FIRST we see an empty staircase. Then, a pair of dress shoes slowly click-clacks down the steps. Careful hands withdraw a record and place it on an antique phonograph. An obscured figure begins to compose what must surely be a suicide note. You can't help but hold your breath. The movie is "Harold and Maude," and director Hal Ashby has already done more with that frame than most other directors do in an entire movie. But Ashby has left his masterstroke for last.
We begin to hear the music of a Cat Stevens song, "Don't Be Shy." It's optimistic, a love song to love itself, but in this context it's a magical counterpoint. The whole addictive tone of "Harold and Maude" is created in that one moment. The movie is suddenly epic and funny and full of promise. This is what happens when music and movies come together. The right song at the right time is a powerful concoction that can make a sequence, or even an entire movie. It scratches at your soul. Many years after first seeing "Harold and Maude" in a San Diego theater, I still think about that sequence and that song a lot. Hal Ashby made it all look easy.
Music, and particularly songs, can be a finicky partner to motion pictures. After all, both are often attempting to tell a complete story, their way, without the help of the other. But just between you and me, right up through my own sixth film as a director, "Elizabethtown," it's been the prospect of those long afternoons and evenings in the editing room, coaxing that marriage between the right song and the right scene, that's kept me going through the grueling parts of making a movie.
Often at 3 a.m., when lights aren't working, or a production problem has erupted, I'll drift back to that secret thrill -- well, it's not so secret, actually. Soon I'll have all this film in a room, along with my notebooks filled with music ideas, and the real fun will begin.
Often an idea for a movie will begin with a feeling, or a song. "Elizabethtown" (which opens Oct. 14) was no exception. I had been listening a lot to Ryan Adams, and Patty Griffin's great album "1000 Kisses," and was traveling with my wife, Nancy Wilson, and her band, Heart, on a tour in 2002. One morning I woke up on the tour bus to see those electric-blue landscapes of Kentucky, my father's home state, and felt a wanderlust. I hadn't been back since his funeral, years earlier, but suddenly I wanted off the bus. Soon I was, lost in Kentucky, driving in a rental car and listening to music I'd brought on CD mixes. I wasn't looking for creative inspiration, and of course, that's exactly when it arrived.
The entire story of "Elizabethtown" arrived quickly over the next couple of days, a tale of love and loss and the discovery of family roots in the aftermath of a very black turn of events in the life of a young shoe designer (Orlando Bloom). It was a story that would start with an ending, and end with a beginning and, I hoped, give a sense of what it was to be truly alive. I had been working on a different screenplay idea. Now, I was veering wildly down the Kentucky corridors and byways, making notes as I drove, feeling that rare inspiration.
"Elizabethtown's" music arrived almost fully formed too. I knew quickly that the story, named after a town near my father's birthplace of Stanton, Ky., would offer a chance to showcase a lot of new artists, writers like Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Josh Ritter and Kathleen Edwards, who are creating their own mini-movies in songs filled with deep resonance and imagery. I hoped with "Elizabethtown" that I could let the film breathe a little and take the time to let some of their music play. Much of what ended up in "Elizabethtown" was on those first CD mixes I listened to on the road, imagining the movie.
The movie itself contains a road trip and an elaborate mix-map that Kirsten Dunst's character makes for Orlando Bloom's. The map sends him on a trip across part of America, with her detailed instructions to visit specific places and listen to specific songs at specific times. We traveled across five states shooting the sequence, filming the scenes, using Eddie Hinton's "Yeah Man" in Memphis and the gospel pioneer Washington Phillips to score a visit to Oklahoma City, and much more.
My friend Ivan had the job of playing tracks from my iTunes playlist of appropriate songs, gathered in the months of preproduction. Music filled many of our shooting days, and the set pumped with the feeling of a great American radio station playing everything from bootlegs to new music to obscure gems and back again. It was the emerging sound of "Elizabethtown."
Inspiring a character