There’s a feeling in Robert Schwartzman’s “Dreamland” that’s hard to describe and yet the first-time director captures perfectly about the city of Los Angeles. Still imbued with the residue of the golden era of Hollywood, where speakeasys for the famous have been preserved for the wealthy and nostalgic while the fantasies of making it big still drives out-of-towners to live in cramped apartments they struggle to afford, the place remains wondrous for all its residents, caught between any number of extremes that leave one in perpetual curiosity about how the other half lives. Yet Schwartzman moves effortlessly between these opposite poles, finding a cadence in the cacophony, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows him well already as the lead singer of Rooney.
However, Schwartzman had actually planned on being a director first – after all, he had grown up on sets being the son of the actress Talia Shire and producer Jack Schwartzman, to say nothing of his uncle Francis Ford Coppola and the many actors and directors that he can call cousins. However, when the band he formed with friends in high school broke big, charting such hits as “Blueside” and “When Did Your Heart Go Missing?”, filmmaking was a dream deferred, something that Monty Fagin (Johnny Simmons), the beleaguered hero of “Dreamland” can relate to. Mismatched in his current relationship where steadiness has turned into dissatisfying routine and unable to get out since he can’t afford to live elsewhere besides his girlfriend’s mother’s abode, Monty still harbors a fantasy of owning a piano bar where he could perform nightly. With the checks from private lessons barely covering meals, it is unlikely he’ll get there any time soon, but hope arises in the form of Olivia (Amy Landecker), a bored socialite he meets while moonlighting at a club, eager for the attention of a younger man and thinks nothing of using her husband’s money to stake his entrepreneurial ventures.
Surely influenced by “The Graduate” and perhaps “8 1/2” as well, with many other nods to classic films along the way, “Dreamland” may tell the story of someone figuring things out, but Schwartzman shows both a distinctive touch of his own and preternatural feel for what cinema should be, fusing the striking visuals lensed by longtime Lynn Shelton cinematographer Benjamin Kasulke with the seductive score he authored together to offer something truly transporting. Shortly before the film hits theaters this week, Schwartzman spoke about how it took a break from music to make his first movie, but how the two mediums are linked creatively for him, in addition to casting the sage songwriter Jeff Barry for a cameo and creating “Dreamland”’s beguiling cinematic flow.
You’ve said you actually was interested in making movies even before making music, so what made this the right time to direct?
I started to free up a little time away from music because when you’re doing that, you can’t really do anything else. So you reach a point where you’re like if you want to do something, you just have to start doing it. I’d been doing my band Rooney and touring for so long that I was ready to take a break and start trying to pursue feature filmmaking.
Had the idea for “Dreamland” been in mind for a while?
I don’t know why this one became the one. I feel like if you’re trying to create something, when you start, if you feel an urge to work then you start to get ideas, and it’s hard to know which you run with. I had written other screenplays myself, but I approached my friend Benjamin Font, who is the credited co-writer, with this idea for the story of Monty Fagin, this struggling young man who doesn’t quite have his feet on the ground. He’s spiraling a little bit out of control, not having anything that he feels is where he wants to be in his life as far as his career and relationship. He’s a dreamer. He’s maybe lost some credibility with the people around him because he hasn’t quite followed through and he meets this woman Olivia [played by Amy Landecker] who makes him feel he can reach that dream and he does have something to offer.
[I think] sometimes people can lose hope and when you lose hope, you become more vulnerable, but other people can establish that in them, and I just loved the idea of this love affair that was kind of a fantasy, but there’s some good that came out of it for him. I also grew up in L.A., and I wanted to shoot a movie in the city that I love and grew up in and use locations that I might be able to get access to to make a low budget film. There was this piano bar in L.A. [where I’d] watch this older piano player who would play a lot of Gershwin music and he was an inspiration [in terms of thinking] what was this guy’s life like when he was in his twenties? And how did he get to where he got to? So I think as you craft an idea, you pluck things from your life – you take little mental notes and creative notes as you develop something. We just really started to develop this script and it was like you either go for it or you walk away from it and we wanted to go for it.
You really can feel how the world makes an impression on Monty without being heavy-handed about it. Was that challenging to convey?
You have this lead character Monty who has no friends in the movie, and he doesn’t talk to anybody until he meets Olivia, right? That’s interesting because you have a character going on this journey who doesn’t have a friend at the bar [to confide in], “Hey, I met this girl and she’s so interesting and wow, I’m having this love affair.” So he has to communicate a lot without saying anything and what’s great about that is I think you let people fill in the blanks because there’s a lot left to the imagination with the story. I think it’s important for a film to stoke your imagination and it’s not a dialogue-heavy movie. It’s really just a fabric — and I’m always really amazed when people create these really dense fabrics. Even a hand-woven rug, for example, every little thread tells a story — the shape, the patterns and the colors.
With “Dreamland,” I wanted to tell a story that feels woven in terms of all the pieces you’re seeing. It’s not just about trying to tell you, the audience, something about how these characters interact with each other or the dialogue that they speak. It’s really more about how do we communicate a feeling with the sum of all these parts. That’s what I love about films – when you fall into this world that’s been created and you’re taken on this journey.
This is probably one of the things you’re talking about, but I loved how the sound was overlaid and you really create that fabric in the film where one scene moves to the next so seamlessly. Did you know before shooting how you’d create a flow?
In post-production, we definitely had to create that momentum and for me, there is a parallel between my life and music because music is all about flow. A song has a flow, a tempo, and so does an album as a whole — it has a sequence to it. So to me, a movie is like one big song and you establish the beat in a lot of ways. It’s not just a kick drum. It’s the rhythm of the dialogue, of the [editing], where score comes in and out, the transitions, certain audio and sound effects, [the camera] panning – I think we have a lot of fun with this mix. My biggest thing in cutting this film was how do we establish a certain momentum because you’re dealing with a character that is making music and you have to establish a certain rhythm.
But we shot the movie with a tempo in mind. I acted in a few movies and Garry Marshall directed me in a movie [“The Princess Diaries”] and he would tell me to always speed up because he’s like, “Come on, we’ve got to go here! Keep going! (laughs) You’re slowing down too much!” Garry’s such an incredible comedic storyteller and I learned there’s a certain tempo to comedy. And we had to establish certain rhythms with these characters [in “Dreamland”] too within their performance [considering] the look of the film and the tempo within the scenes in terms of how they interact with each other. We had to massage this movie a lot and I didn’t want to settle for anything that I felt slowed the pacing of the film.
You really seem to take great care in giving all the women in Morty’s life their due, even though this is his story. Was that tricky?
We actually did different feedback screenings and I really do enjoy feedback. Once we had something that I felt was presentable, I liked showing the film and every tweak we’d make, we’d get another round of notes. One of the things you figure out is the balance of how these characters feel within the whole story. Being so close to the movie, you can remain objective, but you lose track of how other people perceive these characters, and it is ensemble film to me because there’s a lot of incredible actors in the movie and the characters they play have their own story. But we had to go back and figure out how to balance these characters because, for example, Frankie Shaw’s character Liz, there are cuts where the audience felt like she disappeared in the story, but you realize at the end of the day how much stuff you actually have to work with, and then the fun of it is trying to figure out how to tell this story with sometimes limited resources and it makes you think about things differently because you try to rework it.
We went back really trying to take the footage we had of [Liz] and then we had to pepper in other characters [into the film] so they wouldn’t get lost from the story. When Monty meets Olivia’s husband, we noticed that at some screenings, viewers felt as though they lost Olivia because he’s not really with her anymore after that, so we found ways to have these flashbacks where we can show you that he’s thinking about her to keep her alive in your mind as you’re watching this movie.
You also have one killer scene with a character named Fred Russo, the piano man that Monty is often brought into replace, where he has this great line about there being “12 notes in an octave,” referring to the choices one could make – infinite, but at the same time limited to start. Where did that come from?
Music theory is really founded on that, and that [character] Fred Russo is actually [played by] a Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame songwriter named Jeff Barry. I’m such a huge fan of his — he used to write with Phil Spector. Ellie Greenwich was his ex-wife and they wrote “Be My Baby,” “Chapel of Love,” “Da Do Run Run,” and “I Can Hear Music.” He’s legendary and we got to meet and co-write songs together and I asked him if he’d be in this movie. What’s cool about Jeff is he’s a storyteller — he always says, “Songwriting is storytelling. It’s inventing,” so I said to him, “Will you tell Monty a story? Just tell a Jeff Barry story. Talk to this guy. Give him some words of wisdom.” We only had three takes and that was one of the stories he told and he came up with on the spot.
Was directing what you thought it would be?
I really do enjoy the feeling of bringing people together — I’ve always enjoyed getting a potluck dinner together. I just like that feeling. And music does that. To me, live music is the ultimate bringing people together experience, which is why I think I’m so into it, but I found when I’m on a movie set, the feeling of actors and your crew, when they all get together to make something together, is a wonderful thing. No one was paid retirement money to work on this movie – it’s a labor of love for everybody. A lot of times you see big movies where somebody’s getting paid pretty crazy money to show up and people showed up [here] because they liked the project. That’s special when you have that because these people trust in the project and I liked the responsibility to keep that moving. It’s really something I loved working on, I really enjoyed this role and I can’t wait to make another one.