Composer Series,  Interviews,  Movies/Entertainment

Interview…Stephen Dorff on the Music & Songs of ‘Wheeler’

Ryan Ross’ Wheeler is a captivating film, one that really shines due to a trifecta of story, acting, and music. The baby of both Ross and Stephen Dorff (Blade, The Power of One, The Gate), this story follows a middle-aged musician trying to make a name for himself in Nashville. Only this isn’t a fictitious endeavor; Dorff becomes his character – the titular Wheeler Bryson – in this documentary style narrative and very few people know what’s happening.

Each and every interaction caught on camera is legitimized by Dorff (under impressive prosthesis) as everyone he meets he wins over with his story, his persona, and some truly amazing “outlaw” Western songs. In fact, Varèse Sarabande is distributing the album if that tells you anything about the quality of Dorff’s music.

We spent time with Dorff one afternoon and discussed the film from top to bottom. We also covered a wide range of topics – his first acting gigs, his career, his family’s famous musical background, and we even touched on Deacon Frost. One thing is for sure, Dorff is a talent that continues to surprise, and the songs in the film (along with the acting) showcase another facet of this seasoned performer. Enjoy the highlights of our time with Stephen Dorff.

Stephen, glad to be speaking with you. Before we get to Wheeler, I want to talk about one of your very first projects, The Gate. I’ve seen way more as a kid than I probably should have, and while The Thing and A Nightmare on Elm Street were terrifying to 9 year old me, nothing scared the piss out of me more than The Gate. What was it like for a young Stephen, and what memories do you have from the set?

Stephen Dorff: [laughs] Really? [laughs] Well, alright! I honestly don’t have too many memories of the actual time except for being with my Grandma who took me there as my guardian when we were shipped out to Toronto. I was just asked to scream during an audition, and I was getting some commercials at the time, but I’d never done a movie before.

It was a very unique way of filming a movie at the time – we used a lot of forced perspective, so a lot of the effects were real people in suits pretending to be minions in sets that were really big.  Their movements were very real, and having a chair or a door fifty times bigger helped sell all that.

I know that that movie did scare a lot of people, especially Quentin Tarantino, and every time I see him it’s all he ever talks about. [laughs] It’s not my most favorite movie, but it’s got Tibor Takacs who directed it, and he made something special that people really remember. I appreciate all kinds of movie fans, and I’ve made all kinds of movies, but The Gate has somewhat of an imprint in the same way I can never stop hearing about Deacon Frost.

Certain characters in certain movies strike a chord, but I think the masterful effects are what made that movie a hit. It was done by Randy Cook who worked on The Thing, Ghostbusters, and Fright Night before winning a bunch of Oscars for all the Lord of the Rings movies. I kept running into him at all the New Line Cinema parties because he was winning every year, and I was like, “you finally did it!” [laughs]. But, as a kid, I really liked being around all those adults.

But you didn’t do a movie for a while after that. TV seemed to be the draw for you.

You’re right. I did a lot of commercials and was guesting on everything you could imagine. But the movies started again with The Power of One. I was going to go to college, but The Power of One was the movie to get as a 17 year old – the lead in a big Warner Bros./John G. Avildsen picture. I was on location in Africa, and got my diploma sent to me in Botswana, but I never went to college. I was actually happier working even though I got accepted to Juilliard, Boston University, NYU, and some very prestigious institutions. But I was never much one for the theater and that’s what I would have been doing in college.

Few actors can claim to have worked in big movies with Avildsen, Mann, Stone, and a Coppola, but with Wheeler you give audiences this small and captivating picture. It’s so impactful and hits you like an iceberg. This is pretty much your baby behind and in front of the camera.

Wheeler was a total experiment that hatched on the beach at my house in Malibu – the farthest thing from Nashville you’d expect. I wrote this with the director, Ryan Ross, and I had four songs I had been recording at the time, and I always thought about doing a score one day. But I never thought we’d take an album and make a movie character about the songs. We tuned everything about making a movie on its head and we made a powerful film that people are really digging. The press we’re getting is incredible, from the L.A. Times to Rolling Stone. It’s easy to know when a big movie makes a splash. Not so much when a little movie strikes a chord, but it’s a lot like The Gate in a way. It’s not just the film that’s being addressed, it’s the music as well.

I’ve always wanted to legitimize my music through a character because I always find it embarrassing when actors do music or vice versa, although, at the end of the day, a great performance is like a great song and it all goes together, so why wouldn’t it work here?

The way Ryan and I approached this movie was always going to be different. I talked to Sacha Baron Cohen the other night, and I approached this film the same way he did with Borat, only in the dramatic form, and we are improvising all these scenes with people who don’t know they’re in a movie. 60% of them have no clue what the hell is going on; they think that with the couple cameras we had we were just going to put this on YouTube.

You and the team made Wheeler real which you can’t usually do with a bunch of actors. It feels different from the very first frame and stays that way the whole time.

Exactly. We told a story that cast real people and was attributed to the world of a songwriter coming to Nashville for the first time. We showed what those three weeks would be like for him, and people bought into Wheeler as a person, not me. This all started with a 10-page treatment, an award-winning make-up artist, and some really good songs….I had to fill in the rest. The songs I played were played live, in front of
real people, not extras.

The idea was that if we were going to go down in flames, we were going keep shooting and do a story about that. If we rocked the house, we’d follow that story, and the movie really wrote itself. We filled in the blanks and wrote a couple legends into this, like Kris Kristofferson who is the only other actor in the film. Ryan put everything compiled together and the result was something that had never really been done.

Beyond what we see on screen, I heard that the way you played – with no playback – was not only legit, but really impressed some of the real life Nashville personalities.

Yeah. People have told me it’s the most true-to-life film about their town that has ever been made, so that was one of the things that really made it all worth it. So I’ll take that! [laughs] Now I’m going to bring it to audiences in Europe and Japan, and hopefully ‘Pour Me Out of This Town’ will get me up there in the charts just like my Dad and my brother. Crazier things have happened, [laughs] but I’m really proud of this thing, and not just because I paid for the whole thing. [laughs] Wheeler has a lot of heart in the film and the music, and it really speaks for itself.

Going back to what you said about actors having musical interests, I don’t see why people think that all actors can do is act. Some actors write, some writers direct, some directors score, some composers edit, and so on. So look at Keanu Reeves, Bruce Willis, Kevin Bacon, and, hell, the Marx Brothers. That’s all vaudeville there.

True, but some of them play covers; they don’t write songs. I don’t feel they come from where I come from, or my family for that matter. My Dad has had fifteen #1 records, my brother (Andrew Dorff) has had four or five in the last two and a half years, and he’s about to have another one with Rascal Flatts. But I don’t think there’s another actor who can say they have my background. At the same time, I’m not trying to diminish any actors’ talents either.

I love Johnny Depp, he’s a friend of mine, and Hollywood Vampires – it’s an Alice Cooper type show – and it’s a fun way to release, but it’s another thing to write original songs. That’s a real art form. So this was originally a tribue to my brother and my Dad. Not that they remind me of Wheeler Bryson, but throwing my left leg into the world of this music was a tribute to them in a real way. I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t think we could have done it right. This was also going to be different from every other biopic, and we studied them all to see what worked, what didn’t, which songs worked, and which didn’t.

I’m based in Dallas, Ryan’s home town in fact, and I’ve lived here half my life. This isn’t the kind of music I listen to, but it really connected with me. In the film, they refer to it as Outlaw Country, but I think it’s tough to categorize.

You know, I wouldn’t call this country because I sang it in a way that I normally don’t even do myself. I recently played with Little Big Town, and while I’ve been in forty movies, I’ve never been that nervous. This is my Dad and brother’s world, and I never thought I would be doing anything like this. As a family we would support each other – like if my Dad or brother won an award, or when we won the top prize at the Venice Film Festival with Sophia Coppola’s movie, Somewhere. But I did get a lot from my father, especially an ear for music, and it has helped me write a lot of my songs. I don’t have a background for reading and writing music, so I’m self-taught, and these songs were a compilation of everything I had picked up over the years.

Stephen’s father and brother – Steve Dorff (L) and Andrew Dorff (R)

I loved scoring the film, too, and that’s a huge piece of the pie for me because I had a lot to do with Wheeler. In a Michael Mann movie, when you’re building towards a third act it’s done with the story and script. Here we had to do it with more than ten songs, and live performances. When you first see Wheeler playing under a tree, you don’t think there’s anything particularly special about him. Then we see him later playing a piano, and he plays live, and he messes up, but he just keeps trying because even if he thinks it’s a pipe dream, he has something special he’s trying to get out, and it’s this special kind of music.

Doing the film in this manner – the under-the’radar approach – seems like the main reason this worked. That lack of polish made this tangible. Your character really seemed to come alive once he bought the Yamaha with the weighted keys, but what point in the film made you and Ryan realize that what you were doing was working?

I think there’s two big sequences. The first is where Wheeler was getting set to play for a record producer and he ends up getting a development deal out of it. Some of those players that I had know for my whole life, through my father, are the best musicians in town and have played with everyone from Keith Urban to Taylor Swift and so on. They’re the best session players you can buy. But on the day, they had no clue who they were working with. They just thought they had a great session with Wheeler Bryson and everything they said on camera is legitimate.

So that was huge. Then when we went to The Bluebird Cafe which no movie except for, I think, The Thing Called Love with River Phoenix had ever been shot. It’s a sacred room and there’s only 98 seats in the whole place; it’s a mini-country music church. But we only had one take, and if it wasn’t for Bobby Tomberlin, who is a real music songwriter, vouching for this character then we couldn’t have gained access. The last thing I wanted to do was throw my name around, or my brother’s. I didn’t want any focus on myself or my brother, and by putting the character on the ground in a real way, we made this legit.

We didn’t have a caravan, and if we needed to touch up the makeup, me and the makeup assistant would go to a bathroom and paste up my lip so it wouldn’t fall off while I was singing. But we had one take, and we got a standing ovation from the crowd. Then I got invited back…well, the character got invited back, I didn’t. [laughs] Slowly but surely, we were winning everybody over.

We weren’t out to punk anybody, but we were trying to get realistic reactions through our realistic story. It wasn’t scripted, and we didn’t want it to feel phony, but I had to lie a little bit to get where we needed to be, and just had to bank on my talents. It all ended up working, and it also helped that I had been given a great face that didn’t look like me.

Let’s talk about that. When I first got the album sent to me, I saw two things: “Original Music and Score by Stephen Dorff”, and the cover which is a profile of Wheeler who, at first, I thought looked like Benjamin Bratt. You are so unrecognizable!

[Laughs] Benjamin Bratt! [laughs] Never got that one, but I am under some heavy pancake makeup which was done by one of the best guys in the business, master makeup artist Christien Tinsley. That was done so well that I’m still impressed seeing myself in all that get up.

Before we finish up, I have to ask about you getting Kris Kristofferson on board. Seems like he was a key element from the very beginning. How did you get his attention?  

We had worked together on Blade, where I wasn’t very nice to his character, [laughs] and I was responsible or getting him attached to The Motel Life, which he was very happy to be part of even though we were never in the same scene. But Kris is one of the greatest songwriters in this or any genre. He’s also one of the most charismatic, sexiest guys on camera, and it’s rare you get someone of his talents – singer, songwriter, actor – who has been working for decades, and it still at it, and still going strong! Beyond being a hero of mine, it was so great to get him to be part of Wheeler.

When Ryan and I were breaking this character down, we just knew that if we could get Wheeler to meet Kris, it would just be electric. I feel strongly about Kris in real life, so when Wheeler lights up on camera, like a kid in a candy store for those five minutes, it’s so legit. But to have Kris do more than we expected, including giving us the song ‘New Mister Me’, says a lot about him as a person. He’s a real mensch.

The song was originally written in the ‘90s – about him and Bob Dylan – and I had no idea he was going to play it on the day, either. Him playing the song on camera was improvised by Kris. It was a real passing of the baton to Wheeler, and basically saying that you can be the new mister me.

You did a lot for this film, but as the songwriter for the album, what are the three most important tracks to you for personal reasons, or otherwise?

Wow. Good question. No one’s asked me that yet. ‘Pour Me Out of This Town’, is really important for me because it’s the backbone of the story, and I wrote it with my brother who passed away last December, so the whole movie and the album is very bittersweet to me in a very beautiful way. I’m glad he was able to contribute, and he wrote that title. You likely don’t know too much about Andrew, but he was the most prolific lyricist in Nashville. He’ll be on the charts for the next five years with a new number one song, but he was crushing the business and making a fortune writing the best lyrics around.

‘Showed Me the Way’ means a lot to me, and I wrote that with Ryan. It’s a beautiful song, and a big monster ballad in the film, and every music movie should have one of those. It’s played live at The Bluebird, and I love the way that was shot, too. When you’re making a movie like this, you don’t have the time to really get the glamour shots, but you shoot, hope to get everything in focus, and I credit our great DP for that.

Maybe third would be ‘Fever’. I wrote that myself and I think it’s a pretty catchy tune. It could be a single at some point. I also like ‘Rainbow Slide’, but for me my favorites can change daily. Also, I get people love the songs I’m not totally fond of; I think ‘She’s Only 20’ is just OK, but people say it’s their favorite, so I’m glad we got something that everyone really seems to like on a personal level. The main thing we didn’t want to do is have a movie where there’s only one great song, and the rest are forgettable. I hate that.

We’re extremely excited to have the album picked up by Varèse Sarabande, which is the biggest label in the world. But on our end, we wanted to make something where the film was as much part of the songs and vice versa. I you heard the music, you’d want to go buy the album. And the other way around. Once you leave the theater, I wanted people to want the music and it’s an iconic character like Wheeler who made them fall in love with it all.

Thanks to Stephen for his time. Wheeler was released on February 3, 2017. It is in select theaters and VOD now. You can purchase the Varèse Sarabande distributed album on their website, or stream it on Spotify.