HomeFilmInterview: Brett Haley opens up about his new film Hearts Beat Loud

Interview: Brett Haley opens up about his new film Hearts Beat Loud

American writer/director Brett Haley is about to release his latest film Hearts Beat Loud in the UK.

Starring Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) and Kiersey Clemons (Flatliners) as father and daughter, Frank and Sam, the film is a comedy drama with a musical twist. Frank tries to convince Sam to be in a band with him, after one of their songs go viral and at the same time he’s facing the closure of his record store.

I sat down with Brett when he was in the UK recently to discuss the theme of loss that runs throughout Hearts Beat Loud, talk about Kiersey Clemons’ breakout performance, and to find out the most surprising feedback he’s had about the film so far.

I think I felt pretty much every single emotion watching this film. What was your aim when making the film and what did you want people to take away from it?

Well I think more than anything I wanted it to feel relatable in the way life is. In the way that life can throw you transitions and moments and emotions. One second can be quite funny and the next second quite sad. You never really know what she, as in life, is up to. I like all of my films to feel that way, that they just kind of flow with the pace and the feeling of real life so that it’s honest hopefully and relatable. That’s the idea, is just that you can look up on screen and either relate to it personally or relate to it in a way like, ‘oh I can see how that would be affecting someone else’. I think more than anything what you just described to me is exactly what I want people to feel, which is a little bit of everything. You’re taking all this stuff and you’re putting it within an hour and a half. It’s a journey. I don’t make films that are just funny… I like to mix it all up because that’s life, it’s a mixed bag isn’t it? (laughs).

It certainly is. One of the things that I found so interesting about it is Frank’s journey in particular, it seems like he was going through three different experiences of loss over the course of the movie with his record store, his daughter moving away and his mother losing her mind. I felt like Frank was looked after by Sam, who took on the parent role and comes across more mature. What did you want to get across with the character of Sam?

Well I think you hit it right on the head that we switched those roles and have a guy, a dad, who probably needs to grow up a little bit and a daughter that probably should be more of a kid than she’s acting and I think she lets loose a little bit more. She’s headstrong and knows exactly what she wants out of life, which is a good thing, but sometimes you’re so set on something and you’re so tunnel vision that sometimes you don’t see the other things that could bring you joy or happiness or connection on the side. I think if she does have a flaw it would be that but we wanted her to be the more put together of the two characters. Also I think when you’re 18 years old, you’re a lot more sure of what you’re going to be doing because you’re 18, you don’t have all the things you just mentioned about Frank on top of you. Those are real life like, ‘I’m in my mid to late 40s dealing with this shit kind of thing’. At 18 I didn’t have those kinds of those kind of problems yet.

She can kind of tunnel vision and she’s obviously incredibly smart and incredibly talented. We really just wanted her to be this kind of lovely… I think an inspiration for people who look and feel the way she does with no judgement but I also think that she should stop and smell the roses a bit more.

Heart Beat Loud - Kiersey Clemons
Credit: Jon Pack / Park Circus

I really like the way that Sam’s sexuality was dealt with in the film. I liked the fact it wasn’t an issue and it wasn’t a sub-plot that advanced anything. I feel like we’re finally getting there in cinema where same-sex relationships are becoming normalised. Why did you decide to treat that subject in this way as opposed to making it a hurdle for Sam?

I think it’s so annoying when we’ve been sort of accustomed in the media to seeing two men love each other or two women love each other, or a trans character shows up and be like, ‘oh where’s the judgement? Where’s the pain? Where’s the misery? Where’s the plot point? Where’s the coming out scene? Where is the anger? Where’s the dad going to be upset?’ And all that shit. It’s just been driven and drilled into us. Someone tweeted, ‘Hearts Beat Loud is supposed to be a family film but there are two women kissing in this film and how they market it as a family film?’ There are still people out there who are that dense and just don’t understand that love is love. I have a privilege as a white straight male to tell any story I want and to be able to use the privilege and the platforms.

For me in this particular film it was important to put out something that wasn’t judged, that didn’t have any sort of plot turn but just simply existed. I know we’re using the term normalising and I think that’s OK but I’m hoping we can get past that word because it is normal. It’s been proven over and over again. If you’re still dealing, like that guy, with it being abnormal, something’s wrong with you. Not them, you. If you think that something’s wrong, look inside because something’s up. It is normal. No one would be questioning me or asking if it was a white daughter and a white straight boy that she falls in love with. We wouldn’t be having this conversation. You can make a movie about things and those movies serve their place but I didn’t want to make a movie about it. I think with where I come from that’s the best use of my privilege. I’m not going to make a movie, at least at this point in my career, about what it means to be gay or what it means to be biracial but I can put those those elements and those characters in my film, and sort them just have them be and never address it in any way other than acceptance and love. To me that’s a powerful and important thing that I can do with my films.

I think it was handled beautiful, especially when Frank is quizzing Sam about her love life…

He starts with girl friend, which I think is crucial. He’s like, ‘do you have a new girl friend?’ so clearly they’ve had the conversation at some point. No judgment, no nothing. Then to take it even further he says, ‘boyfriend?’ and that’s sort of the surprising one. I love that. He’s OK. He wouldn’t care if it was a boyfriend or a girlfriend, he wouldn’t care, or a trans person… who cares? Just that little bit of the love from a parent, who’s not looking at their kid with all that shit and all that judgement that I think most of us had in my generation growing up… I hope that’s starting to go out the window a little bit.

I think that means a lot to people, at least the people that have come up to me who identify as queer or identify as gay or bi. They’ve come up to me and said, ‘thank you, this means a lot to me’ so I can only just say I’m happy people are responding. I can’t take full credit for it. Kiersey and Sasha really helped define that relationship because they both identify as queer. They’re both women of colour. I said to them, ‘what what do you want to see and how would you want this to be presented?’ so we really listened to them and let them help define that journey. I think that that’s crucial too for someone in my position, is to listen to the people who are actually in the shoes of the characters we’re presenting. That’s important too. You can’t just be like, ‘I’m guessing the whole time’. You’ve got to get some hard facts.

It feels like this is a real break-out performance for Kiersey. She’s incredible in this role. How did you get her on board for the film?

I’ve always been a fan of hers. I’ve known of her for a long time and it was simply me figuring out that she could sing. I did some research and we found out from her team that she loves to sing and she wants to sing. We made the offer. I didn’t audition her or anything like that. I just had a feeling about her being the right kind of vibe with Nick and it worked. They just hit it off instantly. It was just one of those feelings you get and you say, ‘well let’s see if she says yes’ and she did. She really responded to the idea of seeing herself on screen. She said that and Sasha said that. There’s a huge L.A. Times interview with both of them about that so I think they identified with that part of it. I think she really wanted to be doing and singing in a movie, even though this music is not what I think she would have been singing it if it were her own music.

Heart Beat Loud - Nick Offerman
Credit: Jon Pack / Park Circus

Music is used very cleverly in the film. That’s when I felt the chemistry the most between Kiersey and Nick. When you reach what is essentially a mini-concert in the film, it really lifts the movie and it felt life-affirming. Was it difficult to get the right music?

In many ways it’s like a musical, where the songs are doing heavy narrative lifting and lifting the film up and helping tell the story and move the characters along. That’s what we were trying to do so every song had a very specific goal. Hearts Beat Loud is them coming together, literally, and then Blink is the goodbye between Rose and Sam, and then Everything Must Go is the goodbye between Sam and Frank and the store. Shut Your Eyes, which is earlier in the film is, ‘sorry your mom isn’t here anymore’. You can say things with music that you can’t say with dialogue and I think that’s part of fun of music that you can be heart on sleeve and just open with a song. You can sing what you can’t say. I love musicals. In many ways this is like a very grounded musical. I definitely just didn’t want the songs to be cool, I wanted them to tell the stories so I give all credit to Keegan DeWitt who wrote these great songs. It was just a collaboration between Marc Basch, my co-writer, and I and Keegan going back and forth trying to make sure we have the right ingredients to tell the story.

The songs definitely stick in your mind…

They’re earworms as they say. They’re great fun and the soundtrack is out there. It’s on Spotify!

When you have Ted Danson, Toni Collette and Blythe Danner among your supporting cast, it would be easy for them to overshadow the film but you use them brilliantly. Did you get nervous about having such big names in the cast?

Oh yeah! Day one on the call sheet was Ted Danson, Toni Collette and Nick Offerman and I was like, ‘what’s going on?’ It’s obviously intimidating. I’ve worked with Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott, and I think when you work with people of their level who’ve literally been doing the job longer than I’ve been alive, it doesn’t get really much more intimidating than that. I’ve always learned in my job that you better show ready to go, even if you’re freaking out on the inside, you better show up and pretend at least like you know what you want and what you’re doing and go do your job. Everyone on this movie made it so easy. Everyone was so kind and giving. It’s such a small film and we made it so fast. We shot it in 18 or 19 days with very little money, especially considering it was an all union shoot so a lot of the money went to the crew and not necessarily on screen. You just have to be able to look around and say I’m lucky and this is so great to have all these people, and have fun with it instead of freaking out. You just have to say, ‘we’re doing this thing, let’s go have fun. Let’s do it together as a team and do the best we can’.

What would you say has been the most surprising feedback of the film so far?

I try not to read every review or every Twitter thing but I am involved. I like interacting with the fans of the movie on Twitter especially. I like to let them know that I’m hearing them, especially if they love the movie. I like to like their comment or retweet and just show them that I’m appreciative of their affection for the film and it means a lot to me. It really does. I’ve never made a film that’s gotten that kind of reaction and so that is a little surprising. You never know what you’ve made. For people to say, like you did when you sat down, ‘it’s one of my favourite films of the year’… that’s amazing. I would never have expected to make a movie that people would say is one of their favourite movies or in their top five movies of the year. All that stuff is very sweet and overwhelming and exciting.

There’s been a bothersome thing… there’s a lot of assumption online about stuff in movies about the why. I think people think we’re a bigger movie than we are. A lot of the time they think there are corporate overlords. I’ve had a lot of people say, ‘oh the Spotify movie’ and I’m like, ‘guys it’s just the realism of the world that we’re in. I don’t make the rules about how to get a song out to the world so if you’re mad that don’t look at me’. I had to beg Spotify to use their platform in the film, they didn’t ask me to use it. This isn’t some studio movie that has some kind of corporate agenda. I’ve had people be like, ‘there are some many Apple logos and Brooklyn Beer and Spotify’ and I’m like, ‘well it’s the real world. What do you want?Do you want fake computers… do you want Dotify as the thing they upload to?’ That pulls everyone out of when the realism factor isn’t there. That’s been a little pet peeve of mine (laughs). I’m just trying to create the world as you know it. I’m not trying to shove a product down your throat. It’s just what it is.

Heart Beat Loud - Toni Collette
Credit: Jon Pack / Park Circus

Those things are completely irrelevant. It doesn’t make it a better or a worse film…

No. For people to focus on that you go, ‘well I can’t help you here so I apologise’. There’s clearly a thirst not only in America but here, and I think in the world, for this movie’s niceness. The fact that there are good people trying their best. There’s something about that right now that feels almost foreign and not a part of the fabric of humanity right now, we’re just so broken. There’s obviously been a great, wonderful response to that. On the other side of the coin there’s been people saying, ‘this movie’s nothing but sweet’ or ‘it’s nothing but cute’ and they’re angry about that. Again I’m going, ‘look, don’t you have other people to pick on. We’re simply trying to put good into the world and a little bit of love and I don’t think the movie is sugary sweet, I think it’s savory sweet. If you look at the film there’s so much real world stuff going on. To say the film is without conflict or plot… plot is super-overrated in my opinion. The stuff you’ve told me you’ve responded to is leaving out that external conflict. Do you know how easy it is to have Frank be weirded out that his daughter is dating another girl? How many times have we seen that external conflict?

Too many…

Too many! Do you know how easy it is to make Leslie, the landlord, have ulterior motives with the rent. How many times do we have to go around the same thing? There are certain people that say the movie doesn’t do enough and I just say them, ‘that’s fine. It’s totally fair for you not to like the film’ but to me the film is full of some of the biggest conflicts that life has to offer, and you named them all. It’s about letting go. It’s about grief. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that we only get one go around this world and there are people around you that you love, that you want to keep close. These are beautifully tragic and heartbreaking but also hopeful things. This is what humanity is so to say, ‘oh it’s just this sugary sweet…’ it hurts because to me it’s about these really important emotional true things. You can never control the way people respond to a piece of art that you’ve made. It’s kind of fun to see all the different takes and you no control. Like Frank you’ve got to let it, just let it be and hope that there’s more good than bad.

I think when you look at society and see that’s crazier right now than any movie, you can perhaps understand why people want something positive and good…

If Donald Trump was a fucking character in a movie, if he didn’t exist in real-life, and I wrote him into a movie people would say to me, with the hair, with the way he talks, with everything that he’s doing, they’d say, ‘this is too much’. When the world is going that way, excuse me if I go this and if I lean into what makes us good. I don’t really care if you don’t like it because it’s what I needed to make, and you’re obviously not going to please everybody but the people like you, who have the response you’ve had to the film, that’s what I’m after. It’s about looking somebody in the eye and saying, ‘hey we’re still here and we’re good people. We’re not going to let the bad guys win’.

In many ways making film and art like this is the biggest fuck you to hate, ignorance and intolerance, that there is. You can go straight at it and literally put your middle finger up and get angry or you can lean in to this side of things and make films about love and embracement, and have a movie in the middle of Kansas where two women of colour kiss and people feel OK about it and see that there’s nothing scary or harmful or weird about it. Maybe that will make some impact. That’s all you can hope for. I’m going to lean into the nice while I can. I’m going to lean in to the human because I think we’re all trying, most of us, (laughs) to be good and to do our best. In many ways that’s why this movie was made.

Hearts Beat Loud is released in UK cinemas on 3rd August 2018 by Park Circus. Watch the trailer for the film below:

Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip Ellwood-Hughes
Pip is the Editor of Entertainment Focus and the Managing Director of agency Piñata Media.

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