Tuesday, August 19, 2014

INTERVIEW: Josh Becker on The Magnificent Ambersons Of Unreleased Folk Musicals: If I Had A Hammer

 Josh Becker on his still as-of-yet unreleased musical IF I HAD A HAMMER.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What was your initial inspiration for what would eventually become IF I HAD A HAMMER (1999)?

BECKER:  I was reading Peter Bogdanovich's book Who The Devil Made It...There was an interview in there with Allan Dwan, a director who had been working since the Silent Era in Hollywood.   He was talking about a how he had wanted to make a musical but the company that he was working for wouldn't put up the money for the songs, so he made it about Stephen Foster because all of those songs were in the public domain.    I thought that it would be cool to make a movie with all of those older songs that were in the public domain.   But I didn't end up sticking with that idea because the song "If I Had A Hammer" wasn't actually in the public domain, but most of the songs that we used from the '20s by Huddie Ledbetter for example fell under that.  I came up with the idea to use the folk songs in the folk era, but I think that whole idea really came out of my admiration for Orson Welles' THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS (1942).    Because that's a film about the ending of an era and the start of another.    My story takes place in what I believe to be the last weekend of the folk movement.  That movement had been so strong.  Bob Dylan had came into the spotlight, Elvis was gone off to Germany via the Army, Little Richard and Chuck Berry had been busted for tax evasion.  Rock 'n' Roll had been effectively killed by 1958.   There was this rise of the folk movement between 1958-64.  

There is no reference to THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS in the film, but it is the concept that I put into the script.   The girl in IF I HAD A HAMMER represents the folk era, and the boy represents the new incoming Rock 'n' Roll era.  It was the last weekend of the folk era because at the end of that weekend The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (1948-1971)

Josh Becker and actor Brett Beardslee
TV STORE ONLINE:  How long did it take you to write the script for IF I HAD A HAMMER?

BECKER:  Oh, not long.  It doesn't take me very long to write a script.  It probably took me like three months to finish it.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Was the folk era something that was of interest to you before you had decided to make the film?

BECKER:  Certainly.  I've always been a fan of The Weavers. I wasn't a huge folk fan though, but I did like The Weavers because they would cover the songs of Leadbelly. I did a lot of studying up on the movement while I was writing the script, and during that time I discovered this 1964 Playboy magazine from the particular month that The Beatles appeared on Sullivan and inside it there was this really cool lexicon of words that were considered "out" and the words that were also considered "in".  For example, it said that "cool" was out, and that "tuff" was in.  So I used that in the script.   Another hip word was "boss".  That all came from that Playboy issue.

Beardslee as 'Phil Buckley'
TV STORE ONLINE:  Is there any aspect of Josh Becker in the "Phil Buckley" character in IF I HAD A HAMMER?

BECKER:  Well, I can't play the guitar.   I did take guitar lessons as a kid, but it hurt my fingers.  There is a little bit of me in every character that I've ever written.

TV STORE ONLINE:   What I really admire about the film is that you've created this array of characters that seem on initial introduce to be cliche, but they all transcend that by the end of the film...

BECKER:   Everybody represents something except Phil [Brett Beardslee] in the movie.  Everyone has a cause and each stands for something.  Phil doesn't and he's faking it.  Even the heroin junkies in the film care about issues.  Everyone cares about something except for Phil.   I've always thought that that was what Rock 'n' Roll was all about.   Look at Punk Rock, and how the musicians took pride in not being able to play their instruments.   

TV STORE ONLINE:   The film is very smoky too...

BECKER:  I made everyone smoke in the film.  I made the Prop Guy go around and give everyone cigarettes.   My memories of 1964, when I was a little kid, was that everyone smoked.   I remember as a kid seeing a cigarette commercial that featured "Fred Flintstone" smoking.   It was a totally different world back then.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Was the film easy to cast for you?

BECKER:  Oh No.  There was a lot of casting. 

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did every actor that you cast in IF I HAD A HAMMER actually have musical ability?
Actress Lisa Records and Brett

BECKER:   Well, I had a Casting Director.   I said to her, "All the actors have to be able to sing, play an instrument and act."  She said, "Well you're setting the bar awfully high, aren't you?"  I said, "I'm not asking them to dance."  If you came to Hollywood back in the '40s you damn well better have known how to sing, dance and act.   Making the film in Los Angeles made that fairly easy because there was no shortage of actors that could play the guitar.   I had quite a few casting sessions, and I put together my own Weavers with "The Four Feathers".  That group had never met each other before they started work on the movie.   I had the most challenging time casting the role of "Bobby Lee Baker".  I couldn't find anyone for that part.  I auditioned actors for that part for weeks.  Eventually I just had actors come to my house.   Usually I could find someone who could sing, but they just couldn't be angry.   Then the Casting Director sent over David Zink. He came over to my house.   He lit a cigarette and we started going through a scene.  As the character he got really angry and he took his cigarette and threw it down on my carpet and grounded it out.   I said, "Fuck, you've got the part!"   

TV STORE ONLINE:  I like how the film flirts with filmic time and space...The story unfolds in a real time, but it also exists in this interpretation of that particular time. It seems very specific to you...   The film feels like it exists in this sort of pop culture purgatory...

BECKER:  I get what you're saying...I've always thought that the whole thing is an allegory and I can't tell you honesty that I was intending to do what you're talking about.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Most of the characters in your films seem to take stock in their eccentric personalities.  I'm thinking about the quirkiness of the characters in IF I HAD A HAMMER but also the characters in LUNATICS: A LOVE STORY (1991)...  You seem to be attracted to the eccentric love story in your work...

Becker on the Los Angeles set of IF I HAD A HAMMER

BECKER:   Well, we could mention RUNNING TIME (1997) as well.   I went for the happy ending on that.   The thing about IF I HAD A HAMMER is that "Lorraine" [Lisa Records] represents a different era.  She represents the folk era and so there is no way that she and Phil could have ended up together because of what each of them represent.

TV STORE ONLINE:   When I first saw the film I was really enamored with the character that actress Lisa Records played and then over repeated viewings I had become more enamored with the character that Brett Beardslee plays because of how eccentric, goofy and awkward that Phil Buckley character actually is... 
BECKER:   There are two leads in the film, but Phil is really the main lead.  The funny thing about Brett was that he actually plays guitar very well, and it was because of that I think that Phil's awful guitar playing in the movie actually comes across as really convincing.    It was a fun movie to shoot because that set was always musical.  Because everyone played instruments it was like a non-stop Hootenanny going on.  Everyone was playing music with everyone every day.

  TV STORE ONLINE:   Brett Beardslee is really incredible as Phil Buckley...

BECKER:   When he came in for the casting session, he just stole that part.   He just nailed it.  He really got it, and that is what is great about casting sessions.   You'll see twenty people and none of them will be right or they just won't get it, and then that one person will walk through the door and instantly you just know that they are the person that you're looking for.

Actress Lisa Records as 'Lorraine'

TV STORE ONLINE:  Let's talk about the visual style of IF I HAD A HAMMER...You and I have talked in the past about the visual aesthetic of LUNATICS: A LOVE STORY and your love of using big colors.  I love the big usages of the colors red and green in IF I HAD A HAMMER...

BECKER:  I just wanted as much color as I could get.  On IF I HAD A HAMMER I shot a very slow film stock, and I wanted it to look like one of old movies that was shot on Kodachrome.   

TV STORE ONLINE:  It's like a psychotic Technicolor..... It gives the film a slightly surreal look and feel - there is a way colors hit certain faces in the film and then also how those lights hit those older out-of-place people in the folk club in the tuxedos...

BECKER:   I was just trying to populate it with every kind of character that I could think of.  It's probably unrealistic because of that.   Like when the rich kids show up and start doing impressions of Jim Backus from IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD (1963).   It was just one of those things where once I had conceived myself of the idea I knew that I had to make it.   Along the way, people would ask me, "Who are you making this film for?"  I said, "I'm making it for me!"  It had no stars.  If I would've been smart I would've cast Bruce Campbell in the film as the 'Emcee'.   There wasn't a distributor in Hollywood that would touch the film after it was completed, and it ended up putting me in bankruptcy.  There just wasn't an interest in a folk music musical....(Laughing) 

Interview Conducted By:  Justin Bozung
Photos courtesy of Becker Films
To purchase a DVD of IF I HAD A HAMMER please visit Josh Becker's official website here.