William H. Macy on directing for the first time and the power of music | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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William H. Macy on directing for the first time and the power of music

Giving Direction to 'Rudderless'

Oct 17, 2014 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

William H. Macy is best know for his on-screen work in films such as Fargo (for which he received a Best Actor in a Supporting Role nomination), The Cooler, and—on the small screen—Shameless. His new film, Rudderless, opens this week, but it’s not Macy’s supporting performance that makes it noteworthy: Rudderless is the actor’s first time sitting in the director’s chair on a feature film. He also contributed to the script.

In the film, reviewed here, Billy Crudup plays Sam, a grieving father who discovers a cache of his late son’s original songs. Sam starts listening to the music, and soon, he’s playing them at an open mic night alongside a band formed with other local musicians. Anton Yelchin, Ryan Dean, and Ben Kweller round out the group.

As a first-time director, Macy had his work cut out for him. He had a lot to learn, especially about sound production and indie music, given how heavy a role it plays in the film. Here, he discusses the challenges involved in making Rudderless, as well as the origins of the original songs performed by the actors.

Zach Hollwedel (Under The Radar): I had a chance to see the film about a month ago, and I loved it. I thought it was great.

William H. Macy: Oh good, thanks. Even I like it now. I finally just relaxed and said, “Okay, it works; you can quit being so worried about it now.” But, I’ve seen it at a bunch of film festivals. It really gives people a run for their money, and it’s quite affecting.

As I was saying, it’s tremendous, so congratulations first and foremost. This was the first feature you directed. How long you had been thinking of getting behind the camera, and what inspired the decision?

It was about a ten-year process. The decision was inspired by a confluence of a lot of things. My acting career had gone a little bit south on me. They weren’t scintillating offers that I got. Everybody’s career goes through dips—peaks and valleys, shall we say—and this was before I got Shameless, which has just revitalized me. So, I decided it’s time for me to direct a film. And the reason it took me so long, is I didn’t think I was cut out to be a film director. But, I started shooting a lot of pictures of my daughters when they were born, and at a point, I thought, “You know what, I can frame a shot. I’m not a bad photographer.” And then, I’ve been writing a lot with my friend, Steven Schachter, for about the last 20, 25 years. We did a couple of scripts I was really proud of, and I thought, “You know? I’m not a bad storyteller.” I don’t know; you get where I’m going. All of these things came together, and I thought, “I want to find a script to direct. It’s time for me to be in charge.”

And it took a long time. There was another script that I kept… it was a Sisyphean myth, you know? I’d get it all the way up the hill and it’d just roll back down. Broke my heart about three times. Then, the Rudderless script came along from Jeff [Robison] and Casey [Twenter], and I really liked it. It took about a year and a half to get it re-written and all that stuff. And then I met Keith Kjarval who said, “I can get this film made,” and then I was behind schedule.

You’ve clearly had a large hand in crafting this film. As you mentioned, you were also involved in the writing. I’m curious, are there any songs or groups that served as inspiration to you and Casey and Jeff during script development?

Were there songs that occurred to us? No. We simply put placeholders for where we thought songs would go, and we described what those songs might be about. In terms of the music, I sent a letter out with a music supervisor. Liz Gallacher knows everyone in the indie music scene, and she put the word out that this film was being written and was going to be made. And I got a lot of stuff back from a lot of writers. It was very flattering. A lot of spec songs, too. They would come up with an idea. And I put out a letter for Liz to describe what I was looking for. I watched a lot of films that had songs in them, or had bands playing songs, and one of the things I came away with was that a lot of songs were forgettable. Even in films that I loved, I didn’t remember the songs. So, I wanted them to be good. Also, the songs are the only voice that the character has—that’s Josh, Billy’s son, who dies at the beginning—and I wanted him to be a big player, so I wanted the songs to speak for him. I put out this letter and I said, “They’re pop songs. I want the audience to be able to hum the hook after hearing them just one time. You can write about anything you want, except the plot.” I didn’t want the songs to reflect the story we were telling. “You can write about shoes, you can write about motorcycles. You can write about a politician. You can write about a girl who dumped you.”

We got a song called “Home,” which I really liked. It was written by Charlton Pettus and Simon Steadman. That was the first song I chose. Then, I listened to some more of their stuff. They have a song called “Asshole,” which is the first song in the film, and I thought that was a great way to introduce Josh. Then I thought, “These are the guys!” I asked them to write all of the songs, which they did, with one exception, and it’s that song “Over Your Shoulder,” which is by Fink.

Once they came on board—Steadman and Pettus—were you very involved with them while they were writing? Did you have any direct influence over the direction, or once that letter went out and they came on board, did you hand them the reins and let them do their thing?

No, I was hands-on, probably more than they would have wished. A couple of times, I’d say, love this tune…. There was one song that had sort of a country swing to it, and I said, “Can you rock and roll it?” They said, “Absolutely.” A couple of them, I said, “Can you tweak the lyrics? Can it be about this a little bit more?” And they did it. We did a couple of other things to give it sort of a live feel. The best example of it is, Billy comes into the garage for a rehearsal,, and Quentin sings, “One thing I really hate is when Sam is always late.” We put in these little ad-libs; we did it in the traditional way. Charlton is also an engineer—great, a great studio producer—so we did it in his studio, which looks remarkably like the garage. We put in those little ad-libs. We did it in the traditional way. I had this cherished little illusion that I would find great musicians, actor-musicians, and we’d put together the band, and they would go on tour and play to sold-out arenas. Then, we would shoot the movie, and they would do it all live. That’s called naivety. It was Charlton who said, “Dude, if you had cast the Rolling Stones, I would tell you ‘don’t do it that way.’”

So we did it like everybody else does it, which is to playback. We had to record all the songs first, which is daunting, because you have to commit to a lot. Not only you have to commit to a lot, but you’re talking about timing and stuff like that. How much of the song can you put in there? Which is the third thing I did—I wanted,, every once in a while, I’ve seen films where there’s a great song, and you hear four measures, and then they’re off to the next scene. I wanted to listen to the music, because I wanted to hear Josh’s voice. I also held myself to the notion that everything in a film—everything—has to advance the plot in some way or another. So I held myself to that, and I wanted the songs to advance the plot, so that something happens; we just didn’t take time out to listen to the songs. To that end, I came up with all those montages. Simon and Charlton helped me with that—to the tempo of the song, so they would fit a montage that I was sort of developing. There are three or four montages in this thing. You know, that’s an old chestnut. A montage is not something that you see very often. It’s kind of old-fashioned and clichéd; it was a bit of a leap of faith for me to put so many of them in.

I think it worked, because as a viewer, I wasn’t sitting there going, “oh boy, another montage.” That’s such an easy trap for films that use montages to fall into. You watch sports movies or whatever and, here we go again, another training scene.

Well, I’m pleased that that’s your take from it. One of the things … there’s some acting going on during those montages. There’s not dialogue, but things happen between the characters. One of my favorites—it’s not one of Simon and Charlton’s songs—but Eef Barzelay. There’s not much score in this, but there’s about fifteen minutes of it. It’s just genius what Eef did. It’s the part where Billy comes back from the funeral, and all the press are waiting for him. They hound him as he climbs the steps, and he comes in with a pizza and pours himself a drink and unplugs the phone. Then, I did a cut on the microwave, so that when he opens the microwave, it’s clear that that’s another pizza and another day, and that he’s been holed up there drinking steadily for some number of days. He’s a mess, and the apartment is trashed. From there, he goes to the liquor store. Eef wrote a piece that started with Billy pulling up in his car after the funeral, and it goes all the way up to the liquor store. It’s very un-scorelike music, and it works like a charm. I’m so pleased about it. It went from a scene that I found problematical to one of my favorite scenes, just with the addition of the score.

You beat me to it. Eef’s score was tremendous, and it paired so well with the songs that Simon and Charlton wrote. Which came first? Did you have the songs and then reach out to Eef about the score? How was it integrating the two as a collaborative effort to bring the soundtrack together?

Eef came on board after we stopped shooting and, really, almost at the end of the editing. Because of the nature of an indie film, I didn’t have him very long. As a matter of fact, we did the entire score in five days. I had listened to a bunch of composers, and I liked Eef’s stuff the best. I called him up, and we talked a lot. I told him what scenes I heard scoring under. Mostly, those came from the editor, John Axelrad. There are a couple that John put in that we took out, and a couple that I thought should be in, that we put in. But mostly, it’s John. He’s a great editor, and he has a good musical sense and a good sense of rhythm, too. He does. So I sent Eef the cut we had to that date and said these are the scenes that will need scoring. He sent me some—I guess that’s the way it always goes, but I’m brand new to this—he would send me ideas, which was interesting because Eef, he does not play keyboards. He only plays—are you ready?—a ukulele. I would say, “I need a John Williams sort of music with a soaring, full orchestra.” And he would send me back a recording of a ukulele, and him singing falsetto [laughs]. I would say, “I don’t think of John Williams when I hear a ukulele and your falsetto.” He would say, “No, man, no no. Those are cellos. Trust me.” It was a very scary time for me.

I think those have to go on the director’s cut, those recordings. Did you ever think your feature directorial debut would be so musical, and are there any challenges intrinsic to making a movie in which music plays such an integral part?

Yeah, there’s big challenge. First of all, the whole playback thing is tough. There’s one end of the spectrum where it’s Glee and it’s clearly a studio, with picture. Then there’s live, which I’ve already talked about. That’s really tough, and it makes cutting just a nightmare. The only way to do that is to have really great musicians and lots and lots of cameras rolling. Playback is tricky. We did it in the traditional way, with one exception. I think it was Charlton who suggested this, but also David Kirschner, who did sound. Even though the lads were playing to playback and singing to playback, we recorded them on the day, and we did the post sound at Skywalker. Those guys are just geniuses, the best of the best. They took little bits, just a little bit, of the live recording. Apparently the drums are really hard to make them sound like they’re live when you’re doing playback; I never quite understood. But they just took a little bit of the cymbals, and when the stick hits the drum, and a little bit of ambient sound, the pick, as it clatters across the guitar string—they took some of those sounds and mixed them in with the playback. I’ve heard from people who are good at this stuff saying we got it right. And in fact, when I watch, it looks like they’re playing.

Oh yeah, absolutely. I read that Anton Yelchin doesn’t actually play violin, but in one scene he does, and it is convincing as all get out.

It’s a testament to him acting. I said, “Oh, Anton, I want you to play violin in this thing.” He said, “I don’t know how to play a violin.” I said, “Yeah you do, I saw you do it in a movie.” “I was faking it, man.”

He and Billy Crudup are both incredible. I know that he’s played in bands before, and Billy plays guitar a little bit. Can you talk a bit about the process they went through to prepare for their roles? What sort of training or rehearsal you had them do?

Not a lot. Billy took some voice lessons as soon as he was cast. There was maybe five or six weeks from the time he was cast to the time we started shooting. I know he took some voice lessons and guitar lessons. When they came to L.A., we went in and recorded the music, so they had learned it. Simon and Charton had sent them all tapes, so they could learn it. Ben Kweller and Ryan Dean who round out the band are actual musicians. You know Ben Kweller—he’s been doing this forever. He’s a true rock star. He took the lads under his wing and really gave them some moves. They just bonded like you couldn’t believe. As a matter of fact, after shooting, they’d go to someone’s room and they’d just get toasted and play guitars until the wee hours. I’d say, “You guys gotta get some sleep, man. You can’t come in here dragging like this.” [Laughs] Other than that, no, they learned the tunes on their own, and they practiced, so that when we got to the day and they played that stuff, they had it down.

I’m curious, with this being such a musical process throughout, it’s funny you mentioned with the samples you got back, that you didn’t want to musicians to write songs directly about the film and what was happening. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack a lot recently, and the more I do, the more I notice each track really connects back to the themes of the film, though without being too on-the-nose. Is there anything you learned, either from Simon and Charlton or any of the other musicians, about songwriting?

A lot of that is serendipity. Whatever caught my attention with these songs, I’m sure the lyrics are part of it. One or two of the songs were basically assignments. For instance, there was a placeholder where we said, what if he wrote a song about, “What if I was a complete jerk? What would it take to turn you off where you wouldn’t be my friend any more?” We thought that because, what a Josh thing to wonder, you know? Josh just doesn’t understand the world. They wrote that song—[sings] “Would you still by my friend/If I beat up your brother/Would you still be my friend/If I made out with your mother/I’d still be friends with you,/Because that’s what real friends do.” So that was pure assignment. “Over Your Shoulder,” the Fink song—“The angel and the devil/Secretly they get along/Sitting up there with me in the middle.” Something something something. “Wondering which bridge to burn”—that’s just luck. One song, and it was perfect.

Your goal with that letter that you sent out, of memorable pop songs, they all delivered.

Yep, but they’re not idiotic pop songs. They’ve got a little depth to them. A little more adult.

I almost hesitate to use the term, because they seem more than your summer pop radio fare.

You know, I was trying to get another film made, and I was talking to a guy who does what Liz does. He was a musical supervisor. He sent me a bunch of songs. This was ten years ago. I thought the songs were…not good, and I think, ten years ago, the Top 40 songs weren’t good. Now, I think they’re great. There’s some great stuff being played. At any rate, I said, “I don’t like any of these.” Most of what I didn’t like, they just weren’t complicated; they weren’t sophisticated. These writers would come up with some phrase that they liked and just repeat it until you’re read to put a gun in your mouth! No lyrics, just simple, repetitive stuff. All this false emotion, and all this electronic stuff just trying to cover up that the writer had nothing to say. In that mix, he had put in [sings] “You had a bad day, yadda da da.” You remember that?

Yeah, I do.

And that was a light, fluffy song. I said I liked that. And the guy took a long pause and said, “Oh, you like the pop stuff.” I let it go, and about five minutes into the conversation, I said, “Wait a minute! Can we go back? That song at least had something going on. It’s got a catchy hook. It’s got some lyrics. The other stuff you sent me is just the same fucking line repeated until you’re ready to die! What are you trashing me for liking the pop song for?”


I took him to task for it. “Okay, man, okay, okay.”

The first song you mentioned, “Home,” is one of the first songs we hear Billy Crudup sing, and it’s also the first one on the soundtrack. I’ve kind of had that on loop for the past couple of days; it’s a wonderful song.

I know. It goes deep, and I think, when you’ve seen the film, too, you have associations with the film, and I think it makes it more fun.

Were there any songs written for the film, which you ultimately weren’t able to include for one reason or another?

Yeah. There were…I’ve got a whole notebook full of songs. The way I did it, I needed six, and as I would listen to stuff, something that was even remotely close, I’d put it on the list. I had a list of 20 songs I sort of liked. I cut that down to 15. Then, I cut it down to 10. It was about that time that it became clear Simon and Charlton were two of the ten. That’s when I stopped looking. I heard a lot of songs I thought could do it, but these were the best.

The soundtrack strikes me as a perfect example of how music can help people who have experienced trauma escape, forget, move on, or heal from their experiences. How much did this power of music drive you? Was it something you were conscious of while making Rudderless?

Yeah, I totally agree with you. Music is powerful stuff and has been ever since mankind has roamed this earth. On a personal level, music is my go-to place when I need to, as Felicity [Huffman] says, self-soothe. I’m a guitar player. I’m not good, but I’m enthusiastic. I like it and play all the time. About ten or fifteen years ago, I picked up the ukulele, and that’s it for guitars for me. Now, I’m an avid ukulele player. Again, I’m not very good, but it’s my go-to place when I’m stressed, or when I need to recharge my batteries. It’s a pacifier for me. I didn’t realize it. One time, we had a house full of people, and I had been playing host, until I just reached surfeit and went off and, I was still there, but started plinking on a ukulele, which I have all over the house. We have guitars and ukes and banjos all over the house, because my daughters play, and we all sing. Music’s a big thing in my house. Flicka got me a beautiful Steinway a couple of years ago, which I can pound on a bit. Anyway, I was playing the ukulele, and she said, “Good for you; you needed to self-soothe a little bit.” I thought, “Is that what I’m doing?” [Chuckles] But I hear you. Music is therapeutic. You know, say something in Chinese. Say a word in Chinese.


Yeah, well, exactly. But guess what, they can read music in China. They can read music all over the world. It’s the one universal language. Even in countries that have a different tonal scale, like China or Japan, they do love the Western, too. It’s a universal language. You know, being a child of the ’60s and ’70s, call me naïve, I think music can bring down a president. I think music can stop a war. I think it’s significant that the Russians had to put Pussy Riot [in prison]. I mean, four girls singing punk rock, what can be so threatening about that?

Oh yeah, could you believe that?

Yeah, can you believe that? Music is big stuff. And, in this film, is the engine of his redemption.

I feel like all parties are redeemed. Without diving too much into the plot for our readers who haven’t seen the film yet. All characters kind of need to be redeemed, and music is what does it, whether they’re on screen or off, alive or dead. I feel like it’s the thing that spares or saves everybody, all the characters in the film.

Totally. And when we shot those scenes, as you can well imagine, that bar didn’t exist. We built that bar. People walking down the street would stop and say, “How long’s this bar been here? Are they going to open tonight?” The music was just falling out onto the sidewalk. All those acts that come in, it was just the best week of shooting. Oh lord, we had a good time. It’s just impossible to not have a smile on your face with some of these tunes.

I wanted to ask you about the “Wheels on the Bus” part. How did that come about, because that was a blast.

Wasn’t it? Jeff and Casey wrote that. Charlton and I talked about it, and I said, “Let’s do a rocking version. It’s gotta be short, but it’d be great if you kept the reveal for what tune it is as long as you can.” It was sort of spontaneous that everybody started doing the motions to “The Wheels on the Bus” the way you do in elementary school. Turns out to be a lovely moment.

I was pleased to see it on the soundtrack. So often those little moments don’t make it in.

Kate Micucci’s song, too. Do you know Kate?

I’ve not heard much of her, but she was one of the ones in the beginning, right?

[Sings] “Don’t call me at four in the morning/don’t call me baby and then kick me out of your bed” or something like that. She wrote that song for us. It’s very cute. Kate’s a great ukulele player. I did a movie with her, and she did this little song. The movie’s called Bart Got a Room. And we sang a little song that we put on YouTube to try to sell tickets to that. I adore her.

Sounds like the ukulele featured pretty prominently in the making of this picture.

Well, it’s my instrument. I just love the ukulele. Jim Beloff is one of the reasons that ukuleles had such a resurgence in this country. You hear ukulele in a lot of pop songs now—a lot of Top Ten songs—you’ll hear a ukulele back there, and Jim Beloff is one of the reasons for it. Jim and his wife, Liz, write these little books, and he holds these concerts. Jim writes and records; he’s got a bunch of CDs out. And if that ain’t enough, they have a uke website called Flea Market Music. They sell ukuleles that Jim sort of designs. I think it’s his brother in law that builds it. I don’t know. They build them in the U.S.A. It’s one of the best ukes you can get. It’s very cheap. So I called Jim, and I said, “We’re building this music emporium, Del’s Music Emporium.” That didn’t exist, either. We got sponsorship from Gibson, who gave us a whole bunch of stuff, including that lime green Les Paul that guess who got? Me. It’s in my house. Yeah, it is sweet. And I said, “Jim, send a whole bunch of ukuleles, and we’ll do a whole wall of ukuleles. It’ll be good advertising for you.’ And he did, he sent a whole bunch of them. And I bought them all—that was my wrap gift. I gave pretty much everyone a ukulele. Not everyone, but as many as I could. A ukulele. A rather expensive wrap gift, but what the hell. I started giving them out before we wrapped, so there was a lot of ukulele playing around that set.

Are there any bands you really enjoy listening to, or any musical influences in your life, besides as a calming activity.

I have two daughters, 12 and 14, so I listen to Hits One and a bunch of the stations here. I’m pretty impressed with a lot of the stuff that’s coming out. I think Lady Gaga is just stunning. Beyoncé—the stuff that she does. I know all the lyrics to almost all the Taylor Swift songs. I went to a One Direction concert. Those guys have a very nice sound. Boy, they don’t do a very good show, but the music. So I listen to all that on the radio. Personally? I’m going to do another film. It’s called Crystal. There’s no music in it, but score-wise, I keep hearing Randy Newman, who I think is an American treasure. I guess my go-to people would be the great writers: Randy Newman, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon of course. Then, also, I grew up in the golden age of rock and roll. I love listening to that.

Were you familiar with many of the people Liz reached out to when you two were soliciting work?

No, no, these are all the indie things. These are all 20-year-olds. These are the guys that have just come out. We toyed around with the idea of going to a big band and asking them to do it, but I didn’t want to give away that much control.

And now that you’ve directed your first feature and have other projects you’re working on, I’m sure all your fans and audiences will eagerly await your next turn behind the camera. Do you think you’ll attempt musical projects again in the future?

I would imagine so. I don’t want to make Rudderless again, but yeah. Selena Gomez and Ben Kweller did a little musical video I directed—“Hold On”—which is the song you hear Selena singing in the film. It’s pretty good. It’s pretty cute. It’s not earth shaking, and it’s kind of old fashioned, but they’re gonna let that out, I don’t know, in the next week. It’s really sweet. And I play on it a little bit. I bang on the piano. Ryan Dean is there, drumming. And Ben Kweller and Selena Gomez. We changed it up a little bit. We put in some a capella; we repeated some stuff. I tried to get a narrative in the song, so the video would have a beginning, middle, and end, and we sort of did.

I hope you don’t decide to stop acting now that you’ve fallen in love with directing.

I don’t think so. Man, I just fell in a field of clover. I’ve got Shameless, which this season is fantastic. We’re going to be here for a long time.

And you’re directing on that now, too.

I directed one of those. That’s a tough job. Shameless is going to be here. It’s half the year. I’m going to direct another film come February. It’s called Crystal. I’m just the luckiest palooka.

I’m curious, what would you say is your single greatest takeaway from this experience, directing Rudderless?

I kind of fell in love with my business all over again. I just fell in love with the whole notion of storytelling, filmmaking, actors, designers. Watching from that perspective of the guy who is sort of seeing the whole, small army try to make this film. I just fell in love with the business all over again. It’s been such a shot in the arm for me. So good for me to be frightened, to do something I didn’t know how to do. To risk so much. It’s just brought me alive. That’s my big takeaway.


Rudderless is now in theaters and on demand. For more information about the film, check out its website. The soundtrack is available from Lakeshore Records.


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Wasis Purbo Wiseso
February 11th 2015

where i can download “Don’t call me at four in the morning” song?? Thanks