The feature film Band Aid represents not only Zoe Lister-Jones’ directorial debut, but also her voice—in more ways than one.
Lister-Jones and Adam Pally play Anna and Ben, a married couple who have hit an impasse in their relationship and careers. Their stress level heightens as they see their friends seem to find success effortlessly. In a desperate move, after their therapist takes a hike, Anna and Ben decide to dig up the old electric guitars buried in their garage and reimagine their arguments, pain and anger as songs. They form a band and recruit their quirky neighbor, played by Fred Armisen in a role that seems tailor made for him, as their drummer.
Lister-Jones wrote, produced, directed and stars—and sings—in the film, through her production company, Mister Lister Films. She also wrote the songs in the film that she, Pally and Armisen play. Her husband, filmmaker Daryl Wein, served as executive producer, but Band Aid‘s production crew, from DP Hillary Spera to editor Libby Cuenin, was all-female. The film premiered at Sundance in January 2017 and was picked up by IFC, who worked with Lister-Jones and Wein on Breaking Upwards in 2010. (That microbudget film, Wein’s directorial debut, starred Lister-Jones too in a premise that also focused on a couple’s disintegrating relationship.)
We spoke to Lister-Jones about her sweet, funny new feature below.
Maddy Kadish, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): You worked with an all-female crew on this production. Why did you decide to do that with this film?
Zoe Lister-Jones (ZLJ): It was two-fold for me. The first thing was just that I wanted to see what it would feel like to make a movie with all women. I think an amazing thing happens when women are alone together, and I wanted to see what that would look like in the context of making art.
I also wanted to create opportunities for women in departments where they are not often given that. I think the challenge is about forcing all of us, including some of my female department heads, to work with people who they had never worked with before. It sometimes means taking risks on a crewmember who might have less experience than her male counterpart. But we have to take all of those “risks,” because those are the exact sort of traps that productions fall into that don’t allow change to occur in the industry.
MM: What were some of the challenges and benefits that you faced with that decision?
ZLJ: Once we actually were on our first day of production, it was an incredible moment for all of us to see what it felt like and what it looked like to be making a film with all women. It was marvelous. It exceeded all of my expectations. It was the most supportive, patient, calm and efficient set that I’ve ever been on.
MM: Did you receive any sort of pushback on that decision from financiers or others in the process?
ZLJ: Luckily, I didn’t. I was lucky to be working with financiers and executive producers who were really supportive of my vision, and that even meant that they couldn’t come to set, because they were men…
MM: Oh wow! I didn’t think about that.
ZLJ: Yes! They were wonderfully on board with those boundaries. They were very much into this world that I was looking to create. [The production] was an artistic experiment in which boundaries were definitely a part of the conversation. Women are in a minority so often on film and TV crews and it’s much harder to feel like you have a voice, so I wanted to make sure that everyone felt like she had a voice and could be her most confident artist. So for me, that was about creating a certain amount of boundaries.
MM: What did you shoot on and what sort of look were you going for with that?
ZLJ: We shot on the Arri Alexa. We shot on two cameras simultaneously throughout the film, using vintage lenses. I love the ’70s-era look and that voyeuristic, raw, Cassavetes-era aesthetic and that’s what I was looking to achieve. It was important to me to shoot handheld not only for the visual aesthetics, but also for the storytelling. I wanted to capture the couple’s most intimate and unpredictable moments and we needed to have a lot of physical freedom with our cameras in order to do that and navigate the house throughout scenes.
None of that movement was accidental. We choreographed those scenes very specifically. I wanted the cameras to follow the actors and our takes to be as long as possible, so that we could stay in our scenes with actors, uninterrupted, as much as we could.
It was a challenging production—we had a whole crew following Adam and I throughout a small house and not making any noise and not being caught on camera!
MM: In terms of both directing and acting in this, how did you move logistically and also emotionally from one to the other? Many of the scenes required a distinct emotionally energy from the acting perspective.
ZLJ: I naturally find myself wearing both the actor hat and the director hat and being in the moment. I loved being in the midst of scenes in order to shape them. I thought it was really helpful, rather than standing at the monitor and being removed from them. To be looking into my costars’ eyes and molding performance from there was, truly, a huge amount of access for me.
For my own performance, I had an amazing crew—and amazing producer, Natalia Anderson—who were really protective over me when I did have to go to more emotionally raw places. They made sure that I could enter those frames of mind, without having to do administrative work of a director or producer, to keep the momentum going.
MM: And how did you approach directing the other actors?
ZLJ: Adam and I didn’t have very much rehearsal. Most of my blocking was done in the weeks preceding production with my DP, producer and AD. We had overheads of our sets. Because I wasn’t going to be at monitor, I wanted to have the choreography of each scene mapped out super specifically to put us all on the same page about what we were looking to achieve and how we can achieve it efficiently without me having to run back to monitor a lot.
Having the blocking locked in was really essential. Especially on an indie film, you just don’t have time to spend hours finding those things with actors. I definitely wanted to have all those road maps plotted out, prior to shooting.
Then, in terms of direction, being an actor you learn a lot about effective and ineffective communication patterns from directors. I always liked to let the scene go and see what happens, sometimes even a second time, and then step in and give a note, because oftentimes it’s about letting the actors find it for themselves. I was very lucky to work with wonderful actors. I also always try to be really specific and active in my direction and to keep it short and sweet.
MM: You said that you did really long takes. How did that affect the editing process?
ZLJ: There’s one scene in particular for which we shot a seven-minute take. It was our biggest fight scene in the film, sort of the climax of the film. That actually proved the most challenging because—while I love the idea of there being all in one take—we ended up having to cut in to it. But it still is four minutes uncut, which is awesome. It’s something that I feel really proud of in the film.
We had plenty to work with and it was exciting and fun. I love films where the camera’s or characters’ movements feel unpredictable. I loved seeing that in post and choosing from those takes.
MM: Much of the cast are people you have worked with in the past. What was that dynamic like?
ZLJ: A lot of my friends showed up for the movie to make cameos, and that was really meaningful to me. It was very intimate and felt like friends hanging out. I think that’s the best way to make art. The only way it shifted the dynamic between my friends and me was that I really couldn’t hang out as much with them, because I had too much to do! The whole movie was fueled by a lot of love, and I’m grateful for that. MM
Band Aid opens in theaters June 2, 2017, courtesy of IFC Films. All photographs by Jacqueline DiMilia.