Below director/writer David M. Rosenthal (“See This Movie”) shares a scene from his personally inspired father-daughter rock film “Janie Jones,” starring Abigail Breslin, Alessandro Nivola and Elisabeth Shue. The Tribeca Film release opens in limited release October 28.
A faded rock star is forced to take responsibility for the daughter he never knew he had in Janie Jones, a funny and touching road trip through the world of rock ‘n’ roll from writer-director David M. Rosenthal (“Falling Up”), inspired by his own experiences. Rocker Ethan Brand (Alessandro Nivola) and his band, the Ethan Brand Experience, are on the comeback trail when a former flame (Oscar nominee Elisabeth Shue) drops a bomb in his lap–their 13-year-old daughter, Janie Jones (Abigail Breslin). Ethan refuses to believe Janie is his kid, but when her mom suddenly leaves for rehab, the child has no place to go but with the band. With no inclination toward fatherhood, Ethan continues his hard-living ways, leaving Janie to fend for herself in the dive bars and sleazy motels along the way. As his drug- and booze-fueled antics take their toll on and off stage, the band deserts him one by one, until he and Janie are left alone. Desperate to finish the tour and revive his career, Ethan stays on the road as a solo act with Janie in tow. As Ethan’s self-destructive spiral threatens to derail his comeback, Janie uses her own surprising musical talents to help guide him down the rocky road to redemption. [Synopsis courtesy of Tribeca Film.]
I’ve always been interested in stories that find people at deep personal crossroads. I’m drawn to the very concept of personal identity and how people define themselves or think the world defines them or how they wish the world would define them. Watching a character’s whole idea of him or herself shatter before our eyes in the face life changing events is, for me, riveting.
I faced such an event in my own life. I met my daughter for the first time when she was eleven years old and I was 29. For many years I didn’t reach out when I could have. I thought this story was something to be ashamed of, something that must be put in a box. But what I’ve since realized is that modern American families come in many odd shapes and sizes. Various forms of estrangement are part of what define modern families. I realized that there was something universal this kind of story and I set about fictionalizing it.
I made the character of the father quite detestable in the first act of the movie. So unlikeable, in fact, that I worried whether audiences would be able to forgive him once he had made his turn. But I think people can always identify with flawed characters—there’s something very human about them. And I’ve found that audiences have really responded to this arc. They’ve also responded very strongly to the music and how authentic it feels in the film.
I wanted to set the story in music world because it’s a world of incredible expression, incredible success and failure, and incredible ego. But more then anything, I wanted to see two characters at first unable to connect in words who stumble into a communication through music. In order for the music to work as a form of real communication in the film, the means in which the music is shot and conveyed becomes critical.
In the scene I’ve chosen to look at I was very clear that I wanted us to use the guitar and the vocal in the production track. That is to say, there is no over-dubbing of guitar for Ethan. Nor is there any ADR or over-dubbing of Nivola’s vocal track.
There was only a few times in the film that we could get away with this. Where the setting was quiet enough to use what was recorded on location. But what you get is very pure and grounded. I should also point out that in almost all cases the actors in the band and Nivola were playing their instruments. They were all also musicians. That was the intention in casting. Nivola and Breslin did not come in after shooting and re-record their vocals. We either used their production track or we used what they sang in the studio before shooting, or an overlay of both.
Beyond the music, in terms of overall cinematic style it seemed obvious to me that it ought to be a permutation of cinema verité, a modern permutation. I adore the films of the Belgian directing team, the Dardeen brothers, and partly wanted to emulate that sort of gritty realism.
As the relationship between father and daughter begins to flower, in this scene, we find Ethan and Janie in an old laundromat in a small Midwest city. He’s teaching her how to play backup on one of his songs. I wanted all the imagery in the film to be emblematic of life on the road and when the production designer(Stephen Altman) and I found this little laundromat built into a quonset hut, we fell for it. Edward Hopper and the lesser known John French Sloan were some references for me and the DP(Tas Michos) and the designer. The Ashcan School of painters were definitely in my head when I was composing the shots in this scene.
The set ups in the scene go from observational to intimate. Starting with a very wide-angle lens (17mm) closing in on focal lengths that most approximate the human eye (35-50mm). But for a Close Up at 40mm one must be quite close to your subject and this can either be intimidating for an actor or enervating. In this scene I think it worked to our advantage.
In general, liberating the camera from tracking shots and more graphic and static set ups served our purpose allowing the audience to get inside what I hoped would be a very un-idealized portrayal of band life on the road.