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INTERVIEW: LIZ PHAIR on 'PEOPLE LIKE US'

Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for RadioFree.com
June 15, 2012

In the dramedy People Like Us, the life of debt-ridden barter agent Sam (Chris Pine) is turned upside down when, following the death of his estranged father, he is given $150,000 and instructions to deliver the money to a woman named Frankie (Elizabeth Banks)--a single mother, recovering alcoholic, and the half-sister he never knew he had. Torn between honoring his dad's last wishes and using the money to alleviate his own financial crisis, Sam surreptitiously involves himself in Frankie's life and becomes acquainted with her and her young, troubled son Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario). But as Sam becomes increasingly caught up with uncovering his family legacy and his father's double life, he puts a growing strain on his already tenuous relationships with his mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) and fiance (Olivia Wilde).

Loosely based on events in writer/director/producer Alex Kurtzman's own life, People Like Us features a score by famed composer A.R. Rahman (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire) and an original song entitled "Dotted Line," co-written and performed by Liz Phair, whose work, in part, helped to inform Kurtzman's conception of Frankie.

In this interview, Liz Phair talks about working on People Like Us and making a true connection to a film that drew so many parallels to her own life.




MEDIA: How did you approach the writing of "Dotted Line" and your collaboration with A.R. Rahman?

LIZ: It was a tricky thing to do because it's very much an emotional movie, and there is a great deal of love in the movie, but it's not romantic love. So it was something that Alex was very specific about from the beginning. And luckily, it worked--like we all came together and it clicked, and I wrote it overnight, which is rare. But to think about writing something that would make your heart swell, so to speak, when you heard it, without it being romantic, was a really interesting challenge. And what I focused on was commitment--I decided that that was really at the basis of all of this, is that family is basically a commitment. And when there's dysfunction or trouble in those commitments, or it's not full commitment, or whatever gradation on the scale they're in...What I wanted at the end of this film was to have that feeling of like, "Okay, knowing that we're flawed, knowing that this is imperfect, we're committing." And that's sort of what I wrote the song about. And A.R. had a very beautiful theme and an incredible score that he had already sort of put together, and we wanted to bring that theme into the end credits song. So I came in with the song, played it for him (very intimidating), and he gave me that theme, and we kind of just mushed it together in this way that I can't really believe worked. I remember I called my mom on the way home, I'm like, "I did it! I totally did it!" Because it was intimidating. He's really incredible. You know, he's a very, very...What's the right word? His musicianship is at a level greater than mine. [laughs] So the whole way along, I felt like I had stumbled into something where I was out of my depth, which is my favorite thing. Like I throw myself into the deep end of the pool all the time. But it's always scary.

When you're writing a song, what element comes first? The music? The lyrics? The concept behind it?

It can go any way. It really can. With this song in particular, I think the theme was what I worked with. When I got "Dotted Line," [I thought about] signing. That can mean many different things, and I got like, "I sign on the dotted line" is a way of saying anything in life, whether it's "I am now a parent" or "I am getting married" or "I am committing to a certain thing that I will do for you." To me, that was what I hung my hat on. When I started writing, I just thought, "Okay, work with those emotions in and around that line, on both sides"--you know, "Wow, we're going to actually do this" or "I don't feel ready for this." I sat on that razor's edge for this song.



How did Alex approach you for this project?

He'd given me the script. He called me in almost a year and a half before it was finished. And I didn't know what he wanted with me, really. [laughs] I was like, [coyly] "I'll go to lunch at DreamWorks!" It was really nice. There are fountains. [laughs] And he said that he'd been listening to my music when he was trying to write the character of Frankie, and that, like, my rock persona, the music, helped him to get into her when he was writing. And damn if he didn't hit every one of my issues in the film. So then he called me, he gave me the script, and then I didn't hear from him for many months, and he said, "Do you want to see a cut?" And I came in and bawled my eyes out--you know, in the dark [screening] room with these two men who were completely unmoved. You know, they were like [matter-of-factly], "We should start this shot sooner..." And I'm like...eyeballs! Not kind of weeping at the end of a nice movie--I mean like wracking sobs. And I'm repressing, like you would a cough in the opera--you know, really bad. And I was terrified when they turned the lights on, because I'm out of tissue. I had, like, used every corner. And they were going to turn around and be like, "What the f*** happened to her?" [laughs] So I knew what [the movie] was about in bits and pieces over the course of a year and a half, really. So it's personal to me, actually.

How many tissues will you bring when you watch the final cut at the premiere?

Well, I forgot the damn box! And it was on the bed, because I knew. But then, I can't bring a whole box. I have to figure it out...

Is all this crying an atypical reaction to a sentimental film for you, or are you really just a softy at heart?

No...I mean, I've grown into a little more "softness." I went through this hideous breakup a couple years ago, and I learned to cry--like I learned to feel more. And this is not, like, unheard of, but there's no way that this [story] is not hitting all my little buttons--like the single mom thing, the "tough on the outside but vulnerable on the inside" thing, the "being overwhelmed and feeling like you just can't catch a break" thing. I lived that--you know, that is basically me. So Frankie and I... [gestures that they are tight] Right there!

Was there a single aspect of Frankie that you connected with the most?

I think I identified more with her aloneness in the world--like struggling to take care of her kid. I've never been a joiner. I mean, it's not through lack of people saying, "Come be like us." I just can't. I'm just my own person. But that makes you lonely a lot of times, because you're never safely behind the walls. You're always out in the world.

It seems like the music industry has its share of messed up guys like Sam's dad Jerry, who happens to be a record producer...

[jokes] He's not such a bad guy. He had a big old stash of pot somewhere. [laughs]

Yeah, he was big on stashing things...

Right! [laughs]

He might be a talented producer, but he's not really a good guy, and the industry seems to forgive a lot of character flaws in those types of situations. How much of that have you run into in your own career?

It's absolutely what people are doing there in the first place. There's so many broken people in music. But they're doing something beautiful with that brokenness, so I forgive it in [that] sense. Sometimes my life is so straight and clean that I like that I'm part of that tribe, and I get to go dip in and be bad and dirty--you know, sometimes I take a lot of pride in that. But I think at the essence, you're dealing with artists who...I mean, I wonder what the life expectancy for musicians is? I'd like to put it against cops and firemen. You know, people die. It's not a joke to a lot of people. And I think to make a song out of your pain or to do something like that...It's kind of noble. But I think it's the people who aren't expressing themselves, like the Jerrys, that help make it happen, that I've railed against my entire career. I've been pissed off enough to write songs and cut videos about them--you know, really pissed off. Like my old Capitol boss, Andy Slater. I was so pissed at him. I picked up this pick that was a Capitol pick. It was this triangle pick that was really thick. I started trying it on my acoustic guitar, and it totally revolutionized my playing. [laughs] And I thought, "Well, f*** it. Just because they don't make the thing...Where would we be without them?" So Jerry...Yes, he sucks. Yes, he neglected his family. But he tried to give [Frankie] $150,000, he tried to bring [Sam and Frankie] together, he tried in his own way. It's just music is littered with broken people. But who isn't slightly broken? And not everyone makes something out of it. So I guess that's all I can really say about the Jerrys of the world.



What drives your passion for music?

I've always just had songs in my head, I've always been singing. It's just innate. [But] I think the passion is different from why I'm musical. I'm musical because I was born like this, but why I have passion for it is because, for me, it's something I can always grow more into--I can find another thing about it. Like I score television now, and that's a whole different thing--it's not about me, it's about the scene and what I can do with guitars that isn't to express the emotion I have, it's to express the emotion they have. I can always grow in it. And it always feels magical. I know that sounds really new agey and LAish, but there's something about music that is universal. It doesn't need a language, it has power beyond almost all the other [art forms]. I mean, yeah, you can see a great play and you remember it, but a song will take you back instantly to that moment. And there's the passion people feel for music, the fans, what it means to them. It's very deep. So I feel like I've got a big pool to swim in, and I can always find a different corner of it, or a different stroke to do. I feel like music matters.

When did you start playing the guitar?

When I was taking piano lessons. Because [I'm] rebellious. Like whatever I'm supposed to be doing, I want to be doing something else.

At what point did you discover that your talent was more suited for guitar than piano?

It's not. I'm not a great guitar player, and I can do cool stuff on piano. I'm a writer at heart. So, I mean, it could have been piano, easily. It's just my guitar teacher said, "I won't tell your mom, if you bring in two songs a week, you don't have to read the music. You don't have to learn James Taylor anymore." [laughs] So that was a deal I cut with my guitar teacher: if I brought in two songs that I wrote that week, she wouldn't tell my mom that that's what we were doing. So...Mrs. Gold! She made it possible for me to start writing.

When did you first get your music out there?

I made these cassette tapes [under the name Girly Sound], and a friend of mine, Tae Won Yu, made like a zillion copies of them and sent them to every zine in the world. And I guess I owe him my career, because Matador Records, my first label, heard a review of one of these cassette tapes. And the awful part was people started sending me fan mail with, like, $10 in it to make them a tape, and I just kept the money, and I didn't make the tapes. So, like, some part of me is still trying to do sh*t for free when I can. I'm still working off the guilt of that! [laughs]

What would be included on the soundtrack of your life?

I'm not a good person for that question because I'm an omnivore. I'll listen to country, I'll even listen to, like, the Christian stations. I'll listen to everything. It's bad, because then I'll put out a bad record because my taste is not honed. I just love music, and I love to make it, and it all is pretty cool. I'm like, "Yeah, Madonna...Halftime! Yeah!" Like I'm not a good taste person that way. My soundtrack is the same as your soundtrack...Like everybody here, we'd have something in common musically, for sure.

After your experience on People Like Us, do you see yourself pursuing more work on feature films?

It's funny...Like, yes and no. What I love about my career right now--which is difficult financially, but very rewarding professionally--is that things come to me naturally now. Like, I've divested myself from all contracts and all business people. And I'm going to have to get back into that, just because of the reality of cash. But the best part is, if someone comes to me, they want me--they know my music, it's already going to happen, it's just about collaborating at the right level. And that's so fantastic--it feels like it should feel all the time. And I wish money didn't exist, but whatever...It's like a vacation. So that's what I would like.


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