There’s a tradition of musical acts that have originated from the world of movies and television with the initial intention of being fake. Of course, The Monkees and the Partridge Family became very real pop successes after imitating others on the tube and in more recent times, Shane West really became the front man for The Germs for a spell after playing the late lead singer Darby Crash in 2007’s “What We Do Is Secret.” But perhaps there hasn’t been a more unlikely transition from screen-to-stage than that of Ryan O’Nan and Michael Weston’s The Brooklyn Brothers, who released their first self-titled album this week to accompany the theatrical rollout of their new comedy “Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best.”
This isn’t as strange a development as it might appear at first. Before becoming a filmmaker whose directorial debut “The Dry Land” premiered at Sundance in 2010, O’Nan had been a guitarist and singer for the punk band Against the Wall and likewise, Weston, who has been a reliably off-kilter presence in such films as “Garden State” and in his recurring stint on “House,” had music in his genes as the grandson of legendary pianist Artur Rubinstein. Yet the tunes they produce together don’t bear the influences suggested by their past, instead resulting in some original harmonies from O’Nan’s acoustic guitar and Weston’s litany of children’s instruments ranging from kazoos to xylophones that’s utterly disarming even if their lyrics concern the misery of bad relationships and the drudgery of living beyond their means in the big city. (An offhand description of Weston’s onscreen alter ego Jim’s recording studio as a “pre-school version of Hostel” is an apt indicator.)
The sweetness of their sound and the sour of getting through life in order to achieve it not only powers their music, but also their film, which spans a road trip from New York, where O’Nan’s downtrodden Alex ditches his real estate day job and singing inappropriate songs to special needs kids, to California where Jim insists they could win a battle of the bands contest and in the process, the odd couple grows to complement each other sonically, even if they remain odd and at odds with each other. That, unlike their success, does not appear to have translated to real life as Weston and O’Nan happily finish each other’s sentences, as I learned recently when I had the chance to speak to them about their new film, the challenge of playing all their music live while cameras rolled, and why their distributor Oscilloscope was a perfect fit.
You guys have such an easy chemistry together on screen – was there a script in place before Michael came onboard or did you guys get to develop it as you went?
Ryan O’Nan: No, there was a strict script in place beforehand. Michael was not allowed to deviate, though I will say he did improv some pretty interesting shit — the whole scene where [his character is] trying to pretend Scott Weiland’s in the band with the slapping the hands on the Asian kid, and the bouncer smacks him, that was all Michael’s idea.
Michael Weston: We clicked right off the bat and the script was really so fun and solid to begin with, we just ran with it. It felt really spontaneous as we were doing it because we had so little time to really think about anything because we had 18 days to shoot this whole thing. So we just jumped in and there was a high level of trust and camaraderie throughout.
Michael, what was it that got you interested in it?
MW: I laughed out loud when I read the script. It doesn’t happen very often when I’m reading scripts and then more than anything, when I finished reading it, I felt like it delivered that kernel of hope that gets in your gut. I feel like it delivers a really important energy for life and I love that about it. There’s a warmth and there’s an honesty to it all that’s just really wonderful.
It definitely has an innocence about it, even as it goes to some dark corners and that description could apply to either the movie or the music in it. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg question, but what set the tone for the film – what you wanted to do as a filmmaker or a musician?
RN: It’s a combination in the sense that it’s a late-term coming of age story and it explores the idea of can you bring your childhood dreams into your adult life? Do they actually survive? I knew I wanted to make a music movie and when I was thinking about the music, there was a band that I had played with a lot in college called The Crayon Rosary. They played a very similar style [as the Brooklyn Brothers] where one guy played acoustic guitar and the other guy played children’s instruments. They became close friends of mine because I was in a much harder indie punk band [Against the Wall] at the time and they played at a gig with us and like nobody was listening to them, but I just totally fell in love with this little band. We actually used a couple of their songs in the film itself, but yeah, I wanted this idea of what happens to that innocence as the cynicism of the practicalities of the world start to encroach upon you. Can you sustain the integrity of a dream?
If Crayon Rosary helped write some of the music, how did you make it your own?
RN: Crayon Rosary wrote two songs that were in the film and then the three of us — [Crayon Rosary’s] Keith Freudenberger, Brendan Leach and I — wrote another song together and then the rest of them were constructed by me, but then I wanted them to have a similar sound, so basically what happened was I had written all of the synth and the bass and the guitar stuff and me and Keith Freudenberger worked on them together and scaled them down a bit.
MW: Then they fucking set a baby toy trap and trapped me into doing this whole thing! [laughs] I didn’t even know this was part of the requirement for the role. I thought that they’d sub someone else in to do the hand work or something.
RN: He had the hand model that he traveled around with. [laughs]
MW: Usually, my hand model does all that kind of stuff for me. [laughs] But Ryan gave me the part and then told me afterwards all the music was recorded live, so…
RN: I was adamant about that. Everything you see in the film was all recorded live. Nothing was prerecorded, nothing was looped in afterwards.
MW: Even that shit in the car, like we’re playing it all as we go and what you hear is actually what we were playing, so it has this whole other level of real…well, pure terror on my part. We’d shoot these intense days, then we’d go back to the hotel room and we’d be practicing and practicing like this little weird kids’ band. Then you’d have to play it in front of these weird, stunned extras who were like what the hell is going on? [laughs]
RN: Yeah, and I chose Michael because I just think he’s such a phenomenal actor and the part really required somebody that was naturally charismatic, that no matter what they say, you love them anyway and Mike really, really has that. So I was already set on the fact I was going to hire the best actor for that role and I would probably have somebody playing the actual music offscreen and the person would just be faking like they were doing it. But after I had already given Mike the role, we sat down and had a burger together and I was like, “Uhhh, one thing I want to ask is I’m curious if you play any instrument at all, like maybe even just a little guitar…” because I wanted to see if he had any kind of rhythm. And he’s like, “Oh yeah, I’ve actually been playing piano my whole life.” I seriously got up in the restaurant in front of all these people and like held him.
MW: [laughs] For a very long, long extended time.
RN: Long time. I was kind of stroking the back of his head.
MW: Finally, finally had to push my way out of there.
I thought there was some hidden subtext in the film – that may confirm it. But seriously, to some degree, you actually see a formation of the ban and the gradual artistic process, which is especially interesting since after the film, you really started to perform as a band. Is finding your groove as musicians similar or different than finding it as actors?
RN: Life imitates art in a lot of ways. A lot of people ask me if [the film is] autobiographical and there are little pieces of it, but for the most part, it’s not my story of me as a singer/songwriter. It is more autobiographical in the sense of the inner struggle that I was going through in attempting to be an artist or my friends that I saw that were attempting to be artists or anybody really trying to pursue something that they really care about.
That kind of dichotomy that would play out where one side of me was insecure and listen to all the critics that would say, “Nothing’s ever going to come of your work” and [wonder] can I put myself out there? Then the other side of me was just relentless and just forged my way blindly into the dark and said, “Fuck it, I’m going to do it anyway, despite what anybody thinks. So I took those two ideals and I thought it would be interesting to kind of break them into two different characters and have them battle it out in a story because essentially they’re lost without each other. They’re intrinsically linked.
Now that you’re actually playing real gigs, is it anything like the film imagined? You’re obviously incredibly self-aware of what kind of band you are since a line in the film that perfect describes the Brooklyn Brothers as “The Shins meets Sesame Street.”
RN: It’s kind of ridiculous, man. We actually got signed by a major label based off of [the film]. Warner Brothers Music picked us up as like a little two-man band and we went into the recording studio and the album actually just dropped yesterday. I have to say, I’m so proud of the record.
MW: This guy [Ryan] is in a moment of true bliss — I got to watch him walk into the halls of Warner Brothers Music and you know, I was sort of a hired hand and had no real musical aspirations beyond just hanging around and watching gigs, but to watch him go there and they’re putting this record out… it’s available on iTunes, we’ve got our beautiful CD. But then they made this like gorgeous vinyl …it was a great moment of dream realization right there in front of me as he opened up the vinyl after all his years of touring in a punk band and being a professional punk, it was nice to see it pay off.
RN: It was neat.
Meanwhile, the film is being put out by Oscilloscope and was acquired before Adam Yauch passed away. I understand he was pretty involved in acquisitions right up until his death, so did you get the chance to interact with him? This seems like a film that should’ve been close to his heart.
RN: You know what? He was very involved in the decision for the company to take on the film, but I never got to meet him and I was really sad about it because I was an enormous fan. What’s really neat about Oscilloscope is they’re one of the few companies that reminds me of those old, great indie [music] labels that before there was iTunes and all that stuff where you could sample just one song any time you wanted. I used to have to drive an hour to the indie music store, the only one that was near us to buy records and you wouldn’t get to listen to [the songs beforehand]. You’d just have to buy it. If you were really lucky, the dude behind the counter who was like a total asshole would let you listen to one thing if he had already opened it himself, [but] other than that, you just had to pick something and buy it. And there was a few little indie labels that you always knew if they put something out, you could rely on them and time and time again, the bands would be good every time I checked them out. I feel like Oscilloscope is like that.
Adam was a huge part of that, and almost every film I ever see from Oscilloscope are these great films, these dark films and interesting films and these great documentaries. I love their stuff. And on the side of the spine of each DVD in their whole catalog, [there’s] a little part that the whole thing together spells out O-S-C-I-L-L-O-S-C-O-P-E across it, and our DVD is the very last one, the last piece of the puzzle.
MW: Big honor, man. Big honor.
RN: Yeah, I feel just so privileged to be in that company.
“Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best” opens on September 21st at the Village East Cinemas in New York and the Cinema 16:9 in Landsdowne, Pennsylvania before expanding on September 28th to the Sundance Sunset Cinemas in Los Angeles, the Hollywood Theater in Portland, Oregon and SIFF Cinema in Seattle. The film will also be available on VOD and iTunes beginning September 25th.