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By Kathy Blackwell | March 3, 2017 | People
With the premiere of Song to Song at SXSW, the great Austin director Terrence Malick takes on romance and rock 'n' roll. Here we catch up with his film producers Nicolas Gonda and Sarah Green ahead of the film's screening.
Austin’s music scene is the backdrop for Terrence Malick’s long-awaited film, Song to Song, which features (from left) Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman (not shown) as two entangled couples dealing with love and betrayal.
Song to Song is the perfect movie to open South by Southwest: It's the work of one of American cinema’s most esteemed filmmakers, Austin's very own Terrence Malick, and the movie stars some of the most exciting actors working today (Rooney Mara, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, and Natalie Portman). Plus, it’s about the music scene. In Austin. And it was shot at two South by Southwests, three ACL Music Fests, and twice at the late, great Fun Fun Fun Fest (including during the movie’s development stage).
Although filming wrapped up five years ago, seasoned fest-goers vividly remember all the sightings of Malick and crew following the stars through the crowds, backstage, and even on stage, with one of the more memorable events being when Mara played bass with the Black Lips for a set during FFF, only to be interrupted by a wild Val Kilmer, who cut his hair on stage. Will this make the movie? Right now, all we have is a lush, mysterious two-minute trailer. But on March 10, a red-carpet world premiere at the Paramount Theatre will kick off SXSW, with the movie opening wide just one week later.
Austin Way recently talked to two of Malick’s longtime producers, Nicolas Gonda and Sarah Green, about what audiences can expect. (Green, also a producer for Austin filmmaker Jeff Nichols on Loving and other movies, will be among those honored March 9 at the Austin Film Society’s star-studded Texas Film Awards).
As with Terrence Malick’s other recent movies, the trailer for Song to Song is more like a short poem than a plot overview, which is part of the mystery. What can you tell us about Song to Song?
NICOLAS GONDA: To be most exact, it’s a modern love story set against the Austin, Texas, music scene that involves two entangled couples: a struggling songwriter, played by Rooney Mara, and another character played by Ryan Gosling, as well as a music mogul played by Michael Fassbender, and a character whom he ensnares played by Natalie Portman. They chase success through a rock ’n’ roll landscape of seduction and betrayal. That’s how we refer to it in short form, but as with every Terrence Malick movie, there’s a very rich plot in these relationships between deep characters. They reveal elements of love—and relationships with love—that will probably strike a universal chord.
SARAH GREEN: Exactly. These are characters who are on the verge of success. They’re struggling with their careers and work, and the demands of rock ’n’ roll life while trying to form these personal relationships and fall in love with each other, or in lust with each other. It’s a complicated world; it’s a fast-paced world. Ultimately, it turns on forgiveness.
What kind of music research was involved?
Gonda: We filmed at music festivals repeatedly for several years, even throughout the course of development, just by way of the fact that we’re based in Austin and had a partnership with C3 [Presents] and Transmission [Events] that enabled access to ACL as well as South by Southwest and Fun Fun Fun Fest. It enabled us as a team, especially Terry, to immerse ourselves in this atmosphere. It definitely provided a great vantage point for the music scene, especially in the festival atmosphere with these ephemeral lives, ephemeral relationships, where people come together and then disperse so quickly.
Green: Terry wrote the story for these four characters and their relationship with each other and the plot of what happens, but because we were in Austin, [in addition to shooting at the festivals], we were able to connect with individual musicians who were coming through Austin, many of whom were interested in working with us. We were able to talk directly with some very prominent musicians and work with what they had to say in their real lives. They’d do improv with our actors and talk about their experience with being on the road, being in relationships, being in rock ’n’ roll. We have some pretty amazing footage with Patti Smith and Iggy Pop, and some amazing musicians.
What kind of role does music itself play in the film?
Green: We hear a fair amount of music. We hear portions of live performances while we’re backstage or out in the crowd, and we have track music that reflects our characters in their minds. We have a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and then Terry is so well-versed in the classical world as well, so it’s a mixture of both.
With so much footage over several years, would you say Song to Song is one of Malick’s more massive undertakings?
Gonda: On every Terry film, there’s always so much to shoot. On all of his films that I’ve been a part of, for the vast majority of our schedule, the camera is rolling. Especially now with digital technology, they can go so much farther than what films would enable. So, I would say, in terms of input, it was comparable to his other movies. Obviously, what’s so exciting about Song to Song is that it’s a whole different world. [Last year’s] Knight of Cups was the first time that Terry was really embracing the modern world in a metropolitan city. Here, he’s going even farther into very modern relationships and modern existences and modern forms of love. With such a philosophical mind like he has and a tenacity to explore the unexplored, there was so much more to film. Throw Terrence Malick in the middle of ACL, and you’re going to see a lot of things that even the average person wouldn’t see in terms of the symbolism and imagery.
This will mark the first time Malick has shown a film at SXSW. What does this festival mean for you?
Green: We were really, really excited to be invited to SXSW. It’s just the right festival for this movie because it’s such a music-driven festival and so Austin-related. We were really happy in "hometown-land" because there’s a lot of competition to get into SXSW, and we were really delighted to be invited to opening night. We wanted to be there—we designed it to be there.
Gonda: Austin itself is really the epicenter of Terry’s creative process. Whenever we film elsewhere, we come back to Austin to cut, and so many of our core collaborators are based there. To be able to launch the film in what is the hometown of our creative process is so exciting.
Green: Besides all the actors like Cate Blanchett, Holly Hunter, and Val Kilmer—we worked with some extraordinary actors from the area. A wealth of Texas folk are in the movie, both musicians and actors.
What excites you the most about Song to Song?
Gonda: What’s really exciting is that in the history of cinema and where we are today, in a time when so many stories and narratives have been told, it’s very difficult to rearrange a narrative in a way that is new and innovative. It’s really the language of film that is evolving, and Terry is at the forefront of that. Somebody who back in the beginning of his career in the '70s was pushing forward the language of cinema and how it can continue to involve—here he is in 2017 continuing to do that. I think what people will find in Song to Song is that there’s yet another verse in this language of cinema that he’s helping to write, and it’s something that really only he could do because it’s so unique to his style. It’s incredible to see somebody that courageous really pushing forward such a vision at a time like this. We encourage people, as always, to come in with an open mind and an open heart, and we expect they’ll find that there’s parts of their consciousness that are awakened by the themes and messages in this film.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY VAN REDIN / BROAD GREEN PICTURES