Skip to main content

How Anne Hathaway, Jenny Lewis Built Johnny Flynn’s Musical Identity in ‘Song One’

Among the scripted films making their premieres at Sundance, one film stands out as the most musical: "Song One." Set in Brooklyn and including cameos from locals Elizabeth Zinman of Elizabeth and…

Among the scripted films making their premieres at Sundance, one film stands out as the most musical: “Song One.” Set in Brooklyn and including cameos from locals Elizabeth Zinman of Elizabeth and the Catapult, DJ Dan Deacon and gospel-blues singer Naomi Shelton, “Song One” takes a journey to the fictionalized music world of James Forester, played by Johnny Flynn.

Forester is the idol of a budding songwriter, who is hit by a car and winds up in a coma. Anne Hathaway plays his sister, Franny, and attempts to learn about her brother’s life, crossing paths with Forester and sharing musical adventures together. It’s the feature film debut of writer-director Kate Barker-Froyland and is produced by Marc Platt, Jonathan Demme, Hathaway and her husband Adam Shulman, among others.

More From Sundance

Hathaway spoke with Billboard in Park City on Tuesday afternoon. Jenny Lewis, who hopes to have her second solo album completed for a spring release, and Johnathan Rice wrote the songs for the film and scored it as well. The team took us through the creation of music for “Song One.”

Start with the music.
Hathaway and Shulman were becoming friends with Lewis and Rice around the time they became involved with “Song One” and while Hathaway says Jenny and Johnny were her first choice, she didn’t want to test the friendship. After a a review of the script, Lewis and Rice submitted “Little Yellow Dress” and got the gig.

“It was dizzying how fast the music came together — it was this period of a few months in the summer of 2012,” Hathaway says. “It was the best summer. We were in upstate New York, planning our wedding, and we would be walking the dog and Adam would look at his phone and say ‘new song.’ Once we knew we had the music, it was crucial to find James Forester.”

Make hard and fast rules about the music and performer.
Hathaway remembers the first meeting with Barker-Froyland and the producers: “If we can’t agree on the music we pull the plug. If we can’t find James Forester we pull the plug. We met so many great actors who were not quite believable as musicians and fabulous musicians who didn’t quite have the acting there yet. It went for over a year. Then (Johnny) Flynn arrived.”

Adds Barker-Froyland: “James had to be believable not just as a musician, but this musician. He’s a very shy person who this success happened to.” There was a magnetism that this character had to have.”

Create an entire album.
Taking their cue from the script — Forester had made one album that had been released five years earlier and he was struggling to write new material – Rice and Lewis discussed musicians with cult followings known for a brilliant album – Bill Fox, Bill Callahan and Neutral Milk Hotel. “It was evident in the script he had made this record that just affected a small group of people profoundly,” Rice says. “We started thinking about those recordings that reflect that outsider art thing and we set out to make one of those.”

Billboard + Sundance

Let the actor give an interpretation.
Rice and Lewis would submit songs to Demme, Hathaway and Barker-Froyland who would then decide if they fit. The script called for nine songs, they submitted 11 and the final cut has seven. Barker-Froyland did not have the actors interact with the songwriters.

“That was a great choice,” Rice says. “If Kate liked it, we would send in the chords, the lyrics and the demo. (Flynn) would make it his own. We didn’t know how he was going to interpret the songs until he went into the studio to record.

“Little Yellow Dress,” which the Forester character performs at Bowery Ballroom, was significantly changed. “When Jenny and I did it it was much more upbeat,” Rice says. (Lewis says their default setting for songwriting is in the style of the Lemonheads) “I like where he took the song.”

Write the title song last.
Franny’s 19-year-old brother Henry sends a CD to her in Morocco where she is working. That song, Lewis says, “is his first song that he feels proud enough to share with people. We wanted to tackle James’ songs before we tackled Henry’s song and saved ‘Song One’ for last. It had to be inspired by (the Forester) songs.”

Let the music play.
While there are no full song performances, Barker-Froyland allows the music to play for minutes at a time, whether it be the fictional Forester or the very real Shelton.

“The compliment we have been getting is that people want to applaud when the music is done,” Hathaway says. “They feel they get lost in the music.”

She attributes that to Flynn. “(We found) someone who could hold the screen and make an entire audience stop and watch the performance.”

Battle writer’s block the old fashioned way.
The film has a several subplots: Hathaway’s character goes from not caring about music to finding the resonance of a song and Henry represents a rebellion in the name of the arts. There’s also the issue of writer’s block and Forester is at a low point looking for inspiration that will help him break through.

If faced with his predicament, Rice says he relies on superstition. “I avoid deep conversations with songwriters about songwriting,” he says. “If I see songwriters congregating, talking about process, I’ll go back to the bar.”

Lewis agrees that the last place you want to be is around songwriters who are stuck. “Writer’s block is contagious and they want to suck you in,” she adds. “The way out is writing. It will suck and you may have to write 20 terrible songs to get one good one. But you have to write.”