Gwyneth Paltrow shows off her country singing chops in Shana Feste’s follow up to “The Greatest,” “Country Strong.” A drama centered on the comeback of a fallen country music star, “Country Strong” also stars Leighton Meister (“Gossip Girl”), Garret Hedlund (“TRON: Legacy”), and Tim McGraw (“The Blind Side”). In anticipation of the film’s wide release this Friday, January 7, director/writer Feste shared an exclusive scene from her latest with indieWIRE, and provided some insight on the ups and downs of the shoot.
“Country Strong” is a love story between four people on the road – each character is falling in and out of love with each other and each character feels like they need love the most. The film was shot in Nashville and the scene I selected was shot in a bedroom in Barbara Mandrell’s former house. I love that each one of our locations was lived and breathed in by actual country singers. It’s not something you can see but I do think it’s something you can feel — like how I feel when I walk into a musical venue in Nashville, like I am walking into a church. Nashville’s love of great music is contagious and it was amazing to see it spread into our film. We shot in all practical locations to keep the film as authentic as possible. This particular location was very private and surrounded by open space and trees. We used a very soothing, earthly color palette to signify that this was where Kelly felt most at home, most connected to the earth.
In this scene Beau sneaks into Kelly’s room at rehab and they collaborate over the song “Timing is Everything.” It is the first time we see them interact on-screen so this collaboration has to tell us a great deal about their relationship. Beau struggles with the lyrics and gives Kelly the guitar to take a crack at it. She finishes the song with ease, flooring Beau. He takes the guitar back and they sing it together.
I chose this scene because there are so many things I love about it. I love that when I was watching the dailies for the first time I had proof that Garrett was indeed a movie star. I loved the shock of the crew when Gwyneth sang on set for the first time, and I love the beauty of the song’s lyrics which blended so nicely into the scene. The tone was tricky to achieve. It had to show the audience very quickly how connected these two characters are (not just physically). It also had to demonstrate that they were kindred spirits while not getting too heavy too quickly – there’s a lot of that much later.
This was the first scene Gwyneth and Garrett did together in the film which I kinda love doing. Usually it works quite well to throw an actor into something intense with little prep time. There’s no time for nerves or second guessing. It somehow ends up feeling more in the moment to me.
The great thing about shooting in practical locations is you can only fit a few people in the room with you which I also love. I miss the days of film school when you had five person crews. I’m quite private and really dislike directing in front of tons of people, so this was perfect as there were only a handful of other people inside with us and it felt intimate.
We didn’t rehearse the scene, we just shot it. As a writer I didn’t write the wrong lyrics for Garrett to start out with. I just told him, “Mess around and come up with something different and Gwyneth will guide you to the right lyrics.” What a terrible direction that was! Poor Garrett was doing enough in the moment, including playing guitar for the first time in his life. So Randy Poster, our incredible music supervisor helped out and wrote some “temp lyrics” down. I gave them to Garrett and we went for it.
We shot the scene with two cameras so I wouldn’t have to cut around the over-lap and the actors could be more free. I did 13 takes of this scene. It was my first day with Gwyneth, who I’m sure was very nervous when we started getting into five and six takes but there was something very formal about the performances – they were missing the butterflies you get when you fall in love with someone’s talent. The acting was good, but it just wasn’t coming to life in the way I wanted it to. It was one of those moments where you say to yourself, “This is not working, what do I do?.” You don’t really know so you just wing it and try and change something. Garrett and Gwyneth are both incredible actors. I told Gwyneth to have fun with him, and not be afraid to poke fun at him a little. I told Garrett to show me how honored he was to be working with her. That helped tremendously. The scene started to come to life and you could see the love in their eyes. To take it a step further I asked them to improvise. And they did, and after 13 takes I circled the last two and was very happy.
Chemistry is a funny thing. Garrett and Gwyneth have it in spades. It was the first time they had performed for each other and I think they were both genuinely taken aback. So was I.