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Harmony and Me Director Bob Byington on Casting Indie Rockers and Why His Movie’s Not Mumblecore

The only American film to have its world premiere at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films festival in April, Bob Byington’s Harmony and Me takes the low-budget techniques associated with the much-maligned “mumblecore” cycle and puts them to the service of a raucous, highly musical comedy about the agony of introducing a broken heart into everyday life. Bishop Allen front man Justin Rice stars as the lovelorn Harmony, and the ensemble cast includes Kevin Corrigan, Pat Healy, and filmmaker Alex Karpovsky. With Harmony returning to MoMA for a one-week run beginning September 18, we spoke to Byington about being Broadcast News, finding the funny in funerals, and the indie rocker he’d like for his next movie.

How do you describe Harmony to people who haven’t seen it?
I wrote it and directed it, so my descriptions of it tend to be self-effacing. I usually say something like, “It’s supposed to be entertaining and it actually didn’t turn out too badly.” I didn’t see it till after we’d finished Harmony, because someone told me to see it, but the movie that Harmony reminds me a lot of is Truffaut’s Bed and Board. It takes delight in similar lattices.

What’s your response when people call the film “mumblecore”?
I think it helps the audience to feel like they’re watching something that’s part of something, a genre or a movement. “I can sing while I read. I am singing and reading.” Do you know what that’s from? It’s Albert Brooks in Broadcast News. I like the humor in Broadcast News more than, say … I don’t know how to say more without seeming like I’m being dismissive of other movies. I’m very interested in watching how some of the mumblecore directors continue. I certainly don’t consider myself one of them. I understand the connection, but the movie and I are interested in other things.

An obvious connection, beyond budget and shooting style, is that you acted in Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax, as did Harmony star Alex Karpovsky, and Justin Rice stars in Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation.
I’d seen Justin in Mutual Appreciation, was quite struck by him in that, and was genuinely puzzled that he didn’t have a Jason Schwartzman–esque career. I had thought he’d be in a bunch of stuff, but it turned out he didn’t really pursue acting roles, and was very choosy about what he wanted to do, preferring music. Luckily he read the Harmony script and wanted to play Harmony.

Over the course of the film, Justin’s character takes piano lessons and eventually writes a song called “The Finishing Touches,” which is credited to you and him. Was he really learning to play piano on camera? How did you guys work together on the songwriting?
Justin was interested in learning how to use his left hand better, and he also wanted to use the pedals — he’d learned how to play on a piano without pedals. So there’s an authenticity to the lessons, because his avidity isn’t put on. Much like Bernie Taupin and Elton John, I simply wrote out the lyrics (Bernie) and Justin did the rest (Elton). Foolishly, and despite the fact that he is a professional musician, I had no inkling of Justin’s musical talent until we’d worked with him for a while.

Had you not heard Bishop Allen?
I had, but I had deliberately avoided listening much to them once we decided Justin would play the lead. That’s a pleasure I’ve indulged in more recently — I truly think they’re my favorite band.

Keith Poulson, an actor and sound recordist on Harmony, joined the band after filming. How’s that going?
Bishop Allen always seems to need a bassist, and Justin and Keith got along. Keith is still in the band and thriving, from what I gather.

Harmony and your previous film, RSO: Registered Sex Offender both find humor in places that other filmmakers might consider off limits: sex offenders, pedophilia, funerals. Would you say that’s a general interest?
I think I have to make a couple more movies to establish a certain type of humor that I’m interested in. I was watching an interview with Tunde Adebimpe [from TV on the Radio and Rachel Getting Married], who I want for my next film, and I can tell he fits the idea of the kind of humor that interests me: playful, witty, intelligent, allusive, built on an understanding of language

I don’t know, though, if I agree with the notion of there being “off limits” humor — it can be inappropriate to the point of not being funny, yes. In Harmony, it’s like Justin’s walking around with a broken record, asking people to listen to it. “Please listen to my broken record.” Our worst nightmare is having to listen to our friends tell us about their stupid breakup. There is a way to make that situation funny.

Harmony and Me Director Bob Byington on Casting Indie Rockers and Why His Movie’s Not Mumblecore