The Brooklyn Brothers Conquer Indie Rock & Film With Baby Toys
The stars and bandmates talk to THR about their unlikely trip to a major label and their festival favorite film.
Ryan O’Nan didn’t set out to make an autobiographical film, but it’s getting increasingly hard to separate the fact and fiction in the ever-evolving story of The Brooklyn Brothers.
First and foremost, there is the movie, Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best, a new comedy that O’Nan wrote, directed and stars in. The film is about a fictional band called the Brooklyn Brothers, a duo of down-on-their-luck, plaid-wearing indie rockers who write songs using guitars and Fisher Price instruments. Here’s where it really gets trippy: having written and performed all the music in the film, O’Nan and co-star Michael Weston impressed Rhino Records so much that they earned an actual record contract, and so now they really are a band called the Brooklyn Brothers.
To recap: there is the Brooklyn Brothers movie, the Brooklyn Brothers fictional band, and now, the Brooklyn Brothers real band. If that sounds a bit confusing, know that Weston himself is still in shock over the wild turn of events.
Film Review: The Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best
"This was so far off my radar," he laughed during a conversation with The Hollywood Reporter in Manhattan earlier this week, "that I didn’t know there was a radar for that. I had no idea what I was getting into."
O'Nan, on the other hand, had high musical aspirations for the film (though the record deal surprised him, too). A former touring punk singer-songwriter who played in mundanely-named bands such as Against the Wall and Jennifer’s Tigers, he spent the first half of his career touring with acts like Blink 182 and No Doubt, which inspired him to record all of the songs in the film live on camera.
Describing the movie as a "late-term coming of age story," O’Nan said he was looking for a way to musically take “kind of childish ideas and dreams to your adult life,” and the baby toy synthesizers fit the bill. In the film, as the downtrodden Alex, O’Nan provides the melancholy guitar rhythms and depressing lyrics, while Weston’s character, Jim, is the eccentric toy composer who more or less forces Alex (through a punch to the face, a few lies and Alex’s own desperation) to hit the road for a haphazard tour in a beat up rust bucket that they have to give a running start.
STORY: This Week in Theaters...
Their songs, from tentative writing sessions in a moving car to fully realized tunes played over montages, develop in tune with the arc of the story. As exciting as the Rhino contract is and how retroactively autobiographical it renders the musical aspect of the film, O’Nan’s first instinct was to write a movie about his own artistic struggles.
"One side of you is terrified and feels like you’re never going to make it, why should you even continue? And the other side is like f--- it, I’m just gonna do it anyway, go for it,” he explained. “So I decided to split that into two separate characters, and I wanted to see them fight it out on screen. One of them was very handsome and one of them was kind of small and curmudgeonly.”
"But way more physically strong," Weston interjected. "Way stronger. And smarter. Way more intellectually quicker."
The two can laugh because the film has, by indie standards, been a dream ride. After six years trying to get a film that he wrote in college made, O’Nan decided to write something he could make for $30-50,000, citing Mark and Jay Duplass’s seminal 2005 "mumblecore" hit The Puffy Chair as inspiration. He ended up getting far more than that -- though far less than $1 million -- and a quick greenlight, along with big co-stars such as Wilmer Valderrama, Christopher MacDonald, Jason Ritter, Arielle Kebbel, and Melissa Leo. The film ended up in last year’s Toronto International Film Festival and then picked up for distribution by Oscilloscope.
Still, with a NYC opening on Friday and VOD debut this coming Tuesday, it’s now time to face the public -- something that worries O’Nan, who admits that the film isn’t as "dark and f----- up" as many of the indie favorites out there today.
"For me, it seems almost as risky, and I’m not trying to suck my own cock or anything, but I can’t do that even if I wanted to,”" he said of writing a very dark, twisted film. "But the risk I was trying to do is that the movie IS attempting to have a lot of heart and to be vulnerable and be open. And the indie scene, I feel like embraces the darkness a lot more, it was scary I guess to make something like that, and kind of throw it out there to the independent wolves, and be like this was kind of leaning a little more commercial."
STORY: Oscilloscope Grabs 'The Brooklyn Brothers'
Once again, it all comes back to his musical roots.
"It reminds me of the punk scene. The punk scene in a lot of ways could be somewhat unforgiving of music that, if a band became slightly more successful or something like that, they’d be like, 'ah sellouts!' They’d eat their own," he explained. "You’d have this crowd that loved a band and propped them up, and then they’d make it -- whatever you’d call it -- and all of a sudden it’d be 'f--- that band! They’re sellout wannabes,' and I don’t even know exactly what I’m saying. I’m just saying it felt a little risky in the independent scene to make something somewhat heartwarming and hopeful, and we’ll see how that lands."
Below the video, read an edited version of THR's Q&A with O'Nan and Weston.
THR: So you were both musicians before this whole thing?
O’Nan: I was what you would call a musician. Michael is what you would call a child prodigy that never went anywhere. That actually, kind of like, in Magnolia, you were one of those kids that did the game show and never really grew up and turned into weird, ugly curmudgeonly people that hate on other people.
Weston: I attended the Fisher Price Conservatory of Music.
THR: That’s impressive.
Weston: Yeah man, it is impressive.
O’Nan: Not a lot of people get in there.
Weston: Nobody gets in there.
THR: A lot of burnouts.
Weston: Yeah, a lot of drug addicts.
O’Nan: They admit you at eight months old, and it all has to do with how you do your rattle.
Weston: Yeah, you work on your rattle. They won’t even let you look at another instrument, a Casio, anything with color, black or grey rattles, both hands.
O’Nan: Little did they know that he was savagely color blind, and he was in the black and white zone when he was playing his Fisher Price piano.
THR: Do you resent your parents for sending you there at eight months?
Weston: I resent my parents for... well they let go of me. When you have a child of that much talent, you’re plucked almost from the womb, and put into a conservatory.
O’Nan: Like a ripe apricot.
Weston: For the ravenous musical appetite that I had as a child.
O’Nan: You know what’s ironic, coming from that background, you would have no idea when he had that kind of talent when he plays now. It’s a completely rejuvenated restart almost, and you almost feel like he has no f----- clue where he’s going or where he is. I look over to you and you’re beaded with sweat.
Weston: I find playing live, playing in front of people, terrifying. It’s not something I ever wanted to do, and Ryan has made me do it. And he used this movie as just a whole deceptive shenanigan to get me to play baby toys live. And it took a long time, and now we’re actually going on tour. I have a large hard case of baby instruments that I actually lug, to and fro the airport.
O’Nan: It’s crazy man. It is totally ridiculous, but we just got signed to a major label. From a sideshow... the record dropped yesterday, f----- vinyl LP, iTunes and shit.
THR: And this wasn’t part of the plan, or on your radar.
Weston: No way. This was as far off my radar, that I didn’t know there was a radar for that. I had no idea what I was getting into.
O’Nan: I really wanted all the music to be played live as part of the vibe. And I pushed for that in a major way. So we were a band -- I mean, everything you see in the movie is performed live, there’s nothing looped in afterward, there’s nothing pre-recorded.
Weston: And with no rehearsal!
O’Nan: Yeah we did; you just wouldn’t rehearse!
Weston: Oh yeah, I wouldn’t practice, that’s true.
THR: So how many songs did you write before the movie, after the movie, etc?
O’Nan: I wrote some of them before, some of them while I was writing the script, and then a few of them literally right before we were going to shoot the film. Two of them are written by two really close friends of mine who inspired the sound the band plays. So yeah, they were developed, writing the synth stuff, I literally wrote all of the stuff in my little bedroom, I literally had a little studio set up with GarageBand and a mixer.
Weston: The first time I saw that bedroom, he had no sheets on the bed, he had no pillow cases. He had one pillow. There was nothing on the bed except for one pillow. And he had one dead plant, that was obviously there for like 20 years.
O’Nan: I had a long talk with the plant and said listen, we can live together as long as you’re able to live with no food, light or water. It was intense. It was like Survivor with a plant... it failed. It did not survive, and therefore did not get the million dollars that the plant was going to get.
THR: You were in bands before this.
O’Nan: I was. I toured around in an indie punk band for years. I was a singer-songwriter of this band called Against the Wall. We put out a bunch of records, and I was in another band called Jennifer’s Tigers, and another one called Dresden. That was my whole life. We played a lot with anyone from No Doubt to At the Drive In to Blink-182 to MxPx back in the day.
THR: MxPx you don't realize at first is a Christian band.
O’Nan: That Christian scene was so fascinating, man, because it was so built-in. You could go anywhere in the country -- I knew a lot of Christian bands in San Diego -- and they would just tour around the country at these churches, and it would be just these packed shows. But it was tough for them to go insular -- that’s not the word, what is it?
Weston: I don’t know, I stopped listening to you a long time ago. I was thinking about Jessica Simpson as the Christian queen. Wasn’t she like that? Wasn’t she like Christian rock’s... She’s like a super hot Christian that they made their poster girl.
O’Nan: Who made her that? I didn’t even know there was a Christian poster girl. What posters?
Weston: I don’t know. That’s where my mind meanders.
O’Nan: Do they have a calendar? Were they wearing fur coats instead of swim suits?
THR: I remember reading the name, Brooklyn Brothers, came to you, and then the idea for the movie came to you slowly.
Weston: Yeah, he just sits around alliterating.
THR: For the first half of the film, did you just tell Michael to act unhinged?
O’Nan: That was almost my direction the entire time: act unhinged!
Weston: Unhinge yourself! I felt like the script, he needed to have that sort of eccentric fearlessness that is almost like, against all of his insecurities and his social ineptness, his inabilities. He has this great spirit and I think this sort of great energy, but I think in the face of all his critics and self-doubt, he throws himself into the fire and he really makes himself leap off the cliff in blind faith. And I feel that’s sort of the opposite with Alex, and it just required some of that craziness.
O’Nan: We really needed somebody that, the lines can be so harsh and crazy, so we needed someone who can be so naturally charismatic that you love him despite what they’re saying, and Michael just has that kind of inherent charisma, just in his daily life. I couldn’t tell you how many times during the acting I was like, “less hinges! Stop with the hinges!
Weston: “Less charisma!” [laughs] No, there is a sweetness to the character, and even though he’s abrasive sometimes, there’s a lot of heart, and that’s what I love about the script from the beginning. The hope bounced off the page and gets in your gut. I felt in the whole process of shooting this movie, which is just this chaotic, 18 day, shot out of a cannon experience, everyone that came on board -- all these incredible actors, like Wilmer Valdderama and Jason Ritter and Christopher McDonald and Melissa Leo, and all these people I have the deepest admiration for, they all came on with so much heart, and I feel like that’s sort of embodied in the script. I think it’s a really beautiful script Ryan wrote, and also, the heart and energy of it is palpable.
THR: Well you mention the 18 days. How long did it take in the development process? Was this a tough thing to get financed and made?
Weston: It’s amazing actually how fast you can make a film these days. When you write a film, and you can go shoot your own film for almost nothing and have a film in the can. And there’s something about this movie too, our love, that really speaks to that independent drive and spirit, that go create your own shit and express yourself and get it done, and don’t worry about the risk of failure and falling on your face. I feel like, this day in age, you can go do that, especially film, with the cameras that are available. You can really go out there and do your own thing.
THR: So many filmmakers have been frustrated by financing, or felt they had their opportunities thanks to cheap equipment. It's a mix of reactions.
Weston: Well it used to be that you made an independent film for $2-5 million, and people would be like, ‘Oh my god! You made that for $3 million?’ And now no one makes $3 million films. You’re either under $1 million, or at like, you’re in the $10 million range.
O’Nan: Yeah, I was one of the filmmakers at the IFP labs last year, and there were 10 of us chosen for that, and I felt like the Brooklyn Brothers was a studio film compared to those, just in the sense of what the budgets people were working at. But they make these gorgeous films, for like, I think the average was $150,000 or something like that. But there’s also, because you can make a film for that much money, there’s just so much stuff out there. So it’s harder to get seen. Even in these big festivals, and we were really lucky we got into Toronto, it was still really hard, man. There’s so many films there.
THR: What did you learn from making something this small, in terms of acting and producing and directing?
Weston: I wrote a movie that I just raised money for, and I think more than anything, I feel like this movie encompasses the spirit, and I guess that’s why I say it’s inspiring to me, because it got me off my ass to say you know what? I’m going to find money for my movie, and I’m not going to tiptoe around it, it’s something that I’ve been working on for a long time, and I’m just going to go for it fearlessly. I feel like in our world of people that we work with, Ryan has that in his guts, and I have that, and we’ve sort of managed to meet a group of wonderful actors, like Jason Ritter, just these wonderful collective.
O’Nan: We’ve met a wonderful people that work together. And that more than anything, you can make a movie in 18 days for well under $1 million if you’re willing to work, and love what you’re doing and are willing to work fast.
Weston: And you’re willing to take risks, and you know that that person will have your back, and you know they’re going to bring their A game and check your ego at the door. There’s something really inspiring about making films that way. You’re in control of it a little more for yourself, and you have the luxury of working with people that you love. I truly feel lucky for that, with this material, I gained a great friend and some people that I really love to work with.