California Solo is a simple, quiet tale about a musician who escapes his troubled past by disappearing in the farm lands of Northern California. But you never really move forward unless you face the decisions you’ve made in the past.
It is the sophomore effort from writer/director Marshall Lewy. The New York-born filmmaker discusses with Tail Slate his latest film and what it was like working with its star, Robert Carlyle, the Once Upon a Time star for whom he wrote the part.
Tail Slate: Where did the idea of California Solo start for you?
Marshall Lewy: The idea started with the character, a Brit who works on an organic farm near Los Angeles, and comes in on the weekends to work at a farmer’s market. Then the story grew out of that idea: immigration, music, alcoholism.
TS: How did Robert Carlyle become involved in the project as both actor and executive producer?
ML: I wrote the character of Lachlan with Robert Carlyle in mind, and when I was finished with the script I approached him through his manager. Very often when trying to get a script to actors, the process can be painfully slow or next to impossible. But in this case, his manager read the script right away, sent it to Carlyle right away, and a week or so later he and I were talking on the phone. He told he wanted to do it on our first phone call.
TS: What was the working relationship like with him, director-to-actor and director-to-executive producer?
ML: It was a very collaborative relationship, and I relied on Carlyle a lot to bring authenticity to the role. He knows a lot of musicians who are like Lachlan, not to mention he is Scottish and I am not. So he knew what the character needed.
TS: How did you go about developing the soundtrack for the film?
ML: The soundtrack had a few different components. We wrote two original songs for the film, the title song which Robert Carlyle performs in the film, was written by the British musician Adam Franklin. And we also hear a track from the hit album of Lachlan’s former band the Cranks. For that song, the Brooklyn-based band Violens recorded it, and we worked together to capture that precocious Britpop sound. It was a lot of fun working on the two original songs. Lachlan also records a podcast called “Flame-outs” that looks at the tragic deaths of musicians, so I worked with our music supervisor Joe Rudge to find songs from musicians that fit that description.
TS: The film seemed to be a masterful example of subtlety. From the music to the performances to the issue of immigration, it doesn’t shove anything down your throat. As a result the film felt more realistic and honest. Did you make a concerted effort to steer clear of being too melodramatic?
ML: I knew that the story ran the risk of turning into melodrama, and so I tried to let it take unexpected yet believable turns wherever I could.
TS: Your first film, Blue State, had a clear political perspective. With California Solo you deal with immigration (a political hot button). But it didn’t feel like there was any heavy-handed message here. Was that intentional?
ML: Yes, after Blue State I wasn’t interested in dealing with politics as overtly ever again. I think referencing present-day current politics is better suited to a venue like the Daily Show. Movies take too long to make, so by the time the film is released, so much has changed. I do want social and political components to continue to be part of my films, and with California Solo I wanted immigration to be a part of the story without any monologues or grandstanding about it. I tried to let the events of the story relate the frustrations of the current immigration policies.
TS: In a post on your website you talked about why you love making movies, and how your appreciation of them changed from someone who simply enjoyed them to someone who makes them. I’m curious, do you think this change in how you watch movies has helped you appreciate them more, or do you feel like you’ve lost something that you can never really get back?
ML: It makes me appreciate them differently. I’m not able to lose myself in a film the way I used to, which is sad and I hope one day that feeling of enjoyment will come back. I can’t speak for other filmmakers, but I think this is a common side effect of becoming a professional filmmaker. We dissect movies as we watch them.
TS: California Solo makes a measured use of music, including a wonderful song performed by Carlyle himself. What do you think of the relationship between film and its soundtrack?
ML: Every film is different. With California Solo, the score was meant to be fairly minimal, and the composer T Griffin and I talked about the score sounding like “the echo of the echo of the echo of a thousand dressing rooms,” filling out the sense of Lachlan’s past that you don’t see in the course of the film. And there is a sequence where he goes to a “Britpop Night” at a club in LA dj’ed by Danny Masterson’s character. It’s the only scene where we hear some classic Britpop, a track by the Charlatans called “The Only One I Know,” and this scene, though it takes place in the present, is also meant to evoke what it might have been like to be Lachlan in his rock star heyday.
TS: The indie film scene has changed quite a bit in the last decade. What do you think are the challenges now for a small film to get noticed?
ML: The good news is that the means of production are more accessible than they’ve ever been through affordable cameras, editing systems and so on. But it is hard to get a film out there. Even though there is so much media out there, the advantage filmmakers have today is that they can reach their audience directly through social media.
TS: From Blue State to California Solo and then your upcoming Exodus, there seems to be a theme of people trying to escape. Is this something that you relate to or connect with?
ML: Yes, I don’t know where this comes from, but people running away geographically from their problems definitely is a major part in all three movies.
Random Question: Everyone asks people what their favorite movie is, but I’m gonna take it a step further. What’s your favorite scene from a movie?
ML: That’s a tough one, since there are so many. The baptism scene in The Godfather was very affecting. Also, I love the extended scene in the apartment in the middle of Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt.