Coming of Age with Jim McKay

In 1996, writer/director Jim McKay burst onto the independent film scene with his feature film debut, Girls Town.

The story of three teenage girls who decide to “subvert the patriarchy” after their best friend’s suicide, the film showed that “teen” movies could be political– and affect all of society. While McKay’s latest film, Our Song, returns to somewhat familiar territory– telling the story of three young friends struggling with their own friendship and the various social ills that surround them– the story and its characters are uniquely realistic. Here, McKay talks with MM about the likely comparisons between Girls Town and Our Song, the universal themes and meanings of his latest film and the responsibilities of contemporary moviemakers.

Jennifer Wood, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): On the surface, Our Song seems similar to Girls Town – they both feature teenage girls at a crossroads, etc. – but when viewed more closely, you see that Our Song is a much more universal tale. What do you think Our Song is about?

Jim McKay (JM): At its heart, it’s really a story about friendship. Even though there are a lot of issues that come to play in the lives of the characters, they’re really a lot more below the surface than they were in Girls Town. Ultimately, the story is about friendship and getting by; it’s story about a time in life. It’s a coming of age story in a way that Girls Town was not.

MM: The issues that are dealt with are problems that affect all of society in some way. That said, do you think the characters in Our Song could be looked at as a microcosm of women in general – or America in general?

JM: There’s no doubt about it, throughout, there are universal themes. But when you get into the minutiae of the actual piece, a lot of challenges are fairly specific to urban girls of color. Last week, someone noted that something as simple as a plot line of a school closing down– and you’re kind of responsible as a 15 year-old to motivate yourself to do something about it– is something that suburban and middle-class kids would never have to deal with.

MM: What makes it a distinctly ‘teen’ story?

JM: The characters in this film are faced with a lot of adversity that is not of their making. And there’s a certain amount of that kind of stuff that comes along with being
a teen no matter what.

We did a Q&A a couple of weeks ago and a woman was talking about ‘I don’t think Maria is ready to have this child’ and ‘I hope you’re not thinking that she is or trying to send a signal that she is.’ To me, in a lot of ways, that’s not really the important thing to dwell on and that’s exactly what part of the problem is. People like to single out people like this character and blame them, or preach to them, and it’s completely beside the point.

The point really is, and this is part of the thing I think is portrayed by the band, is once they’re there, what are we going to do? What are we going to do about the circumstances that put them in those positions in the first place? And then, when they do get into those situations, what are we going to do as a society to be there for them? Because it’s not really about this specific person and their specific choice as much as it is how they got there in the first place?

MM: A main character in the film is the Jackie Robinson Steppers Marching Band. How did this ‘character’ come to be and what is their significance in the story?

JM: They weren’t in the original script– it was just the main characters– and then I saw them play and I was really taken with them and decided to write a marching band
into the script. For about a year and a half, I just spent all that time with them kind of watching them and seeing what being in a band meant to the kids in that neighborhood. In the end, they served this incredibly vital role in terms of the story and something to offset all that other negative stuff that was happening to these characters.

MM: What sort of challenges did shooting the band present you with?

JM: In terms of shooting them, it was definitely a challenge, just in terms of simple things like blocking and integrating the actual acting scenes with the band. You’ll notice that for a lot of the scenes we actually start and come into the scene at the very end of a practice – or you come into a scene at the beginning of a practice then end so that we didn’t really have to do too much integration. It was tough because they weren’t used to continuity and blocking and things like that. But it was also really wonderful, joyous and inspiring– completely inspiring. The fact that a part of their reality is to do things over and over again in rehearsals and withstand a lot of rigorous repetition and discipline was really helpful to us and we completely took advantage of that.

MM: Music seems to hold a very special importance to you. Your first work was in music videos, and you seem to integrate music into your films in a very vital way.

JM: The real priority for me is that it be realistic and match and make sense. The nice thing that I tried with Our Song, that I think really worked, was to have no score. I really wanted any music heard as part of the film to be real– to be coming from a radio or wherever. [I did this] partially knowing that there would be so much music already, but also to not have to depend on a score to reach some kind of emotional moment.

MM: Your methods of working with actors are a bit unusual. For Girls Town, the actors were even credited with writing the screenplay, as so much of it was improvised. In Our Song, you’re working with untested actors– yet you’re able to elicit some really great performances.

JM: I think one of the big challenges was that they all sort of had different methods of working. Even though it was the first feature for the main actors, Kerry [Washington] was extremely trained and had been auditioning a lot, Anna [Simpson] had not done a single thing ever and Melissa [Martinez] was somewhere in between. So first I tried to figure out how they worked and how I had to speak to them differently as actors. The second thing was really just spending a lot of time rehearsing and working with them.

We had a full month of rehearsals before the shoot and I think that’s really crucial. You do that, and you go
over things and you find the problem spots and you find the concerns they have and then once you get on set, hopefully you’re not worrying about the meanings of the scene per se, as much as you’re reminding them of little things and giving them a safe, supportive
environment in which to work.

MM: Our Song completely rests on the believability of the relationships between these three girls. On the one hand, this is certainly a testament to the girls’ acting abilities. On the other hand, there’s a certain amount of ‘chemistry’ you need to be looking for. Was this something you kept in mind when casting the film – figuring out how each of the actresses would interact with one another?

JM: We had a couple of alternative actors for all the parts. When it came down to it, we had to mix them all together and see how they worked together. Not only that, but see how they blended in with the band. The ensemble nature of it was definitely part of the final decision.

MM: They practiced with the band pretty extensively?

JM: They joined the band two months before we started filming. So the first month was just band stuff and the second month was band stuff and rehearsals. So they had two months to get ready and learn their stuff.

MM: Where does your interest in the lives of these young women come from?

JM: I’m interested in young people– I think that’s kind of first and foremost. And I think I’m interested in different stories, as a storyteller and a filmgoer as well. The films that I saw this past year were films from Russia and Iran and England and places that I don’t know and haven’t spent time in. And that’s what I like to see. So, in making something, I’m trying to show some new characters and new places. I also think that these are characters who have almost never been shown in movies and I think that that’s a really
important thing. As filmmakers, we have responsibilities to represent a full scale of humanity and that’s not happening. MM

Our Song was released April 18, 2001, courtesy of IFC Films. 

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