When I was younger, I wondered why there weren’t more films about musicians for me to obsessively watch, over and over again. But as I got older, it became clear that there weren’t more music films because they’re a logistical nightmare. Like a band that works out the kinks in a rehearsal space but comes onstage as a cohesive unit, The Heights hides the work that went into it, presenting itself to the world as a fully formed, well-soundtracked story about the difficulties of making it big in the music industry while staying true to yourself.
The Heights are Jessie and Ben, though the label that wants to sign them has provided them with a backing band made up of hired guns. They’re about to play the biggest gig of their life for a label that might change their aesthetic. Will the band be able to keep it together long enough to get signed? Or will they implode under the pressure of conforming to the demands of a label that wants to water down their music? Jessie and Ben are pitted against a bunch of corporate label reps and an overbearing manager, and there’s a palpable sense of pressure and tension in the film, mostly focusing on Ben–a lifer musician who’s done the label dance before–and Jessie–less jaded, but unsure if she can sacrifice her artistic freedom in pursuit pg success.
Narratively speaking, The Heights throws up a middle finger to the canned concept of authenticity, twisting and turning in ways that are motivated by artistic integrity and not predictable plot paths. What is perhaps most impressive is that these performances are mostly real, a rarity in this genre. David Ramirez (Ben) and Betsy Phillips (Jessie) are both musicians in real life, and according to Booth, the majority of the performances in the film were captured live on set. Though Booth no longer works on the music side of things, he’s still passionate about music and involved in documenting the life of musicians. (He recently DP’d Vimeo’s MAKE, which featured behind-the-scenes footage of Sylvan Esso and other bands.) As Booth writes, “I […] wanted to make a film – especially as I get further and further away from my direct connection to the music – that could be a statement of that affection.”
In a world where most actors can’t play guitar and musicians have arguably become less “rock n’ roll”, it’s nice to see a film that feels this real, that takes a deeper look at the inherent messiness that happens behind the curtain. Though The Heights is Ryan Booth’s first narrative film, we’re sure it won’t be his last.
If you’d like to get a detailed look at what went into producing The Heights, there’s an in-depth series of videos available at Story & Heart, who financed this film as part of their “On Set With” series. Check it out at this link.
Q&A with RYAN BOOTH
S/W: What inspired the film?
Booth: I actually began my career as an audio engineer. I spent my first several years out of college working in studios in Nashville. Soldering cable, getting coffee, doing kick drum replacements (don’t ask – it’s the most miserable grunt work). I eventually worked my up to placing mics, comping vocals, and even tracking sessions. It was great. There was real energy in the music scene in Nashville at the time. Jack White, Kings of Leon, Beck. Lots of interesting stuff getting made. And tons of young bands – bands my age – who were just starting out. I got to be friends with quite a few of them. We all ended up at the same open mic nights and backyard parties and in-store shows. It was a special few years.
However, I could tell that I was first and foremost a music fan. The process of making records started to really wear on me. I knew it wasn’t my long term trajectory. So I moved back to Texas and eventually entered filmmaking. It immediately felt like home.
One of the first projects I started was a thing called SerialBox Presents. It was a live, multi-cam, one-take performance video project. Artists would come in and do acoustic or alternative arrangements of their songs. We used studio mics and processes and we’d shoot five or six cameras and light it like a movie. Sort of like a modern take on MTV Unplugged. Or maybe a live music video. I called a ton of those bands that I knew from back in Nashville and asked them to be a part. Many of them said yes. Quite a few of those bands were getting bigger as time had gone on and honestly, the success of that project largely came from my relationships with those bands.
Several of them continued to get bigger and now we were partnering on music videos and documentaries and branded pieces for Spotify or Vevo. Suddenly – some of these bands that I knew back at those open mics were now kind of a big deal. Tour busses. Crews. 500 cap rooms to 2500 cap rooms. Labels. Management companies. Late Night appearances. And all the while – I was getting the real story behind the scenes. The pressure, the douchebags that seem to materialize at each stage of success, the difficulty of becoming increasingly separated from the music. Being in a band – especially a moderately successful one – can often feel like it’s about everything but the music.
One night, I was shooting a documentary for a band I knew. We were in the green room in Webster Hall in NYC and the band had just finished performing. The record label and some other big wigs were on the other side of the door waiting for the fellas to come out for a meet and greet. And all of a sudden the lead singer and the guitarist got into a fist fight right in front of me. Months of pent up pressure just erupted right in front of me. (While I was filming I might add). It was wild. The other band members tried to break it up. They got everyone separated and cooling down, but the dressing room was destroyed. Tables flipped, clothes torn, everything. And I’ll never forget the lead singer, as he’s putting on a new shirt, looks back at camera and says, “nothing harder than when your band is ‘about to break’ for five years.” Then, he turned and walked out the door, big smile on his face to go shake hands with the label. I was dumbfounded. I knew I wanted to make a film about that pressure, about the moment when you’re trying to grow and you aren’t quite sure if what you’re giving up is worth the effort.
That band ended up breaking up, by the way. The pressure to move to the next level was just too much for them. It overtook the music.
At the end of the day, I am a massive fan of music, of musicians, and especially of songwriters. I believe they’re on the front lines of the disruption of what it means to make art in a digital, streaming world. But I also think they’re on the front lines of creative effort. As a writer – there is nothing to hide behind. No fancy camera moves, no tools of the trade. Just you and an instrument. I love that. I also wanted to make a film – especially as I get further and further way from my direct connection to the music – that could be a statement of that affection.
David Ramirez, who plays Ben in the film, is one of my favorite musicians. He was an early participant in SerialBox. I’ve shot three of his music videos. We’ve seen each other in dozens of cities around the country when we’re overlapping out on the road. I wanted to make a film that captured a small slice of a hypothetical world that he and so many like him occupy.
S/W: What were you personally looking to achieve with the film?
Booth: The goal for this short was twofold. The first goal is pretty simple: I wanted to direct a narrative project. The first thing I ever made was a narrative short for the Vimeo / Canon “Beyond the Still” contest. But that was a little three minute thing shot on a 5D with some non-actor friends. No lights, everything shot within a few blocks of my apartment. Since then, I’ve spent most of my time DPing for other directors. I’ve DP’d a few features, some documentaries, and a bunch of commercials. And, hands down, my favorite projects have always been the narrative ones. I love the process of telling a scripted story so much. So, over the past year and a half or so, I’ve been actively transitioning into directing. Making The Heights was a challenge to myself to stop talking about directing a script and actually direct a script. Whether I failed or not would be largely secondary to the act of actually making it.
The second goal was a bit more subjective. I have always envisioned this story as a feature or even series concept. It’s a longform story, for sure. But given that it was my first crack at something like this – I wanted to make a “proof of concept” of sorts. Much like Whiplash or Short Term 12 – I wanted to make a short as a way to get the world up on its feet and see if it felt compelling enough to spend the time to make the feature. I also wanted to have something to show that wasn’t just a rip-o-matic or a treatment when we start pitching this to investors. I want to let them see the world itself.
S/W: How was the film made?
Booth: I was at SXSW doing some work for Spotify one year and a writer friend of mine named Bradley Jackson and I ended up at drinks one night. We both got to talking about how wild the music world is and how volatile it must be to navigate. We started talking about a mutual friend, singer-songwriter named David Ramirez. We both felt that he would be amazing on camera. What if we made a short that David could play one of the leads in a fictional duo? Out of those initial conversations the script for The Heights was born. We worked on it off and on for several months and then in the summer of 2016, we felt like we had a script in decent enough shape to try and make it happen.
This film was financed in a bit of an usual fashion. I had some relationships with a company called Story & Heart and they had been experimenting with creating educational content about what it’s like to bring a project to life in real time. They had been developing a series of classes called “On Set With” in which they would partially fund a personal project and in exchange – they would film the entire process and create a class out of the content. My producer, Henry Proegler and I discussed back and forth and ultimately felt like this was an amazing opportunity to get going. Short films are notoriously difficult to finance and this would allow us to not wait around any longer.
We shot 19 pages in two days at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. It was insane. I knew that I wanted David Ramirez as one of the leads and that because he wasn’t a professional actor – I wanted to find a real venue that could really mean something to him as a musician. The Troubadour is absolutely one of those venues. James Taylor and Tom Petty used to hang there and play open mics or would jump on stage with the Eagles for a few songs. There are decades and decades of history in the space. Even today – it’s a big milestone to sell out the Troubadour. I wanted to make sure we were in a location that carried that kind of weight. The trick was that they could only get us two consecutive days of availability once over the entire fall touring season. And those two days happened to only be three and a half weeks after we got financing for the film. So we ended up prepping the film in under a month. And I should say that neither Henry nor I live in Los Angeles, so we had to make it happen remotely for the most part.
Another unusual thing we did is that the majority of the performances in the film were captured live on set, including the final song on stage. That’s really how it sounded on the day. We integrated our lighting and sound team with the venue lighting and sound team and managed to capture the audio in the room, through the mic, and then with movie mics to supplement. But the majority of the sound is through the venue stage mics. We managed to simply capture a performance. I was really glad that we were able to make that work.
We also had an amazing crew. Twenty or twenty-five people were with us and I had worked with nearly all of them in some capacity before. It was an extremely ambitious schedule and I was incredibly thankful to have such wonderful people surrounding me. It wouldn’t have happened otherwise.
S/W: What are you working on now?
Booth: Since we wrapped production on The Heights short last fall, we spent the last eight months writing the feature version of the film. Normally when people make a short that is a proof of concept for a feature, they’ve already written the feature and just pull 8-10 pages out of it to use to make the short. We went about it a little backwards. We didn’t have a word of the feature written when we made The Heights.
But I’m so glad that we made the short before writing the feature though, because it really informed the direction we’ve taken the story and where the characters are coming from. I think it was an invaluable experience to make the feature as interesting as possible. The release of this short is the starting gun for us trying to make the feature version of this film. Quite exciting.
But also – I have always been a “let’s put a dozen irons in the fire and see which one hits” kind of guy. Henry and I have a production company called Hank&Booth and through that entity we’re developing a few doc series concepts in addition to The Heights. I also signed with Pulse Films earlier this year for commercial representation and have been pitching and working on commercials through them. I have also been working with a Scottish writing team on another “proof of concept” short to be shot off the coast of Scotland. It’s a Children of Men style film based around some Scottish folklore that I’m also quite excited about.
But all that to say, The Heights really got me hooked on creating narrative films. No turning back now.