Zoe Lister-Jones doesn’t seem content being just one thing, as none of us really should be. The child of two artists, she graduated with honors from NYU Tisch School of the Arts and soon began acting and performing in one-woman shows and on television (in fact, she may be the only actor to have appeared on all four “Law & Order” permutations). While she was appearing in such films as SALT, THE OTHER GUYS, and the short-lived series “Whitney,” Lister-Jones was also writing such works as BREAKING UPWARDS, LOLA VERSUS, and CONSUMED, all of which she appeared in as well. Most recently she had a recurring role on “New Girl” and is one of the stars of the CBS comedy “Life in Pieces.”
And on top of all of that, she’s also a gifted singer and has toured and gigged mostly around New York City, for a number of years, which probably explains the dominant presence of music in her newest film, BAND AID, which she wrote and makes her directing debut, fronting an all-female crew. In the movie, she plays Anna, who has been married to Ben (Adam Pally) for long enough that the spark has left their marriage, resulting in a lot of fighting and miscommunications. But one day, they pick locate their instruments in the garage (they both used to play in bands in college) and begin playing again, making up lyrics that sound a lot like the text of their arguments, but somehow once they get their sung feelings out, they feel a lot better and closer to each other. They piece together a new band (with neighbor Fred Armisen on drums), and they start to play around town, getting increasingly popular in the process.
BAND AID is a genuine crowd pleasure and a great first effort from Lister-Jones as a filmmaker. I sat down with her and Pally back in January at the Sundance Film Festival to go over the genesis of the film and what it says about the way couples communicate (or don’t). Please enjoy my chat with Zoe Lister-Jones and Adam Pally…
Capone: I’m trying to explain this film to people, and I keep coming back to, it’s kind of like if the couple from ONCE had been married for 10 years, and they’re not really playing music anymore; they’re just trying to like make a living.
Adam Pally: That’s a high compliment.
Capone: Zoe, I know you’re a musician. Was the idea to somehow make a movie where you get to play music?
Zoe Lister-Jones: [laughs] In part. I’m not a musician in the sense that I had never played an instrument, actually, so I learned bass for this movie.
Capone: But you sing.
ZLJ: Yeah, I’ve been singing and writing lyrics for a long time, and so I was looking for something that I would have the most fun doing and I do have so much fun playing and writing music, and I thought it would be a really fun avenue into exploring a couple’s dynamic and how they move through their pain and joy, and all the things that long-term couples move through, but moving through it in song.
Capone: Are either of you playing your instruments in the movie?
AP: We are, and we sing live. It’s all done live.
Capone: So what we’re hearing is live? That’s crazy.
ZLJ: Yeah, it’s really rarely done, and I think probably because it’s dangerous. If you don’t get it right, you’re screwed in post. But yeah, it was exciting for me to make that one of the main goals, that we would play all of the music live so that it could feel really authentic. So many of the songs are really about performance and the way our characters interact, and to me that required the ultimate authenticity and to see the imperfections in our voices and in our playing. So often in the songs, we go between dialogue and singing. So yeah, we played it all live, which was fun.
Capone: I don’t know who else could have played your drummer than Fred, because he’s a great drummer, and he’s funny as hell, and there’s nobody better suited to play that part. He’s also a great improviser.
AP: Yeah, working with Fred was a dream come true for both of us, and yes, he has a very magical, joyous quality to him.
ZLJ: He is so kind and humble and just a wonderful human, and then also to be that talented both in comedy and musically. You’re right, I don’t know who else we could have gotten to play the part.
Capone: I like that the film is not afraid to get super serious. This is like a true testament to the things that bring a marriage down, and part of that is assigning roles within a marriage, “You do this, and you do this,” and you just try not to bump into each other. In the writing, was that a tough thing to balance, because there are some really silly things in the movie as well? To make those transitions?
AP: I don’t think so. I think people get caught up on that a lot, watching movies because they want their chocolate and peanut butter to be separate.
Capone: They want a single tone.
AP: Right. But life is not like that. I fell in snow the other day.
Capone: That’s funny.
AP: Yeah. And then like two hours later I got into a fight with my wife about my kids lying to us. That’s life, so I think that the tone to me in this is honest, and while it is a comedy, I wouldn’t want a comedy any other way. So when people say to me they want a tone, my response is “You’re probably not sophisticated enough to understand our tone.”
ZLJ: If you wanted to ask about the writing of it, to echo that, I think the best comedies move seamlessly between really moments of crazy elation and super-goofy moments, like you’re saying, and then get really dark and gritty. I think that is the beauty of life, that there’s tragedy in comedy and comedy in tragedy.
AP: Also, you look at the filmmakers—and I don’t want to speak for your exact influences, Zoe, but I know for me—Albert Brooks and Woody Allen and Steve Martin. These movies are neither one thing or the other. They’re reality, and for some reason, audiences or the people making movies believe that audiences can’t handle that, and I feel the opposite. And I think it’s a testament to Zoe that she wrote, directed and starred in a version of that.
Capone: And you wrote these songs—they’re my favorite part of the film. I’m waiting for the next song; I want to hear what the next conflict is that inspires the next song. When you’re preforming, they have to feel like you’re making them up on the spot.
AP: That was a challenge.
Capone: How do you make it seem spontaneous?
AP: Zoe’s direction.
ZLJ: It was fun. I think that was important that nothing felt rehearsed and that you were on a journey with this couple who were making up things as they go along as a tool of catharsis. I didn’t find it that difficult to do together. I thought it was pretty fun and easy.
AP: Especially the way you designed it. I think it could have been challenging. Any time you have to fake, “Oh, I just got an idea,” it can be challenging. But the way that Zoe set everything up, it just felt like we were writing songs in the moment. And also they always felt natural to the story, so you never felt distracted. It always felt like “Oh yeah, this is when the song should be.”
Capone: I don’t know if you’re going to put a soundtrack out, but these are finished songs.
AP: If you can make money from it, we’re going to put it out.
ZLJ: Of course, we would like to put out a soundtrack.
AP: I’m trying to make [Nick] Kroll and [John] Mulaney [whose show “Oh Hello on Broadway” finished its Broadway run right around the time BAND AID premiered at Sundance] give us their theater for a little run.
ZLJ: Adam wants to take it to Broadway.
AP: I do.
Capone: When it comes out, you have to do the press tour/band tour thing.
ZLJ: Yeah, yeah. We’re playing live tomorrow night at our afterparty.
AP: Yeah, the band is playing. You’ve got to come.
Capone: I read somewhere that you had an entirely female crew. I just came from an interview for a film that played last night, a horror anthology, all by female directors. As much as you want to say “Having an all-female crew has this unique vibe,” at the same time, you might also be eager to say “Look, it’s the same as with a male crew. We can do all the same jobs, the same way, and it’s just as professional.”
ZLJ: I might argue it’s more professional. [laughs] But no, I do think it is a testament to people saying like “A girl can’t lift these heavy things,” or “A girl can’t drive the truck full of the gear”—all these gender stereotypes. I think it was definitely my intention to subvert and to challenge and also just to I think create a community of women making art together in a way that felt really supportive and that engendered a lot of confidence, because I think that so often women in the workplace can be unheard and can be easily bullied, even if it’s unintentional. I think people with the best of intentions do it just being the product of living in a patriarchy.
AP: Male privilege.
ZLJ: Yeah, and I don’t necessarily fault people for certain behaviors, because I do think it is just a product of a much larger system that is deeply, deeply problematic. I have never met anyone who said they’ve had an all-female crew before. People have said, “I’ve hired all-female department heads,” but I think to do it from top to bottom was a challenge, but it’s super gratifying.
Capone: Both of your characters are artists outside of music, and a lot of times films about artists are not particularly cinematic, because that creative process is mostly in their heads. How do you go about making the process of watching them standing there coming up with these songs visually interesting?
ZLJ: I was influenced by Woody Allen, of course, but I was also influenced by Cassavetes. I thought “What would it look like if Cassavetes made a comedy?” That’s why we shot the whole thing handheld, we had two cameras running all the time, because I did want to be able to create a super-intimate, almost voyeuristic dynamic in our visual aesthetic. So I think in creating the songs and coming up with them and the way that all of the musical elements were shot was helped largely by that aesthetic, because we could roam from character to character and see the sparks of imagination come up.
AP: I also think when music is usually played, when people are playing music, that on average it’s not on stage. It’s usually guitar and bass and singing and drums; it’s like in a garage or it’s at your kitchen counter fucking around. So to me, that’s what felt the most realistic was that it just felt like being married and playing guitar with each other, and that is something that I think more people when they play music do that than have big rock shows.
Capone: Going along with the idea that these people are artists, they’re both in these jobs that are not fueling their artistic needs at all, and that’s one of the things that’s causing these tensions between them. That’s the third story here, outside of the music and the marriage, is this idea of the stifled creative mind. Tell me about the importance of that in your lives. You both have so many outlets.
ZLJ: We do, but I think being an artist is just about a life generally of heartbreak. [laughs] I’m the child of two artists and I think that their pain lives in me, and I think part of what I wanted to explore is how artists cope with that moment in their life where they might not be able to pursue their dream, and when they throw in the towel, and how they face rejection and when they choose to persevere and push through it. I think that the idea of failure as an artist is something that’s so rich to explore and, obviously being artists, that was the draw.
AP: That was an interesting thing for me, because I’ve had odd jobs, a ton of odd jobs, but I really only have this skill, and this is all I can do, or at least all I want to do. I think it would kill me not to be able to do art out of survival, because I couldn’t make money or eat. I think Zoe would say she would not feel comfortable hiring me for any job other than acting.
ZLJ: I barely felt comfortable in that position.
AP: [laughs] So I identify with that.
Capone: Do you hope the film encourages people to express themselves in a strange and unusual way in their relationship? I feel like that’s the mission statement here is to like send people who see this out into the world with some ideas. Maybe not singing, but to do something to open the lines of communication.
ZLJ: When you look at how much pain is in the world right now, and how much hate and divisiveness we’re facing as a world, that’s ultimately coming from pain and people feeling stifled, and if people can find creative outlets, even on a totally non-professional level, that is a great avenue to move through things and potentially heal not only yourself but the way that you relate to the world. I think being an artist is about compassion and empathy and seeing yourself in other people.
AP: I think that yeah, I would say that everything Zoe said is correct.
Capone:Have you ever sung on camera before?
AP: I think I might have sung a couple of times on “Happy Endings” in a joke fashion, but not really, no. It is and it was terrifying. It’s one of those things that was super horrifying for me, and I think when I got an opportunity to do it, that’s the way that you like get better. I think that with any role I take, I try to find something I’m afraid of in there.
Capone: So fear is a motivator for you?
AP: It should be for any actor.
Capone: Aside from ideas about communication, are there other things you would like people to sort of be thinking about as they leave the theater?
AP: One of the things I love about the movie is that the couple thinks the way to dig themselves out of this hole is a project together, and I think that as someone who’s married, sometimes you can fall into this pattern where everyday you’re both living side by side and you’re making the house work and you’re making the relationship work but your lives are just going together. I think that one of the things that I learned from this movie is that it can be very healthy to have a devoted hobby or amount of time with your partner, so that you have a thing that’s just yours, the two of you.
ZLJ: So they’re making origami.
AP: So my wife and I have taken a class in Japanese paper folding. It’s pornographic. We do pornographic origami. So they are ducks, but they’re 69ing.
ZLJ: As ducks do. To answer your question, I think gender is a big topic these days and what that means. I do think part of what I was interested in talking about through these characters was the expected gender roles in a heterosexual relationship and how that lends itself to specific power dynamics, and how couples either fall into those or try to subvert them. I think the other takeaways is that, at its core, it’s a true love story.
AP: A love story about people who are already married. You hope that if you’re married, you’re in love. You hope you at least like each other, but you hope that you’d be in love, and if you’re not, you can decide to either fight for it or not, and I think this couple decides to fight for it.
ZLJ: I think it’s about what it takes to fight, not only for love but for your art. I think it is just about what it takes to fight as a person and how you persevere in this world.
Capone: Was one of the reasons you created this to give yourself a bigger, more substantial part than maybe you’re being offered by other filmmakers or other casting people? A lot of actors I know have done that because they’re like “I’m not getting the roles I think I deserve, so I’m going to write my own.” Why not?
ZLJ: Yeah. When I first graduated college, I was living in New York and I was primarily doing dramatic work. And when I started working in television, I was working in comedies and that has become what I’m known for more in the past few years. Yeah, I do think it is, for me, important to break out of any category that I might be put in as an actor, because the actors that I admire most are versatile and can play not only many different characters, but many different genres and can access the depth of their souls, whether that’s through a comedic lens or a dramatic lens. Even in the indie film world now especially for actresses, it’s a pretty small pool that can get a movie financed, even a small movie. The landscape has changed so much, so yeah, there was definitely a selfish element of me writing this role for myself.
Capone: And I know you’ve written several films before. Why was this the one that you also wanted to add the extra pressure of directing?
ZLJ: I don’t know. I don’t really have an answer to that. I wanted to direct and write. I had written and produced and starred in three features previous, and it just felt like the time to take that fourth hat on, and I had a blast doing it.
Capone: I know you still have to finish shooting your series…
ZLJ: Yeah, I’m on “Life in Pieces” on CBS. We finish in March. We are in our second season.
Capone: Do you know what you’re doing in your break?
ZLJ: I’m working on the next script, but I can’t really talk about what it’s about yet.
ZLJ: Yeah, I’m playing O.J.
Capone: It’s about time somebody did. Thank you both so much.