'Hearts Beat Loud' Director on Musical Inspiration, "Quietly Radical" Love Story

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Brett Haley also reveals the stories behind the live performances of the movie's songs.

[The following story contains spoilers from Hearts Beat Loud.]

Writer-director Brett Haley (I'll See You in My Dreams and The Hero) knew he wanted to make a musical. When he decided that that project would feature a father-daughter group who bond over live performances, it came to him in a "moment of inspiration."

"I knew that I wanted to do something about music that focused on the creation of music and the music world, and then we sort of went to the idea of a father-daughter and family and love, so it just organically came together," Haley tells The Hollywood Reporter. "I think a lot of movies come together because maybe someone's experienced it or they hear a true story or something like that, but the last four movies that I made — all four of my movies — have been just weird ideas that have come to me, and I just ride that out and [my writing partner] Marc [Basch] and I discuss them and we see what's there, if there's anything there. Kind of an investigation. We're looking at, 'What are we trying to say? What's the real meat thematically?' I'm really more theme-driven than I am 'plot driven.'"

The resulting film is Hearts Beat Loud, currently in theaters in New York and Los Angeles, starring Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons as a record store-owning dad and his daughter, who in the summer before she leaves for college, form an impromptu duo, dubbed We're Not a Band, and release a catchy song, "Hearts Beat Loud," which becomes a minor hit in their Brooklyn community.

While Haley didn't draw on his own life for the film's main story, he did incorporate his own music taste into the film, via the artists Offerman's Frank name checks and background music. And he used his ear to determine whether the title track, written by his longtime composer Keegan DeWitt, was enough of an earworm for it to have the impact it does in the movie.

Speaking with THR, Haley reveals the stories behind the film's music moments, Clemons singing live, the casual presentation of her character's same-sex relationship with Rose (Sasha Lane) and one of the movie's final scenes.

Was having Kiersey and Nick performing in the movie part of your vision?

It was very important to me that whatever actors we cast in the lead roles would not only be able to perform the music but also sing live. It was a tough find. We had to find an actor, especially for Kiersey's character, for Sam, that could act and really sing and be able to work the sampler and keys and have a basic understanding of music. It was a tough thing, but I was not going to dub somebody or have somebody else sing it. We had to find the person who could genuinely pull it off and sing and Kiersey was that person.

She sang it live?

She did. She sang it live.

With the title track, what was the collaboration like with Keegan because it seems like you needed something that was an earworm, something that was catchy because that's sort of the idea behind the song in the movie. How did you test that out and hit on the right song?

I can take a very, very tiny bit of credit. I can't say to somebody, "Hey, create an earworm for me, like create a catchy song for me." Keegan just has those talents and those gifts, where he can turn out really catchy, emotional, meaningful songs that do narrative lifting within the film. I can tell him the kind of vibe that I want. I sent him a playlist. I told him, "These are the kinds of things I want to be discussing within the song. This song needs to do this. This song needs to do that." But Keegan discovers those melodies and those lyrics, and he works with his writing partner Jeremy Bullock on some of the songs and they really work together to come up with it. I wish I could take more credit, but I just simply can't. They're so talented and did such a wonderful job that I'm just a fan. I'm as much of a fan as anybody of the songs in this movie because I did not write them. When I heard them, I was like, "Oh, my gosh, I'm so excited."

Did you go off of your instinct for the title track or did you play it for other people?

I was very, very instinctual with it. They're my taste, the songs. I mean I think they're Keegan's taste also, but they're really my taste, so I had to say these are the songs and hope that people liked them. If the songs aren't good, the movie's not good. So we sent them to Nick and Kiersey and the producers and everything and said here are the songs and everyone responded positively. That's my job to say, "These are the songs." I believe in them and I think they're the right things, and this is how we're going to incorporate them narratively into the film.

A lot of the film takes place in the record store that Nick's character owns. Where did you film those scenes?

That was in a record store called Academy Records in Greenpoint. We sort of just took over that space for a week and just redid it and made it into Red Hook Records. It's a beautiful blank canvas of a space, with big windows, but we added all of those kinds of lived-in patina elements, like all of the stuff on the walls and the carpets and the string lights and the Red Hook Records logo. I had an amazing production designer named Erin Magill, who just made that come to life. It was sort of just kind of a blank canvas of white walls and record bins and we just kind of went from there. And I knew we needed a space that was large because we're going to shoot so much of the movie in this thing, and there's a big performance … and I knew of Academy Records because of its location and I started talking to its owner very early on in preproduction about shooting there. So I'm glad it worked out because I don't think there's another location in New York that would have serviced as well.

There's a lot in this movie about listening to music and discovering music. How much of that came from your own experience, like your own music fandom?

It's mostly me. I worked with great music supervisors who helped make some of these things come true. There were certainly things that I wanted in the movie that I couldn't afford and that's just the reality of it, but yeah, Songs: Ohia and Animal Collective and Tom Waits and Jeff Tweedy — these are bands that I love. Calls out to Iron and Wine and Spoon and all of the music that plays in the background were songs that I love. They're songs that I admire and love. But I had great music supervisors. And it was great too because Jeff Tweedy and Tom Waits, specifically, myself, Marc Basch and Nick share a real mutual love for them. I knew how much Nick loved Tom Waits and Jeff Tweedy and Nick and Jeff are friends. It was great to have them also really passionate about certain music references in the film. Animal Collective and Songs: Ohia, those are things from my playlist, if you will, that I wanted to put in the movie. I'm really glad we got an opportunity to.

How did the Jeff Tweedy cameo come about? Was that just from his friendship with Nick?

Yeah, simple as that. Nick was an executive producer on the movie and he really got Ted Danson on board, he got Jeff Tweedy to come do a cameo. Nick is just one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. When he commits to something he's fully, fully committed. He's such a hard worker. He believed in me. He believed in this film and did everything to help us. He continues to be such a force for promoting this film and believing in this film. It just really shows you what kind of guy he is. He's just that guy.

In the movie, Sam has a girlfriend and her sexuality is presented sort of matter-of-factly — she isn't coming out, there isn't a discussion about it, she just happens to have a girlfriend and have that attraction. Why did you decide to present it that way?

For me, using people's sexuality or their race as plot points in a movie that's not about those things is sort of cheap, and it's sort of saying that there's something wrong or odd about liking the same gender or whatever. To me it's not odd at all, it's totally normal. So in this movie, it's assumed that Frank (Offerman) and Sam have talked about it before the movie begins and that she's told her dad, "I like girls" or "I like girls and boys" or "I'm not sure what I like." To me it's not a plot point. It's something that we never wanted to be a plot point because that makes it somehow odd or something or weird and it's not. Love is love. With all of the privilege I have in my life as a white male, it's important to represent things that are unlike me and to use this platform wisely and to not put up a white girl and a white guy in the roles and have a normal summer romance that you've seen a million times. People have these romances all the time and love comes in all shapes and sizes and forms. And I don't judge any of it as long as it's consensual and it's not hurting anyone.

Unfortunately, it seems like that sort of representation of teen same-sex relationships in movies is somewhat uncommon.

It's sort of radical, right? I mean it's radical to treat it just as any other romance, which I think is sad. And I think times are changing. The radical thing about Call Me by Your Name is that it was about two men who fell in love and the whole time, while you're watching that movie, you're going, "When's the bad part going to happen? When's the part when they're going to be punished for loving each other?" Because that's what we've been told, over and over and over again — that if two men or two women love each other, there's hate and punishment waiting for them around the corner instead of love and embracement and acceptance. When that hate and that punishment never comes, it's quietly radical. I'm proud to be part of the conversation and proud to have presented something as it is for a lot of people in this world who simply love people who they love and live their lives just like anybody else. I hope we start moving toward that more and more and more — that it's not a big deal, 'cause it's not a big deal.

At the end, Sam says, what if I stayed, and Frank just looks at her and then there's a time jump and we see that she has gone off to college. What do you think happened between her and Frank in terms of discussions? Does Frank realize he has to let her go?

Yeah, of course. Frank, as big a game as he talks, is not going to allow his daughter to not go off and follow her passion and follow the thing that she's had her sights set on for basically her whole life. But at the end of the day she is not — and Sasha Lane says this in the movie, when she's looking at the art, she says, "We're made of more than just one thing." And we all are. That is the definition of success that I wanted to turn on its head and say that success is not fame and fortune, it's doing what you love. It's pursuing academic pursuits and artistic pursuits. Whatever moves you. To me it was the most realistic ending and also the most fulfilling. We were saying the most with that ending by saying you can do both. Sam is more than just one thing. And I think Frank realizes that and knows that he can't just hang onto her forever. It's not just her dream, its his.