Oral History offers the most comprehensive retelling of a pop culture artifact.
Top five reasons High Fidelity still resonates with us 20 years later…
Number 1: Love him or hate him, we all know Rob Gordon. Number 2: We all think John Cusack’s cool. Number 3: We’ve all been in relationships. Number 4: Even worse, we’ve all been heartbroken. And finally, number 5, with a bullet: We all live for music.
Need we say more?
High Fidelity had a lot to live up to ahead of its March 31, 2000, release. By then, Nick Hornby’s book already had a cult following; it was a bible for music obsessives. So, adapting its pages to the screen was a challenging, if not unenviable, task for screenwriters Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink. Mercifully, they rose to the challenge, and the film was met with similar critical acclaim that Spring.
Two decades later, the film’s popularity has only strengthened. It’s made the leap to the stage as a musical, pivoted over to television as a Hulu series, and Cusack himself has toured behind it. It’s a cult classic gone mainstream, and it’s since become one of those films that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you saw it for the first time. That’s a powerful thing.
In celebration of its 20th anniversary, we’re retracing the steps of how it all came together. Below, you’ll hear from all the key members, including author Nick Hornby, director Stephen Frears, screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis, John Cusack, and Steve Pink, actors Jack Black, Todd Louiso, and Iben Hjejle, production consultant and Drag City co-founder Dan Koretzky, music supervisor Kathy Nelson, in addition to the creators of the critically acclaimed Hulu series Veronica West and Sara Kucserka.
NICK HORNBY (AUTHOR): My first impulse was to write about a romantic relationship from the guy’s point of view. I had read quite a lot of fiction by women, and that was my favorite kind of fiction, but at that time, it occurred to me that there was a book from the guy’s perspective about that side of life. And certainly not one that was plain spoken I suppose.
And what I started with was the shape of a relationship that was busted at the beginning and was sort of fixed by the end. And it was really the end of the book, the end of thinking about it, that I thought, What’s this guy going to do? And I thought, Oh, he could work in a record store. I know stuff about music and record stores. And then that kind of played more importance than I thought it would at the beginning.
Published in 1995, the novel became a critical hit and a favorite among readers. However, it would take half a decade for Hornby’s story to hit the screen.
HORNBY: Well, it was optioned I think before the book came out or maybe about the time it came out, which I was really surprised about. But with that particular iteration of the option, nothing really happened with it. It was going to be directed by Mike Newell, the English director, and it was bought by Disney from Mike Newell’s company — and that was in 1995.
It just disappeared for four years. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know where it had gone or what had happened to it. And I now understand that this is pretty standard for the process. Because I’ve had some things optioned, and they’ve all disappeared in the same way. But at the time, I did not have that experience, so I just presumed it was just dead.
D.V. DEVINCENTIS (CO-SCREENWRITER/CO-PRODUCER): I read the book when it came out because everybody kept telling me, “You’ve got to read this book. It’s you. You have to read this book.” So, I read the book, and I loved it. I related to it so much. I happened to have always been a music obsessive. I’ve got thousands and thousands of records. I get into these types of conversations all the time. And it was sort of written by somebody who understood this and was also poking fun at it in the perfect way. I loved it.
But, at that time in my life, my pleasure reading was being intercepted by my business brain, because I was just starting out in the business. And I was like, “No, I don’t want to always read things in terms of adapting them. I don’t want to think that way about this book. I want to protect this book from my adapting brain.” And so I didn’t do anything like pick up the phone and call my agent and see if anybody owned it. And I left it alone. And then about six or eight months later, we got a call from Kathy Nelson.
KATHY NELSON (MUSIC SUPERVISOR): I was working at Disney for Joe Roth, and a friend of mine from the music business from my MCA days, Roger Ames, called me and he goes, “Oh, while you’re at Disney, they own a property of a book that is just amazing called High Fidelity.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. This book is amazing.” And I called Joe and said, “Joe, do we have a property called High Fidelity that we own?” And he called me back and went, “No, we don’t.” I called Roger and said, “Roger, Joe said we don’t have it.” And Roger said, “Yes you do. I know you do because I’ve been tracking this forever.” Long story short, they did own it and it was about to expire. And so I got ahold of the book and I read it. And I had done Grosse Point Blank with John Cusack, and Johnny and I had been friends for a very long time. So I called Joe and said, “Joe, you know this would be a perfect project for John Cusack. He actually is this guy.” So Joe said ,“Go ahead and send him the book. It sounds like a great idea.”
JOHN CUSACK (“ROB”/CO-SCREENWRITER): Initially what happened was I had made Grosse Point Blank with Joe Roth and Kathy Nelson over at Touchstone. And we had sort of just finished a film where music was super important. We got Joe Strummer, we managed to get David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure”. And so, we had gone through the process of making a cool soundtrack and Joe and Kathy knew how important music was to me, to the movies that I was producing. And so we were sort of primed up, so Kathy knew that they had High Fidelity as a property and said, “Why don’t you give it to John to write?” And so that’s how the story came up.
STEVE PINK (CO-SCREENWRITER/CO-PRODUCER): We wrote an adaptation. And when you’re in development — we were young, we were in our 20s — you just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s so hard to get movies made, and we didn’t actually know. We were like, “Well, we love writing this movie,” and whether or not the script will become an actual movie, you just never know. And one day we were on the Disney lot for some reason and Joe Roth, who is getting out of the parking lot, pulls over. And he’s the chairman of the studio. And he pauses and says “Hey. How’s it going on the script? Because I’m making that movie” or something like that. And he then drove off. And we’re like, “Holy shit. We better get to work.”
With the writers all on board, they had to meet with the director who was already attached to the project, Mike Newell. Newell, at the time, was coming hot off of the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco. At that time, he was actually working on another film, Pushing Tin, starring John Cusack.
DEVINCENTIS: I had to pitch to Mike Newell. This was before the Internet and cell phones and Mike Newell needed to be pitched to — pretty immediately. And I was the only one around. And my Chicago transposition was something I had to work out in preparation to talk to Mike Newell. And so I got to basically outline the Chicago transposition in Sharpie and on note cards on a wall in my dining room like A Beautiful Mind. Except it was much less beautiful. Mike Newell was in London and I took him through the Chicago transposition of the story and he loved it.
We had a great conversation for a couple of hours, and at the end, he said something so charming and sweet which was ,“Does it have to be in Chicago? Could it be in London?” I said, “Yes, but if it were to be in London, you might want to consider getting a British actor and British writers. Why do you think it should be in London?” He said, “Well, the only reason I really think it should be in London is because I have a family and they live there. And I think it would be really nice to make the film around my family.”
PINK: I remember it being a very good experience with Mike. I remember meeting with Mike, I remember getting notes, I even remember maybe doing some work for him on the script. And then he left the project.
DEVINCENTIS: We had a draft, and suddenly, Mike Newell couldn’t do it anymore. We were trying to think of directors to go to. And John was like, “What about Stephen Frears?” That was both a dream to me and completely impossible.
CUSACK: I did a film with Stephen when I was 25 called The Grifters, and that was an intense, cool film. So I had a good understanding of how he worked. I don’t know if everybody else did. But how could they? I sort of knew what he was up to and how to deal with it. But it was great. He’s a very intense, creative guy.
HORNBY: I used to buy my cigarettes, back when I smoked, from the same kiosk outside Arsenal Underground Station every day. And one day the guy who ran the kiosk gave me a piece of paper, and on the piece of paper, it said “Phone Stephen Frears on this number.” Stephen knew someone who knew that he was a neighbor of mine. And he said, “Can you get this to Nick?” And he said, “Well, I think he goes to the kiosk at the end of my street, so I’ll give it to the guy there.”
STEPHEN FREARS (DIRECTOR): Nick [Hornby] always tells that story. I remember I got a phone call from John Cusack saying would I like to do it? Yes. And then I guess a bit later, they must have said, “Well, come and meet Nick.” I have no memory of that [story Nick tells], but I had a friend who lived near the kiosk, so I guess that’s how it happened. But I got a phone call from John Cusack and everything really followed from that.
DEVINCENTIS: We went to New York and met with Stephen. He walked into the room, it was in a hotel room, and he never sat down. He leaned against the wall, and then paced, and then leaned against the wall. And I can’t remember all of the conversation but it was brief. And he said, “Well, alright. This sounds like jolly good fun” or something.
HORNBY: When I spoke to Stephen, he said, “Well I’ve been called in to direct this film and I’m working with the people who are writing it. Will you come and talk to them?” So that was the first time I met DV and Steve and John. And the most gratifying thing was that they thought it was a book about them. And you can’t be in safer hands than that. That all three of them felt that the book spoke directly to them. That it was about their lives when they were growing up in Chicago at a different time. And that was what they wanted to make the movie about.
CUSACK: I thought, The only difference with the record store that I grew up in is we were obsessed with British music and the characters in the Hornby novel were obsessed with Soul, Rhythm and Blues. But once you switched those, it was the same guys. It was just a male confessional. And also it was about a love affair with music. Themes about how music is autobiographical in our lives. How deep and meaningful music is to people. So it’s a really fun and soulful thing to do.
FREARS: John said to me, “It’s set in Chicago.” And I thought, Well, that’s not a very good idea. And then I read the script and then read the book and thought, Well, that’s perfectly alright. That isn’t what’s important. The script they had written really got to the heart of the book. And I could see that they had taken their experiences from Chicago, but I also realized that somehow saying, “It’s all about England,” I didn’t think that was terribly important. You could see that the boys had changed it to suit their age and their taste in music.
HORNBY: That seemed to me a ridiculous thing to have any objection to. I had just started going on tour with the book, and whether I went to New York or whether I went to Hamburg, no one ever said to me, “Oh, that’s what it’s like to be English.” They always said, “Well, I’m like this and my brother’s like this and my boyfriend’s like this.” And the nationality of Rob really had no baring on anything.
DEVINCENTIS: It all made sense. It dovetails right into all of my record stores. It dovetails right into my friends’ bars and my friends’ bands and the conversations that I’ve had throughout my whole life — teen into adult life in Chicago. Like this is easy for me. I could transpose this thing to it effortlessly.
PINK: It’s a post-industrial town that has a vibrant counter culture. And Chicago has always had that, like London. So we all identified with that because there’s almost no limit of all the cultural stuff you could get into in Chicago.
CUSACK: And it’s hard to get a movie like that right, but the book was right and I think we did the book justice. I think we did the book proud.
FREARS: I realized that it was about love. It wasn’t about music. It was about love. And so you had to create a couple who were convincing. A couple you cared about.
PINK: I feel like we wrote the movie 100 times. Easily. All the way through production we would constantly be rewriting and making things better.
DEVINCENTIS: And a very important project to New Crime, which was the company we had, and I think John still has, was a film called The Jack Bull. It was this great movie that was hard to get made. We eventually got it made for HBO. But it had to be made in Calgary, so John and Steve went up to do it. John was starring in it. And Stephen wanted to get going on the script. And so he said, “Alright, just send the other one,” which was me, to London. It was September of ’98. So suddenly, I’m getting on a plane to go to London to be supervised through a draft by one of my all-time heroes.
PINK: Well, the process generally was that DV and I would draft and then Johnny would revise and then we would draft. Pretty much DV and I would just draft. There was a point in which I was producing a movie for HBO that Johnny was starring in, and DV flew to London and did a draft with Frears, so that was a draft he did without us. But generally, we would get notes from Frears, and then we would incorporate those notes.
DEVINCENTIS: What had happened was the prose is so good in the book. I’m not a big voice-over guy, and I don’t like movies that tend to depend upon it, but the prose is so good and so insightful into Rob’s character that you don’t want to lose it. Because it counters the story so beautifully, and it just wasn’t going to be as good without it.
FREARS: It was written with voice-over. And then I said to DV, “Look, I don’t think this is a very good idea as voice-over. The ratio will get lost.” I actually said, “I think it should be some form of direct address.”
DEVINCENTIS: Then the next thing was I sent the script to John and Steve who were in Calgary making a movie, and then Stephen and I flew to Calgary to go over it and work on it with those guys. Which we did. And it got better. And then Stephen and I actually flew in an unpressurized four-seat plane from Calgary to Montana, because Stephen wanted to drive to LA, but nobody would give us a car to go from Canada to LA. So he found a way to get to the most Northerly point in America, where you could land a plane and rent a car and then we drove to California. He wanted to drive. He loves road trips. It’s one of his favorite things. It was like My Favorite Year.
DAN KORETZKY (DRAG CITY FOUNDER): I think I might have been the only obsessive music fan they knew, took pity on, and subsequently found a good use for.
DEVINCENTIS: Dan has always been my greatest source of music to listen to. If I need new stuff to listen to, I ask him and that’s how I get turned onto a whole wealth of stuff. So when I was thinking of this thing with Rob, I was thinking about putting out records like Dan did. There was a day when Dan decided he was going to put out his first single and it was Royal Trux actually. That was a big deal. And it took him from a spectator to someone taking part in the process. So, to me, that was something I thought would be great for Rob.
With the script in tow, it was time to figure out the world for the film, and that meant capturing the true spirit of Chicago, Illinois. Given the party involved, that didn’t prove too difficult.
CUSACK: I think we were just showing off different parts of the musical scene that is kind of now changing even as we speak. So, it was a portrait of a time in Chicago, and it was nice to capture that era of Chicago. Some of it’s still here, but like The Double Door, the club where Jack Black’s singing Marvin Gaye at the end, that place has closed down. Gentrified. The Green Mill is still there; there’s some other places. I felt very good being in a city that I know so well and having the movie sort of wrapped around it with the architecture.
DEVINCENTIS: In pre-production, I was really, really excited about sinking this into the Chicago that I knew. And that meant taking Stephen and the production designer around to the record stores that I bought my records at and still did at that time. And modeling the record store on that record store. Also apartments of my friends. I took those guys into so many different houses and apartments to show them what average people who were going to Lounge Ax lived like. I took them to clubs like Lounge Ax, which was owned by a friend of mine, Sue, who is the wife of Jeff Tweedy. At the time, Wilco was not a big thing. But she owned Lounge Ax, which is the venue where Lisa Bonet plays in the movie. And we were like, “We’ve got to shoot it here. We’re not going to take it to another club. We’ll shoot it where these people would actually play.”
KORETZKY: It didn’t seem so much connected to the Chicago music scene as to music scenes in general as a thing — and made that a positive thing –which is a remarkable feat when you consider how nightmarish local scenes can be!
DEVINCENTIS: We were shooting on Lincoln, outside Lounge Ax, and I pointed across the street to the Biograph Theater — to the little alley next to it. And I said, “Stephen, see that alley?” “Yes.” “That’s the alley where they shot John Dillinger to death.” He’s like “What?!” “Yeah. And you know what happened? His fucking girlfriend tipped him off. She tipped the cops off, and that’s how they caught him and shot him dead in that alley.” And he’s like, “Well, why isn’t that in the script?” I’m like. “What?!” “Put it in. We’re shooting that!” “Okay.” And it’s in the movie.
PINK: We were very blessed to have the support of the studio at a time when it wasn’t that cheap to go to Chicago to shoot a movie of our dreams. We fought to shoot it in Chicago. We wrote it for Chicago, we shot the places we wanted to shoot, we were able to create the world of this movie through our own eyes, basically. Having that be our stomping grounds for so many years, and then being able to go shoot a movie in our stomping grounds, and then express it in a very particular way like, “This is a cinematic expression of our stomping grounds,” to me, it was just crazy. It was surreal how awesome that was.
HORNBY: That’s the brilliance of their adaptation. Because they came from Chicago and did all the touches. They absolutely knew not only the record culture but their alternative Chicago record culture. So they made it their own and they made it specifically about that city. And that is exactly what you want in an adaptation. It was rooted in there.
Now that pre-production was underway, it was time to start the casting process. Rob had been written, naturally, with Cusack in mind, but it was filling out the rest of the cast that would prove challenging.
FREARS: John was sort of grown up by this point. When I did The Grifters, he’d be very good for about two hours a day. And then you’d eventually arrange that day’s shooting around those two good hours. By the time we did High Fidelity, he was able to take responsibility for the whole film. So he’d grown up. He’d become much more adult. But he was very well cast. I always thought, For a film with this novel, he’s a really good guy to have. So I don’t remember him being particularly difficult. He was absolutely passionate about it. He just adored the material.
CUSACK: You’re always like, “This is a good role because there’s good overlap and he’s similar.” But I think that mostly I thought that if men were in a room and were given truth serum, they would probably tell you all that stuff. So I think it’s universal in the sense of … I’m not an OCD collector type of person. But in other ways, I’m a lot like him.
FREARS: For Barry, I said, “Who should play this part?” And the boys said, “Jack Black.” And I said, “Who’s he?” And he came to see me and I said, “Well, you’ll be fine.” But I didn’t really know a great deal about Jack. And then, of course, he was absolutely brilliant. Brilliant. But I didn’t quite know what to expect.
DEVINCENTIS: John, Steve, and I had known Jack Black forever from The Actor’s Gang. And we had watched Jack be Jack everywhere from Canter’s Deli to tiny theater stages in LA. We were very familiar with him. And just mentioning Jack, between the three of us, would make us laugh.
CUSACK: As soon as I read it in LA, I had seen Tenacious D play because I knew Tim Robbins and The Actor’s Gang and Jack was around there. So, I already knew that he was a great musician and singer and a great comic actor who was about to explode. But I felt like I had this secret weapon because no one really knew that he could rock that much. So the book was perfect and I thought, This is the perfect role for him.
PINK: I remember it being a no-brainer. When you’re that age, you’re just so supremely confident about everything. So I don’t remember thinking anything else except not only that Jack was perfect but that he was going to do it and anyone else that didn’t see it just didn’t get it.
JACK BLACK (“BARRY”): I don’t read books unless I really have to. Then once I got the part, I thought, I better do my research, my due diligence. So I went back to the source, and I thought that the screenplay stayed true to the spirit of the original text. But I was just worried that, at the time, Tenacious D had a full head of steam, and we were getting great crowds and were playing to big houses. And I had, in my mind, a legitimate rock and roll career, separate from film and television, that I wanted to protect. And to do a movie about music, playing sort of a music critic and talking about some of my heroes like Kurt Cobain … just all those elements made me nervous about messing with this thing that was my own little crown jewel of my life and career up to that moment. I was hesitant to fuck with that.
DEVINCENTIS: It was very mysterious. We were getting all this pushback. And he asked if he could audition. And Stephen was like, “I don’t want to do that. That’s a joke. I want him. He’s the guy. I don’t want to fucking audition him. I’ve already hired him. This is crazy.” He was amused by it. But he was like, “No. I’m not auditioning him. I know he’s the guy.” And it was really, really hard to get Jack to do it. And you’re thinking, This is the role that can change your whole life. You could feel it. And then we came to realize, or I did anyway, Oh he’s frightened of doing this because he knows this is the role that is going to change his life.
CUSACK: At first, he might have just been frightened by the whole big, high-pressure film and Stephen Frears with Working Title. And maybe he was a little intimidated by that. And then I had to tell him, “No, it’s going to be fun.”
BLACK: If I’m really being honest with myself, I was terrified of failing. I was terrified of being bad in this movie and also terrified of working with Stephen Frears. I had seen Dangerous Liaisons like 12 times, mainly because I was obsessed with John Malkovich. I really wanted to be John Malkovich. But he was clearly a master, and I was intimidated that I wasn’t good enough as an actor to pull it off. So I said, “I’m gonna pass.”
But Stephen called me in, even though I had passed. He said, “Get in here. I want to talk to you.” We talked about it a little bit. I told him about my fears, and he just thought it was funny that I was passing. Because it was obvious to him and to anyone in my life that this was a no-brainer. And it would be a huge mistake to bail on it for any reason other than I just didn’t like it. And that was not the case. I loved the script and I loved Stephen and I realized that I was just passing on it out of fear. And that was not a good reason. And so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”
TODD LOUISO (“DICK”): I guess I auditioned for the casting director. I had been acting for a while anyway. And then I got called back to read with John and meet Steve and DV, and so then I read with John, Steve, and DV and Vicky Thomas was the casting director. It went really well. And then when I went back to meet with Stephen, it was great. I didn’t even read, really. He just sort of met with me but then also walked around me as I was sitting there and just looked at me. Like I was on display or something. [Laughs.] But it was great. He just wanted to talk, which as a director myself, I like doing also. Not necessarily reading people but just talking with them and meeting with them to see what kind of person they are.
FREARS: I remember seeing Philip Seymour Hoffman and I kept saying, “I don’t know which part he should play.” And then we found Todd Louiso, who is brilliant.
LOUISO: They had also offered the part to David Arquette first and he passed. So then glory came.
PINK: The thing about Todd that I loved so much in High Fidelity is that he is Jack Black’s perfect opposite number, and I think that would’ve been hard for any other actor. We got really lucky with Todd. Obviously, Jack Black is Jack Black, and he’s extraordinary in the movie, and he is who he is because that’s who he is. But Todd was almost like this Yin to Jack’s Yang in a way that had so much authority. Jack could pick on Todd all he wanted, and Todd was kind of an unmovable force of heart. He was kind of this force of serenity. He also was a music snob like the rest of them, which made him still part of this club of music snobs. But beyond that, he had this genuine heart that could not be diminished by Jack’s insanity.
FREARS: I couldn’t find an American actress for Laura. And I kept saying, “Well, if you cast so and so, she’d be like John’s mother.”
DEVINCENTIS: We’re like “What!? She’s younger than John. What are you talking about?” And he’s like, “No, that’s not what I’m saying. The character, his immaturity is so delayed. He’s immature. And this actress has a presence that feels much older than him. She’d have no reason to be hanging out with him.” It was this very difficult needle to thread.
FREARS: And then I was at the Berlin Film Festival, and all the jurors said, “Oh, go and talk to Iben. She’s really good. She speaks English.” And I remember going to talk to her and you feel like Harvey Weinstein. “Would you like to be in a movie?” [Laughs.] But then I remember taking John over to meet her and then taking [producer] Tim Bevan over to meet her. And they said, “Well, she’s terrific.”
IBEN HJEJLE (“LAURA”): Well, the thing is, I wasn’t approached. I had approached Stephen with my friend Søren [Kragh-Jacobsen], who had directed the Dogme film that we were there with. And we had looked across the room at this great, big celebration thing, and we see Stephen Frears and I say, “That’s the director of the greatest movie ever, Dangerous Liaisons.” And my friend said, “That’s the director of the greatest movie ever, Gumshoe.” So we argue about that and he says, “Why don’t we ask him what’s the best movie he ever made?”
And so, we walk up to him and we talk to him for about five minutes, and then Stephen turns to me and says, “So you think you can act in an American accent?” And I say, “Absolutely, sir.” And I had no idea. And he said, “I think I have a part for you in my next film. Can I please call you?” And somebody gave him my private number on a matchbox. I didn’t expect to hear from him ever again. And then a week went by after I came home and he called me and said, “So, I would very much like to send you the script and the book that the script is based on.”
DEVINCENTIS: So then [Stephen] comes back and he’s like, “I’ve found her.” And we’re like “Okay.” He’s like, “She’s Danish.” We’re like “What?!” But you know, we all trusted Stephen so implicitly and he’s incredible at casting and incredible at discovery. If you look at the people that had their first meaty role in a Stephen Frears movie, it’s remarkable. It’s fucking crazy all the people that he’s introduced us to. So we’re like, “Great. Let’s check it out.” So Stephen and John flew to Denmark to read with her. What I was really waiting for was what John thought. That was the big decision to be made in my mind was that John liked it and if it felt right to him. And John came back, and, sure enough, he thought it was great. He loved her. He thought she was perfect.
HJEJLE: John Cusack, Stephen Frears, and the casting agent from London flew to Copenhagen to meet with me, because my son was so young — he was about a year old at the time. So, we went to a place and we shot a couple of scenes with Stephen and the casting agent on a camera — and we had so much fun. We were laughing. He was just so easy to work with and just a joy. Really a fantastic guy to hang out with.
PINK: And we had to write to it, that she was Danish. We had to write that into her backstory. In that scene, where she goes to the funeral, you can see they’re all very Scandinavian. Like her sister, her aunt, her mother. And we had to kind of lean into the fact that she was an alt-punk rock girl.
DEVINCENTIS: I remember that we initially focused on the possibility of finding a real singer to do the role of Marie. Like a musician. I was really pushing for Liz Phair because she and I were old friends from North Chicago. And I thought Liz would kill it. She became one of the more important musicians to come out of Chicago in the ’90s. So, we actually had a read through of the script in Chicago with Liz reading the role. We did it at Joanie Cusack’s house. And she was totally great. And we’re like, “She’s an actress. Oh my God.” But it wasn’t right for the role.
PINK: In the book she was like this American singer-songwriter. So, we were trying to think about, “Who would be outside of Rob’s reference level?” Because we wanted her to be mystifying. Well, if it was Jewel or someone like that, that wouldn’t be odd to a white dude in Chicago. So, we wanted to find someone who could play it with this mysterious quality that he could be awed by, who was also in the music world. And I don’t remember how her name came up, but I remember thinking it was brilliant.
FREARS: We had a lot of trouble casting that part. It was the hardest part to cast. I can’t remember why, but it was. Just that particular one. And I just knew her as an actress. I didn’t know her history. But she was great. She was really good.
Once the cast was locked in place, alongside notable additions such as Joan Cusack, Tim Robbins, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joelle Carter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Lilly Taylor, and Sara Gilbert, production began in Chicago, Illinois on April 26th, 1999.
FREARS: I don’t remember it being relatively difficult to shoot. We just got to work. And we built this record store, which was a sensible decision.
DEVINCENTIS: Stephen had this long history with Working Title. And in a way, we had the same thing. There wasn’t a producer on the project, which we needed. So he said, “Right. Working Title. What about you guys?” And they’re like, “Okay.” So that’s sort of how they became involved.
CUSACK: Working Title actually came into the movie just because Stephen had wanted sort of a buffer against the LA studio kind of thing. So they came on as producing partners with Frears.
DEVINCENTIS: Stephen doesn’t want to deal with the studio because he’s making a movie. And frankly, he’s really not a studio filmmaker.
LOUISO: Shooting in the store was just a blast. It was a stage in West of the city, I think. And it was great. It was an amazing set. Being on this set was kind of magical.
PINK: Stephen let DV and I loose on the production most of the time because he was so supportive of us helping create the visual world because we knew it so well.
DEVINCENTIS: We built two sets. We built the record store set, and we built Rob’s apartment. I was super-specific and micromanaging about both and how they looked. And the signage and the posters and the stereo and the everything. The set decorator had bought an entire record store — out way, way deep in the suburbs, like more towards the Iowa state line — so we’d have actual records in the bin, you know. And filled it. I’m like, “This is great. Look at all these records. This is perfect.”
So, on the Saturday — we were gonna start shooting on a Monday — I took Dan Koretzky to the set to proudly show him how authentic it was. Dan looks around and he goes, “Yeah, it’s great, except for one thing.” I was like, “What?” He’s like, “What are these fucking records?” And at that point, I remembered that the record store that the set decorator cleared out was a Christian record store — and all of these records are old Christian music records and spoken word and sermons.
KORETZKY: To my horror, it was all Christmas records and Barbara Streisand records! I warned them that if the camera stopped moving for a second, all credibility in the store might be lost. So, we quickly ran to Dusty Groove records in Chicago and bought A-Z records by people almost as cool as Babs to sit at the very front of the racks.
DEVINCENTIS: For the rest of the weekend, Dan and I made a plan for every cover record to be on top of every bin — A through Z. And we went out and bought those records, and back-ups. Because, of course, as time goes by in the story, people will have bought the records. You can’t have the same records. You can’t have ELO on top of the fucking thing the whole time in the E section. You eventually have to get something else. You have to show the time passing on the records.
So, then I went out and bought A through Z, all of the top records that would be on the top, plus a couple of back ups to go behind them. And then I drove the set decorator crazy by creating an actual timeline we had to stick to, even though we were shooting out of chronology. It was like this intense, insane graph that we had to stick to in order to keep the continuity of the record faces.
LOUISO: I remember just the experience of being in that music world, sort of just disappearing into it. It was almost as if I wasn’t an actor anymore. Like I wasn’t myself. I was just kind of thrown into this character. I wasn’t that shy introvert that he is. It was like, “Oh, I live in Chicago and I work in this store and we go out to see bands.”
HJEJLE: It was so much fun. Everyone was so warm and, of course, me coming out from Denmark at the time and doing my second feature film in my career … and that took place in Chicago with all of these big, established stars … people took such good care of me.
PINK: Overall, it was just a great set. Everyone says this, so it’s cliché, but it’s so rare when you get to work with and be around so many talented people and have the opportunity to make something good.
FREARS: I remember someone saying to me. “Do you need all those scenes in the store?” And I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? They’re absolutely gold dust.”
DEVINCENTIS: Well, I’ve made two movies with Stephen, so I know this well — and this is so important, this is the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned from him: The script is never done. You think it’s perfect, that you can make it more perfect. You think it has ideas. Well, nothing’s stand still. Ideas don’t stand still. The more you think about them, the better they should form. So, you know, you get on set and Stephen has to have his writers on set. He never makes a movie without the writer around, for the most part. I shouldn’t say never, but mostly he doesn’t.
PINK: Frears taught me pretty much everything I know about directing, because I used to go and basically try to interview him between camera blocking and lighting. During lighting, sometimes there’d be a lot of time, and I’d just go and ask Stephen questions about directing. Just pure theoretical questions about filmmaking. And he would answer. He would tell me. Pretty much willing. Sometime he would be like, “Fuck off, don’t talk to me right now,” but most of the time, he would indulge me and answer questions I had about filmmaking.
DEVINCENTIS: Rewriting was always happening. Steve and I shared a trailer, John had a trailer, and we’d go into one of the two and buff it up together. We’d make it better. And the worst thing that can happen with Stephen is if he arrives on set, and he runs through it, and he looks around and says, “Well I don’t know what I’m shooting.” We learned that if he says that, you’re fucked. If he doesn’t feel like he knows what he’s shooting, he’s not going to be like, “Oh, we’ll just shoot it and figure it out later.” Stephen has to know. He has to have authority about what it is. It has to make sense to him. If there’s a problem, you have to figure it out and you have to correct it. And very often, it takes a lot of conversation, a lot of discourse to figure out what the scene is, what it’s about, and how could it be expressed better.
PINK: Seamus McGarvey shot the movie. And the way the movie is shot and feels and the way he moved the camera is extraordinary. It’s an extraordinary bit of cinematography and he deserves a ton of credit. I consider him to be as important as everybody else in terms of creating the look of the film.
HJEJLE: The funny thing is, the sex scene is directed by all of the women in costume and makeup. Stephen sat there and he called over the walkie and he said, “Can I please have all of the women on set?” So they came on set and it was only me and Tim Robbins, Stephen Frears, the cinematographer, and maybe five or eight ladies from the makeup and costume department.
And he said, “You’re going to make this the steamiest, sexiest, funniest sex scene we’ve ever seen.” And so they did. And they said, “Try and walk your fingers over Iben’s bum. And try and do that and try and do that. Do a Tarzan attitude.” So all the ladies directed it. And Stephen mainly sat and held his eyes in the corner, which was fun. It made it so much less uncomfortable and awkward and weird. It was a fun scene.
It was the only fun sex scene that I’ve ever been a part of.
LOUISO: That fight scene with Tim Robbins was just really, really fun. And we almost didn’t do the air-conditioner part because we were running out of time. But I remember John and D.V. were like, “We have to keep the air conditioner.” So we only got a couple takes of it because it was the end of the day and we were running out of time and they didn’t want to go over. But we made it work.
PINK: It was super important to me that it was Todd’s character pulling an air-conditioner out of the wall and smashing Tim Robbins over the head with it. Because you would think it would be Barry. But in the fantasy? Dick is actually the most violent person in the movie. Not Barry. The person that you would least expect would be the most violent.
BLACK: I was freaking out because I was not used to this getting a big part in a Hollywood movie. I had some little breaks here and there, and mainly my big break was Tenacious D being on HBO, but this was a new experience. And I definitely felt the heat of the pressure like, “Oh fuck.” And I would go back to my hotel room after shooting and I would be frustrated that I had not gone as far as I could have or something.
And I remember in the shower, this is embarrassing to admit, but I would chant, “ALL OF THE FUCKING WAYYY. ALL OF THE FUCKING WAYYY,” like a fucking lunatic in the shower. Singing and screaming at myself in anger that I needed to go all of the fucking way, because I’m only going half way. It’s a class I teach in acting. It’s called, “All of the Fucking Way.” But as you can see, I have a tendency to overact, and it may be because there’s a flaw in my technique — and it encourages clownish behavior.
FREARS: Mainly what I remember was Jack being so funny. He was always so brilliant. I remember the first shot Jack did. Then I tried to move in for a close-up and I realized he was hopeless. He could only be himself. So then I thought, Well, I’ll put two cameras on him. He’s absolutely brilliant. And he’d shoot the text, and then he’d improvise, but he was always better when he was doing the text.
BLACK: Frears was the best, man. He really put me at ease. Although I always felt like, “I don’t know if he likes me. He’s never saying anything nice to me.” But later he told me he loved me and he loved what I was doing. And he’s like, “If I don’t say anything negative, that means that I love it.”
LOUISO: I do remember Stephen Frears being like, “That was terrible. Do better next time.”
DEVECENTIS: I will say this, when Stephen says, “That was terrible,” he doesn’t mean it. He was just joking. That’s the way he fucks around. When Stephen says that, what he’s really saying is, “I know you know what to do. All I have to do is give you the opportunity to do it,” and it underlines how Stephen looks at actors. To him, they have like mystical powers and he is continually in awe of them, and you can see it when you watch him watch them work.
BLACK: He had a crazy, hilariously curmudgeon way about him. I remember him laying on the ground — it was in between takes one time — and he was just laying on the ground going, “I’m too old to direct this film.”
HJEJLE: Yes, Stephen did that a couple of times. He left the set once, but he took me along so they couldn’t shoot anymore, which was really sweet. He got really upset about something I can’t remember planning-wise, and then he said, “I’m leaving! That’s enough for today!” And then he took me by the hand and put me into the van and he told the driver, “Just take me away from here. Just go the hell anywhere.” And so we drove around for a bit and sat and talked. And he said, “Okay, we’re going to go to the most expensive restaurant we can find, and we’ll have dinner on somebody’s expense.” And he was just really sweet. And everything was good the next day. Everything was fine. He is a lovely man.
DEVINCENTIS: John [Cusack] is like a remarkably generous off-camera actor. He’s so good at it. I never understood that it was a skill until I watched John do it. Because when you’re off camera for another actor, you give them what they need to get where they need to go. It sounds very obvious, but it isn’t always the same performance you give when you’re on camera. Sometimes you need to be more subtle or sometimes you need to be bigger, but whatever it is, you need to be completely focused on giving them what they need. And John is incredible at doing that.
LOUISO: [John’s] very insightful and truthful. If something doesn’t ring true, he’s not gonna stay quiet about it — and not in a mean way. But he’s incredibly giving as an actor and as an artist. Supportive in the choices you make as an actor. He wants it to be the best it could be.
NELSON: Jack Black was very nervous that he’d have to do that song at the end, especially when he found out they wanted him at like nine a.m. or some ungodly time. He was like, “Oh, I can’t perform live at nine in the morning.” And so to be safe, I pre-recorded him so that he could lip-sync.
DEVINCENTIS: I remember that we wanted to actually have Jack sing and we wanted to actually have a band play. And the way we did that was we went to — this was also with the help of Dan Koretzky — we put together a group of musicians that were sort of in the Drag City orbit, including one or two guys who actually played on records that Drag City put out. And we went with them and Jack to a studio of a friend of mine, Steve Albini. So we put this thing together with Jack and his backing band and went to Steve Albini’s studio and recorded it. Then we took that same band and had them back up Jack live and we recorded it both ways and did some kind of mix of it. I think we put a click track in the drummer’s ear, so that it would match the two.
NELSON: And when we got on set, Jack Black actually couldn’t lip-sync. He couldn’t do it exactly the same way twice, which would’ve meant they wouldn’t be able to edit. So, he ended up actually doing the whole song in one take, live.
FREARS: [Club scenes are] always a pain in the ass. They’re not very interesting to shoot. People just start dancing. There’s nothing to do, really. They’re never very interesting. But they have to be done.
DEVINCENTIS: There was a Beverly D’Angelo scene. John was friends with her, and he convinced her to come out and do this. She came out and we shot it, but we cut it. Stephen just thought it didn’t work. And she was sort of doing us a favor by doing this. And he called her up and said, “Look, it’s my fault. I didn’t do it right. I feel like I know how to do it. Can you please come back, so we can redo the scene?” And she said okay, because she’s a total sport. So she comes back, we did it again, and then we cut the scene. And Stephen looked at it and said, “Yeah, the problem isn’t the way I did it. The problem is that the scene just shouldn’t be in the movie. So we shot and cut that scene twice and didn’t use it.
HORNBY: I understand why it went. It was a self-contained scene that doesn’t really drive the story forward, and that’s exactly the kind of stuff that you can afford to do in a novel that you can’t do in a movie.
DEVINCENTIS: Another person [who got cut from the film] was Harold Ramis. Harold was someone who we admired a great deal, not just because of his wonderful resume, but because he was a Chicago-area guy. And not only that, he had moved back to Chicago to Glencoe, and we just thought that was so cool. Also, he’s so great in movies when he does show up, and he was just so fun and wonderful at it. Years later, I sat down into my seat at the Chicago Theater for a Leonard Cohen concert, and I heard behind me a whisper in my ear, “You motherfucker,” and I turned around and it was Harold and he was like, “You cut me out. How could you cut me out?!” I was just so blown away that he remembered me.
Of course, there was one cameo that did make the cut…
CUSACK: I just called Bruce [Springsten] and said, “Look, I know this is a weird question, but do you want to play yourself in a film talking to me in my head?” And he went, “Yeah!” I’m like, “Wow!” We started laughing.
DEVINCENTIS: Even up until the day it was happening, it wasn’t completely certain it was going to happen. It was really touch-and-go until maybe the day before. It was the kind of thing … I remember being there and going, “This totally might not happen.” And then he showed up.
PINK: There’s this one line. Bruce Springsteen gives him this advice that he’s got to go revisit his old girlfriends. He’s saying, “You need to go back and revisit your old girlfriends, the loves of your life, your top fives, and then you’ll be able to re-evaluate your love life and how to go forward.” He’s like the magical Yoda that gives him the advice in his head. And the line was, “You’ll feel better and they’ll feel better, and you’ll be able to move on.”
That’s basically what it was, and Bruce says to us: “Well, this is all great, you guys are great, and I’m happy to do this. But you can’t really say that they’ll feel better. You don’t really know that they’ll feel better.” And so he changed the line. In the movie he says: “You’ll feel better and then they’ll feel better … maybe.” So, Bruce Springsteen helped our movie. He made it more sophisticated. And he was right.
NELSON: I kind of had a moment of panic when I watched dailies, and I saw that he was strumming a guitar on camera. And I was like, “Whoah. I can’t afford to license a Bruce Springsteen song.”
PINK: He was just playing like blues riffs, but someone has to tell Bruce Springsteen he has to stop playing or we have to get permission to use the music. Because if he leaves this room and we don’t have permission, we may not be able to use any of this Bruce Springsteen stuff. So, I go to Stephen Frears and say, “Hey, Stephen, we have to make sure we have the rights to the stuff that Bruce is playing right now.” And I remember Stephen Frears saying to me, “Go and tell him.” And that was like, “What?!” He’s like, “Yeah, go and deal with it then.” So, I went up there. I remember going up to Springsteen and saying, “Excuse me, Mr. Springsteen, God almighty, but you’re playing guitar and you know how it’s a movie and can we, um, use the stuff you’re playing?” I remember fumbling through the request. And I remember him saying, “Yeah, I’m not even playing anything. I’m just improvising.”
NELSON: I did have to go to the manager and ask them to sign off that that was not a real song, and he only did it because he’s not comfortable delivering his lines. He’s not an actor. He’s an artist, right? So I had to get them on paper to agree that that wasn’t a song, so Columbia Records wouldn’t come after us for money.
PINK: I also remember getting it on film. That’s the other thing that I remember. We asked him if he could say it on camera — and I believe he did. I believe we rolled and he said, “Yeah, I’m just playing around.”
By the summer of 1999, after a relatively smooth shoot, filming had wrapped. Frears brought the film back to London, where it was to be edited. However, a key element was missing: the soundtrack. But, it couldn’t just be any soundtrack; it had to embody the world they created.
FREARS: I was 20 years older than everybody else. I kept saying, “You’ll do the music. Find the music and bring it to me and I’ll be the judge.” I wouldn’t do anything that’d be bad for the film. I was looking to protect the film. And they would go away and argue. And I kept saying, because I don’t know very much about that sort of music, “Only someone who didn’t know could’ve made the film. If you knew about it, you’d still be arguing about it.” So it sorts itself out. I knew less than any of them. They were all world experts.
PINK: I remember Stephen Frears saying some songs he didn’t like — and he was the director. We were given permission to go in there and play the music we wanted to play against the picture. And sometimes you’d just want a song that you love and then you’d play it against the picture and it wouldn’t work. So, it’s not just about the soundtrack. You’re trying to balance what music you love with what music actually fits the picture.
KORETZKY: They had all kinds of different song needs, and if Drag City was able to fill it, we wanted to square peg the fuck outta that round hole shit. We ended up not only getting a good bit of our music in the soundtrack, but also some of our musicians, Liam Hayes from Plush, Rian Murphy from Chestnut Station, Al Johnson from US Maple, in the actual film as well. Not to mention, the great Jeff Parker and Matt Lux — such incredible musical talent put to such little use!
PINK: I believe it’d start to get into a very Dick and Rob fight over who picked what song, and everyone taking credit for what songs they think they submitted to the movie. But we had huge battles. Huge battles. We had epic battles, and I found them to be enjoyable epic battles, by the way. It could be frustrating at times and angry at times and that person’s a fucking idiot to want that song in the movie or vice versa. We were mirroring the characters in the movie in that superior way of, “We know what the music for the movie should be, and everyone else who thinks it should be something else is a fucking idiot.” It’s hilarious that’s who the characters think they are.
NELSON: We went through so much music. We used to have meetings. DV DeVincentis, Steve Pink, me, Johnny, and the editors. We used to have meetings and all we’d do is play music. “What do you think of this? What do you think?” I think the editor said to me at what point that he’d never had to load so much music into his Avid ever. It was probably one of the most fun movies I’d ever gotten to work on.
CUSACK: Between Kathy and I, we knew a lot of people in the music business, a lot of artists. And then I think the artists probably felt like we’re giving their music a big showcase and not just needle dropping them in for some commercial catch-up.
PINK: It was very hard to find the perfect music. We wanted the perfect music for the movie at all times. So, by the time we found the song and played it against picture, it seemed to work and then we all kind of felt good about it. At least I did.
FREARS: I think we had to get the prices down, and once Bruce agreed to come down, everybody agreed to come down. The nightmare was about clearances. Well, if you saw the record cover of Blonde on Blonde, you had to get clearance to use it.
Before the film was released, there was one last production snafu that had to be dealt with as far as the writing credits go. It came back with four writers. John Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, Steve Pink, and… Scott Rosenberg.
DEVINCENTIS: When we were first approached, they mentioned in passing that there was a draft by Scott Rosenberg, but they wanted to start over from scratch, and there was no value in reading it. It never really came up again and we got to work.
PINK: Scott Rosenberg wrote a draft. It was a draft that didn’t resemble the movie. It was a draft that, if memory serves, took place in Boston. And mainly, the story revolved around a zeroes versus heroes plot, where a Tower Records moves across the street and was about how they were trying to compete with a new franchise record store. Like that was the plot that Scott Rosenberg wrote for his adaptation of the movie. And we wanted to write a more faithful adaptation of the movie. And his was just a different incarnation than ours.
DEVINCENTIS: When it was time for the film’s credits to be finalized, we got paperwork from the WGA about possible arbitration for credit — and Scott’s name was on it. We were like, “Well, that’s weird.” John [Cusack] knew him from Con Air, and so called him and said, “Hey, what’s up with this?” Scott said, “Oh yeah. I did a draft. But I saw your draft, I saw the movie, and obviously nothing of mine is in the movie. I’ll make sure my name’s not on there because I’m not trying to get credit for it. I totally understand it’s not mine.” And it’s like, okay, cool.
So then the paperwork comes back again some weeks later, and Rosenberg’s name is still on it. So, John, Steve, and I called him. It was very strange and very consequential, and so I remember it very clearly. We were on speaker from John’s office. We get a hold of him and we’re like, “Hey, um, dude, your name is still on this credit arbitration thing. Did you call somebody yet to let them know to take it off?” And he goes, “Yeah … actually I was talking to my lawyer,” which is never a good start for anything, “and he told me that because of the way the Writers Guild rules are, I actually have a really good shot of getting a credit on the movie.”
PINK: The reason Scott Rosenberg could even be credited is because of a rule that’s no longer a rule in the Writers Guild. It used to be that the first writer of any adaptation would get full credit for anything they extracted from the book, or from the material from which they were adapting, so that any subsequent writer would not get credit for it.
DEVINCENTIS: We all looked at each other — was he really saying what it sounded like he was saying? John said, “Okay. But you said you know you had nothing to do with writing the movie.” And he’s like, “Yeah, I know. I know how you feel. It sucks, you guys. This happened to me on The General’s Daughter.” And we’re like, “What happened?” He said that “Well, you know, I basically wrote The General’s Daughter. But because somebody wrote on it first, and there was source material that we both used, they got credit for all of my hard work, which really sucked.” So one of us says, inevitably, “Okay, Scott, but you’re talking about doing the same thing to us.” “Yeah, well you know,” he said, “I could wind up with sole credit on this — the WGA rules could really be in my favor as the first writer. Why don’t we just all share?”
PINK: When we called Scott, the first thing we said to him was, “If you have an argument, if you feel like you deserve credit because in any way, shape, or form you feel like your material is in our movie, then you should absolutely arbitrate for credit and this conversation’s over.” I remember that as clear as day. And that’s why he said to us, “No, I know you didn’t. Because I just know you guys didn’t. I know that your script doesn’t resemble my script at all, but that’s just the way the business works.”
DEVINCENTIS: I told Rosenberg that I would be willing to meet him in his lawyer’s office and sign over all my residuals for the movie to him, in perpetuity, if he would just take his name out of this, because as he said, he had nothing to do with writing this film.
PINK: We decided, “Well, if it’s not about artistic credit, but it’s about money, then why don’t we give him our credit bonus?” Which was a lot of money. So today, I look back at my young self in horror that I would even offer that. But, looking back, it’ still the right thing to do. Money is money, but we made this movie. We had this special experience.
DEVINCENTIS: He lost his temper and asked, “What is so wrong with sharing a credit with me? Are you embarrassed to have your names next to mine?” John, who is very cool under pressure, responded, “No, Scott, not at all. Let’s write a movie together and share credit. But not this one, because as you said, you contributed nothing to this movie.” It went nowhere after that. He was dug in. We got off the phone. I felt like I was going to throw up.
PINK: It’s like we all went to the moon, and then we came back, and then Scott Rosenberg said he was on the moon with us. It’s like, “We don’t understand how you could say you were on the moon with us, even if you wrote a book about the moon. And we didn’t even use your map to get to the moon. We didn’t use your spaceship, we didn’t use your map, we didn’t use your telescope,” and then we get to the moon, we hang on the moon, and then we come back … and you said you went on the moon with us. So, anyway we offered him our credit bonus. And that’s when he said, “No.” And then he arbitrated for credit and that’s the way it went for us.”
DEVINCENTIS: It’s as batshit crazy and wrong as it sounds, and they don’t do it that way anymore. The way they do it now is thusly: Whatever both writers use from the source material is zeroed out and not credited to either, which makes obvious sense. Whatever is taken from a book is something that neither screenwriter created, and neither should get credit for it. Duh. Credits are now adjudicated based on what one brings to the script.