Director Richard Ramsey On Making the Film “The Song”

Writer Kevin Ott At Rocking Gods House

The “Year of the Bible” in Hollywood is about to kick into high gear again with the new Christian film The Song, which will hit theaters nationwide on September 26.

A few months ago in June I had the chance to attend a preview screening of The Song — a modern day re-telling of the Song of Solomon — and, like everyone else in the audience, I was blown away.

These are interesting times. Big name Hollywood film studios have a major crush on Christians. Their targeting of the faith-based crowd has grown so conspicuous that many have dubbed 2014 the Year of the Bible. With all this limelight on Christian filmmaking, the Christian studios continue to churn out movies, steadily improving production value and story craft with each new release.

But The Song stands out.

Its premise alone, and the details surrounding its making, began attracting buzz as early as May 2014.

Here’s a summary of the intriguing premise, according to the film’s website:

Aspiring singer—‐songwriter Jed King is struggling to catch a break and escape the long shadow of his famous father when he reluctantly agrees to a gig at a local vineyard harvest festival.  Jed meets the vineyard owner’s daughter, Rose, and a romance quickly blooms. Soon after their wedding, Jed writes Rose “The Song,” which becomes a breakout hit. Suddenly thrust into a life of stardom and a world of temptation, his life and marriage begin to fall apart.

Director Richard Ramsey At Rocking Gods HouseI had the chance to speak with the director of the film, Richard Ramsey, about how the film got made, how the story idea developed, and a few other interesting tidbits — including whether Alan Powell’s remarkable resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix was intentional:

I had the chance to screen the film in June, and the power of the film really moved everyone in the theater. While you were working on the film, was there an “ah hah” moment for you when you realized, “Yeah, we’ve got something special, something really powerful here.”

I think where I felt the script really elevate substantially was I guess around the fourth draft when I started experimenting with actually using the Solomon text from the Bible: Song of Solomon, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes. Once that became the material for the narrative voice-overs I feel like the film just immediately elevated. It’s hard to explain. It’s hard to describe or put my finger on, but I’d say that was one of the moments early on where I felt like it just transcended a bit, if that makes any sense.

It really does. I can confirm that from the audience’s point of view. In the theater during the test screening whenever we heard those Scriptures it was almost like the Presence of God was there — the power of the Word was really felt. And people who may have never read the Bible are getting some of the most powerful passages in the Bible. It does carry a weightiness to it.

Solomon and just that whole section of the Bible with the Wisdom literature is unique because it just really speaks with the authority that comes from hard-learned experience. And it’s hard to argue with. [laugh]

Very true! Hard to argue with Solomon. [laughs] So, how did you come up with the story idea? What was the original seed that led to it all?

The Song Movie 2014 At Rocking Gods HouseWell, City On The Hill approached me a couple years ago and told me they were interested and felt the time was right to do a film based on the Song of Solomon that would speak into the issues of the Song of Solomon, which infamously, notoriously — or famously, I guess — speaks of romance, marriage, romance in marriage, sexuality, and physical intimacy in marriage. So I was doing some research on it and came across Ecclesiastes eventually, and with some things that were going on at the time that book just really resonated with me, and I felt it very powerfully and profoundly spoke to the human condition. So I was really determined to incorporate that book as well — and also how Solomon became manifest as a singer/songwriter. We had talked initially about if we’re going to have a modern day Song of Solomon story; it made sense that the lead male character’s life should parallel Solomon’s in some way. We weren’t quite sure how. The obvious choices seemed to be the bad kind of obvious, like politician or business man or something like that. And none of those were quite clicking. And then a couple weeks later, I was dancing with my daughter, who was a baby at the time, to a song by Bob Dylan, and I just kind of had this image in my head of a man and a woman on stage singing together. And I thought to myself it’d be great to make a music movie one day. And then it was like a lightning strike to the brain, and three minutes later I was telling my wife, “What if Solomon was a singer/songwriter because it’s called the Song of Songs? What if he wrote a song for his wife that was like this love song like the Song of Solomon is? What if that made him famous? And then once he’s famous he’s faced with all of the temptations that come with that — like Solomon faced.” And it just seemed like six or seven story beats just clicked right in a row. And that’s when I think we felt like we were on to something.I guess we have Bob Dylan to thank partly for the story idea! [both laugh] And David, Solomon’s father, really was musical. He invented his own instruments, and they spent 24 hours a day worshiping in front of the Ark, and Solomon did the same thing in his temple, so it really fits.

Well, it’s interesting, it’s been exciting to explore because a lot of times in these films you can only explore one facet of a person and zero in your focus. We’ve seen a lot of depictions of David as a warrior or Solomon as a skilled diplomat/politician, but nothing really exploring specifically and only the musical side. So it was exciting to hone in on that and put a focus there.

It’s refreshing. I definitely agree with you there; so often stories about him focus on other things. And speaking of the music side of things, The Song soundtrack, I’d have to say, ranks up there with some of my favorite soundtracks.

Oh, thank you.

Yeah, it’s just really really good. And I’m just curious: what are some of your personal musical influences that might have influenced the movie?

I don’t know if it’s readily apparent from the music itself — although there are two or three references to the Beatles in the film — but I’m a huge Beatles fan. I think that’s where my love of music really took off, when I was introduced to them. And then in recent years I’ve really become a fan of what I guess they’re calling Americana now and you know like The Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons. I’ve had lifelong ties to Kentucky, so that kind of music is just in my blood anyway. And I just appreciate not only that music style and the sound of it but I also appreciate that there’s something about that music that allows it to discuss very meaningful, deep, spiritual, even specifically Christian issues. And a mainstream audience isn’t alienated by it the way they might be by church music or even what we call Contemporary Christian Music. So I was really from the get-go intent on using this genre and just letting the music and even the region we happen to live in be a character in the film.
And that’s very strategic because the movie did really come across as not being preachy or too heavy-handed, which a lot of Christian movies get accused of, so that’s definitely an accomplishment there. And when I think of Americana I can’t help but think of T Bone Burnett, definitely the movies where he’s done the music, and I thought it’d be cool if someday you made a movie with T Bone. [laughs] So I’ll put up a prayer that someday you guys will get connected.The music producer we did have did a fantastic job, and I hope that he is on his way to similar notoriety [as T Bone Burnett]. [laughs]

Awesome, well maybe you already found your T Bone Burnett then! And that wasn’t a dig on the music producer, but–

Oh no, T Bone Burnett is fantastic!

I kept thinking of O Brother Where Art Thou, and–

Oh yeah, and that’s another movie, movies like O Brother Where Art Thou [as far as being influential musically], as well as Walk the Line. Though I will say Alan’s resemblance to Joaquin Phoenix [from Walk the Line] is completely coincidental. It was not in the pro’s column on his audition sheet. [laughs]

You know we did discuss that after the preview screening how we were convinced that Alan was Joaquin’s long lost twin brother.

Yeah, it is bizarre! But like I said it was completely coincidental.

That’s funny.

Yeah, if anything I wanted him to look like Scott Avett. I wasn’t thinking, “Hey, let’s find someone who looked like someone else who starred in another really famous music movie.”

I see what you mean. And, speaking of the actors in this film. The cast was amazing. When I search IMDB, I can easily track the history of other movies and projects that the other lead actors had done. But Alan, who blew us all away, kind of came out of nowhere, and I was curious how you found him?

We found our actors through just the traditional audition process. Looking back, I didn’t really know any better [laughs] than to just find the best people I could find. I feel like we’re fortunate and blessed that they walked through the door. We’d gotten tapes from a casting director after she had narrowed down the applicants. I saw his tape, and, similarly with Caitlin and Ali, really early on in their taped audition I was [saying], “We need to see them again.” And they came in and they just nailed it.

Yeah, the chemistry was definitely there. You could feel it on the screen. And even though I had never seen or heard of Alan, I was blown away by his chops because even though he’s a debut actor I was thinking, “Wow, this guy is as good as Joaquin Phoenix; he doesn’t just look like him.” [laughs]

It’s wild. I have an acting background, and I’ve told people I’ve known actors who’ve been acting for years who can not do stuff he does in this movie. I couldn’t be happier with the performances that the three lead actors gave.

Back to the directing end of it. Do you have any favorite directors, as far as major influences over your filmmaking style?

Again, I don’t know if it’s readily apparent, but I’m a big fan of the Coen Brothers, and then beyond that I feel like — and this may sound like a total cop-out, I’m sorry — but I feel like any director that’s done a really good movie I can remember. I guess that’s the best way to put it.

A better way to phrase the question in that case then is what are a few of your favorite movies, just off the top of your head?

You know, I don’t if these are official film style choices — they’re not, I’ll admit that — but Braveheart is probably my favorite movie. It’s just very visceral, and I’ll never forget seeing that when I was 17.

Yeah, it changed my life too. I was around the same age.

Yeah, so that stuck with me. O Brother Where Art Thou is one of my favorite films. The Passion of the Christ, and I know it sounds like a stereotypical Christian thing to say, but I think that was a boldly, beautifully done movie that really opened doors for faith-based films. Those are the big ones I can think off the top of my head.

Well, with Braveheart and the Passion you got the connection of Mel Gibson, and I’ve always thought he’s one of the greatest directors in Hollywood history.

I agree, and I know, I know there’s a lot of baggage there [laughs] that overshadows that, but yeah I agree. Any director that can make you feel as viscerally and deeply as he can has got something worth studying.

And since we’re touching on Hollywood and faith-based films, do you think this “Year of the Bible” is going to be a lasting trend or just more of a short-term thing?

It’s hard to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood — to what extent they think as a collective — would sort of see it as a fad that they’re willing to enjoy while it lasts. My gut feeling is that this is actually going to last. It will adapt and change, I think, and what faith-based films are like today typically won’t be what they’re like in say 10 years, but I think they’ll stay. I think they’ll just sort of evolve and adapt.

That’s encouraging to hear. Usually I’m just reading opinions of bloggers on that so it’s nice to actually hear that from a director inside the industry. For my last question — and this is for any aspiring filmmakers among our readers — how can a screenwriter or director get their foot in the door in the film industry?

I’m a big believer in creating your own opportunities and not cursing the day of small beginnings. And I started by, my wife and I, we decided one day, “Hey, let’s write a short film and get some of our actor friends that we knew to be in it,” and we put that film in a festival, and at that festival we met the staff of City On a Hill, and that’s how I ended up working here six years ago. So I’m a big believer in just creating your own opportunities rather than waiting for them to fall in your lap.