It was not easy bringing Becks back to the suburbs of St. Louis, either the young woman at the center of Daniel Powell and Elizabeth Rohrbaugh’s rousing dramedy — a down-on-her-luck musician retreating to her hometown after she learns her girlfriend’s been cheating on her — or the film that bears her name, as Rohrbaugh herself was making the move out of Missouri for New York in her personal life and it was financially unfeasible for the film to fly in crew that they trusted. Yet in each case, it was the challenge of authenticity that brought out the best in both, as Becks rediscovers who she is in a place that is rendered as unmistakably genuine (even if the filmmakers ended up shooting in upstate New York to double for Maplewood, St. Louis).
As deep an impression as “Becks” makes, it’s likely because Powell and Rohrbaugh’s roots in the area run deeper. The pair, who found quite a bit of professional success independently of one another — Powell, a co-creator of “Inside Amy Schumer” and Rohrbaugh, a longtime mastermind of MTV promos who brought a distinctive eye to nonfiction such as “Dylan” and “The Perfect Victim” — both grew up in St. Louis and Rohrbaugh “suspect[s] we went to summer camp together, although there’s no definitive proof of that yet.” They didn’t actually meet until they were introduced by Rohrbaugh’s husband, who went to college with Powell and loaned out his audio facility to him for the TV shows he worked on, but their collaboration suggests a close bond as “Becks” marries a sense of indelible local nuances picked up in their youth with the edge of pushing the envelope as much as they have for the culture at large as adults.
Able to allow the raw energy of its star Lena Hall, the electrifying actress known for her Tony-winning performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway, come through unmediated as Becks — whatever screen you see the film on stands no chance at diluting the film’s exuberance — the co-directors channel that live-wire quality into every facet of the film, making you want to stay in Maplewood as much as Becks wants to leave. Powell and Rohrbaugh give her plenty to reasons to stick around, as Becks comes to give guitar lessons to a lonely housewife (Mena Suvari) she meets while plying her trade at the local bar, run by her best friend from high school (Dan Fogler) and despite the differences with her religious mom (Christine Lahti), the two clearly enjoy needling each other with caustic quips. But it proves exhilarating to watch Becks let go of the life she put so much work into building to reinvent herself, drawing on the foundation she could only find at home, and equally thrilling to see Powell and Rohrbaugh apply a wealth of experience to crafting a first feature so confident yet so unexpected in how sensitive and intelligent it is.
Following the film’s premiere at the Los Angeles Film Festival last summer, “Becks” arrives in theaters and on VOD this week and to mark the occasion, Powell and Rohrbaugh spoke about how they came to collaborate on the film, drawing upon the real-life story of Rohrbaugh’s friend Alyssa Robbins (whose songs can be heard throughout the film), and how they managed to shoot something so polished on a tight schedule.
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: Dan and I had been talking about doing a film together and at the time, a good friend of mine, Alyssa Robbins, who the film is inspired by, had something that’s very similar to the film happen in real life. She was living in New York and her girlfriend convinced her to move out to L.A. to be with her and she got out there and the girlfriend had moved on, but she had given up her home in New York, so she stayed with her mom in the outskirts of Chicago, just trying to figure out where to go and what to do next. She started touring around the Midwest and she came through St. Louis, where I was living at the time, and she played at a really small, 24-hour, 12-seat diner called Tiffany’s Diner, and it was this amazing moment. Her performance was beautiful, but the clash of the type of songs that she was singing with this very blue collar Midwestern environment – and it happened to be right before the Michael Brown verdict was coming down, so there was a lot of tension in the city – and it just was this incredible coming together of worlds. And the audience loved the performance so much. They were very supportive and the diner owner was crying at the end and it just felt so cinematic to me, something I really connected to as an experience.
Dan and I had been talking about trying to find a way to meld some sort of documentary-type of experience or true story [with] a narrative film, and [Alyssa] had this incredible body of work that was so much about this actual breakup that she was using in this way to recover and heal. So we said to her, “Would you be open to letting us create a story about you and use your music really as a guideline for the film?” And then we started grading.
Are the songs in the film the same as you heard in the diner to some extent? Or were they adapted for the screen?
Daniel Powell: She had some early drafts of songs that she had been noodling with, but once she paired up with Steve [Salett], they were basically often rewritten and fleshed out to conform to the narrative that we were writing in the movie. Steve worked with her on the lyrics to be developed for the story and the screenplay that we had written.
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: And then they wrote a couple songs together as well.
Daniel Powell: Then there were a handful of songs that were fully from scratch, done just for the film.
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: That suggestion actually came from Alyssa, who saw her performing one night as we were talking about casting. She said, “I feel like she could play me and really get what we’re going for. And we looked into her and were just really into her. [laughs] Right away, we were so impressed with her sheer vocal musical ability. She can do things with her voice that I’ve never really heard that much of before and just the way in which she could approach a role with such natural ability was very exciting to us.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, I saw a video of her singing “Life on Mars,” which is my favorite David Bowie song that she performed the night David Bowie died, and I was just so blown away by the raw emotion behind how she delivered the song. We met with her in the lobby of the Algonquin to talk about the part and she just clearly connected to the role in the right way, so she ended up being the only person we met with. She was offered it off of that meeting.
She supplies a great deal of the film’s energy, but so does the vibrant camerawork by Kat Westergaard – what was it working with her to get this naturalistic yet colorful visual aesthetic?
Daniel Powell: I directed a commercial with Kat years ago, but really Liz had this relationship with Kat and just felt that she was the right shooter for it…
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: Yeah, I have worked almost exclusively with Kat for probably close to a decade. She shot a film called “True Adolescents” and I was just immediately taken with her. I knew what little resources there were and we met through mutual friends and then she’s just built up a tremendous body of work and has done some really interesting features [since]. When I was a director at MTV, I’d hire her whenever I could and then she also shot a documentary of mine that literally had no money. [laughs] Like I bought a video camera off of her and she was kind enough to travel with me to St. Louis many times and drive out to prisons in the middle of nowhere and stand on like a hot highway waiting for someone to walk out the door, so I’m a huge fan for life of hers. But we didn’t have a tremendous amount of money to shoot with and she really made magic with what we could provide her with in terms of resources.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, this is as indie as you can get. We did not have outside financing. The budget was entirely provided by my company and Liz’s, so we’re using all of our own personal capitol and assets to get this film together and we just had to be very, very deliberate with how the money was spent. That’s another thing – the movie was shot out of sequence because really to afford it, we had to shoot by location, so we shot all the stuff at [Becks’ mother’s] Anne’s [house] first and then Elyse’s house was in week two and then the bar was the location in week three. We had a couple pickup days for just the assorted other shots that were outside of those three locations, but it meant that Lena’s entire character’s arc was shot out of sequence, so that to me just makes her performance all the more impressive. I don’t want to spoil anything for anyone who hasn’t seen the film, but the only scene that Mena Suvari has in Anne’s house is a [late, provocative] scene that she had to shoot in location one, so Lena and Mena’s first scene together [was well into their onscreen relationship]. And obviously, it probably would’ve been better from a character perspective to shoot some other [scenes] before that, but they were very understanding about the the limitations of our budget and the need to shoot by location.
That’s crazy considering what happens in that scene. I’ve heard Liz say that there were real advantages to working as a duo. Were there certain ways you could divvy up the job to focus on specific things?
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: It was great and I loved co-directing with Dan. I’m sure that there are co-directing situations that could not go well, but because the film came together so quickly – we cast Lena in May, and we shot at the beginning of August, we just didn’t have that much time to put the production together. Due to Lena’s schedule — she was going on to do “Hedwig” in San Francisco — we had to get it done then if we wanted to work with her, which we did. I think because we had both worked in the industry for a while, but with different resources and different people, we could really pool all of that and then focus on different parts of the process with the same vision in mind.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, we also produced the film with our friend Alex Bach and she is a tremendous producer and was able to accomplish miracles on a 17-day shoot. It’s obviously an extremely difficult thing to pull off, but [we had] this divide and conquer mentality in pre-production that really helped us get it together in such a short amount of time. And then on set, we would go back and forth between one director focusing on the performance aspect and one really working with Kat to figure out the framing of a scene. We bounced back and forth between who was doing what, depending on the nature of a scene.
When you can’t be too precious, were there things that made it into the final film that came as surprises that you really could embrace?
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: Yes, definitely. There are a couple of moments, particularly with Mena, that I don’t think we anticipated how powerful they could be, particularly the end. She really brought that into the performance and really gave us a lot to work with in the edit.
Daniel Powell: Yeah, the scene with Mena at the end — that was something where we got one take – the final shot of her in the film was something that she just did in the moment and I think Kat could sense that something was happening, so we were in a wide shot, but Kat, just without us saying anything, picked up a camera and raced in to pull focus into a closeup, just in time to catch this tear falling down Mena’s face. That ends up being the last time you see her in the film and that was the only take. We didn’t instruct her to do that. It was just something she did in the moment and it ended up being really powerful.
The other scene I liked was in Becks’ bedroom with [Lena] and Michael Zegen where they’re catching up and then they start playing [music]. She starts drinking whiskey and improvising a song while he’s literally playing her guitar. We’d written that scene and we knew we wanted them to do a little bit of singing together or something musical together to show that they had this shared musical background, but so much of that scene is just Lena improvising the song that about half of it’s on the page, but the other half was Michael and Lena just improvising and having fun with their characters.
Something else I was really impressed with also was the treatment of religion – of course, you get such a wonderfully nuanced performance from Christine Lahti, but in writing it, was it a challenge to be respectful of it without ever feeling preachy in either one way or another?
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: One thing that helped us portray that in a realistic light was that it was true to life, so the development of that character was part of Alyssa’s own experience. Her mother had been a nun when she was younger and she grew up in a very musical family and they sang a lot in church, so having that background, it made it a lot more realistic to convey because that is truthful to her. And then in the same way, the relationship that the character has to her mom in regards to religion, and the way that religious perceptions have changed around having a gay child and the acceptance that’s come with that, is something that we really wanted to get across because the character doesn’t innately have an outward conflict with that anymore. That’s something that they’ve moved past.
Daniel Powell: It’s been funny because Liz has this years-long friendship with Alyssa and I only really met Alyssa through Liz through the context of this project. Obviously, we worked together a bit on the music and she was advising on the script, but ultimately, I think it made it easier for me to view the story as taking a handful of bullet points from Alyssa’s life and then having the freedom to create a fully fictional narrative that was inspired by it. Of course, if Alyssa had said “I’m not comfortable with this or that…” — and look, she points out at every Q & A, like “I did not have an affair with a married woman” [laughs] — but If she had been really uncomfortable with something, we would’ve removed it, but [with] Liz being close to her helped bring that authenticity and then me being less close to her, I was able to look at it [with a] bigger picture perspective about how [to] construct the story what we think is the best story to tell to audiences who have never heard of Alyssa.
Elizabeth Rohrbaugh: Alyssa was a good friend of mine for so long that she trusted us with the story and she’s a very warm and giving person in general, so I think while she had some nerves about it and we had some nerves showing it to her, I knew that it was going to be a good experience for her. And it has been. It’s been awesome to have her at festivals and we’ve had some really amazing moments together experiencing the film and seeing how she connects to it.