“Music fills spaces in a way that words can’t”: Talking to Song One writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland

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01/14/2015 12:16 PM |
Photo courtesy of The Film Arcade


Opening January 23rd, Song One is the feature debut from writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland, who calls the Williamsburg-Greenpoint border home, and treats it lovingly in the film. Producer Anne Hathaway stars as Franny, a PhD candidate called back from the field when her busker brother slips into a coma; to bridge their estrangement, she retraces his steps, from the Bowery Ballroom to Pete’s Candy Store, taking in performances by Sharon Van Etten, Dan Deacon and the Felice Brothers, and befriending his idol, a singer-songwriter looking for a way around writer’s block (he’s played by the musician Johnny Flynn, though the songs Flynn performs in the film, on guitar and violin, were written by Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice). I asked Barker-Froyland a few questions over email. 


When Song One played at Sundace last year, and we interviewed you for our sister publication Brooklyn Magazine, you said that, “I wanted to shoot in music venues that I love and also to shoot all the musical performances live to capture that experience of going to shows and hearing music live.” So, what is it that speaks to you about the music in the film?

I chose the music in the film because of the specific emotion of every song. Music can be so powerful and can bring back the memories of a time or place in a second. It’s universal. More than wanting to capture a specific “scene” I wanted to capture a full range of feelings and let the audience experience that. Shooting the music live was important to me because it was the most real. I was inspired by Jonathan Demme’s music films and the way he captures sound and concerts in this really authentic way. There’s not just one kind of music in the film, and I wanted to reflect the characters’ journeys with that idea. I listened to music to guide me in the writing and to understanding the characters, so something like Nina Simone’s “My Baby Just Cares for Me” was on repeat a lot.


The bands, venues, streetscapes, subway singers and overall sense of style in the film is all stuff that’s obviously quite familiar to you (as well as to many of our readers I’d imagine). But we’re introduced to it via a character who seems an outsider (fair enough, she’s been in grad school for most of her 20s and hasn’t spent a lot of time hanging out off the L line), who is quite recessive and tentative at first, as she shows up at places in these tracking shots that follow her into rooms that are new to her. How did you go about seeing your own neighborhood with fresh eyes? Why was it important to you to do so, would you say?

I loved the idea of music bringing together people from disparate worlds and I wanted to explore that. Franny has been in her own world, studying in Morocco, and when she comes back to New York, she’s forced to start listening not just to music, but to everything differently. She’s been cutting herself off before this moment and now’s her chance to change that, when this tragedy happens to her and then she meets this stranger who she has a strong connection with. While I was writing, I was trying to see the neighborhood through Franny’s eyes, who’s actually trying to see the neighborhood through the eyes of her 19-year-old brother. The image of Alice in Wonderland—you know, Alice going down the Rabbit Hole—was a big one for me. I think we take things for granted sometimes and this is a story about second chances and about listening differently and more completely. She ends up immersing herself in this world, recording sounds and bringing them back to her brother.


Though there’s a lot of music in the film, it’s in a scrupulously realist register: public and informal performances, CDs and web videos. That said, do you think of the film as a musical? Are the songs completely integrated into the narrative, or are they interludes that provide their own commentary on the action or emotional arc?

For me this is a musical, not in the traditional sense—but yes that’s basically what it is. Music comes in and fills spaces in a way that words can’t always do. It’s what binds the characters, brings them together. The music is inseparable from the characters and the story because we watch how music affects them and how the characters relate to songs. Music is a backdrop, but it’s also a huge part of the story and what drives it.


Because I’m always curious about these things, I wonder whether in the script it always had to be “I Need You” by America that the Anne Hathaway’s character’s mother makes her sing, or whether that changed at all as the script was being developed. And, why that song?

In one version of the script, I had Franny and her mom listening to a song from Godard’s Band of Outsiders. In the scene, her mom wanted her to do that dance Anna Karina does in a café. After doing a table read, I realized it didn’t work, and I changed it. Using the America song came from a conversation that Anne and I had about her character performing it in the school talent show when she was younger. It turned out to be the perfect song for the scene emotionally. It’s a moment of connection between Franny and her mom that we haven’t seen and also the memories music brings back. It’s a song that creates a moment which allows both of them to be vulnerable in front of each other. We were so lucky to be able to use that song!