Hard Luck Love Song photo from l to r: Writer/Director Justin Corsbie, Todd Snider, Fiona Prine, and Producer Allison Smith
Based on the interpretive lyrics of Todd Snider’s “Just Like Old Times,” the new film Hard Luck Love Song (in theaters now) is an indie-driven affectionate embrace of Americana music starring Michael Dorman and Sophia Bush. Writer/director Justin Corsbie is well versed in Snider’s catalog, following the singer-songwriter’s career since the late 1990s, and using music as an inspired listener to spur his own creativity.
I recently sat down with Corsbie to discuss Mezcal musings, creative compromises, and the 100 million dollar future of psychedelic action sci-fi mind-bending dark comedies.
Americana Highways: Your latest film Hard Luck Love Song is based on Todd Snider’s “Just Like Old Times.” How does a song go from lyrical journey to a full-length featured film script in this case?
Justin Corsbie: I holed up in a cheap motel down in Long Beach with some Mezcal and two weeks worth of low quality bing-bang that I scored at the local dive bar where the dockworkers, merchant marines, and longshoremen do their 7 AM drinking after night shifts.
Just f’ing with you, that was how we found the locations, except without the booze and drugs.
But seriously, for this particular project, I think it started with being extremely versed in the source material and Americana music. I’m a huge music fan, and a longtime fan of Todd’s work. Been going to his shows and listening to all his stuff since I was in college in the late ‘90s. He’s a really unique talent, and I’d always wanted to figure out a way to relay some of his magic to film and TV audiences. Mostly because I found him to have such a unique voice and the uncanny ability to blend poignant drama and dark humor in such an authentic way.
The story in the song is really contained, but so much more is hinted at that provided framing for further exploration. For example, Todd sings, “I won a tournament last week in Oklahoma City, hustled half this town tonight,” which is almost all that’s mentioned about pool hustling. But, my filmmaker brain says – Wait, you did what? Okay, let’s back up a little and learn more about how that went down and how you got from that moment to this moment here at the rundown motel. Ultimately, the characters and the setting that Todd established in his song were interesting to me, and I wanted to know more. I wouldn’t say that I’ve been in that exact situation, but I’ve certainly been in enough similar situations that I could really imagine the specifics of what could happen in a story like this.
AH: The film is said to be a love letter to Americana and the Austin music scene. Is this movie a marriage of two of your passions – music and filmmaking – and what does it mean for you to have made this creative connection?
JC: This film is, without a doubt, the marriage of my two biggest creative passions. But, they are a bit different for me because I don’t make music. I try to enjoy it as often as I can, but there’s no grinding away at the craft of music for me like there is with filmmaking. That being said, I do enjoy the experience of listening to music and watching films in a very similar way. It’s a visceral and sublime journey that they can both take you on. Storytelling music often gives us a window into interesting characters and worlds that we might not otherwise focus on. I love films that do that same thing. The ultimate goal is to make films that accomplish that while taking the audience on a visceral and sublime journey at the same time.
AH: You not only directed the film, but you also wrote and produced it. Producing sometimes involves a more critical train of thought than a creative one. With that in mind, did what Director/Writer Justin wanted ever butt heads with what Producer Justin could achieve on set? Did you have to make any creative compromises because of budget or time constraints?
JC: Creative compromises because of budget and time constraints is an every minute of every day occurrence on an indie film. Truthfully, I think it’s a reality of most films regardless of budget. It’s just a different scale.
The split personality of Director versus Producer in one person is a fun question. I’d say I don’t often butt heads with myself about budget or logistics, if ever. I’m always right, right? I do prefer being involved in those elements so that I can help ensure that we’re collectively making the best decisions for the film. A good producer understands both sides as well and is working to put the best film on the screen at all times. I’d say I have an advantage as a writer/director who produces because I understand what it takes to organize and execute, and you can’t bullshit me about what we can and can’t do. I have a ton of respect for producers, who take on challenges and try to figure out solutions. My producing partner and wife, Allison Smith, is that type of producer, and I lean on her for setting that tone. Being a director who puts on the producer hat can also help encourage that approach.
I also enjoy using both sides of my brain and being involved as a producer allows me to take mini breaks from pure creative to help solve logistical problems. There are times where it would be too distracting and I try to know when those times are and stay focused on creative. Directing requires uncompromised focus, which is taxing. A little jaunt into a different, but equally engaged, headspace for a few minutes can be useful for my process and personality. Plus, as a director you’re a bit of a control freak and being a producer allows for even more control.
AH: Some of the best filmmaking comes from having to think outside-the-box when the budget is not always there to deliver on certain moments. Did you end up getting something on camera that was not as how you originally intended, but in the end, turned out better than you could have expected?
JC: Much of the film was shot chronologically, which is quite unusual. The last scene in the film was shot on the last day of the production and everyone was exhausted from shooting overnights and sprinting to the finish. Spoiler alert: The Officer Zach swimming pool, cannon ball moment was supposed to be done in his underwear, but we were running out of time and the sun was coming up so we ended up filming him doing it in his full police officer wardrobe. We had one shot and it ended up perfect, even down to the way he’s floating in the pool to end the film.
AH: What are you most proud of with the film and why?
JC: My favorite scene is when Jesse plays Todd’s song “Can’t Complain.” His performance of the song is amazing, and I really love what happens between the characters in that scene overall. There’s a tension between them before he plays that gets eased as he plays the song, and then a new tone and a different tension is introduced after the song finishes. I love the dramatic ebb and flow that happens in the moments of that extended scene and the chemistry between Michael (Dorman) and Sophia (Bush) playing these characters is off the charts. It’s pretty magical.
AH: For most of us, the end product – the film itself – is the most memorable because it’s what we see, but for you, every facet of bringing it to life is a part of your memory now. With that said, what is something that you will carry with you through the rest of your life in making Hard Luck Love Song?
JC: I tagged my son’s name on the bathroom wall of the pool hall and it will forever be in this film.
AH: A movie about music has to have a great soundtrack and Hard Luck Love Song certainly does. How did you go about curating the music that would serve as the accompaniment for the film? Did you have to leave any favorites out?
JC: Absolutely. Curating the music was one of our driving forces in putting this film together. It was a team effort between me, the editor, J. Davis, and music supervisor Dan Wilcox. There’s a scene that didn’t make the film where Jesse plays Todd’s song “Lonely Girl” to Carla as they make up after their big fight. Also, we found this location through the music video for Leon Bridges‘ great song “The River.” We wanted to tip our cap to Leon, which he thought was cool, but we couldn’t work out a deal with the major label publisher and record label so we had to move on without the song, which was a bummer.
AH: Does listening to music help inspire you creatively, and if so, who do you put on these days to jump start the right side of your brain?
JC: Music definitely inspires me to write. Music can give me a real sense of tone and vibe for a scene and I often write needle drops into my scripts. When I’m in the process of writing, I gravitate towards instrumental music because lyrics and storytelling can be distracting for me. Lately, I’ve been writing to Beethoven.
AH: If someone came to you tomorrow and said, “Justin, here’s a blank check – go and make whatever project you want to see on the big screen,” what would you greenlight for yourself and why?
JC: It’s called KMAG YOYO, based on Hayes Carll’s amazing song, and the script is ready to go. I wrote it during COVID lockdown. I just need the $100M in financing to make it happen. No big deal.
It’s an epic Action/Sci-fi/Satire/Drama about a soldier who gets recruited by the CIA & the Pentagon for a bizarre mission after getting kicked out of the army for stealing Opium poppies from the Taliban and embracing his entrepreneurial spirit. It has Three Kings meets 2001 and Dr. Strangelove vibes.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
JC: Ten years from now, Hard Luck Love Song is a cult classic, KMAG YOYO is the highest grossing Psychedelic Action Sci-Fi Mind-Bending Dark Comedy to date, and I’m developing a spiritual sequel to Repo Man with Alex Cox and the Coen Brothers. A boy can dream, right?
Hard Luck Love Song is available in theaters now. Visit http://www.hardlucklovesong.com to find a screening near you.