by: Jay Carlson – Editor-in-Chief
In the new film Band Aid, writer/director/star Zoe Lister-Jones tackles the real-life issues that can plague even the best of relationships, from loss to dirty dishes being left in the sink and everything in between. When we’re first introduced to Anna (Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) it feels like we might have a front row seat to the end. They’re imploding quickly, with every little argument starting as a tributary connecting to a much bigger argument. The couple eventually embraces their shared love of playing music and rather than fight, they begin to take their peccadilloes and craft them into songs in order to heal their strained relationship. The result is a very funny and touching film, that gets everything right about the lows and highs of being in a real relationship.
I was able to sit down with Lister-Jones and her producer Natalia Anderson to discuss the film and we get into some fun areas, like the energy on an all-female set, why comedic actors tend to be the most versatile and my super neat handwriting. Band Aid expands to even more cities and theaters today!
The following interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Jay: What question are you already tired of answering? I probably have a page of them here.
Zoe Lister-Jones: (Looking at my notebook) Wow, you have such neat handwriting. Very impressive.
Jay: Don’t ask me to write anything in cursive. It’s all downhill from here.
Lister-Jones: I don’t want to make you take away questions. This is part of your job.
Jay: It’s fine. Which ones are you tired of?
Lister-Jones: I guess, probably, how did you come up with the story?
(At this point I took my pen and crossed off the first question on the page)
Jay: Was the intention always that Band Aid would be your directorial debut?
Lister-Jones: When I first started writing it I did not know that I was going to direct it. The writing process was relatively quick; I wrote it in a few months. Then I started taking it to some producers and my (own) producer hat thought, “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get this made with me as the director,” because I was untested. I think as I went through that process I more and more understood that it was something that I really did want to direct and I didn’t really care if that meant that closed certain doors for me. I was willing to take the risk on myself (laughs).
Jay: Was there ever any concern balancing the tone of the film? There’s a lot of comedy along with a lot of drama AND the music aspect as well.
Lister-Jones: I wouldn’t say it was tough. It was intentional. I think the movies I respond to most are ones that can navigate both comedy and drama. I think that so much comedy is rooted in drama anyway. I think that there’s much more bleed over than people might expect. I think tonally I did have to ride that line as a director and make sure that we weren’t going too broad or too dark, but I also didn’t want to limit myself and be afraid to go too dark. I think I just wanted to portray Anna and Ben’s relationship authentically, which spans the gamut in terms of emotions.
Jay: I thought it struck a really nice balance between those heartfelt and the comedic. There were some moments that felt a broad but they felt earned.
Jay: It seems that comedic actors who take on dramatic roles tend to be much more successful at it than dramatic actors who take on comedic roles. What do you think the difference is?
Lister-Jones: I think comedy is really hard. I think that comedy requires timing, which I think is something that you born with. (laughs) Or at least something that you have to cultivate throughout a lifetime. It’s not something that you can turn on and off. I think that most comedians turned to comedy and cultivated a sense of timing in order to move through pain. I think that those two emotional subsets intersect much more often in comedians than necessarily a person who is a dramatic actor. Not to say that there aren’t dramatic actors who are good at comedy. I think it’s easier to… There’s like a school of acting in dramas where you can just kind of mumble and have a glazed over stare… (laughing) and people will buy it. In comedy you can’t, there’s no faking it. You’re either funny or you’re not. I think that comedies as a genre are much harder to make than dramas. Again, I think a drama has a lot more leeway to… I don’t know, live in non-spaces for huge swaths of time. I think comedy relies on story that’s much more muscular and performances that are much more muscular.
Jay: Did you approach Adam Pally and Fred Armisen because they had a musical background? I know Fred has one, I wasn’t sure about Adam.
Lister-Jones: No. Adam, I went after him because I thought he was a really good actor and really funny. In the few times I met him we vibed and so I thought we would have good chemistry on screen. I foolishly, when I offered him the part I didn’t even know that he played guitar, which should have been a prerequisite. I just ended up lucking out that he could play guitar, and very well. Fred, I knew, played the drums. That was because Adam and I were not professional and legitimate musicians, although he’s very good. The drummer is obviously the backbone of a band. So, we really needed someone who knew what they were doing and Fred did.
Jay: How much did your own experience as an actor aid you as a director? As an actor were you observing and trying to pick things up from other directors while working on their sets?
Lister-Jones: Totally. I had written and produced and starred in three features before Band Aid and I think that was a great sort of boot camp, in terms of adding the director hat to the fray. I think that writing and producing have a lot of elements that intersect with the skillset required for a director. I think as an actor, yeah it’s an asset, because I was constantly interacting with directors and seeing what worked and what didn’t as an actor. That’s the key relationship, between director and an actor in order to shape a performance. So much of that is about the way that a director communicates to his or her actors. So I think that, yeah that definitely I was very much aware of in my career as an actor.
Jay: How tough is the transition moving from writing and acting to doing all of those other roles on a film set?
Lister-Jones: Surprisingly, it wasn’t that tough. I credit that to my producer (motioning to her left to the woman sitting next to her at the table) Natalia Anderson and my crew. I think the beauty of being a director is that, while you do need to have a singular vision, it is such a collaborative process. To me, that makes it all the more fulfilling. I felt so supported and encouraged and I just felt like the exact artistic community I had been seeking, where it didn’t feel like, “Oh no, I have all this weight on my shoulders.” I’ve got a little more weight on my shoulders, but it’s shared by so many people and all those people were sharing it with love. Not to get too woo woo, but there was a huge element of love on set.
Jay: How much of that was due to your all female crew?
Lister-Jones: I think a lot of it has to do with the female crew. I think that there was an electricity on set because we all knew we were doing something that hadn’t been done before and I think that that was exciting. I think that because so many of these female crew members are, for the most part, either the only woman on a set or one of a very few that there was something really exciting and inspiring about working in this specific community of women.
Jay: How did Adam and Fred react to being so vastly outnumbered for the first time?
Lister-Jones: They LOVED it. They loved it and both of them were like, “I want to do this on all of my future projects.” In fact, yesterday when I was with Adam he was like, “I don’t want to work with men ever again on crews.” Which I would never say and I do love working with many men. I think for Adam and Fred, Adam especially, he was the only man on set and that was like a dream come true to be surrounded by lovely, caring women. He, more than anybody… it was interesting to hear his reactions day by day. He was kind of like the experiment, he was the biggest experiment of all. He, as a producer, would go and visit his other sets on other productions and would come back and be like, “It’s so different on other sets, guys! I never realized it before but it’s such a different energy.” I think most actors when they’d come on set for the first time would immediately acknowledge the energetic shift that they were feeling. Then, when we wrapped it was really interesting because we had kind of been living in this utopia and our A.D. texted me and said, “I’m on my next project and we’re on a location scout and I’m the only woman.” It was kind of like, yeah I think there’s a lot of talk right now about how much is shifting. It’s pretty bleak still. I think that part of the energy of love and collaboration was fueled by the fact that we all really appreciated this opportunity.
Jay: How difficult is it to craft a performance when you’re the director and not getting someone else’s feedback?
Lister-Jones: I actually love it. (Laughing) Maybe that’s not a great thing to admit. My favorite directors are ones that generally leave me alone and then come in and shape things that are very specific and are generally after I’ve tried it a couple different ways. For me, a red flag when I’m working with a director is when they come in and give me direction before I’ve even spoken, or directors that micro manage. Especially in comedy, it’s the death of whatever comedic beat you’re trying to get. So, I loved being left alone and I think that as an actor, especially as a working actor, I’ve been auditioning for so long now that that process is so much about self-directing that you really do work that muscle of understanding how to break down a scene or an entire screenplay, in terms of your character’s emotional arcs. I did always have Natalia at monitor if I ever had a question, like, “Did that seem too big?” For the most part it really felt organic to the process. I know from my previous experiences as a producer and writer and being in the editing room a lot on my previous features to just give a lot of variations so that they have a lot to work with in post (production). For me, I was just constantly doing that, just different shapes and sizes throughout, so that when I was finally able to watch my performance I wouldn’t be confident that I have a variety of things to pull from.
Jay: What was the toughest part of making this film that you didn’t see prior to starting?
Lister-Jones: Honestly, and I know this sounds like a lie, I never had a moment where I was like, “This is going to break me, this is really overwhelmingly tough.” I think that, again, is a credit to Natalia. I think that my crew was really protective of me because they knew how much I had on my shoulders as an actor. They were so kind to only come to me in a dire circumstance, but especially in scenes that were emotionally draining or challenging, they made me feel really protected. I’d say that’s a credit to my crew. I think that in choosing my crew, that was a really big part of my intention. What I had learned on other sets that had been really challenging in the past was when there was a clashing of egos and crew members getting aggressive or in the ways that crew members can react and conflict, especially as a child of divorce, that sends me into a tailspin. I just wanted to make sure the crew was always happy and that they were always getting along. I gave a sort of state of the union on the first day that was about what this project meant to me and what I wanted to impress upon the crew, not a mandate but energetically that this is a set that needs to be fueled by love and needs to be fueled by supporting everybody. If someone who is not in your department needs help, give them a hand. I think that made our days go quicker, but also that sense of support and comradery is worth its weight in gold.
Jay: Which do you find preferable, playing music live and getting an immediate reaction to your work or making a film that can take a very long time between the work on the day and people actually seeing and reacting?
Lister-Jones: Playing music in front of people is the scariest thing I’ve probably ever done. When I was in high school or college I was so drunk that I don’t think I ever remembered (laughing) quite how scary it was. But I also never played an instrument, I was always just signing. And even then I was just kind of talk signing. The stakes were low, but I learned bass for this film. That, for me, is the scariest part, playing bass live and being part of a rhythm section where you have to stay on a beat and sing in key. Those things scare me live. I did a lot of theater in New York, on Broadway and off Broadway before I moved out to L.A. I think that doing comedy in front of a live audience, not a taped live audience because those people are being forced to laugh, but on stage is one of the hardest things. Ever. To have that immediate response of whether or not you’ve landed a joke can either be so exhilarating or just crushing and it’s really hard to recover when you’ve put yourself out there with some big joke or take and it just lays flat. So I personally like to shape a performance until I think it’s perfect and then deliver it to an audience. We played live at Sundance and while both Adam and I were shitting our pants, it was really exhilarating.
Jay: Which of your performers surprised you the most?
Lister-Jones: I hadn’t seen Fred Armisen do anything that was dramatic. He’s never fully dramatic in the film but he does have some moments that are really grounded and I was really impressed with him in that regard. Obviously I knew that he was going to be funny as hell. Adam’s musicianship really impressed me. I didn’t expect it. He was very humble about it and it continues to impress me. And Jesse Williams, I have to say, was SO funny. He improvised so much. There was so much gold in there that we just couldn’t fit into the movie, but he’s hilarious.
Jay: What’s next?
Lister-Jones: I have a project that’s coming up in my next hiatus that I want to write, direct and star in. But I can’t talk about it just yet. Stay tuned.
Jay: Thank you for the time and best of luck with Band Aid.
Lister-Jones: Thank you so much. That was awesome.