Since she is the daughter of iconic filmmaker Michael Mann, it seems surprising that director Ami Canaan Mann’s first screenplay would focus on a modern-day train-jumper musician who sneaks onto freight cars, armed with guitar and Sterno to cook and make coffee as he heads from city to city to busk on the streets and stay true to a century-old music and lifestyle.
That is the subject of Jackie & Ryan, a collision between the singer (Ben Barnes) and a married woman and former singer (Katherine Heigl) who is nearly broke after fleeing with her daughter from a loveless marriage in New York to go home to Portland with her litigious husband in hot pursuit.
This is Mann’s third film as a director, the most recent being the gritty thriller Texas Killing Fields. From the Coppolas on down, there have been enough cross-generational director success stories to make you wonder if there is something in the genes. Before her film premiered tonight in Venice, Mann spent some time with Deadline.
DEADLINE: Some of the shots you took of the landscapes as this musician traveled the trains from city to city, there was a certain visual artistry in the presentation of industrial architecture that reminded of a certain film director. If only I could put my finger on it.
MANN: Yeah. That’s funny.
DEADLINE: It this a genetic trait or something?
MANN: You know, I guess there must be, because I grew up in Indiana with my mother. Maybe it’s in the DNA; my sisters take photographs, too. I started out as a still photographer and was obsessed with construction sites, and buildings under construction, and train yards, and train tracks. My sisters, they do construction-oriented stuff too. So, I don’t know.
DEADLINE: There is honesty to this depiction of a musician’s life without trappings, and the exhilaration and financial pressures that come from what you might call the hobo life. What sparked you to write this?
MANN: I came up with the story when I was in Austin, where I was invited to speak on a panel after my last film at South by Southwest. I was walking down the street, and heard this band play. The music reminded me of the sounds I heard when I was a kid growing up in Indiana. There’s a fiddler’s gathering there, which is something you see in the movie. I introduced myself to the banjo player, asked him a couple questions and then said, ‘I got to get your email because I’m going to write a story about you.’ He thought I was crazy, and then it took me a time before I eventually won his trust and could learn more about this traveler lifestyle that he and his band mates were living. He’s now a composer and a consultant in the movie. His name is Nick Hans. He inspired the main character. What struck me was that there was this group of people who were so tremendously dedicated to becoming better craftsmen at what they love doing. I respected that, and their lack of interest in being famous or being discovered or even being recorded. They supported themselves as best they could, but their objective was to just get better at the thing that they love to do.
DEADLINE: How do you plug yourself into a world that is so foreign to what most people understand?
MANN: I like a lot of research. It feels like, if I’m going into a world, I’m going to respect it and bring as much authenticity as I can. I spent time with Nick in Portland and Seattle, and eventually convinced him to take me train hopping because, as I told him, I didn’t want to be a liar. I wanted to have done it so I could know what it was. I’m glad that I did it.
DEADLINE: How good of a train hopper were you?
MANN: Nick said I’m not that bad. You basically just have to run and jump, and then you have to hide as the train pulls out so you don’t get arrested, because it’s illegal. He wouldn’t take me on the really dangerous route, so we went to a relatively easy route in Maine. There’s something neat about sleeping on a freight train in the middle of the night. I’m not sure I could have shot the film the way I did had I not had that pretty specific experience.
DEADLINE: You cooked and heated your coffee with the Sterno, like in the movie?
MANN: No, I did not eat out of a Sterno can, mostly you’re using that to make coffee. I didn’t get caught; I’m pretty tiny and can just tuck into these little spaces you hide in until you get out of the train yard, and then you’re good. I wanted to be sure the details felt genuine. What made me feel good was, when we shot the opening scene, Nick said it felt real to him.
DEADLINE: The revelation here is Ben Barnes, who I thought was a singing star who took a movie role. Turns out he’s the kid from The Chronicles Of Narnia. He’s got that sympathetic vibe to him, but a growling voice that stands up to that style of music. Where’d you find him?
MANN: Amazing, right? I had the greatest time working with him. It’s a tricky role. I needed somebody with the physicality and the physical demeanor of men from the 1930s even. There’s a rugged, lean kind of manliness that reflects a way you live, and how you have to use your body. I needed someone with a heart of gold, it had to be clear from his face that he’s a good person or you don’t believe the story. And then that voice? He didn’t know how to play the guitar before we started, but I knew he had such a high bar he’d commit to getting to place on the guitar where we could reasonably sell he was playing on that level. He’s brilliant. That’s him singing and for several songs, him playing the guitar.
DEADLINE: How did you draw Katherine Heigl? She plays a vulnerable role that’s a welcome change from the studio romcoms.
MANN: Katherine’s mother had seen Texas Killing Fields and really liked it. We were going to do another film a year ago, but it didn’t come together. I sent her this script on a Friday and by Monday she said, ‘I’m in.’
DEADLINE: There is an appeal to the songs that reminded me of Inside Llewyn Davis. It would be great to come out of Venice with distribution, but what are you most proud of about Jackie & Ryan as you premiere it?
MANN: I love that we shot it in 20 days and for under $2 million, and now we’re here at Venice. There was a do-or-die sensibility, which was the theme of the movie itself. I wouldn’t have made the movie for any more money if I had it. It needed to be tough to make. Having Nick write some of the songs, and Katie and Ben sing their songs…maybe this is my bias but it all felt authentic from a musical standpoint, the way we captured that early American blues/folk sound.
Here’s an example of that sound: