“Folk Hero and Funny Guy” is profiled as part of our month long focus on Modern Musicals.
Reviewed by Lesley Coffin
At this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, one of the smartest and funniest comedies to play in competition was the directing debut comedian Jeff Grace, Folk Hero & Funny Guy. As the film’s title would suggest, the movie focuses on the lives of friends and performers; comedian Paul (Alex Karpovsky) and folk singer-songwriter Jason (Wyatt Russell). While Jason’s star has risen to some significant levels of fame, Paul spends more of his time working as a temp than performing stand-up. To encourage his friend, Jason invites him to be his opening act on his tour, one the heavy drinking Jason planned with alternative motive of seeing old flame Becky (Melanie Lynskey in a brief but outstanding performance). On the road they meet newcomer Bryn (Meredith Hagner) a fellow singer-songwriter and invite her to open for Paul…causing tension when it becomes obvious that the tour could be a bigger break for her than it is for Paul. Grace based the film’s premise (loosely) on his own questionable decision to tour as a comedian as the opening act for his lifelong friend for Adam Ezra, who also scores the film and wrote original songs (along with Wyatt Russell and Meredith Hagner). The movie’s breezy pacing is deceptive in how it handles some deep and significant moments of drama about friendship, love, and growing-up. Grace manages to show a true compassion for his often flawed characters which suggests he is already a mature and thoughtful filmmaker with his own voice and perspective. The movie has a comfy, warm style; set in fall and winter the movie almost feels like something audience will want to watch on a snowy, lazy day with a roaring fire in the background. Alongside Karpovsky, already established as a filmmaker-actor, Russell and Hagner feel like true discoveries in this movie. This is Russell’s second major role this year (he was also a stand out in Everybody Wants Some!!) and his seamless ability to move within character from comedy to drama suggests he is on the rise. As for Hagner, (best known for her work on TV’s Royal Pains and currently starring in the series Search Party), if the film finds its audience, don’t be surprised if she’s labeled a breakout star. Her infectious energy on screen, quirky but relatable personality, and lovely voice suggests a star in the making. I spoke with Grace, Russell and Hagner about their outstanding film which is currently playing the film festival circuit.
I noticed there was a big change to the musical vibe at the end of the film, after Jason’s concert, when Paul goes to the comedy story club and you picked the Brenton Wood song Oogum Boogum to close the movie. To end a movie about folk musicians with that song feels surprising, where did that idea even come from?
Grace: Originally I thought we would have far more folk music in the movie, but as we were layering the sound mix with our editor John Melin and our music supervisor Don Wilcox, we realized having that much folk music in kind of a talky movie can start to feel monotonous, and it wasn’t upbeat enough for this movie. So we found a lot of music from all different genres to put into the movie, to kind of off-set the folk music Wyatt and Meredith sing. We have music that reminded us of Paul McCartney in Wings. And that song at the very end was a song our editor laid in to try to convince us that we should pull away from the folk music in a big way to end the movie. And I needed convincing until I heard it, and then I realized he was totally right. We weren’t sure if we were even going to have a score, so we were editing with music drops, and interspersing that with the music Meredith had previously written and then Wyatt and Meredith wrote their songs together.
Russell: That was cool, because you almost never get to be in a movie that lends itself to that. A lot of movies force music into the soundtrack, but it was completely necessary with this movie and the movie’s tonal changes lent itself to all those different pieces of music.
Were you listening to music during production to set the mood?
Russell: We did and music was always sort of on in the background for this movie. Meredith and I listened to a lot of John and June Carter.
Hagner: They were our inspiration for the song we wrote. I had previously written the songs I sing in the movie, and they just happened to fit the movie and fit my character, so we got to use them. But the song Wyatt and I wrote and sing is inspired by what we were listening to during the production. People like John and June Carter and Gillian Welch. Singer-songwriters that made us think, “If we’re just one percent as good as they are, we’ll be on the right track.”
When did you write the original music you perform?
Hagner: Most of my songs were previously written, but Adam Ezra wanted to collaborate on one song. And he had great ideas for that song. And then Wyatt and I started writing a couple of weeks before shooting and then we’d just keep writing at night, because we were all living together. So we were working on the music throughout the actual production.
Russell: We wrote the music beforehand but were tweaking it throughout production.
Grace: We added a lot of music into the film just because we liked so much of what they wrote. We kind of created a montage after we heard one of their songs. I loved the idea of Alex trying to sing along, and he’s so terrible he basically stops the montage the audience is watching. We had a lot of last minute discoveries like that. Also, in that montage scene, when they’re having a sing-along, Meredith wacked her head so hard on the guitar case laughing and the sound her head made was so loud it was distracting and we had to mix it down in post.
Hagner: My brain hasn’t felt right since that day. But hey, I really dive into my roles.
Whose idea was it for you to write music and contribute to the sound track?
Russell: It was a fluid process. There were songs written specifically for the movie. There were parts where it just said in the script, Jason sings, and I just played a song I had written, Firewater, because it’s just background. And at a certain point Jeff realized he would need a few more songs, so Meredith and I decided to collaborate and contribute original songs to the movie.
Hagner: That really did embody the spirit of the movie, where Jeff encouraged us to just try new things. Jeff’s an excellent director and I would recommend other actors work with him. He’s so fun and spirited. I was working with Adam Ezra originally, because he planned to write a lot of Bryn’s songs. And he’s so talented and brilliant, but the songs would have worked for Wyatt’s character, but didn’t feel right for Bryn. I think it can be hard for a male song writer to write for a female voice, so we ended up using my own songs. But that only comes from no one having a big ego and a willingness to collaborate.
Grace A big reason I cast Meredith and Wyatt was because I knew they had musical abilities and I knew they could sing. I heard some stuff they sent me during the casting process. But I never expected the actors to contribute original music. I thought we’d either have Adam write all the music or hire someone else to write original music for the characters. But with Meredith, I loved her first for the part, but then she took it upon herself to send me the demos she recorded on her iPhone. And when I said “can we use them” she thought they wouldn’t be good enough. She was too modest.
Hagner: That’s where I sort of mirrored the character. It was intense to kind of put myself out there as a songwriter for the first time.
Because you were the writer of the character’s songs, do you feel that gave you the opportunity to add more of yourself to Bryn’s character?
Hagner: Oh, yeah. So much of what I do happens to be broad character work. But she was so fun to play because she felt so close to me. Every part has pieces of you, but this role definitely felt the closest.
Did you and Alex work on combining your comedy styles?
Grace: The stand up’s the one area of the movie where I wasn’t sure what he would be doing until we started filming him. During rehearsals he’d be like “and I’ll do a little stand up here…” and I’d be like, “well, can I hear what you’re going to do?” But I ended up understanding why he took that approach, because it’s really hard to do the right kind of comedy until you see the room and the crowd. And when I’d ask Alex about doing an open mic to kind of rehearse, he’d go “yeah, I don’t know about that.” He didn’t jump at the idea so I didn’t push it.
I’m assuming Wyatt’s character wasn’t really based on Adam, but what kind of inspiration did Adam provide?
Russell: There are aspects of him that wound up in the character. We met for about three days just to go over the music. And I always know that doing a movie, scripts go through a lot of changes and I had an opportunity to contribute to the character on this film. There are aspects that I pulled from my own life, but more so, from people I knew a few years ago. Musicians I’d come across in my life, my former brother-in-law’s a musician who would consider himself part of the psychedelic folk-rock genre scene. So he’s an amalgamation of a lot of people I’ve known and met and liked over the year.
Grace: It was ironic but Wyatt had so many real-life experiences that served him so well in creating this character. He didn’t tell me this until after we cast him, but he said “I’ve actually built my own guitars.” And I was just like, “well, that’s a plus.” He’d gone on tour with a band.
Russell: The guitar I used in the movie is a guitar I built with Daniel Stickel, my mentor in Vancouver.
Hagner: What a renaissance man! Did you also make your own shirt? How many jobs have you had?
Russell: Not a job, I was just bored. I was playing hockey in Vancouver and needed a hobby.
Not to get too Meta, but being a bunch of actors on the road to make a movie, and playing creative people on a tour, did you feel like the relationships started to mirror your characters?
Hagner: In the film, I come in later, but we were working on the film beforehand. I was always around Alex and Wyatt, long before my character showed up, because you film out of order. But we did establish a rapport early on that mirrors how close they got on tour.
It’s a completely different vibe when your character finally arrives, because the guys seem like they’re exhausted on tour, almost from the first day they start the trip. And then you show up and make things seem more fun and lighten them up.
Russell: That’s true.
Hagner: Jeff was so great, because I felt like I was coming in to be the female love interest, which has been done so many times before. And being someone who loves comedy and wants to do different characters, I don’t want to just be the girl who shows up and goes (baby voice) “hi, I brought you muffins.” I don’t know why, I always think of muffins, but whatever she does. It’s the girl defined as the love interest. And Jeff really let me play with the character and we really collaborated and give Bryn her own perspective.
What aspects of the character did you want to enliven that hadn’t really been explored before in these road-trip, buddy comedies?
Grace: In terms of how the guys’ relationship is tested, I liked the fact that Jason would sleep with her right away, and his friend would still fall for her. I’ve had friends who are the guys that always seem to get the girl, and I always seem to work a little harder to meet somebody. Friends who will literally talk about how “you know that girl you aren’t into any more, can I date her? And I thought that made Bryn’s character more relatable..
Hagner: What are you talking about? Did you really just describe her as a sex object? How are you going to spin this!
Grace: Well, my favorite scene is the one where Bryn says “why should I apologize to you for having sex with someone else I wanted to. Why should I feel bad for not liking you the way you want me to?”
Hagner: By the way, I know he doesn’t feel that way about Bryn, I was just joking. Because Jeff was so upfront that he did not want this character to just be the object of affection or obstacle in their friendship. He never wanted her to feel cliché or like the one dimensional female love interest. And I think it worked, I think Bryn’s a great character.
Grace: But she also works as just another talented person on this tour, even if the sexual feelings don’t apply. Jason invites her on tour randomly, and she’s so good, it’s just another stab in Alex’s heart, but as a performer. I had this discussion once, do you think it can ever work to have a comic perform BETWEEN two musicians?
Grace: Agreed, but I’ve had to do it and it was the worst time in my life. Audiences would just get impatient and start talking because they were waiting for the band.
But, I think it’s particularly bad to have music, comedy, music, because people have to be active listeners with comics but they can be passive listeners to music.
Grace: And opening acts, they literally turn the volume down lower than the main act, so how frustrating to have to listen to a comic that’s hard to hear. It’s just not a good idea.
Hagner: I just love the aspect of Wyatt’s character that’s just like, and we all know people like this, that go “everyone come to the party.” And you’re the person going, “we don’t have enough room” or “we don’t have enough food.” And he’s just like, “it’s fine!” And then at the party everyone’s a little too close.
Grace: A buddy of mine is the most generous guy I know, and will say “everyone come on over.” And we used to do sketch comedy together and he would say “I asked those two girls we met if they wanted to perform before we go on.” And then you’re just like “I guess so?” but really you don’t want them invading your space. That generous spirit Jason truly has makes him kind of a pain in the ass to be around.
Did you end up feeling like Jason’s a likable character?
Russell: Probably not, but that’s okay. And I think he learns some pretty big lessons on this trip. And that’s what life’s all about. He needed to learn that hard earned lesson, “I am not the center of my world.” And that journey is really what the movie’s all about. When you see Jason backstage and Paul and Bryn are talking, you realize they needed to separate and go their own ways to grow up. They needed to have that fight so they could show themselves to be assholes, and feel embarrassed that they’re behaving that way in public. Part of the reason they’re not talking at the end is out of embarrassment. Because we saw that message in the movie, Jeff and I, and Alex, we wanted to lean into that idea and show the audience how unlikable guys can be when they act like that. When she says she has no interest in being with either of them because look at the way they’re behaving, they feel shame and embarrassment because they know they were completely in the wrong to act that way and now everyone in that bar knows it too.
The buddy film, buddy road movie genre has a rich history, but there’s always the risk of being repetitive. Did you think about what you would be contributing or how to avoid that trap?
Grace: Writing the script, I tried to avoid looking at other movies that could be described that way…but I would be lying if I said I didn’t think about movies like Sideways, because I love that movie. I think in my subconscious I named him Paul because of Paul Giamatti, thinking “what’s a good name for an anxious character.” I share some of Alexander Payne’s sensibilities, the warmth in that movie between those guys and the idea that comedy comes through pain. Originally we were concerned that Paul would be seen as too whiny, he can be a bit of a sad sack, and we wanted people to honestly root for Paul and not just feel bad for him.
The scene you play over the opening credits, the split screen of them waking up and starting their day, where did that idea come from?
Grace: I wish I could say I thought of it all on my own, but I can’t. I wanted something that would immediately stress the idea that they are friends now running in different circles. I love opening sequences that actually move the story forward. And I thought it could be funny to show the life of a rock star and the life of a temp side by side, while also helping to establish some character a little faster. 500 Days of Summer has a split screen too. Directors use it in a lot of experimental films.
How difficult was it to figure out the timing for that scene?
Grace: It was pretty labor intensive. Just timing it so they both got out of bed at the same time was a big challenge.
Hagner: I love that opening so much. It just sets everything, the characters, the tone, the style. I love the music you picked for it.
Grace: Our cinematographer Nancy had this idea to draw Alex’s face and put it on this Plexiglas thing and we then put over the monitor to see if their faces would line up on screen while filming. We also needed the lines of the beds to match up. The first day we were shooting, I remember thinking we had too much to film, I can’t spend this much time on a title sequence. It took a day or two to film, but it’s no more than a two minutes of screen time. Thank god we didn’t have to worry about dialogue in that section, but it was hard for the editor to get it just right too, because the timing had to be perfect.
The movie looks far more expensive than its budget would suggest. What were your ideas for creating the visual style of the film?
Grace: Originally I thought we were going to have to make it really low-budget and kind of gritty. A lot of times the reason you see these vérité and handheld movies at festivals are because that’s what the budget dictates. But when we hired Nancy Schreiber as your cinematographer and she say “I think you would be selling yourself short to film it that way” you listen. And we started talking about Hal Ashby movies and his movie The Last Detail, which is a wintertime road movie too. And she said, “I think we can do that, I think we can give the movie a 70s studio era feeling.” So I’m glad you feel that way, because that was what we were attempting. And in hindsight, shooting the music the way we did, recording it live, really made everyone commit to the live performances on screen. They didn’t get a lot of takes and they nailed it. A few times I’d tell Wyatt, you have 10 minutes, go through the song 3 times and I’m just going to roll. And he nailed it.
You also have some scenes where someone’s performing on stage in the background, while two actors are having a conversation in the background, and those scenes look like they’d be almost impossible to film live.
Hagner: That is crazy the way they pulled that off. The first scene I’m in, the timing of that scene worked out so well.
Jeff: I have to give my editor all the props for accomplishing that bit of magic. I really gave him a puzzle to put together when I gave him all that footage and audio to work with. But he really pulled it off and it feels seamless.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)