Bandslam

BEHIND THE SCENES

Bandslam Poster

LET’S START A ROCK BAND

When it came time to cast Bandslam’s three leads, the filmmakers knew they needed players who possessed both extraordinary acting ability and musical chops. For the character of Sa5m ("the 5 is silent"), a quirky outsider who eventually finds her voice in the coming-of-age story, the filmmakers needed an actress with the skills to make the slightly odd, introverted character likeable—and the musical ability to rock the house in the film’s climactic scene. It was a tall order, but one perfectly filled by actress and singer Vanessa Hudgens, known to millions of adoring fans for her role as Gabriella Montez in the mega-hit High School Musical franchise. In addition to her acting experience on stage and in films, Hudgens has recorded two hit albums.

"I met Vanessa very early on in the casting process while she was in New York doing press for ‘High School Musical,’ and really liked her," recalls Goldsmith-Thomas. "She’s a cool, very honest, sweet person." After gaining worldwide recognition for playing the brainy, popular Gabriella in the phenomenally successful High School Musical trilogy, Hudgens was thrilled to have the opportunity to stretch as an actress. "Sam’s very moody and standoffish; kind of the outcast of the crowd," she says. "I’ve been playing the sweet, nice girl for a while. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great character to play, but it’s a lot like me; I really wanted to play a different character. Going out of my comfort zone to play the opposite of me was really
exciting to me as an actor. I got to have a lot of fun with it."

Vanessa Hudgens enjoyed working with director Todd Graff, who is himself a former actor. "Todd gave us notes we would actually understand," laughs Hudgens. "He would just tell it to us like it was and explore all the options we had in a scene. Todd also has an amazing voice; he’s a great singer. His knowledge of music definitely sets this movie apart. All the references in the movie—like writing letters to David Bowie—are really neat because that’s something he really knows about."

The actress was also excited to be on location in a new city—Austin, Texas—with her young castmates. "Aly and I knew each other before, but we really got to know each other here. We had a lot of fun together. I am such a bad influence on her when it comes to shopping! Also, I fell love with Austin because of the music. I loved just being able to go out to dinner or walk down the street and there would be a live band playing. It was just a nice change and really relaxing. Everyone was so laid back."

Pop recording artist and actress Aly Michalka (half of the pop duo Aly & AJ) was cast to portray high school "it" girl Charlotte Banks. An accomplished musician and songwriter in real-life, Michalka was drawn to the script’s combination of humor and pathos. "It’s a very funny and witty script," she observes. "But at the same time it’s not so light and funny that it can’t be real life. There are heartbreaks and struggles. This is a really rare type of movie and I wanted to be a part of it. I never thought that I would be doing a movie with music in it, because I usually keep my music and my acting separate. But, I had to do this because it is so different and I really respect the way that Todd envisioned it.

The singer-actress was also attracted to the role of Charlotte. "She’s a very cool character. She definitely is a tough girl who fronts this band, but she has a sensitive side to her, and you see the arc in her character over the course of the film, which is great. She’s really funny and witty and is always on her toes and has something to say." Michalka says she identifies with the character on several levels: "She definitely is stubborn and so am I. She also has a lot of confidence, but sometimes doubts herself."

Goldsmith-Thomas sees Michalka as the perfect choice for the role of Charlotte. "Aly is gorgeous, strong, funny and goofy. She’s beautiful like Bridgette Bardot in the ‘60s. Aly is the woman every guy wants to meet." Michalka was thrilled to be part of such a large group of young actors who all shared so much in common. "I think the reason we bonded so well as a cast is because we all had spent time together, on and off set. We’d go out and see a band play or have dinner together, or hang out and play Rock Band in the dressing room. It was like a family. It’s hard to find people you can really connect with as artists. We all get each other. We’re all different and quirky in our own ways, but we’re all musicians and it’s just a lot of fun. We goof around and make music together. It’s genuine, it’s something that’s really honest and I think that comes off on screen."

The movie Bandslam isn’t truly a musical in the sense that characters don’t burst into song during dramatic scenes. Instead, the music comes naturally out of the setting of a group of bands preparing for a competition. "What I find really interesting is that Todd was able to write music around the story," says Michalka. "If you took the music out, everything would still make sense, but the music speaks for itself." Gaelan Connell stars as music savant Will Burton, who transfers at the beginning of his junior year to a New Jersey high school where the students are obsessed with a local tristate battle of the bands competition called Bandslam. Used to being a misfit, Will is thrilled to find that for the first time in his life he is uniquely suited not only to participate in something, but to truly make a difference.

"Will is this pretty awkward teenage boy who, although he can’t really play any musical instruments, knows a great deal about music," Connell explains. "He’s got this encyclopedic knowledge of all the classics, what makes a great song, and that’s why he makes it his mission to form this rock band at his new school."

Director Graff offers his own description of Connell’s character: "When the movie starts, Will has retreated entirely into his own world. All he does is sit in his room and obsess about music. He doesn’t even deal with music in any real world kind of way. He doesn’t go to clubs or shows, doesn’t join a band, doesn’t play anything. For him, music is not about contact and community. It’s about escape and solace. During the course of the movie, however, he is forced—kicking and screaming—by Charlotte into interacting with other people. By managing the band and turning it into the vision he has in his head, he learns how to connect."

The filmmakers felt blessed to find a young, gifted actor for whom the role resonated on both an emotional and musical level. "The material spoke to him in a unique way and his talent gave the role dimension," says Goldsmith-Thomas. "In a way, we are all Will. We want to hide when we are embarrassed. He’s also a kid who bears the burden of the sins of his father."

Todd Graff was extremely impressed by Connell’s ability to portray the uncomfortable, introverted Will. "It’s complicated to play a character who’s all about self-protection and just wants to disappear, particularly for a young actor because kids usually wear their emotions on their sleeves. But as openhearted as Gaelan is as a person and as an actor, there was something he was able to access that felt like somebody trying, not entirely successfully, to hide what they’re feeling. That was a real important nuance for the character."

Although Connell’s and Will’s temperaments are worlds apart, their musical interests substantially overlap. "Will loves the indie music scene and we’re pretty similar in musical tastes," says the actor of his onscreen alter-ego. "There are several bands in the movie, like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah that I was definitely listening to before I ever picked up the script. It’s cool to be saying the lines about bands that you listen to at home anyway. Let’s just say Will has a great taste in music."
Although Connell is an accomplished musician who plays cello and guitar and sings in a band, Graff took it upon himself to expand the actor’s musical knowledge. "My first day in Austin there were five rock ‘n’ roll books in my room," Connell recalls. "I’m not talking about little books, I’m talking about 500-page books of everything I’d ever need to know about rock ‘n’ roll."

As Graff explains, "Will is supposed to be obsessed with music, not simply because it’s just a quirky character trait, but because it is literally all that he has. He has to invest completely and fully and emotionally in what music represents to him. I don’t really know how you do that as an actor unless you do the homework and you do the research and you connect somehow. Since Gaelan is a musician, he was able connect." The musical education turned out to be a two-way street, says Graff. "His iPod is literally like my iPod. Gaelan made me a playlist of stuff that I didn’t have. He got off on coming up to me and saying, ‘Have you heard of blah, blah, blah?’ And if I hadn’t, it made his day."

Connell also embodied the innocence of the Will character, says co-star Vanessa Hudgens. "Gaelen Connell is kind of a newcomer to the business; this is his first big thing. He also came into this later than anybody else did and really just jumped in with both feet. You could tell he was nervous. It’s so funny because all the time he kept saying, ‘I’m just really awkward.’ I’m like, ‘Okay, good. Keep that,’" she laughs. In fact, Connell had to jump in on his first day of rehearsal by running through not one, but two different kissing scenes, one with each of his leading ladies.

"I just met them that day! Having to work with these wonderful girls and having to kiss them totally freaked me out. So what you see on screen is actually, believe it or not, just true emotion," laughs Connell. "Todd wanted real when he cast this film—and I was real scared!"

Connell locked lips with Michalka for the scene in which, as part of her efforts to draw Will out of his shell, Charlotte helps Will prepare for a date with Sa5m. "It’s a really sweet scene of me teaching Will how to kiss," explains Michalka. "I’m like, ‘put your right hand up near my face, slow, okay, stay there, now close your eyes’… it’s just funny. He’s nervous and shaking and it’s just a very sweet scene. It’s the best first kiss you could have. And he falls out of the car, and it’s just hilarious."

But it’s in Sam that the loner Will, much to his delight, finds his true soul mate, says Graff. "Will’s relationship with Sa5m is thrilling to him in that he never thought there was another person in the world like him. This girl gets that there is another perspective on the world other than a sheep mentality, other than having to be in the right clique, other than having to listen to this kind of music and wear these kinds of clothes. The idea that he’s not alone in the world is very heady for him and very exciting and very comforting.

"Will looks at Charlotte, on the other hand, like she’s growing in a Petri dish," laughs Graff. "He has no concept of what a person like this is, and yet she will not leave him alone. She will not allow him to stay stagnant. She will not allow him to be on the margins of life. She takes Will under her wing for her own personal reasons, but she’s a good person deep in her heart. When Will has to deal with the fact that Charlotte and Sam don’t get along, it’s tough because they’re each giving him something essential and new and disorienting, and he’s just treading water as best he can." Graff saw actor Scott Porter performing off-Broadway a few years before the film began production, and kept him in mind to play Charlotte’s ex-boyfriend Ben Wheatley—leader of Bandslam favorites Ben Wheatley and The Glory Dogs.

Porter says he was interested in the project for a number of reasons, including the director’s sensibilities, the smart script, original characters and the chance to perform music on screen.

"What sets Todd aside is his attention to detail," comments Porter. "He makes sure that we rehearse, so we know strictly where we’re coming from, before we start shooting. But then, once we’re filming, he’s able to lay back and see what happens. Let’s make it organic and let’s really go for it. He made sure that there wasn’t an ounce of corniness or anything. He wanted everything to be really genuine. Once you make it as real as possible, that’s when it really piques my interest, and that’s what Todd is all about."

Porter believes teens are hungry for an intelligent story with heart. "This is a breakthrough, a fresh approach. These characters have so many layers and Todd really fleshed out Ben in the revisions. He could have very easily been shot as a very flat, typical ex-boyfriend jerk kind of character. But once we really delved in, we figured out that he’s just a little confused. He is a kid. He wants to win. He’s come so close, so many times. But he’s not a hateful person. He’s not a jealous person. Everyone, including Ben, is wondering why Charlotte left him behind. What did I do? I was a great boyfriend. I was good to you. I’m a rock ‘n’ roll star. What more could you want? He’s really confused and really head over heels for Charlotte."

In the New Jersey high school Will, Sam, Charlotte and Ben attend, music is the focal point instead of sports, Porter observes. "Like in Texas where high school football is everything—in Jersey, music is everything. Bandslam is like their high school football play-offs. Ben Wheatley has been the front man for the band that their high school has sent three years in a row. After being the runner-up twice, he recruits these mega monster, future rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame players, these prodigies, and he brings them in and replaces some of his friends. Ben’s not a bad guy. He’s a good guy who’s got a great heart, but he’s just really competitive. He’s as close to a rock star as you get in that school. He’s misunderstood for a good portion of the movie."

Emmy Award-winning actress Lisa Kudrow brings her unique comic gifts to the role of Karen Burton, Will’s protective mother, whose new job moves them to New Jersey. She also becomes the object of a schoolboy crush of the drummer in her son’s band. "Lisa plays this character with great pathos and humor," says producer Goldsmith-Thomas. "You believe she’s a great mom, you believe her guilt and you believe she’s doing the best she can for her son."

"What I really loved about this story and the character of Will is, that as poorly as he’s being treated, he does have a certain amount of inner strength and maturity to understand that it’s temporary and he’s just going to get through it," says Kudrow. "High school is not the happiest time for most people, but it’s four years. You just have to know it’ll be over at some point."

According to Kudrow, her character’s past experiences have led her to be suspicious of the world and overly protective of her son. "She just doesn’t trust anything and she certainly doesn’t trust Charlotte. This beautiful ex-cheerleader girl is interested in my son… I mean, that doesn't add up. I know he’s great, but she doesn’t think Charlotte’s smart enough to notice." Lisa Kudrow especially enjoyed the youthful exuberance of newcomer Connell. "He’s just so excited to be here and he’s like, ‘I’m the lead in a movie!’ The first day he said, ‘They keep yelling for first team. Is that us?’ I said ‘Yeah, first team’s us.’ It just makes it all a little more exciting. It makes you remember how exciting it was when you were starting out."

To ensure authenticity in the band performances, Graff insisted that every member of the young leading and supporting cast had to pass a musical audition before moving on to an acting audition. "If the music didn’t smell credible, I knew the center wouldn’t hold for the movie," says Graff. "Both my parents are musicians. I’m a musician and I’ve played in bands forever. It’s a world that I feel I know, and I didn’t want to get it wrong."

So Graff cast kids who actually played instruments—or were willing and able to learn. "That way I never had to worry about cutting to somebody and seeing that the fingering didn’t match. They’re also really good actors and they had to be right for the parts and have great chemistry. But musically, they had to really be phenomenal, and they are." Graff describes Charlotte’s band, I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, as "an energized, threepiece garage rock band who blossom, under Will's tutelage, into a nine-piece, Arcade Fire-style band, complete with horns, cello and keyboards, that embraces ska and reggae."

Additional members of ICGOIGO include Pennsylvania native Charlie Saxton (The Lovely Bones, The Happening) as Bug, the bass player with a chip on his shoulder; Texas-raised newcomer Timothy Jo as Omar, the New Jersey guitarist who has
somehow developed an English accent; and Houston-born Brooklyn resident Ryan Donowho ("The O.C.," Cook County) as Basher, the talented drummer who provides a heartbeat for the fledgling band. Elvy Yost is Irene the cello player and Lisa Chung is Kim the keyboardist. Benjamin Kessler, Andrew Glen Rector, and Juan Lopez play the sax, trombone, and trumpet respectively.

I Can’t Go On’s archrival is the fictional Ben Wheatley and The Glory Dogs, a working class New Jersey rock band heavily influenced by Garden State mainstays Bruce Springsteen and Bon Jovi. In addition to Porter on lead vocal and guitar, the Glory Dogs’ roster includes the members of real-life Austin-based power trio Joker: J.W. Wright as Dylan Dyer on lead guitar, Kai Roach as Eddie Alvarez on bass and drummer Chris Copeland—plus saxophonist James Hairston. In addition to Joker, four other red hot but unsigned Texas bands from Austin’s thriving music scene were cast as competitors in the film’s climactic battle of the bands: Ft. Worth-based alternative rockers The Burning Hotels, arena rockers Straightfork, bluesinfluenced garage rock band The Daze and hip hoppers Zeale & Phranchyze featuring
Candice Jackson.

"I love that we have all these cool Austin bands in our movie," says Graff, who listened to dozens of acts before choosing the five that appear in the film. "I also find it cool that we have two actress—Vanessa and Aly—known for their work on Disney Channel—thrown into a movie with David Bowie, rock songs produced by the guy who recorded the band Clap your Hands Say Yeah, and being shot by the DP who did Juno. The material is really outside of what most of our cast has done and sort of subverts everyone’s expectations."

Principal photography on Bandslam began February 9, 2008 in Austin. After a year of script development, the actual production went from green light to wrap party in a lightening-fast 14 weeks. Although the film is set in New Jersey, Graff felt strongly that it was important to shoot in a place with a wide array of great live music to choose from. "I’m a big believer in local scenes," he says. "I think it’s the lifeblood of music. Austin is renowned as a music town, and rightly so. They have a ton of really great bands just trying to get their music out there. So, it’s great we had an opportunity to use several unsigned local Texas bands."

Not surprisingly, the movie features original material—such as "Pretend," "Someone to Fall Back On," and "Phil’s Song"—as well as updated versions of rock classics such as Cheap Trick’s "I Want You To Want Me," Steve Wynn’s "Amphetamine" and an upbeat ska/reggae version of "Everything I Own," originally recorded by Bread’s David Gates. "Bandslam is an inspiring story about music appreciation for a generation of fans who are more likely to discover ‘their’ music on the internet than on the radio," says producer Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas. "It’s about a time in life when you are in between who you are and who you are going to be. The movie celebrates music as an inspiration for change, the catalyst for the characters to grow and get to the next place in their lives."

To help Graff fill the movie with meaningful and powerful music and help work with the cast musically, filmmakers assembled a talented music team that included veteran music supervisor Lindsay Fellows; music supervisor Linda Cohen; renowned indie record producer Adam Lasus and composer Tom Holkenborg aka JunkieXL. The fact that several of the songs in the film are originals as opposed to covers, meant the cast had to work that much harder to learn their parts during rehearsal boot camp.

"‘Someone to Fall Back On’ wasn’t something they could just go ‘oh that sounds like such and such.’" explains Fellows. "Todd was very smart and told them ‘this needs to feel like U2’s ‘One,’ it needs to have that emotion. It needs to build.’ Once we gave the kids that reference point, it was easy for them to grab onto it."

"Hats off to Todd’s vision of doing these numbers live," says music supervisor Fellows. "It’s usually not done in movies because it’s just much easier to go in the studio ahead of time, where you have all this freedom and flexibility for editing later. But it doesn’t have the same kind of authenticity. Those live moments are going to be the spark plugs for
the film."

The climactic battle of the bands competition was shot over four days, covering six different bands in front of as many as 1,200 extras in Hogg Auditorium at the University of Texas. During pre-production, music director Adam Lasus produced the competing bands, recording their tracks at Bismeaux Recording Studio, owned by the famous Austin western swing band Asleep At The Wheel. Lasus was also present for shooting the big audience performance scenes. "It felt like a real gig and part of my job was to make it look like a real gig. The kids were onstage, playing and doing their thing. Everyone was vibing off of it and they played the songs many times, but the excitement still stayed the same. The bands were even talking about who should win. It reminds me of when I was in high school and got to go to my first couple of bandslam-type things."

Vanessa Hudgens was immediately swept up in the energy of the big scene. "Honestly, I was quite nervous because I generally do pop and R&B music. I’m not the rocker girl who plays the guitar. So, I’m like, ‘I’m going to look like a complete idiot.’ And Adam and everybody was like, ‘Believe me. If you look funny, we’ll let you know."’ So, I went up there, with the extras there and everything and really got into it. I felt like a rock star." Schmidt says he knew things were on the right track musically when he saw the crew members grooving along with the bands. "I do think the music brings our film up to a different level. It’s not just filler or a nice little soundtrack. It’s important to the story and helps move the movie along. Todd was very adamant about making sure this doesn’t get labeled as just a nice little glossy high school film. He wants it to be set in the real world – with real problems for kids and stuff that every kid thinks about."

Leading up to Bandslam, Graff takes his audience and his actors through a fun musical education. Everything from the dialogue to the set dressing is filled with musical references—some commonplace and some obscure. "I like the idea that Aly & AJ fans are going to come to the movie and hear people talking about Sonic Youth and playing Steve Wynn songs. It’s so crazy on some level that one of the emotional high points of the film is when Vanessa Hudgens’ and Gaelan Connell’s characters make a pilgrimage to CBGB and discuss Bad Brains."

CBGB, the now-defunct East Village nightclub synonymous with New York’s underground music scene for 35 years, is an important story point and location in the film. "Todd thought it was very important to use that club and not just any club," explains Schmidt. "He grew up there, so he wanted to give back a little bit and show some of the history of New York’s music scene."

"Once upon a time many years ago, there was something called punk rock and the birth place of punk, contrary to popular belief, was not London and it did not start with the ‘Sex Pistols.’ It actually started in New York City at a bunch of clubs, but most famously and probably most importantly, at a club called CBGB & OMFUG," explains Graff, who played the small venue many years ago with his band The Pedantics. "The thing that really mattered about CB’s is that it spawned a scene that changed the culture."

"CBGB was a home for people that didn’t have a home," adds Fellows. "It provided that environment. Acts like The Pretenders and Talking Heads and Iggy Pop were coming out of there. Those bands were never getting played on the radio at the time. It was very much an underground thing. The Ramones and Patti Smith, all those kinds of bands, although now considered mainstream, were at their time, groundbreaking. The goal of the film has always been to address the outsider and how kids in school always feel that way. These bands were all outsiders of their own time, bands that were very much on the fringe. It shows that you can be independent, be different and still succeed and still persevere."

Since the legendary club is no longer operating as a music venue, the exterior and interior of CBGB were recreated on a backlot and onstage in Austin. Production designer Jeff Knipp and his team spent several weeks recreating the sticker, poster and graffiticovered interior, down to the placement of the bar and stage and oversized PA.

"CBGB has such a big history, there are books and references, so our art department essentially recreated it through photos," explains Schmidt. "Todd, who basically lived there, gave us a lot of details. It’s important for Todd to recreate the New York feeling and CBGB is the icon of that."

The production traveled to New York for an action-packed one-day shoot that included location work at the actual storefront where CBGB once operated (now a John Varvatos clothing store), and numerous locations in Greenwich Village, including a coffee shop to shoot the scene with special guest star, legendary recording artist David Bowie. In the film, Will writes countless letters to Bowie, his musical idol, about everything from his troubles at school to his awkward and confusing love life. Shooting in New York with Bowie was a thrill for the filmmakers and crew. "It was an out of body experience. I had no poise at that moment," admits Graff. "He was incredibly nice and kind and cool and generous and funny and wry and real and really happy to be part of the movie, which was so amazing and moving. I could have fainted.

"To me and a lot of people, David Bowie is an icon and a hero," continues Graff. "He is a guy who never compromised his art or his vision in order to achieve success. The idea of having him say yes to being in the movie is a little surreal."