[My original interview posted on The Playlist]You had to be there. Zoe Lister-Jones, a talented actress, was premiering her directorial debut, the musical “Band-Aid,” at the legendary Eccles theater this past January during the Sundance Film Festival. To say the screening was a success would be an understatement. At the end of each song the audience was applauding, there were laughs, courtesy of funnyman Fred Armisen, and tears as well. It was everything the 34 year-old Lister-Jones wanted the movie to bring to viewers.
The film is about a couple, played by Lister-Jones and Adam Pally, who can’t stop fighting and in a last ditch effort to save their marriage decide to turn all their fights into songs by starting a band. The result is as messy as any relationship, but feels cathartic in the way it deals with some of the most important issues facing young couples today.
The songs (penned by Lister-Jones and Kyle Forester) are genuine and heartfelt. They won’t win any Grammys, but they have the feel of spontaneity and excitement that comes in creating new art. They are composed in a way that makes them catchy, messy, raw, amateurish, but feel all too real.
The real star here, however, is Zoe Lister-Jones: a character-actress for most of her career, known for her work in the CBS sitcom “Life in Pieces,” she sets the wheels in motion here for an exciting future ahead. “Band Aid” is a showcase for her terrific talents.
I spoke to Lister-Jones at this past April’s Independent Film Festival Boston, where “Band-Aid” was the closing night film, about the Sundance experience, the chatartic nature of music and the scene-stealing Fred Armisen.
How was it having “Band Aid” premiering at Sundance?
It was otherworldly. It was amazing. It was already such a thrill to be in competition at Sundance, but the Eccles holds a whole different sort of weight and to be introduced by [festival director] John Cooper … the whole experience was just out of body. Standing on that stage, introducing that film and then coming back up after the film for the Q&A, it was just so meaningful, it was really an amazing day.
The audience really participated too, they were clapping after every song
Was it hard to find the tone and dialogue to make such a unique movie that relies a lot on music?
I wouldn’t say it was hard to find, I think it was fun to find. I don’t outline as a writer so I kind of love the experience of just letting my imagination create characters and circumstances as they sorta play out organically. So, I think the tone came pretty naturally, it was more directorially — that was something that I had to shape, more specifically just to make sure that we were navigating the various tones easily.
Where did the idea of making a movie about breakup songs come about?
I was interesting in tackling the power dynamics that come in a relationship, but I was equally interested in writing music. I think I had sort of lost some of the joy in the screenwriting process and so I was racking my brain to think about what would make me have fun doing it again and the answer was music. So, I started writing the songs first and then the story unfolded from there.
In music there’s a long, rich history of breakup albums, did any of them influence you?
I find that in music, breakup albums are very much about heartbreak and the aftermath of a relationship’s disillusionment, which I think so many songs are about, most songs are about heartbreak. What I think excited me about this was writing songs that are actively in the midst of conflict [laughs] which I hadn’t really heard done before.
They are basically trying to resolve their issues while writing these songs, it’s almost therapeutic.
Yeah, it totally is therapeutic. I was interested in songs as a form of catharsis.
Is music a form of catharsis for you?
Totally, and music is really therapeutic. Just as a listener of music it can be very therapeutic, but then to play it adds a whole other level.
How important was it practicing the songs before the movie?
Very important [laughs]. We played all of the music live in the film, which is pretty rare when portraying live performance on-screen. Adam [Pally] played guitar in high school, he was in two bands in high school, but he hadn’t really picked it up since. His muscle memory was astonishing because he was very good at it. I never played bass, so I learned bass for the movie so, for me, rehearsal was the most important, but for the both of us it really was important. Fred [Armisen] needed almost no rehearsal because he’s, like, a professional drummer.
It looked like it.
He could just roll in and do it, but for Adam and I, especially because of the singing elements, it was important, so we rehearsed for the two months previous to production and that was really helpful in general just in terms of our chemistry, just to be in such an intimate rehearsal process was very different that just reading the lines off of a page.
So you basically started playing bass from scratch.
Yeah, it was really fun. The only time I’ve ever taken music lessons was as a kid when I took piano and I wasn’t disciplined enough to practice as much as I had to and so I liked being forced to practice because this time I had a deadline! I still love Playing bass, I’m still taking more lessons to be better at it. It’s so fun to be in a band and I remember that because I was in a band in high school and college just as a singer and it’s such a specific form of camaraderie. We were just recording the soundtrack, for the last couple of days in L.A., and it’s just a very special experience to make music with people. It’s such an amazing way to connect without it being overt.
There’s an endorphin rush that comes in playing live music as well.
Yeah, that rush is probably a similar rush that actors have, especially on stage. I also have experience with the comedown, which is gnarly because your adrenaline is through the roof and then afterwards you’re like “I’m so tired!” But playing live in the movie was so fun, especially because we had our whole crew there and they were out best audience and it was just fun to see their reactions because we had been playing in this little pod that nobody had seen, so to play it for the first time on set and to see everybody dance and jump around and be excited, that added a whole other element to the filmmaking process. We also played live at Sundance and that was really our first time playing.
I missed that!
Yeah, we played at our after-party. It was truly terrifying. I was a wreck before and I’ve done so many things, so many scary things, like being in front of a mass amount of people, but there’s something very scary about playing music and singing that is infinitely scarier.
How was the performance?
It went pretty well, we played four songs and Pat Benatar‘s “We Belong.” That was really fun. Both Adam and I were saying afterwards, “What just happened?!” We totally blacked out. So now we’re gearing up because we’re going to start playing live again in a couple of events. We’ll keep you posted [laughs].
You’re going on tour?
Not on tour, but we’re playing Rooftop Films in New York and we’re also playing at Vulture Fest and then we’re playing our premiere at the Ace Hotel. Maybe there’s a tour in our future, I would have fun being on a bus with those two animals [laughs]. We are going to release a soundtrack so maybe that will push demand.
I really find that the songs in the movie work really well because you performed them live. They felt raw and unedited. Most movie musicals don’t record the songs live, but this decision to film the songs live, flaws and all, brings a whole other dimension to the movie. I was reminded of what John Cameron Mitchell did with “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
I feel like every time I see people singing, on-screen especially, and it’s to playback, I become so upset, and that person can probably sing, that’s their voice, then why not let us hear it in all its authenticity and imperfections, that’s way more exciting to me. What was a huge influence was watching, years ago, “Postcards From the Edge” with Meryl Streep and Shirley MacLaine singing live. It was the first time that I said to myself “That’s all I want to watch.” Also, watching things like “Glee,” which I wasn’t a die-hard fan of, watching it I was thinking, “This could be so much fun if we could see them actually singing these songs and they have the talent to do it.” That was my intention from the beginning and, yeah, some people tried to dissuade me. I think it was really worth the challenges.
I love what Fred Armisen brings to this movie, how did he find his way into this project?
I had never met Fred, but we had mutual friends and I reached out through the proper channels, his managers, the agents and he read the script, but the biggest challenge was scheduling because he’s so busy, like he’s never not doing something. But once we hammered down all the kinks in the schedule, he was in, and it was such a dream come true because I’m such a huge fan of his work, and to have someone that is that incredibly funny, but also that talented musically, was just unreal for the film. And I will say, I haven’t said this in an interview yet, but last month Fred texted a screenshot of his old notes in his iPhone notepad, it said “November 2008 Zoe Lister-Jones,” which means that, for some reason, he marked me down years ago as someone he wanted to work with, and I burst into tears [laughs].
That’s very touching.
Yeah, and neither of us really know how, but there’s this idea that some kind of universal cosmic brought us together.
“Band Aid” is now playing in limited release and goes On Demand on June 9th.