store, we hope will be carrying it. But, it all depends on how people respond to it and how people like it. We are not in control of that. We just put our art out there and hope people respond to it.

JM: I had a feeling, but you can tell me if I’m right. Had he been available, would Sam have been the bartender?

BH: Oh yeah. He’s too busy!

JM: Making “A Star Is Born?”

BH: He’s doing a bunch of things. He’s doing “The Ranch,” he did “A Star Is Born,” he’s doing another movie, an indie that he really loved. You know, Sam got busy, and good on him. He should! That’s what I’ve always been saying. Look at these people, they deserve to be doing more. Blythe told me that she’s never worked more in her career, so she’s stayed busy. It’s great to see her constantly going!

*Again, “Hearts Beat Loud” is in theaters now, with a nationwide expansion to come.*