Ryan Gosling Song to Song
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman
Director: Terrence Malick
Genre: Drama, Music
Running Time: 129 minutes
Synopsis: Song To Song is the new love story from filmmaker Terrence Malick. Set against and inspired by the Austin, Texas rock and roll scene, the film follows four interconnected lovers as they tumble and clash in both their roller coaster musical careers and rule-breaking intimate lives. Amid a world driven by youth, passion, lust, drugs and creativity, the story hones in on one couple who find in each other a way to bust through all the wild distractions of our modern lives and seek satisfaction in a new way. Filmed throughout Austin and at its world-famed music festivals by three-time Academy Award winner Emmanuel 'Chivo" Lubezki, Song To Song features unexpected performances from some of contemporary cinema's biggest stars including Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman – as well as a multi-generational array of musicians including Patti Smith, Lykke Li, the Black Lips, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Iggy Pop, John Lydon and more.
Song To Song is Malick's ninth feature film. Though renowned for visually arresting storytelling, Malick has always been drawn to that most classic subject of all: love – especially love that mirrors or cuts through life's illusions. Song To Song continues a career that began with the dark romance between two 1950s Midwestern killers on the run in Badlands; explored the early days of America through Captain Smith and Pocahontas' affair in The New World; and twined the overwhelming emotions of parental love with a story of creation in The Tree Of Life.
But Song To Song's love story unfolds in today's America and among those chasing that most contemporary and perhaps maddest of dreams: the rock star life. Can one be a free, unfettered artist in today's music scene – and lead an improvised, in-the-moment life, moving from one thrill to another, without ending up broken-hearted?
Rooney Mara is Faye, an aspiring songwriter who likes playing with fire and is wrestling with her creative future while sampling a variety of lovers; Michael Fassbender is Cook, a controlling and sexually voracious music producer who can make people's dreams come true; Ryan Gosling is BV, Cook's protégé and rising songwriting star who falls hard for Faye while being professionally betrayed by Cook; and Natalie Portman is Rhonda, a struggling waitress who sees Cook as the solution to her family's financial problems. The couples will tangle and tumble in a love quadrangle that nearly upends them – then moves them toward a new understanding of their lives and each other.
Review: Song to Song offers little to no dialogue and is narrated by poetic thoughts and beautiful ponderings matched with stunning juxtaposition. The film is complex which can make it difficult to watch but that is Terrence Malick's true style. Although not to all tastes like Ryan Gosling is I'm confident I wasn't meant to love any of the characters in Song To Song – which means they all did their job.
- Brooke Hunter
Song to Song
Release Date: October 5th, 2017
About The Production
Into The Heart Of Austin With Terrence Malick
Austin, Texas is a city of contrasts – where laid-back, bohemian vibes collide with the hard-core ambitions of artistic dreams, and where relaxed Texans have had to confront gentrification and corporatization, even as the music industry itself has shifted seismically. Dubbed 'the live music capital of the world," and sometimes known as 'alt-Nashville," Austin is duly famed for its cavalcade of music festivals, clubs, dive bars and honkytonks. But it is equally known for its masses of aspiring musical talents chasing an undefined, but ideally uninhibited, life of creative freedom, be it in the country, folk, blues, new wave, punk, Tejano or rock scenes.
It is that side of Austin that filmmaker Terrence Malick zeroes in on in Song To Song. He has had the desire to make a contemporary love story among musicians for some time, and Austin became the backdrop to a story that cycles between concerts that lift one ever higher … and those moments after the show ends, when all that clarity and euphoria evaporate and musicians are left alone with themselves again, anticipating the next high.
In the early phases, Terrence Malick titled the film Weightless, based on a quotation from Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, an encapsulation of a central dilemma of the modern world, which was an underlying inspiration:
How can I proceed now, I said, without a self, weightless and visionless, through a world weightless, without illusion?
The couples in Song To Song live in a realm that mirrors the quotation, where identity can't be pinned down, where they are supposedly free to shift constantly in moods and desires without anchor. Yet they also seem to feel lost, adrift. The core of the group is Faye, the young songwriter who yearns to leap fearlessly into life and love, to give herself fully over to her art. Even so, she keeps wondering why she still feels so disconnected, so unsure of what the freedom she is chasing really means. Can she touch something real – and how? Terrence Malick first started talking to his producing team of Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao about the film that would become Song To Song while making Tree Of Life. They were all exhilarated by the idea of making an Austin-based love story.
'Austin became a great microcosm for this story, these characters and Terry's ideas," says Nicolas Gonda. 'It's a place where artists and free spirits have been drawn to for decades but it's experiencing such rapid growth and visible changes. It attracts people who don't want to be put into a mold – it's a place that can feel like a brand new beginning, though it also can't escape the contradictions of our times. That's why I think these characters will be very relatable to people. They're each trying to make a life in Austin, and to make sense out of a world that can be exciting but also full of emptiness and uncertainty. There's this tug of war between how you can make a modern life yet stay true to who you are."
Sarah Green adds her take: 'To me this is the story of a tangled romantic quadrangle but also about the value of love and forgiveness. Very much like the lives these characters are leading, the movie is fun, wild and extreme but then there's this moment where things come to a head and the characters arrive at a deeper understanding of what they want. When Rooney Mara's character, Faye, says -I thought we could live song to song, kiss to kiss' it's a reflection of a kind of life many people feel they'd like to lead at one time, but then you realise that no matter how much you seek true freedom, free-fall isn't the goal."
Observes Ken Kao: 'I think this is really a film about self-discovery – and Austin is a the perfect place for these characters to find themselves. It's such a quickly growing city, it's a great prism through which to see these characters also trying to grow."
Perhaps no career has more highs in the moment than that of pop musicians caught up in the flow and adoration of public performances. Song To Song takes audiences into those moments, yet also illuminates what happens in the fraught spaces between performances, 'The characters are going from high to high," notes Nicolas Gonda. 'When they're at music festivals, people are all coming together and it is non-stop energy. But when the music stops and the festivals end, they are left with having to face themselves. Even with so many amazing distractions and temptations, they still have to confront the questions of what is the purpose and meaning of all this?"
Sarah Green, Nicolas Gonda and Ken Kao all see the film as a new chapter in Terrence Malick's filmmaking journey – blending not only a strong narrative with beyond-words sensations but also combining playful dialogue with private inner monologues in ways that evoke the layered landscape of the heart. Says Sarah Green: 'Song To Song is a very active, fast-moving film. There is an extraordinary intimacy in Terry's choice to layer voice-over over the dialogue – so that you not only hear what the characters are saying, you hear what they are privately thinking as they say it."
Nicolas Gonda adds: 'Terrence Malick has swung the pendulum from a very maximal style in Thin Red Line, New World and Tree Of Life to a style that can evoke the most intimate of emotions that we only feel in relationships. Song To Song has a rhythm that is very contemporary, but it's one of his most intimate films."
For Ken Kao, the way Terrence Malick keeps expanding and exploring is an inspiration. 'He's still pushing himself, despite all his accomplishments," he notes. 'This film has its own distinctive feeling to it and you see a continuing evolution in his film style."
Song To Song is also his most overtly musical film. Terrence Malick has always been passionate about music - and about the use of music, particularly classical music, from baroque to postmodern, as an inseparable partner to visual imagery. But in Song To Song, popular music is the thread that knits the characters together. From the start, Terrence Malick started looking for ways to integrate Austin's non-stop parade of performers, from striving local bands to icons passing through town at the big festivals, into the characters he was creating. Even as the film was being cast, Terrence Malick and his small, nimble crew began shooting at Austin's three largest festivals: Austin City Limits Festival, inspired by the long-running PBS live music show of the same name, which runs every summer; South by Southwest, the massive (and massively influential) multi-media festival featuring music, movies and interactive arts that has taken place in March since 1987; and the indie-oriented Fun Fun Fun Fest, known for discovering emerging talent.
'Shooting at these festivals in a very freestyle, spontaneous way allowed us to give people the experience of what it's like to actually be backstage before a show or right in front of the stage during the performance. It's a high-energy experience - it's loud and it's in your face," says Sarah Green. 'Capturing that festival atmosphere is one of the things that makes this movie uniquely contemporary."
As the production began attending festivals, they also began amassing a wide-ranging musical cast to join with the film's Oscar-winning actors.
'We started reaching out to see which musicians might be interested in interacting with our characters – and we were delighted by how many said yes," Sarah Green explains. 'It's a very spontaneous kind of world and that worked incredibly well with how Terrence Malick likes to shoot. We've been working with a very small crew for a long time now so we could just slip in and slip out of these backstage worlds. Our lean production style leant itself beautifully to the innate changeability and chaos of music festivals."
Adds Nicolas Gonda: 'A remarkable alchemy happened when we started putting our cast together with the musicians. Their energy became a catalyst, pushing everyone to be more real."
An All-Star Cast
Terrence Malick is often on the short list of directors with whom leading actors most want to work. For the two couples in Song To Song he assembled a particularly accomplished and of-the-moment quartet: Oscar nominees Rooney Mara, Ryan Gosling and Michael Fassbender and Oscar winner Natalie Portman. The actors were fearless in plunging themselves into the most candid moments of mystery and feeling.
'Terrence Malick is a pure storyteller and I think that is why actors respond so passionately to him," says Sarah Green.
'These are extraordinary talents you get to see challenging themselves in new ways," adds Nicolas Gonda. 'Terrence Malick's different way of working requires people who have the courage to explore. They have to be ready to go to a place where their technical training doesn't really apply."
Taking the role of aspiring songwriter Faye is Rooney Mara, who has come to the fore in some of the most talked-about films of the last several years including playing Mark Zuckerberg's early girlfriend in The Social Network, portraying punk hacker Lisbeth Sanders in The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo and as the aspiring 1950s photographer in Carol.
As Faye, Rooney Mara is at once drawn to extremes and falling in love as she searches for as many new experiences as she can discover and an authentic life. Is she really an artist, really ready to jump into the unknown as her heroes before her have? What if she doesn't make it, what is her life and all its sacrifices worth then? She hungers to lead a liberated life, but what is it exactly – and why does it seem so hard to get there? She also hungers for connection and has no lack of lovers and friends – so why does she still sometimes feel so alone?
Roony Mara jumped into this swirling pool of doubts, one that finds relief in music and in a romance to which she finally chooses to surrender.
'Rooney Mara has such an expressive way about her; you always see what is going on beneath the surface," observes Sarah Green. 'She's one of those rare actors who can show multiple layers even while being still. She portrays beautifully the contrasts of Faye who has this delicate sweetness to her and yet she is living out loud. Terrence Malick greatly enjoyed working with her and built an amazing character around her."
Rooney Mara, who has no musical background, began taking on the character with guitar lessons, including with Annie Clark aka the multi-talented musician St. Vincent. 'Annie Clark, who is a friend now, came to one of my first guitar lessons, as a favor to Terrence Malick, to teach me some stuff and talk to me about songwriting," she recalls.
Despite only a brief period of learning, Rooney Mara soon found herself taking the stage at music festivals. 'It was so exciting shooting at the music festivals – I had never even been to any festivals before," she says. 'It was challenging though. It felt like you were in a fish bowl, having the cameras follow you around and people staring at you. I was lucky in that no one knew or cared who I was. But it was tough for Ryan Gosling, because people were constantly coming up to him wanting to take a picture. It was also pretty intimidating to meet these great musicians – and to meet them with the cameras going, while you were in character."
For Rooney Mara, her co-stars were anchors. 'Anytime I felt lost, Ryan Gosling would step in and have something new for us to try," she says. 'I really relied on him in that way. I always felt super comfortable when he was around to try anything. And Michael Fassbender was fantastic to work with on this because he is so open, ready and willing to try anything."
Faye's apparent soul-mate is BV, who is on the cusp of music industry success, grappling with how to integrate his rapid rise with his responsibilities back in his small West Texas town, and his own sense of himself. Portraying BV is Ryan Gosling, a 2017 Oscar nominee for playing a quite different musician: the jazz lover chasing a fledgling actress in the much-lauded modern musical La La Land.
'Terrence Malick has been an admirer of Ryan Gosling since he began acting and likewise, Ryan Gosling knows Terrence Malick's work and had long wanted to work with him. He is such a real and generous person, and crazy with talent," says Sarah Green.
Ken Kao notes that Ryan Gosling's character who is going through a transition to which many can relate: 'I think a lot of us that come to new cities struggle with how much do you assimilate to become a part your new environment and new career – and how much do you need to stay true to your roots and where you come from?"
Ken Kao was impressed with how quickly Ryan Gosling inhabited the musical soul of BV. 'Ryan Gosling is both an incredible actor but also has the musical skills to understand BV. He's also one of the kindest souls I know. That's not lip service," he says. 'It's something that shows in the characters he chooses and the effort he puts into each performance. He really cares." That sense of caring extended to the music as well. Recalls editor Rehman Ali: 'Because Ryan Gosling is himself a musician, he brought us a lot of songs from his own life. He would come in each day and play songs he liked on his little Casio, and so a lot of the music BV is into came directly from him."
Complicating things between Faye and BV is a man who is both Faye's secret lover and BV's mentor: Cook, played by Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender has had a diverse career that has included risky, intense roles in Steve McQueen's Hunger, Shame and Twelve Years A Slave, as well as playing the legendary Steve Jobs and Erik Lensherr aka Magneto in the X-Men series. As Cook, Michael Fassbender plays the most successful and most unscrupulous of Song To Song's characters, a well-connected music producer who has amassed both power and wealth, if not quite satisfaction.
Terrence Malick had seen Michael Fassbender's performance as IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger and expressed interest in working with him then. But they did not find the right timing to work together until Song To Song.
Michael Fassbender embraced Terrence Malick's process and found in Cook alluring dark corners to explore. 'Cook is someone who thinks he lives his life above the law and outside of any inhibition – but he's so empty inside that it's almost like inhabiting a ghost," observes Nicolas Gonda. 'Michael Fassbender's performance is seductive because you see somebody who has the chance to lead a life many fantasize about – but he then comes face-to-face with the costs of doing without regard for anyone else."
An early note from Terrence Malick set Michael Fassbender's direction. 'The note was that this character was like Satan from -Paradise Lost' so that is what I ran with," Michael Fassbender says. 'As this character, I was always trying to stir things up and provoke people."
He goes on: 'Cook is a very wealthy music producer who likes to experience everything that money can buy and he enjoys seducing people into that material world. It's almost as if he wants others to accompany him in his depravity. But he is on a journey himself, which is a very interesting one."
Michael Fassbender perceived that for Cook, power is both an aphrodisiac and a burden. 'I felt like my character is railing against God because he feels he should be a god. He's taking a lot of drugs and he's really throwing himself into any experience of the senses, because he feels he should be on a higher plane. But he's such a manipulator and in some ways, the more he tries to go higher the more he sucks the light out of everything. Yet there's also a good side to him. There's a deep curiosity to him, and you do see him hurting in the film."
While he carries on a liaison with Faye, Cook also connects with a down-and-out waitress who is dazzled by his material wealth at a time when she is desperately in need of resources. But Cook is surprised to find that his obsession with Rhonda turns to undeniably strong feelings.
Sarah Green notes: 'Cook sees that the relationship between BV and Faye is something real and deep, which makes him jealous and resentful. He wants what they have. So he pulls in someone who needs him, Rhonda, and he does fall in love. But Cook is someone who doesn't see what his actions do to people and he ends up harming the one person he truly cares for. That's a big turning point of the movie – his facing the results of his callous behavior." Says Nicolas Gonda of Cook's impact on Rhonda: 'It's the first time this bull in the china shop really sees what he is breaking."
Michael Fassbender enjoyed being able to play off Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman's contrasts. 'Rooney Mara has got a very special energy," he observes, 'where even when she does very simple things, you can't stop watching her. It's enviable as an actor. And Natalie Portman was just so easy to work with. It can be frustrating to improvise with someone but Natalie Portman was just so spot on from the getgo." Portman appears as Rhonda fresh off her award-winning portrayal of Jackie Kennedy in Pablo Larrain's Jackie. Natalie Portman's versatility has also been seen in roles ranging from her Oscar-winning performance as a ballerina losing her grip in Black Swan to the workingclass heroine of the comic book adaptation, V For Vendetta. This is her second time working with Terrence Malick.
Says Sarah Green: 'Natalie Portman has an extraordinarily generous heart and here she portrays a character who really believes in the world as a good place and has a sense of faith that everything is going to work out. There is a tragedy to her character but that is what Cook falls in love with – and rather than trying to destroy her idealism, he ultimately starts to try to adapt it. Like the other actors, Natalie Portman was fearless."
Natalie Portman describes Rhonda as 'someone who comes from a background where she's in great need financially and her mother - who she loves so much - is having a really hard time. Then this guy Cook comes along and in her eyes, he is sort of a savior, but he also leads her astray."
She could understand the allure of Cook to Rhonda. 'You can see how it would really transform Rhonda's life to have this man come in and buy her mother a home and buy her all these beautiful things," Natalie Portman elaborates. 'Suddenly, she feels taken care of in a way she's never been taken care of before and she's also able to finally take care of the people she loves."
Life-changing as that is, Rhonda is also being drawn into Cook's controlling vortex. 'Terrence Malick always talked about Cook as a kind of devil or snake, who is tempting each of the characters he meets, and can take you into darkness," Natalie Portman describes. Given all that is going on in their relationship, Natalie Portman especially loved having the chance to work so closely with Michael Fassbender. 'I hadn't worked with Michael Fassbender before so it was a great surprise to be with someone so alive, so intense and so inventive in every moment," she summarises.
Surrounding the foursome of Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Rooney Mara and Natalie Portman is a wide-ranging supporting cast that includes Skyfall's 'Bond girl," Berenice Marlohe, as the lonely French woman who has an illuminating dalliance with Faye; Academy Award winner Holly Hunter as Rhonda's impoverished mother and Val Kilmer as an exuberantly destructive rock star. They are further joined by a diverse assembly of musicians, who generate the creative world in which the lovers are entwined.
The mix of musicians in Song To Song runs the gamut from fresh, young voices to legends of rock and punk. For the actors, working with musical artists as well as actors was both fun and eye-opening. Says Natalie Portman: 'These musicians are such full, interesting human beings, people who can explore extremes yet also be so comfortable in their own bodies and personalities. It's sort of what you aim for as an actor. So it was really great to have Terrence Malick bring all that color into the film."
One of the most film's most essential musical and narrative contributions comes from Patti Smith, sometimes known as the Godmother of Punk. Patti Smith first formed the Patti Smith Group in the 1970s and went on to be hugely influential in creating the defiant garage-band aesthetic of the New York punk scene, becoming both a renowned street poet and a rock idol to many. She is the rare member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame who is also a National Book Award winner. Most recently, she was seen accepting Bob Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature in his stead.
Sarah Green explains how Patti Smith came to be a focal point of Song To Song: 'Patti and Terrence Malick have actually known each other since the 70s but it was our music supervisor, Lauren Mikus, who put them back in touch, and it was very exciting for all of us that Patti Smith was so game. I've been listening to Patti Smith since college and I can still sing every song from her first record - which I'm sure she would not want to hear! I think of her as one of our great rock poets, and I discovered she's also the most amazing person. Her scenes with Rooney Mara really encapsulated the ideas behind the film."
With Rooney Mara in character and Patti Smith reacting authentically to Faye, unexpected things happened in the moment. 'What's extraordinary," Sarah Green continues, 'is that you get to see Patti Smith speak candidly about being a woman in the music business, about being on the road, about trying to sustain relationships and fight for the person in your life you most care about. She shares her philosophy of life and the purity of her heart. Patti Smith was so generous with Rooney Mara and it's clear on screen that meeting her is a turning point for Faye, who has been searching for how to lead a wild life while finding solid ground that she can stand on."
Rooney Mara, too, was deeply moved by Patti Smith. 'Meeting her was definitely an incredibly special experience I will never forget. I felt so lucky just to get to listen to everything she had to say about life and love," Rooney Mara comments. 'Terrence Malick wanted me to go on-stage with her during a performance she had in Austin and Patti Smith could tell that I was feeling uneasy and scared and she stepped in and said she would just sing to me on the stage. She asked for a chair so I wouldn't have to stand or be embarrassed or feel in her way - and I just got to sit there onstage and listen to her sing. It was incredible," she sums up.
Adds music supervisor Lauren Mikus: 'Patti Smith becomes Faye's mentor and guide because she speaks to how you can marry being a warrior artist with being capable of deep love and connection. Patti Smith was really just being herself and talking about her own life and in that way she became this wonderful presence in the film."
When Patti Smith performs her 2004 song 'My Blakean Year" in the film, the lyrics seem to speak directly to Faye's innermost dilemmas: 'So throw off your stupid cloak/Embrace all that you fear/For joy will conquer all despair."
Says Nicolas Gonda of what Patti Smith brings to Song To Song: 'Patti Smith is someone who doesn't hide from experience and you can't fake that. What she says in the film could never be written because it comes inside her as an artist. She's so disarmingly sincere, I found myself really listening to her words and applying it to my own life."
For co-editor Rehman Ali, Patti Smith has an ineffably cinematic quality. 'She is so natural it doesn't even feel like the camera is recording her – it's even more voyeuristic. She has the thing Terrence Malick is always looking for: when it doesn't feel like acting. I also love that Patti Smith could be Faye in the future," muses Rehman Ali 'It's as if Faye is talking to her future self via Patti Smith, who has already had all these experiences she's looking for and has taken so much wisdom from them."
Ken Kao also invited his friend Flea and the influential funk rock band (and 16-time Grammy nominees) Red Hot Chili Peppers to make an appearance. 'Terrence Malick is one of Flea's favorite filmmakers," Ken Kao notes, 'and I think it's really great when you see artists really appreciating another art form. The whole band was quite eager to be a part of the film and quite open to letting things happen organically."
In another switch, Swedish indie singer-songwriter Lykke Li crossed over to acting for the first time, playing one of BV's lovers, a fellow musician. 'I've never really acted, but when I'm with my band, it's all about improvising," she notes. 'So I kind of jumped into the situation with Terrence Malick. Mostly we just talked about music, art, love and also the sacrifices you make when you pursue art and what it means for relationships."
Music supervisor Mikus, who has been working with Terrence Malick since she apprenticed on Tree Of Life, took great pleasure in exploring the musical breadth of the Austin scene and keeping an eye out for bands passing through. She also talked extensively with Terrence Malick about the musical influences on each character.
Mikus explains: 'We talked about Faye idolising someone like Wendy O. Williams of the Plasmatics, of being drawn to those more extreme punk and lawless bands. As a successful producer, Cook is involved with really established artists like Iggy Pop and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and he also listens to classical music. BV, on the other hand, is more retro and romantic in his tastes and we associated him with 60s stars like Sam Cook and Del Shannon. He's more drawn to emotion and heart than edginess."
Taking on the role of Faye's band in the film are the Black Lips, the Atlanta-based garage rock band known for their provocative onstage antics that have involved nudity, flaming guitars, chickens and other unpredictable happenings. In typically broadminded fashion, the Black Lips allowed the film's story to integrate itself into a live performance at the Fun Fun Fun fest.
Says Mikus: 'The Black Lips have a real energy and wildness to them. Terrence Malick really liked them and they were down for anything. They told us, -go ahead, walk all over our stage and do what you want, we're used to chaos anyway.' It was a very symbiotic and super enjoyable experience. And the festival was so cool to give us the sunset time slot for us to film that performance."
Playing the lead singer of the band is another big Hollywood star, Val Kilmer, who took the role to the edge. 'Terrence Malick asked Val Kilmer to play him as a guy who is a little over the hill and has reached a point where he just wants to antagonise the audience. And Val Kilmer does that very well," muses Sarah Green. 'He's an important figure for Faye. She's trying to figure out if she can live the artist life, so he's eye-opening to her because he has completely embraced the dark side of that life, and has maybe gone too far."
Adds Nicolas Gonda: 'It was so much fun unleashing Val Kilmer and Rooney Mara and The Black Lips on an audience who had no idea what they were going to see. Val Kilmer leapt in with no inhibition whatsoever, embracing Terrence Malick's style of work, taking minimal direction, and he exploded that performance into its own inimitable moment."
Cole Alexander of the Black Lips recalls that it all unfolded: 'We were given a heads up that Val Kilmer was going to chainsaw an amp, but we were told, just do your normal set, just do your thing. And since we like to improvise on stage, we were fine to let Val Kilmer start screaming and sawing and just play along."
Cole Alexander goes on: 'For us, it was like Val Kilmer joined our band for a minute and we made legitimate music with him. It was probably a bit confusing for our fans to see Rooney and Val up there jamming with us – but I hope they liked it."
The wilder the act the more intriguing it became to pair them with the actors – and the production took advantage of Austin stops by punk hero Iggy Pop, the British alternative band Florence and the Machine and John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten formerly of the Sex Pistols). Mikus also recruited such acts as Big Freedia, aka the Queen of 'Bounce" for popularizing the New Orleans style of hip-hop; the emerging Texas electronic band Neon Indian; the electronic trio known as Major Lazer; the South African rave-rappers Die Antwoord, who have brought the 'zef" style to the fore; and local groups including Blaxploitation and Hundred Visions.
One seminal song became a theme for the film - the Blues classic 'Rollin' and Tumblin'," first recorded in 1929 by Hambone Willie Newbern and later made famous by Muddy Waters, then re-done by Bob Dylan in 2006, who added new verses. The Song To Song soundtrack includes Bob Dylan's version as well as two others.
'Terrence Malick always loved that song and he was looking for different versions to use in the film as well," says Mikus. 'We started with Bob Dylan's version as the first idea and we also use a version by the Blues guitarist Elmore James that we all felt was really special and then we asked the artist Bosco Delrey for a version that we use as a motif throughout the film." For the rest of the soundtrack, Mikus offered Terrence Malick a wide array of choices. She concludes: 'It was always about trying to give Terrence Malick music that parallels the feeling he's going for. The music helps carry the film along - from song to song."
The Making Of Song To Song
The majority of Song To Song was shot on location in Austin with Terrence Malick collaborating with his long-lived team of collaborators including director of photography Emmanuel 'Chivo" Lubezki, production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West, along with the editing team of Rehman Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase. Austin not only offered the constant flow of music festivals but a wide range of landscapes, from the Austin Greenbelt to the stark pink rock formations of Enchanted Rock, from stunning modern architecture to the food trucks in South Congress Trailer Park. The only location in the film not in Austin is the resort town of Merida in the Yucatan region of Mexico where Cook flies Faye and BV, only to grow increasingly jealous of their connection.
Rooney Mara says of the Mexico scenes: 'Mexico was very interesting. It was the end of the shoot, so we were all quite familiar with each other at that point and probably getting slightly jaded about how special the experience of getting to make a movie in this way was. But being in Mexico brought all that back to the forefront because everything was new and felt very alive."
Working with the same decorated team again and again allows Terrence Malick to jump in creatively without any lag time. 'Everyone knows each other and they know exactly how Terry likes to operate, so there's no waiting to get anyone up to speed," describes Green. 'They're ready to go and excited to work in Terrence Malick's freestyle way."
'It's really a unique camaraderie that exists with this team," offers Nicolas Gonda. 'Chivo, Jack and Jacqui are each at the peak of their careers, so they love the chance to shake things up, shed conventions and challenge themselves."
Emmanuel Lubezki's fluid photography, which can get so close to the actors that the line between frame and skin is almost obliterated, has become intrinsic to Terrence Malick's unique way of letting raw emotions resonate. For Song To Song, Emmanuel Lubezki took things even further. 'Chivo had an incredible time on this film because he was really able to push the limits," says Ken Kao. 'There was such an intense canvas between the love quadrangle and all the live music. He had carte blanche to some degree to use the camera to explore the hidden, darker sides of the characters."
Adds Sarah Green: 'Chivo and his camera operator Joerg Widmer have almost a dancer's relationship with the actors. It's not about perfection, it's about intimacy and immediacy. It's about pulling you directly into the frame and Chivo does that like no one else."
Michael Fassbender found it thrilling. 'Terrence Malick's entire crew is like a mad band of pirates running around trying to capture moments of chaos," he encapsulates.
For all the swirling chaos of the music industry and intimate relationships, production designer Jack Fisk grounds Song To Song strongly in the Austin environs.
Green comments: 'We were working with a lot of practical locations, but you see Jack's hand everywhere. Jack is always very in tune with Chivo's needs – and since we work with only natural light, he finds locations with incredible light. And then completing the triangle, Jacqui West and Jack Fisk are always responding to each other's colors; they are completely in synch as a team."
West saw Rooney Mara's Faye as the core of the film, and adored that she turns romantic conventions upside down. 'I see Song To Song as the story of a woman exploring her sexual, intellectual and artistic freedom - and also a woman using men the way that men often bounce off of women. I was really moved by it," says the costume designer. Following that passion, she put a lot of thought into Mara's wardrobe. 'I tried to keep a sense of classic elegance and simplicity, echoing the demure wardrobe of Audrey Hepburn," she explains. 'That is contrasted with Natalie's Rhonda, who is a wild Texas beauty. Natalie has more raw sex appeal to her wardrobe, whereas Rooney's appeal is her almost ballerina quality."
Jacqui West notes that Terrence Malick generally prefers duskier shades in clothing to set off the luminosity of the human face. 'Terrence Malick really loves clothes to be very dark - almost to the point that they go away. He wants the soul to be the thing that glows, and he likes the way a face looks against darker clothing," she explains. 'He's also always looking for something in the clothing that will reveal a character's inner ridges, to give you a clue to who they are without hitting you over the head."
Michael Fassbender's Cook wears a lot of slick Giorgio Armani, befitting his character's sense of himself, but for Ryan Gosling's BV, West looked to a musician friend of hers: singer-songwriter John Fogerty. 'I hope John Fogerty sees the homage," she confesses, 'with the boots, plaid shirts and the beat-up jackets."
With some of the musicians, West was hesitant to alter their own style – especially Patti Smith. 'Patti Smith I decided should be Patti Smith," she offers. 'She had her own vintage Comme des Garçons on when she arrived, and I thought it was so perfect for her. Some things you don't want to disturb."
On the other hand, she worked closely with Lykke Li to develop her wardrobe. 'Lykke Li and I talked for ages, because she loves clothes and she was so excited to do this and have it be right for Terrence Malick and the film. So I sent her shopping and she'd show me things over Skype and we had a lot of fun choosing her wardrobe."
During and after the shoot, Terrence Malick collaborated closely with a trio of editors - Rehman Ali, Hank Corwin and Keith Fraase – to assemble masses of footage into the story he envisioned. Ali explains that the lengthy and strenuous editing process started while Terrence Malick was still shooting and became a kind of long-term sculpting project. 'I think of it as working on an ice sculpture, where you're chipping away over time and distilling it all down to a shape," he describes.
The core of the undertaking was finding the scenes that feel most alive. 'Terrence Malick likes to show rather than tell - he likes subtle looks and subtle behavior. So we were always looking for anything that feels natural and real, doesn't feel like it's a performance per se. He wants you to find moments that are almost like the characters were caught," Rehman Ali elaborates. 'Terrence Malick always had a very clear idea of the narrative and where he was taking it but he also wanted it to feel spontaneous and voyeuristic, like you're watching something private."
Rehman Ali was especially intrigued by the film's approach to sex scenes – and the emphasis on the search for connection. 'The way sex is treated in Song To Song is really interesting to me because I think it invites you to question what it means, and how you can use it so many different ways," he says. 'Faye and BV initially seem to be going through the motions in their relationship but there's something that's holding them back. I think you come away thinking about what is connection and also about what is forgiveness and how can you really forgive somebody?"
While pouring through the footage shot with musicians, the editors were looking for revelations. Says Rehman Ali: 'We wanted each interaction with each performing musician to mean something. So for example, we use Iggy Pop talking about the idea that people just want to feel something, which is incredibly relevant to the story."
Rehman Ali says that Terrence Malick was as open with the editors as he is with actors. 'With Terry, nothing is off the table. The thing that is so great about working with him is that he's open to any crazy idea. So even an idea that on paper sounds like it would never work, you can just try it and show it to him – and sometimes you're surprised by what works out."
Perhaps the most important design element in Song To Song is the most ineffable: the spirit of Austin. 'Austin is changing so incredibly fast that Song To Song almost feels like a time capsule of one specific moment in Austin's life," comments Rehman Ali. 'There are places seen in the film that are already gone from Austin, so there's something nice about having captured the city as it's changing."
For the cast, soaking in all the dreams and natural wonders and brisk development of Austin was an infinite source of inspiration. Says Natalie Portman: 'Austin has such a strong character, with all the music, the tech and film worlds, the outdoor vibe of the city and the way it feels sort of like an island in Texas. It was wonderful to shoot there and have the city really be a character in the film."
Rooney Mara concurs: 'I loved, loved working in Austin. I had never been there before this movie and now I think about it all the time and miss it."
Sums up Michael Fassbender: 'This was my first time in Austin and I really loved it - great city, great food, great music. Keep Austin Weird is the slogan of the city and they really try to do that. The chance to hear so much live music was special – it was all fantastic to experience."
Song to Song
Release Date: October 5th, 2017