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LA Film Festival: A Conversation with Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell on Becks

Inspired by the life of singer/songwriter Alyssa Robbins, Becks is not just a lesbian love story, but a universal love story first and foremost that speaks to the broader human experiences of love, heartbreak, and finding one’s place in this world.

Becks follows an unambitious musician (Becks) who moves back home to St. Louis after a crushing breakup with her longtime girlfriend Lucy (Hayley Kiyoko). Once back home, she struggles to find a connection with her ultra-Catholic mother Ann (Christine Lahti), a former nun. As she navigates her hometown, playing for tip money in an old friend’s bar, an unexpected relationship begins to take shape with Elyse (Mena Suvari), the wife of Becks’ high school nemesis. The film is driven by an original soundtrack produced by veteran music producer Steve Salett and performed by Lena Hall.

The film was co-directed by Elizabeth Rohrbaugh (Emmy Award Winner and documentary director of The Perfect Victim) and Daniel Powell (Emmy and Peabody-winning co-creator and Executive Producer of Inside Amy Schumer) and written by both directors in collaboration with Peabody winner, four-time Emmy nominee for Key and Peele and producer of FX’s Baskets, Rebecca Drysdale.

I caught up with Elizabeth Rohrbaugh and Daniel Powell before the World premiere of their film at the LA Film Festival that runs from June 14, 2017 – June 22, 2017

How did the story of Becks happen for the two of you?

Elizabeth Rohrbaugh : Dan and I have known each other for quite a while. We had been wanting to make a film together. I was spending a few years in St. Louis which strangely enough we are both from there but didn’t know each other there.

I was home and a good friend of mine, Alyssa Robbins is someone I’ve known for a while. She had decided to move out to LA to be with her girlfriend when she moved out there, her girlfriend had replaced her. The reality show element of it was real. She wanted my friend, Alyssa to be on a reality show, and when she said no, she moved out there and there was another girlfriend.

She had quit her job in New York and was starting the next chapter and it all just turned to shit. She went back home to her mom’s place in the Chicago suburbs and she started touring through St. Louis. She was playing in these really small venues. There was this 24-hour diner with 20 seats and she was amazing. The crowd was amazing and made up of these guys who don’t really spend much time watching live music, they were in tears. She said, “I’ve made more money that night than I did on the whole tour.”

Dan and I were pitching ideas to each other and we thought wouldn’t it be cool to put this into a cinematic moment and have Alyssa as the inspiration for the character and use her music as a thread throughout the film.

Daniel Powell : We had decided we were going to make a movie and felt we were ready to make our first feature. We were bouncing a couple of ideas around and the one that rises to the surface creatively, that’s the one we’ll shoot.

This was the idea that just felt the most interesting and unique. We didn’t have experience in the musical space and that just made it that much more exciting.

Alyssa had this body of music that we could use to build the story around. So, that’s how we built the story, we did it backward.

Having a nun as a mother was another element that was real, and we took those elements and crafted a story around that and used the music to craft the rest of the narrative.

How did you find Lena Hall to be the perfect Becks?

My favorite thing about casting Lena is that in New York there’s a bar called SubCulture which is like a music performance venue that Alyssa bartends at. She was bartending and Lena performed. We were talking about who to cast and she came to me saying, “Do you know who Lena Hall is?”

She reminded her of her and we checked her out. We met with her and she seemed down for our vision and she seemed so open and willing to look at the character and do everything that we wanted with the look.

Lena has a theater background and she was excited to headline a film for the first time. She’s also a Tony Award winner and her voice is insane. Most of the music in the film is almost entirely live. There were a few moments we dubbed for technical reasons but otherwise, that was really her singing.

Dan: Any song that’s her singing in the bar is her singing live to camera.

I was going to ask you because I saw an early version of it. I know Lena’s voice and wanted to find out more about.

Dan: It’s all her.

As you said, music drives the narrative here. How did the music all come together in this case?

Dan: We had a handful of songs that Alyssa had written that we knew we wanted to use. The duets with Elyse was stuff we had to figure out.

Elizabeth: My husband used to be a music producer and produced one of Steve Salett’s albums. I had worked with him at MTV when I was there and had worked with him before. I’ve always been a fan of his work. He’s a master of lyrics and to me, it’s like poetry. To me, he could take the existing music that we had and further craft them to make them right for the film and work with Alyssa to do some more work.

Steve is a great songwriter. It was nice for her to be in good hands too with someone who worked with musicians a lot to craft the sound.

There’s a great scene where she’s having this conversation and says, “I hate the word lesbian.”

Dan: It was a 17-day shoot and that scene with Amy was in our script from the beginning. We wanted the dialogue to have more specificity to it. I’ve been looking at this comedy writer, Rebecca Drysdale. We knew each other and I reached out to her to help with the script and I joked that there would be a perfect character for her. So she ended up helping with a lot of the script and the dialogue.

That scene is the most representative as she knew she was going to be playing that part, so she took that scene and made it her own in terms of injecting her personality into that scene. She actually flew in for a day to shoot it.

This film has funny moments but not in the style of my career.

Mena Suvari came to this project because she was on the last season of Inside Amy Schumer. She plays a suburban housewife in the sketch and even though that couldn’t be more different than this film, she raised an eyebrow.

We offered her the script on faith. It was a testament to their talent to see that chemistry.

Elizabeth: They were incredible together. Mena is a masterful performer. There are two scenes that stand out for me. One was when Becks leave and she is on the stoop waiting for her. I had her dressed in casual clothes.

We changed her and as I was looking at her do that scene. I had her pick up the phone as if she got a text and we didn’t know it was going to happen at all. Cat our DP ran in just as this tear rolls down her cheek. It was an awesome moment that I didn’t realize was going to happen. It actually fulfilled something we weren’t able to shoot with a budget.

Dan: Cat ran in and got that perfect moment. It was a single take. It was purely because Cat caught that moment.

Has Alyssa seen it?

Elizabeth: Yes she has seen it. I think she’s excited about it premiering at the LA Film Festival.

What do you want people to take away from watching Becks?

Elizabeth: For me, we are so very happy and proud to call it a lesbian film and to have it. We hope it can find an audience beyond that. We hope people can enjoy it and feel the music and feel attached to the characters.

Hopefully, they can relate to the complexities of what she’s going through. Her life is not perfect and it’s a lot of work to figure it out. I think we are all messy people and I hope a broader audience can see it.

Dan: We hope people view it as a nuanced love story.

 

 

Becks premieres tonight at the Arclight Culver City.