“You have a soft heart, don’t let people harden you,” Tanya Tucker can recall her mother Juanita telling her to Brandi Carlile as the two are working out the lyrics to a new song for her album “While I’m Livin’”. It is Tucker’s first time back in the studio for an album of her own for the first time since her beloved parents passed over a a decade ago, with memories resurfacing of them encouraging her to approach country legend Mel Tillis when she was just 9 to tell him of her dreams of singing just like him and being pulled up on stage to prove she was hardly just talk. She looms as large before Carlile as Tillis once stood in front of her, and each song opens the floodgates for Carlile to hear stories from Tucker’s unbelievable life journey, with her talent thrusting her into the public spotlight before she reached her teens and gaining plenty of material to put into her songs when she embraced the role of a rebel, modeling her career on Merle Haggard rather any of the ingenues that came and went while she ruled the roost.
Although she resisted the spotlight even before her parents’ passing, Tucker is always able to pour her heart out in the studio and Carlile had the forethought to capture it all on film, knowing that having the singer find strength in her voice again was well worth documenting and in “The Return of Tanya Tucker Featuring Brandi Carlile,” the director Kathlyn Horan and a small crew blissfully ignore the tenets of most music documentaries to properly observe the pillar of country music before them. Avoiding sit-down interviews or even secondhand commentary from people in Tucker’s life, the film comes alive in the intergenerational exchange between the two artists as Tucker wonders what she might have left to offer and Carlile, tugging at the slender threads she’s being offered in conversation, shows her being herself is more than enough. While Horan rarely leaves the two, she will occasionally dip into a wealth of home movies recorded by Tucker’s family during the earliest days of her career to show all the steps she’s traveled to become the person whose aching voice reflects how far she’s come, from daring to veer from the precocious image many had of her as a prodigal talent to her tempestuous relationship with Glen Campbell and ultimately finding her footing after a life of major highs and deep lows.
After a rousing premiere at SXSW earlier this year where it felt Tucker was completing her reclamation of her throne that began with recording “While I’m Livin’” and carried on through the Grammys where she would pick up the first in her illustrious career, “The Return of Tanya Tucker Featuring Brandi Carlile” is now beginning to unspool in theaters across the country and Horan spoke about honoring the artistry of her two subjects with a film that was equally intrepid in its approach, the importance of staying present in the moment during filming and the wild excavation of Tucker’s archives to find the precious 8mm footage from her youth that add resonance to the film.
How did this come about?
I’d known Brandi for a while – I met her through mutual friends – the Indigo Girls – and we’d done a couple projects together, so we were friendly. When she had this opportunity to work with Tanya, she had talked to Rick Rubin because he had done Johnny Cash’s American Recordings and I think Brandi was seeking advice overall, stepping into this place to work with a legend and how to approach it, and one of the things he said was “Make sure you document it.” That’s when I got a text from her wife on a Sunday morning and said, “You want to hear something crazy” – and I did. [laughs] Brandi hopped on the phone and explained everything they were going to go in the studio and do Tanya’s first record in 17 years and did I want to come film it, not knowing what was going to happen or even if Tanya was going to show up. And I said, “Yeah…” I think I said, “Hell yes,” actually.
Then I said, “When do we start?” and she said tomorrow. Luckily, my DP Jessica Young was available and one of my best pals Denise Plumb was able to come in [as a DIT], and Fred Stuben came in to do sound, so all the right people were available to step in and make this happen with less than 24 hours’ notice.
It’s a little hard to imagine there was such short notice when filming in the studio, such an intimate space is clearly done so thoughtfully, both in terms of presentation and avoiding interfering in the creative process. What was this like to capture?
That’s the reason I work with Jessica. I shot some of the film myself as well when Jessica wasn’t available, but for the scenes in the studio, Jessica has an incredible eye and is an extraordinary DP. We shot it on an AMIRA with Prime lenses, and the most important part of all of this is to know how to be present in a space and disappear. One challenge was to not make yourself apparent and distract from the creative process and then the other editorially was how to make this as exciting and interesting as it was in the room because it’s static. It’s a lot of talking and recording and to be in that space was one of the most extraordinary experiences I’ve had in a studio watching musicians work. It was intimate and exciting [especially] seeing a song [“Bring My Flowers Now”] go from the incarnation to all the way through to the end, which is something I’d never seen captured. Most folks walk into the studio with their songs ready – or at least mostly ready, but you see the idea and follow the whole process.
Did you latch onto that pretty quickly as something that could pull you through this entire film?
I knew there were songs I wanted to be threads – a lot of them were very personal, even the cover songs that they changed the lyrics to, and in the way Tanya sings, it’s like she’s stepping into something and telling a story she’s been telling forever, so I wanted the songs to be either as jumping off points into the archival or we could see all these key parts of a process of a song from incarnation to awards – and I didn’t know until it was Grammy-nominated that it could be a complete thread, so that came through in the end.
I also knew writing “The House That Built Me” was one I wanted to show to highlight Tanya’s perfectionism because she’s such an incredible vocalist and also so respectful of other people’s work. Her dad has always told her, “Don’t loiter around certain songs if they’ve been done, don’t try and do them again.” So when she chose to do the Miranda Lambert song, it was gorgeous and I wanted to highlight what that process was for her and when we get to see her hear it back, which is also still painful for her, but for [her to see] an audience hear it and understand, like “My God, why are you so hard on yourself?” Because this is just vocal perfection.
The film so distinctive in how simple you’re able to keep things – it really stays within the relationship between Brandi and Tanya and there’s no sit-down interviews with anyone. Was that in mind from the start?
It wasn’t there from the start. I had written a deck of the whole thing and the plan was to interview other outlaws like Wanda Jackson and Willie Nelson, and it could have that structure of what is a more standard biopic, but the more that we filmed, [we recognized] a lot of producers will tend to stay in the studio, put the record out and they’re not as involved as Brandi is in the whole process because this was not just putting a record out. This was the whole relaunch of her career, and I’m using Tanya’s term because she doesn’t like the word “comeback,” and I agree with her. She never went anywhere, but it’s still bringing this new record out and all that means and all that has to happen, so the question when we sat down in the edit was can we find everything we need to know in the verite? Interviews are great as you need them, but our hope was you could tell the story, just in Brandi and Tanya’s voices because Brandi was [getting] us information just out of her own curiosity of having her hero in front of her. Once we laid that out and I got a hold of Tanya’s archive, that was the mission.
Then I wanted Tanya to have a film that felt like her and for it to feel like her, it needed to be forward-moving and exciting and strong and vulnerable and hilarious. The best way to do that seemed to be just spend time with Tanya on this journey. It’s very hard to cut away from Tanya Tucker to something else. [laughs] So it was a question and I was definitely influenced by other films that are more songwriting verite films like “Heartworn Highways,” for example. The other influence was “Thelma and Louise.” But with a happier ending.
The synthesis of the archival interviews she did with mainstream outlets and the home movies that serve as the context to all of this felt very immediate and alive. How did that come about?
That was the biggest challenge of this film was how to add archival into a verite film that didn’t feel like, “I’m going to tell you this and here’s what you need to know.” Then there’s the challenge of how much do you need to know because no one film can hold the life of any artist, particularly Tanya Tucker, who has 50 years in the business and an incredible origin story to boot. Brady Hammes is my editor and Toby Shimin is my supervising editor and I have to give them the props for weaving these things together.
Just doing my own research, I had seen old music videos of [Tanya] that had footage of her when she was young, so I knew it existed and I asked Tanya about it and she said, “I think that’s stuffed in some trailer somewhere in Oklahoma and I don’t know what happened to it.” I was in the belief that we were going to find it and it wasn’t until we completed filming that we actually went and got this archival. She had all this stuff in her basement, all different boxes of everything, and I open one and there’s the People Magazine with Glen Campbell on it, then there’s a photo of her as a kid playing in a bar and then in an envelope, there’s her baby teeth – I’m sure it’s an ingredient to some potion somewhere [for eternal youth]. We kept going through these boxes – and my producer Daniel Torres was with me through this process – and after the fourth or fifth day in the very back corner underneath all these boxes of VHS and three-quarter-inch beta tapes, I pull out this last box and there are all these reels and reels of Super 8 film, and it was like, “Thank the Lord.”
I got them transferred and I was mesmerized by what was captured. [The family] didn’t have two pennies to rub together, but her father knew to spend his money on the right things, so they documented so much of their lives coming up and not only was it well-documented, but shot really well. There’s like a tracking shot [where] she’s riding on a horse down the road and it’s shot from a car, so it was like, “Thank you Beau Tucker” and I thank her brother Don probably as well, to have thought to film her from a car while she’s riding. Ultimately, that’s what gave us this ability to have a verite feeling in the archival, so it felt a little bit more seamless to transition to and it felt maybe a little bit more like the present day, but dreamlike memories of the past. Tanya was talking so much with Brandi about what was heavy on her mind — her parents and her time coming up — and I would at the Super 8 and was like, “Wow, that’s the footage of them driving up to the Grand Old Opry” or “that’s the footage of them driving up to Nashville.” Many of the stories she told, I had the imagery to support, so I tried to weave that as a compelling piece as the verite.
It was so elegantly done. Were there any breakthroughs putting together certain sequences or even the juxtapositions created by the sequences as they made their way into the film as a whole?
There were many breakthroughs in that we got stuck a lot in trying to figure out what are the important things to know, but wanting it to feel organic as these things came together, so we started having Brady put these thematic pods [of archival material] together and then we pulled these bits apart as we would see them. The Elvis piece was maybe the first breakthrough, which is actually one of my favorite moments. [We had] the question of how do we introduce Elvis or how do we get to that piece, and whose voices are going to be in these? Ultimately, we kept coming back to making sure that this was in Tanya’s voice because in the beginning of the film, we set it up [as others] mostly asking questions of Tanya, and how the media would portray her and then as we get into the archival journey, we want to keep it mostly in Tanya’s voice as much as possible. Elvis, for example, was from a Chet Flippo interview she did for Rolling Stone when she was on the cover at 15 and that took a really long time to find, but once we found a style and what we could weave together, it was there was the technical breakthrough and then the narrative breakthrough.
Have you been able to have a similar moment as Brandi seeing Tanya appreciated because you’re part of this now?
Yeah, and honestly when Sony Classics, who picked it up at South By for theatrical distribution and to have the film as widely released as possible — eventually it’ll be on Netflix, that’s incredibly exciting. I was just in New York on the press tour and Brandi and Tanya were on the Today Show and she was having a really good time. As you see in the film, she struggles a little bit with the dog and pony show of it all of being a performer. She loves her fans and when she gets on stage, she loves performing, but all the stuff around it, as with any artist, is just a little bit tough, so I was hoping I wasn’t going to put Tanya in a position to do things that she didn’t enjoy, and through this process of the film, I see that she’s actually enjoying it. That’s really the most important part and the moment I feel good about is her actually having a blast. Making Tanya Tucker happy makes me happy.
“The Return of Tanya Tucker Featuring Brandi Carlile” is now open in Los Angeles at the Sunset 5 and the Laemmle Royal and New York at the Angelika Film Center and the Loews Lincoln Square. It will expand in the weeks ahead to theaters across the country. A full list of cities and dates is here.