It’s the first full day of the 12th Annual Phoenix Film Festival, and director Gary King is breathing a sigh of relief after his latest film, How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song, has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response following its festival début. Written and directed by King, the film tells the story of Joe (Joe Schermann), an aspiring Broadway songwriter who must choose between casting his longtime girlfriend, Evey (Christina Rose), or his newly discovered muse, Summer (Debbie Williams) in an upcoming production. It’s a situation that Schermann, who also wrote the film’s music, relates to on a personal level.
“I’ve actually been in that same position,” he says. “I’ve had a significant other and I wrote a song for someone other than them to sing, and they were really confused and upset by that. And I had to explain to them that there are other actors out there, and I can’t constantly cave to nepotism. There are people who inspire me to write, who I have a very strong professional relationship with – but that doesn’t mean I have a romantic relationship with them.”
“I feel like, as an artist, you can definitely be in love with somebody and have a perfect, loving relationship,” adds King. “But there can be somebody else who inspires you artistically, and I felt exploring that in film would be awesome.”
Rose, who made her Broadway debut in a production of Grease, found it easy to channel her own experiences to portray Evey, especially during a stirring musical number in the film’s first act.
“There were definitely things about Evey that were like me,” she says. “The artist that’s wanting so much more, with the song I Want. I really related to that song. You always want so much more, you want your career to take off. You have to be kind of selfish, in a way. You’re focused on your career, but you want to incorporate somebody else in your life, and be in love, but it’s so hard to balance the two. I Want is all about that – I want this man, I love this man, but I also want so much in my career – how do I combine the two?”
“It’s funny,” composer Ken Lampl chimes in. “I find the film completely autobiographical for myself, because that’s the dynamic of every relationship that I have. The first time I screened the film I was like, I’ve had that said to me many times.”
“But I do write my wife songs,” he adds, which sends the room into a fit of laughter. “I’ve learned.”
In addition to producing and starring in the film, Rose was also responsible for a large portion of the film’s choreography, a role which presented its own unique challenges – and opportunities.
“On stage, when you do a dance sequence, it’s a wide shot the whole time,” she remarks. “But we got to do close-ups of feet, close-ups of hands, finger movements – when you’re bringing dance to film, there’s a lot of room for creativity.”
That creative freedom pays off about halfway through the film during a wildly inventive number that shifts from one genre to another, with each sequence featuring a distinctly different aesthetic. Rose collaborated with co-star and fellow choreographer Mark DiConzo to work out the details, and recalls some reticence from King when she pitched her idea.
“He was like, No, we’re not doing an eighties number,” she laughs, before being reminded of another major advantage of working on a film musical as opposed to a stage version.
“In I Hate Summer, I’m doing all of my on harmonies,” she says excitedly. “On stage you can’t do that because you can’t sing with yourself, you can only sing with another person, so we played with that in the film – it wasn’t initially like that.”
“We were editing the song,” King explains. “I had stacked all of Christina’s takes in one timeline, and I accidentally left the channels open at a certain moment in the timeline when the song came on…”
“And we laughed about it,” recalls Rose. “We were like, That’s ten thousand Eveys. And then we stopped and went, That’s a really cool idea. Let’s make that happen.”
In an effort to convey plenty of emotion with each of the film’s musical performances, the cast performed and recorded most of the songs on set, rather than in a recording studio.
“The exterior shots had to be studio recorded,” says Schermann. “But if it was interior, particularly if it was Joe writing or rehearsing in his apartment, or the audition scenes with Thanks To You or Moth To a Flame, all the vocals and all the piano are live in those scenes.”
“We were never lip-syncing,” Rose adds. “Gary would never let us. We were literally singing every take so it would look as real as possible.”
Another crucial element in the film’s ability to elicit an emotional response from the audience is Lampl’s beautiful orchestral score, which wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of a group of Kickstarter donors.
“We had amazing supporters,” says Rose. “We want to thank all of our Kickstarter backers, we couldn’t have made this film without them.”
Lampl remembers the orchestra sessions as his favorite experience from the film. “This is the fourth score I’ve done for Gary, and my second time working with Christina. It was so great, because it honors our friendship. It’s a celebration.”
A question is posed early in the film’s narrative – is it more important to be famous, or to be respected by your peers? Schermann, Rose, and King all agree that while fame certainly has its benefits, being respected among the filmmaking community so much that they are actively sought out for their talents is far more rewarding than having their name on a marquee or cashing a big paycheck. Perhaps Schermann puts it best by quoting the musical Title of Show: “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing, than a hundred people’s ninth favorite thing.”
“The respect of my peers, I don’t really care about,” quips Lampl. “I’ve been to the mountain of respect. I wanna write good music and get paid for it.”
How Do You Write a Joe Schermann Song will be screening at the Phoenix Film Festival on March 31 at 12:50pm, and on April 1 at 11:45am. For more information, please visit www.phoenixfilmfestival.com or www.joeschermannsong.com.