Folks who appreciate Americana music and a gritty-witty noir kind of tale are in for a treat on Oct. 15. That’s when “Hard Luck Love Song,” directed by Austin’s Justin Corsbie and produced by his work/life partner Allison R. Smith, opens in theaters.
The movie, Corsbie says, is based on “Just Like Old Times,” a song by acclaimed Americana singer/songwriter Todd Snider. And if you’re unfamiliar with the song, you should know this: It’s about a singer/songwriter who has hit hard times and starts hustling pool for extra cash. Then he gets the number of an old girlfriend, calls her up and invites her to come over to his run-down motel room “with a view” — of a “Coke machine glowin’ through the parking lot.”
Corsbie says he got the idea to turn the song into a movie while he and Smith were attending a concert by Snider at Hogg Memorial Auditorium on the University of Texas campus.
“I’ve seen Todd playing a million times, and in this flash of inspiration, when he started playing (“Just Like Old Times”), I turned to Allison and said, ‘Remind me to tell you after the show that I have an idea for a contained indie film that we can make happen without a studio.’ She kind of rolled her eyes as she tends to do when I have these kind of wild ideas.”
Smith interjects: “In my defense I will say that, yes I did sort of roll of my eyes, but as a producer for all sorts of projects and directors, you have to pick and choose which project…. At the time, there was an eye roll but almost immediately there was a sitting-down …. And I could just see it in his eyes. He knew this project was going to happen. He started talking through it, and within a few days he has written out this synopsis of what he thought the story would be. Then, a couple of weeks he had a full treatment and we were flying to Portland (Ore.) to meet with Todd.”
And that’s how this independent film came to be. Except there’s much more backstory that explains why the movie can be considered a love song to Americana music.
Corsbie grew up in the Clarksville neighborhood of Austin with his single mom, the bohemian poet Alyce Guynn, who would often do readings at various music venues owned by Guynn’s friends. Those venues included the Alamo Lounge and emmajoe’s, with the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clarke, Steve Earle, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff Walker and John Prine on stage.
“So I was a little kid, hanging around those places, watching Lucinda Williams, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, people like that,” Corsbie says. “And my mom was a bohemian kind of poet and was really good friends with musicians and people in that scene. She would read poetry before the shows, stuff like that. So I was familiar with those musicians before they became well-known. I was steeped in that kind of folk music scene. I went to the Kerrville Folk Festival, went to Willie Nelson concerts.”
Singer/songwriter Butch Hancock is the godfather of Corsbie’s sister, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore and his son Colin were among a bevy of musicians who played at the long weekend wedding of Corsbie and Smith.
But there’s more backstory to be told.
Corsbie likes to say, with self-deprecation, that he peaked in middle school and has lots of bragging rights in punk-rock juvenile delinquent circles by singing on The Dead Milkmen album, “Metaphysical Graffiti,” produced by Austin musician Brian Beattie.
But he grew up and went to film school at New York University, then came back to Austin and worked a few different places and then, four years ago, decided to open his own company, Synthetic Pictures, which grew from Corsbie’s initial $500 seed money into a company specializing in commercials, branded content and filmed entertainment with offices in Austin, Los Angeles and New York.
And, of course, Corsbie also teamed up with the person he calls “his running buddy,” Smith, who was previously a TV and radio broadcaster in Texas. A UT graduate, she also wrote and directed the 2013 documentary, “Slavery Out of the Shadows: Spotlight on Human Trafficking.”
While “Hard Luck Love Song” is the narrative feature debut of Corsbie and Smith, it’s not at all their first time at the rodeo. Just go to syntheticpictures.com and browse through the commercials and other projects Corsbie has directed. They include a Ford commercial starring football star JJ Watt, the Burger King “Hype Man” commercial and the sand dune commercial for Venmo, with a woman walking through the desert, hoping to reach a mailbox so she can send a letter, only to discover that she forget to attach a stamp.
All of these projects have one thing in common, besides being creations of Corsbie: a wry sense of humor. And the same can be said for “Hard Luck Love Song.”
It stars Michael Dorman, a New Zealander who made his breakthrough with the Amazon Prime series “Patriot,” which ran from 2015 to 2018.
When Corsbie and Smith were looking for someone to play Jesse, the down-on-his luck singer who hustles pool on the side, they reviewed lots of candidates. Then they received the pilot episode of “Patriot,” starring Dorman. And in that episode, Dorman’s character sings the Townes Van Zandt song, “If I Needed You.”
Corsbie says: “At that point, when we saw that, we said all right. He’s the guy. We’re in.”
Smith adds: “That song is special to us, because that’s the song I walked down the aisle to at my wedding. So when he popped up singing that song, we fell in love immediately. We knew he was the one, and we were going to do whatever it took to get him.”
As the movie opens, Jesse is driving a beat-up car to his hometown after breaking one of his arms and hitting hard times as a troubadour. He takes up residence in a sleazy hotel, the Tumble Inn.
Like the unnamed character in the Snider song, Jesse tries to drink away his problems, buys a bag of cocaine and calls up an old high school flame, Carla (Sophia Bush). She comes over to the hotel and they party like old times, with Jesse crooning tunes. They have a tumultuous reunion.
Drawing on the Snider song, Corsbie says he tried to use the singer’s blend of drama and humor and grit and wit into the movie. “I really tried to soak in those skills of his … taking those ingredients and sprinkling them into the film. What I tried to do is have poignant and dramatic moments but sprinkle in that kind of dark humor that pops up in real life when you find yourself in difficult situations.”
The soundtrack reflects that goal.
Anyone familiar with Austin’s Americana traditions will recognize the many songs in “Hard Luck Love Song.” Here are just a few: “Drive,” by Hayes Carll and James Lauderdale and performed by Carll; “I’ll Do Anything but Break Dance For Ya, Darling,” written by Daniel Johnston and performed by Dorman; “Stomp and Hole,” written by Carll and performed by Hard Working Americans; “Working Man’s Blues,” written and performed by the late Johnny Copeland; “Inside It’s Pouring,” written and performed by Lucas Hudgins; and “Buckskin Stallion Blues,” written by Townes Van Zandt and performed by Jolie Holland.
You might be wondering: How on earth did Corsbie and Smith get the rights to feature this music in their movie?
“Getting music rights can be really tricky,” Corsbie acknowledges. “But this was really a labor of love, and we had a great music supervisor, Dan Wilcox, who’s also a DJ for KCRW, the great public radio station” in Santa Monica, Calif.
“He helped us find great music. And I was very hands on,” Corsbie says. “Some of these musicians are people I know personally and asked for favors. I kind of knew and grew up around them, and we were able to explain to them that this was a celebration of singer-songwriters. Everyone got behind the cause of the film and the creative approach we were taking. We got so much support.”
Smith adds that the movie had a sneak peek recently in Nashville, so that some of the musicians could see the film, “and it went over beautifully.”
“Part of that was seeing a lot of the musicians who were so helpful to us. As Justin said, getting music for a film is so difficult. And we had an opportunity to let people like Hayes Carll and others see the film and enjoy it. Sometimes we would go to concerts and be the last people to leave and beg for their help. I really feel that you have to go about it (getting music rights) in every way you can. And with some of these musicians, we would go see them perform and try to find them after to see if we could work out something.”
The movie is also notable for its cinematography, under the direction of Jas Shelton of Austin.
Corsbie says Shelton is “an amazing person to have on set.” And he points out that half of the movie was shot on 35 millimeter film and the other half shot on RED Digital Cinema 8K. Corsbie says they shot on 35 millimeter in part because “I’m obsessed with 1970s character-driven movies, and we decided we were going to bring a bit of ‘70s patina and grit to the film. We shot the first half of the movie on film, especially the parts where Michael Dornan is a kind of loner trying to make it in the world.”
Although conceived in Austin, the movie was shot in the Los Angeles area. Corbie notes that majority of the actors in “Hard Luck Love Song” live in LA. “And they’re busy shooting all over for film projects because of rebates and stuff. So when you’re a little film like ours, you need to be as strategic as possible, As with the music, we took a similar approach to location. We decided to shoot here in LA, using a lot of great actors who could come in for a handful of days so they can actually sleep in their own beds and stay with their own families. They would probably be more willing to make a small movie if it was made convenient for them.”
Smith says she hopes moviegoers will spots some of the movie’s many Easter eggs — the sly references to music and events embedded in various scenes. She also points out that one of Corsbie’s old T-shirts from his days on the Drag turns up in one scene. It’s all part of the fun in what’s a hard-luck movie about an Americana song.