TÊTE-à-TÊTE: JASON SCHWARTZMAN
Jason Schwartzman started young. At 14, he was a cofounder and drummer with the L.A. rock band Phantom Planet. At 17, he jumped into acting with an impressive debut in Wes Anderson's 1998 art-house favorite Rushmore. He followed up with acclaimed performances in I Heart Huckabees, Marie Antoinette and The Darjeeling Limited. But music is Schwartzman's first love, and to that end, this son of Talia Shire, nephew of Francis Ford Coppola and cousin of Nicolas Cage has released two solo discs under the name Coconut Records. The first, Nighttiming, dropped in 2007, and the second, Davy, hit in January of this year. The indie aesthetic of his acting is paralleled in his musicbut with a pop inventiveness that spills pure California sunshine. His latest role is in Judd Apatow's Funny People, due out this summer, for which he also composed the score. I caught up with him as he was finishing the music for the film.
Nic Harcourt: Music and actingyou've obviously done both, but we know you started with music. What got you interested in movies?
Jason Schwartzman: I always loved movies. I would recite scenes on the way to see them. In the '80s, it was Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzeneggermovies were larger than life to me, like something I experienced from a distance. I just didn't think I could be one of those guys, an actor.
NH: What about music?
JS: Music just felt like something I could do. You know, you can go see a movie with your family, and it's on these big screens with big stars. But with music, you can just make the noise yourself. We always had a little piano at home, so it was easy. In those days, it didn't seem like you could make your own movie, really.
NH: So you started with piano?
JS: Actually, drums were the first instrument I played. I started a fictional band when I was, like, in fourth grade. We were called Newborn Babies. We would go to my friend's house and talk about what kind of band we would be. Everyone chose an instrument, and drums were the last one. None of us actually had the instruments, but from that moment on I was the drummer. On my 10th birthday I got this drum set, and I'd put on headphones, come home from school and play for as long as I could.
NH: Did you stick with the drums?
JS: When I was 14, I was in a new band, Phantom Planet. I learned how to play the guitar and was very hard on myselflike really spent a lot of time playing because I enjoyed it. It's not that drums are a bad thingthey're incredible. But I had so many ideas and felt like I couldn't communicate them all with the drums. If I say something to someone and they don't understand it, I feel like I miscommunicated, and that makes me feel bad.
NH: There's nothing worse than feeling misunderstood.
JS: Absolutelyso then at 16, I was only into music and making records. I hadn't found my movie nirvanalike when you hear the Beach Boys or the Beatles and it makes you feel crazy. Like you want to rip your skin off. I hadn't found the movie that made me feel that way.
NH: When did you?
JS: When I was 17and it's to my mother's credit. I auditioned for Rushmore.
NH: Did she suggest you do that?
JS: No, I was at a party, and a casting director approached me with, "Are you an actor?" I said, "No, I'm a drummer," and she said, "You look like you could be in this film I'm casting called Rushmore. It was 1997, and I was making the Phantom Planet record. When I heard, "You should audition," my gut reaction was, Someone else could do that better. I didn't have a ton of self-confidence. But I got the part. Then my mom rented The Graduate, Harold and Maude and Dog Day AfternoonI had never seen them before, and that was the moment a movie made me feel like a song did.
NH: You got a lot of attention for Rushmore. Clearly, acting began to overtake music from a career point of view.
JS: Well, Rushmore came out, and then a few months later the Phantom Planet record was released, and people said, "Oh, here's this actor with a band." I felt misrepresented, so I was, like, "No, I really do both." I actually felt bad for my band. I don't know if it was hard on them, but I imagine it was.
NH: Kind of like negative attention?
JS: Well, I tried to do both, but movies are just bigger, unless you're in a huge band, which we weren't.
NH: I'm wondering why you chose, at least at that time, to put music on the back burner?
JS: There was just a moment when I thought, I don't need to do this anymore. It wasn't that thought outI didn't say, "I'm going to stop being in a band and go act." I just felt, I've been in this band for 10 years, we just finished our third record and just came off this really long tourI didn't want to tour. The next day, I left Phantom Planet. I still wanted to become better at songwriting and guitar, and the whole time I made movies I was playing music, almost like an exercise. I never thought anyone would actually hear the music.
NH: Coconut Records is your latest musical endeavoris it just a recording project, or do you anticipate touring or playing live?
JS: I'm happy to play drums live, but the curtain going up and me saying, "Quiet, everyone, listen to this"...I don't know if that's where I am right now.
NH: And now you've got Judd Apatow's movie Funny People, with Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen. How did you get involved with that?
JS: I knew Judd because I worked on Freaks and Geeks, and in fact, he was a hero of mine, even before Rushmore came out. Wes Anderson knew I loved Judd and got me a copy of his movie Heavy Weights signed by Juddit's a treasure of mine. Judd and I maintained a friendship through the years, and he just sent me the script.
NH: So then while you're shooting the movie, did he just come up and say, "Would you like to do the score?"
JS: Well, he came up to me and said he liked the first Coconut Records album and asked what I was doing with my music, and I told him I made this new record. I gave it to him, and the next day he said, "So, have you ever scored a movie or anything?" And I said, "No, that's an art formthat's the dream." He said, "I don't know what I'm doing with the music on this movieit could be a composer, or I might use a bunch of source musicbut do you want to have a crack at writing some songs for it?" And we just took it from there.
NH: Tell me the difference between writing music for film and writing a song for yourself.
JS: Well, I'm not the expert, but basically the dialogue is the melody in the scene. If you have your chords moving and the melody is too complicated, it's distracting from what people are saying. A lot of the music in the movie I like because it doesn't tell you how to feelit's a little bit happy, a little bit sad. I don't want it to be like, "Oh, the music is sad, so I'm supposed to feel sad." I'm trying to keep it in a place where it goes back and forth, where you feel both at the same time.
NH: Do you want to do anything else in filmapart from acting and music?
JS: I want to do more writing, but that's my dream.
NH: You'd be bringing all these things togethermusic, acting, writing.
JS: Yeah, I cannot believe I am lucky enough to be in this movie, and then Judd asks me to do the music for it. You know, it could have not gone wellhe could have hated my ideas. But my favorite thing is continually trying to be part of things that tell some kind of a tale, like music, movies, talking to someone or ordering a coffeeit's all a story.
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