Song One begins with anthropology grad student Franny (Anne Hathaway) immersed in Moroccan culture. We witness her carefully observing local rituals and taking meticulous notes. The drama chronicles Franny’s evolution from a witness of others’ lives to the protagonist of her own after she is forced to return home to New York when her brother Henry (Ben Rosenfield) is rendered comatose after being hit by a car. Franny, who has become accustomed to looking at others with academic detachment, finally turns her attention inward, exploring her own relationships with those closest to her.
In an effort to deal with Henry’s accident — and the argument that prompted the siblings to stop speaking for months prior to it — Franny embarks on a mission of sorts. After reading her brother’s journal entries and listening to his music, she is inspired to visit the aspiring musician’s old haunts to connect with him. She ends up meeting Henry’s idol, singer-songwriter James Forester (Johnny Flynn), and the two strike an immediate, if uncomfortable, bond after Franny explains why she’s at his show.
The rest is googly-eyed history. Franny and James bond over music and the cityscape, gradually letting down their defenses and opening themselves up to one another by revisiting their pasts and basking in the power and potential of the present.
We had the chance to speak with Song One writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland about her leading lady, the power of music to connect and transform, and being typecast as a woman director.
W&H: After Anne Hathaway expressed an interest in not only producing the
movie but starring in it, you rewrote the script and developed the character
of Franny with her in mind. What changes did you make to the original script
and your characterization of Franny after she got involved?
KBF: In the script Annie read, Franny was younger: 24 years old. After
thinking about it more, I realized she didn’t have to be. By making her older,
it actually worked well for the story because there was more of an age
difference between her and Henry, and it made sense that she would reject his
idea of becoming a musician because she was so much farther removed from the
time when she was nineteen.
Annie had to cut her hair really
short for Les Miserables, which was the movie she did before Song One. I
thought I would incorporate that haircut into the script and her character. So
when Franny comes back home to New York and sees her mom (Mary Steenburgen),
her mom makes a comment about how she cut off all her hair and Franny defends
the haircut. It’s a small moment, but it’s actually the first moment of tension
we see between her and her mom, and we can get a lot about their relationship
from that small exchange.
W&H: Franny and her mom are dealing with the trauma of having
their brother/son in a coma in very different ways, and it becomes apparent
that they have issues with one another that predate their current situation.
Can you tell us a little bit about the mother-daughter dynamic in the film?
KBF: At the beginning of the movie, Franny’s been away for a while and
has basically cut off communication with her family: She’s become so absorbed
in her academics and life in Morocco. When she comes home, under the
circumstances of this really sad situation, the tensions in her relationship
with her mom kind of come to the surface and explode. Annie, Mary, and I talked
a lot about what it was like growing up in that household. Karen (Mary’s
character) is this eccentric, free-spirited academic.
We had this whole
backstory about how Franny’s dad and Karen’s husband had died when Franny was
younger and so Franny grew up fast and was pretty much always put in that role of being the responsible one. We
discovered that Franny in a way took care of Henry because her mom was all over
the place. Going deep into the backstories of these characters revealed golden
keys to their relationship now. Also, more recently, Karen supported Henry’s
decision to drop out of college and become a musician, while Franny doesn’t
understand that artistic impulse since she’s buried it so deep. Franny
and Karen love each other so much, but they don’t always know how to
W&H: In your director’s statement, you describe Song One as a story “about
how music connects and transforms people.” How would you say that music
connects and transforms Franny?
KBF: Annie and I had an image for Franny that we talked about a lot: an icicle that thaws throughout the movie. In the beginning, Franny
starts out very analytical and, throughout the movie, she learns to access her
emotions more through listening and through music. The way that she listens is
different by the end of the movie. Another reference I had while I was writing
was Alice in Wonderland, specifically Alice going down the rabbit hole. Franny does the same
in Song One — she goes down the rabbit
hole, exploring Henry’s world, and literally down into the NY subway and even
into the bar at Bowery Ballroom. This tragedy and her connection with James, plus her seeing the world through her 19-year-old-brother’s eyes, transform her.
W&H: It’s obvious from watching the film that you have a deep appreciation
for music, musicians, and communities built around music, specifically in
Brooklyn. However, you yourself aren’t a musician. How do you think that
influenced the story you told and the way you told it?
KBF: I come to music from dance, since I did ballet and modern dance for so
many years. I think music was ingrained in me because of that — constantly
listening and moving to it made me love it so much. I think the creative
process has similarities across fields, whether you’re writing an song or a
script or a story or painting a picture — so I tried to explore the characters of Henry and James, who are
musicians, from that perspective.
I think regardless of whether you’re a
musician or not, you can go to a show and experience music or listen to a song
on the radio and feel something immediate and visceral. So for me, it
was more about the feeling of music. I didn’t have to be a musician to make the
movie; I just had to love music a lot to delve into the world of these characters.
W&H: The music in the film is gorgeous. What led you to approach Jenny Lewis
and Johnathan Rice to write the songs? How much direction did you give them in
terms of what you were looking for?
KBF: Jenny and Johnathan are amazing! I heard the album they put out
together as the band Jenny and Johnny and really liked it. Annie and Adam [Shulman, Hathaway’s husband who worked as a producer on Song One] introduced me to them and sent them the script. They read it, and we met in LA and talked about James’ character and his backstory and this one album he would
have written. We talked about what he would have written about and what it
might sound like.
We took a hike in a canyon, and then the next morning, I got on
a plane to go back to New York. I found a song called “Little Yellow
Dress” in my inbox from Jenny and Johnny. They had written it the night
before, right after we talked. I listened to it just before the plane took off and knew I wanted them to write the music.
The songs percolated over the course
of about a year. We would send each other music references and talk about what
James’ and Henry’s music would sound like. A lot of our discussions were also
about character and specific details that would’ve shaped James as a person. In
order to make his album real, we had to know all of these things about him.
W&H: Song One marks your feature-length debut as both a screenwriter and
director. What was the best and worst advice you received?
KBF: Best: Trust your instinct. Worst: Don’t shoot the music live.
W&H: It’s been almost exactly one year since Song One premiered at Sundance.
Talk about the journey from Sundance to the release. What were the biggest
KBF: Sundance was such an incredible experience — to go from watching the
film in a small room with a few people to watching it with an audience of over a
thousand. We finished the film several days before we showed it at Sundance, so
that was a bit surreal. I’ve loved watching the film with audiences there and
at other festivals since then.
There were distributors who were interested in
the film at Sundance, and then the producers decided on who would release the
film. I guess one of the biggest challenges is just to wait for a year from
showing the film for the first time until releasing it, but it was also a great
chance for me to start working on new projects.
W&H: You’ve said that “it’s really important for female filmmakers to not be
pigeonholed into making one kind of film.” Can you elaborate on this?
KBF: I don’t know why, but I do think there’s a tendency for directors to be
put in categories or to be labelled as only this or that kind of director. I
think you should be able to make a range of films in different genres,
regardless of whether your a man or a woman. I’d love to do a thriller or
something else totally different, even if my films prior to that haven’t been
those kinds of movies. Let’s face it — there aren’t that many women directing certain genres. Hopefully that will