When Ami Canaan Mann came to SXSW in 2011 to talk up her sophomore feature “Texas Killing Fields,” she didn’t have to look further than just outside of the Austin Convention Center for the idea for her next film. Walking past a group of buskers engaged in good ol’ fashioned bluegrass hootenanny, she was struck by the pure passion of the players, particularly the banjo player Nick Hans, as they performed a symphony on the street.
A similar scene would become the turning point for “Jackie and Ryan,” Mann’s third feature, which uses that encounter to change the lives of its two titular musicians with completely different outlooks on their art. While Ryan (Ben Barnes) is a troubadour eager to ply his craft anywhere there’s an audience, literally train hopping from town to town, he crosses paths with Jackie (Katherine Heigl), a wounded songbird whose marriage is ending after her record deal turned sour, leading her to fight against having her life become a country song as she tends to her young daughter. Ryan’s arrival in Jackie’s small town just outside of Ogden, Utah proves a creative boon to them both, but perhaps no more so than it is to Mann, who last directed the pitch black murder mystery “Texas Killing Fields” and returns with a heartfelt but admirably resolute meditation on art as a commercial pursuit and a soulfully healing form of expression.
Shortly before the film arrives in theaters after premiering last fall at the Venice Film Festival, Mann spoke about her inspiration for “Jackie and Ryan,” her adventures in trainhopping and how she became interested in filmmaking in the first place.
When you start out on a story like this, did you develop Ryan based on the busker first and then find Jackie, or did they become reflections of each other as you developed the script?
They were really reflections of each other. It was more a thought experiment than I thought it would be. What if you were telling a story about somebody whose only goal was not to get involved in commerce or get a producer, but really just to be very, very good at something that they love doing. This is what I saw in the musicians in Austin. They just wanted to be very, very good at playing music. That was it and I have a lot of respect for that. Then I thought, what if that person met somebody who was the antithesis of that? That they had that instinct initially, but somewhere had lost their way. What if those two people met each other just for a moment?
We’ve all had those experiences where we meet someone who changes our life, and sometimes we marry them and they’re with us forever. But sometimes it’s this one key conversation at an airport terminal that changes everything, and those relationships aren’t any less important. I was thinking about a love story where two people change each other’s lives just for having come together for those couple days and change everything about each other.
I’ve certainly had those experiences myself where sometimes a stranger will say something to you and you feel that there was something bigger at hand. You were supposed to meet that person at that time of your life, and they were supposed to say these things to you, and then you were supposed to change where you were going and go a different way.
Is it true you went trainhopping like Ryan?
It took me a while to convince Nick, my friend who was a consultant on the movies who’s the train hopper to take me because it’s dangerous, and nobody who’s reading this should go because it’s also illegal. But I felt like I couldn’t finish the screenplay until I go myself or else I’m a liar. I couldn’t make it up. I wanted to know what the weather felt like and what the train sounded like. It’s different riding a train that way than riding it as a passenger in a passenger car. I wanted to know how cold the metal was and what it smelled like.
It was great to get to have all those experiences and then try, as best I could, to incorporate them into the film. Hopefully, in that opening sequence, you feel as if you’re there, traveling through the country in that way.
In both this film and “Texas Killing Fields,” it seems like there’s this subtextual tension between small town environments and attitudes and their urban counterparts. Is that coincidence or something of recurring interest?
It’s definitely something I think about a lot. I grew up in a really small town in Indiana – 900 people. Then my mom and I moved to a bigger town, which I think had 45,000 people, and when I came out to LA to go to college, it was definitely a culture shock. I’ve been out here a long time, but what that experience [in Indiana] solidified in me was this respect for place. Where we come from so much defines who we are, and how we look at and how we walk through the world. Even though you can’t always go home, you carry that sense of home in you. The contrast between where we come from, the attitudes that we learn from where we come from, and how that conflicts with where we end up is something I’m thinking about in both these films.
It leads me to ask, where did you find this house with this incredible view of the sky?
I just happened on it. A lot of my location decisions were based on availability of light because we shot the film in 20 days. We couldn’t have three hours to light something. I needed to have places that had windows that had a certain quality of light coming through them, where we could just set up a 2k [camera] and we’d be good to go. I had the good fortune of working with [cinematographer] Duane Manwiller, who was ready to go along with me on that plan, and it worked out beautifully.
But I love location scouting. I usually go myself and spend a lot of time doing it. I don’t like looking at pictures because I think on instinct, you can just find places, and that house was one of them. I was like, “I think there might be something if we turned at the right,” and then there was this house on the hill, and we filmed there for seven days.
I’d guess you had to wait for some of those perfect moments during magic hour – one scene in particular where Jackie and Ryan are on the porch, and it’s an ethereal pinkish blue…
We did wait for that shot. That’s a little film trick. We did the same with the rooftop [scene] too. We waited until the light was perfect, then I said to them, “Okay, we have one take, so make it good,” and they nailed it. It worked.
It was also interesting how you depicted the creative process – it felt like one artist capturing another because of the specific details you honed in on. How did you decide what was important to show?
I was a violist when I was a kid, so I like for there to be specificity and detail in music. Because I was doing a movie about music, I wanted to make sure if you hear a C note, you’re seeing someone play a C note. If you hear vibrato, you’re seeing someone play vibrato.
I also have to give huge kudos to Ben [Barnes] who did not know how to play the guitar, so what we did was, Nick, who was the consultant, played the guitar in the movie, so for most of what you hear, we did two version of songs – one we called the “mime” version, and one which was the more complicated, true version. Ben learned the easier version of the song, and we choreographed the music so that when I had the camera going across his hands, it would look as if I could tuck in the more complicated version under what he was doing, and it would feel as if he was playing it. So it was this confluence of picking the right tune, arranging it in the right way, Ben being brilliant at learning as much as he did in such a short period of time [on the guitar], and then Nick’s incredible playing, for it all to come together.
If Ben didn’t know how to play guitar before shooting, what made you think he could become Ryan?
There were two things about him, actually. It was imperative for whoever was going to play Ryan that when the camera landed on them, everyone in the audience believed that he had a heart of gold, that he was not on the make or in any way devious, but he also had to be street smart. With Ben, he’s so generous and warm, it’s all right there. You just trust him. I’d also seen Ben do some other performances where he completely transformed himself, so I thought to myself, this is a guy who has enough bravado as an actor that he’s going to throw himself into it completely. He’s going to transform his shoulders, the way he carries his head, and the way that he walks – his gait – to the persona of the character that he’s going to create. I’m very pleased to say I think I was right.
Then what he did with the guitar was astonishing. Here, I’m going to geek out on you for a second – that ended up really being about, weirdly, his arms. I guess I knew this instinctually as a musician myself, but what I said to Ben was, “You’ve got to own this instrument. It’s got to be part of your body. That’s like 50% of believing that you’re playing it.” He just took that in and then just knocked it out of the park.
Given your background, it seems like you were always destined to be some kind of artist, but do you feel like you chose filmmaking or filmmaking chose you?
I started off as a still photographer, and I always wrote. I didn’t really grow up watching movies. It was really photography and reading incessantly, and then writing. Later, like in my late teens, I had an opportunity to be on a film set, and I just fell in love with production. I loved the idea that people were awake at three in the morning, trying to create something that had no basis in reality at all just because they wanted to tell a good story and tell it well. I loved that process. Then it all came together. I realized that in film, there was the writing, there was the photography, there was the music, and there was the beautiful obsession.
“Jackie and Ryan” opens on July 3rd in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall, New York at the Village East and other select markets. It will also be available on VOD.