Dewey Cox's trio of talented musicians tell us how they got together and learned to play in harmony
Sometimes, a backing band can be more important than the rock legend they are supporting. That's certainly true with Dewey Cox and the Hard Walkers. A true trio of country shit kickers and rockabilly wannabes. They give Dewey his heart and soul. They provide support, structure, and the occasional illegal recreational substance. They are his rock star crutch; a cohesive home base that stands solid through thick and thin.
How was this band formed? What is their origin story? Does it have something to do with the Big Bang theory? Were they magically formed in the Cosmos? We already know the truth behind the raising of Cox. But what about the Hard Walkers? Featuring SNL alums Tim Meadows on Drums and Chris Parnell on Bass, with Upright Citizens Brigade's Tim Besser on rhythm guitar, they have created one of the key faux bands of the neo-biopic era.
To learn more about their trails and tribulations in brining this authentic fifties-era backing band to the screen, I went straight to the source of their inception. First, I chatted with Walk Hard director Jake Kasdan about the Hard Walkers wide birth. He explains, "We just hired the funniest guys we could find and made them learn how to play their instruments. Those are just three brilliantly funny guys that we love. Meadows is someone that I always thought was really, really funny. He just has one of the greatest deliveries around. As soon as we thought of him, we had to figure out how to make that work. And Parnell is a monster improviser. Both of those guys did ten years on Saturday Night Live where they were just really funny every single week. We knew we'd be lucky to get either one of them. Besser is the same way. He came from Upright Citizens Brigade. He is very funny and just a great improviser. He has got a really funny voice. He has the perfect comedic cadence."
This film certainly walked in the footsteps of its predecessors when choosing its band mates. Most biopics are grounded by actors that have never touched a musical instrument in their life. The same rings true for Kasdan's bunch, "Having actors come in and learn to play. That is a cliché of the genre. That is one of the problems you run into. Do you hire actors or do you hire musicians? We went with actors. They were taking lessons for months before we even started."
It wasn't always an easy road. Learning to play the instruments came as a challenge, but Chris Parnell felt the ability to learn was in him from the beginning, "We all appreciate music. We all enjoy it. I had sung in high school. Matt played some, and Tim knew how to get behind the drums. I'd never played any musical instrument. We all had to learn our instruments from scratch. It took us about a month and a half to learn that stuff."
Meadows is quick to point out a few facts about that, "We only had to learn the songs that were in the movie. So, there was a focus. We only had a number of tunes to learn, and we learned it over a certain period. We learned the first songs first. Then as the production went on, we would learn the next songs in the line-up. We had six months to learn what our instruments were. We knew on which dates we would be shooting the songs. And we needed to have them memorized by then. We would have sheet music, and we practiced a lot at home by ourselves. Then we had our teachers that would work with us. And we would also meet as a band. There was someone there from the movie, and we would play together. We wanted to make sure we were all jiving."
Was there ever any inner-band turmoil on the set? Parnell doesn't think so, "We got along great, actually." Meadows explained that most of the "turmoil" came while they were still in character, "We had personal jokes just to make each other laugh. During the filming. Like, my character didn't like it when these guys would turn around and look at him while he was playing drums. When they'd turn around to smile, I would smile. But when they turned back around, I would look really pissed off at them. But these were little jokes we were doing for the benefit of my own boredom. It was always in character. You sit there for twelve hours doing the same thing, and you start to go nuts."
In fact, the time spent learning the songs on set allowed the two former SNL teammates to get to know each other better. Parnell says, "It was a lot of fun getting to work with Tim again. I got to know him a lot better than I did when we were at SNL. I'd never worked with Matt. But it was a lot of fun." Besser, having neither worked with Meadows nor Parnell before Walk Hard wanted to know about their time spent on the set of SNL. He asked Meadows, "Why did you ignore him at SNL? I've heard him kind of say that?" Meadows response? "Because he was the new guy. And I liked Jimmy Fallon a lot more. And Heratio. And when Rachel came, I liked Rachel more. He kept dropping down on the totem pole. I kept thinking, 'I'll get to know him later. Maybe next season.' And then I was gone. I left the show." Parnell is quick to shake this off, giving one of his trademark smirks, "It really wasn't like that. He's joking."
All jokes aside, what about John C. Reilly? Did he have a favorite band mate? Who was his in-character confidant. Certainly not Parnell, "He would pick on my character a lot. I don't think he had a favorite." Besser agrees, "I don't think he liked any of us. Even joking around in character, off-camera, his thing with us was that he didn't want us to have any success apart from him. In that it was his band. He never even gave the band a name. He was always mistreating us. Dewey's confidant was the monkey."
The monkey was sort of the fifth Beatle on set. Though, sadly, a lot of his scenes were cut out of the final film. It started as a three-hour epic. It has since been whittled down to ninety minutes on the dot. Parnell tells us, "So much got cut out of the film. Right now, it is really dense. Its hard, because there is all this stuff that gets shot. And all of this music that is lost. You know? You want to see yourself playing. You put so much work in it. But the shot has to be on John, because he is the story. So, a lot gets cut out. And it is sort of disappointing." Meadows was the only member of Cox's backing band that saw one of the longer cuts of the film, "Some of the pacing was very slow. One of the things Jake told me was that they were going to cut the Seventies stuff down. Its not that it didn't play well. It just comes ninety minutes into the movie. So, the audience is already tired at that point. And this is aimed at a young audience. They don't really care about Sixties protest parody. They didn't know who some of the seventies stars were. Cheryl Teigs was in there. Patrick Duffy. There was a whole other thing related to the variety show. The young audience that the film is geared towards just didn't get it. It had no residence, because they didn't know who these people were at all. So there was nothing to tie it into."
Does having a lot of their hard work hit the floor bother them? Not really. Meadows continued in saying, "It is just the nature of the project. That is just part of the thing in comedy. The things you love, the audience might not like. So, you sort of have to kill your babies. You don't fall in love with it. You have to be able to let it go."
And with that, the subject of Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundycame up. When that Judd Apatow produced film hit DVD, they were able to release a second feature culled solely from the deleted scenes. Could that possibly happen here? Meadows certainly hopes not. Did he see the second Ron Burgundy adventure? "I did not. Fuck that movie. Ttsss! Two pieces of shit don't make it right." This statement didn't please Parnell, as he was in both films. He quickly silenced Meadows, saying, "There is going to be an extended version on the DVD. Some extra footage. But I haven't heard of a whole other Dewey Cox movie that they are going to put on there. No. It would be nice to see some of the footage of our band playing, though."
So, which one of the actors had the hardest time learning to play? Besser says it all depended on the song, "I think, from number to number, it was harder. Some songs were really easy for me. And I would assume, 'Hey, it's easy for you guys!' But it wasn't. It depended on the song structure, and how hard it was for that particular instrument. Especially since we skip through different genres, You can't give enough credit to our tutors. Especially the guy that me and Parnell started out with. We had never done anything like this. It is really intimidating. You think, 'There is no way I can pick up something like this.' It is a skill that people work a lifetime on. Our tutor taught us how to do it. He gave us the confidence that we were going to be able to pull it off. If you listen to it, it may not sound so great. But our hands are in the right place, And we are strumming correctly. We are in the right place on the downbeat. That was important to Jake, because he didn't want the musicians to be distracting to the scene."
The trio didn't really have any input into the song content. Most of the songs were in place before they even signed onto the project. Something Parnell was happy about, "They had an army of amazing songwriters. People from different parts of music submitting multiple versions of songs. There were so many good songs written. Even a song like Guilty as Charged. We had two fully different versions of that song. We were going to try and shoot both of them, but we didn't have time. There were so many good ones. It was crazy."
Like most bands, The Hard Walkers had their fair share of groupies. Even though Meadows has a fiance in real life, he was the one that scored most of the chicks. In-character of course. Parnell actually found a couple of dating opportunities on set, "I went out on a couple of dates with one of the back-up singers. We are still in touch. But she wasn't a groupie." Besser doesn't really have a comment to make on the matter, instead stating, "We did get a charge out of being on stage and having people respond to us. Their whole job is to make you feel like a rock star. That was cool. We felt like we were actually doing it. Like we had hit the big time. The extras were being paid to cheer for us, but it still felt good."
Besser looked to a strange source for his character's inspiration, "I actually watched a lot of Hee Haw. Some of that footage we have is Hee Haw. I am pretty sure. They would always have country music performances on it. There was always one member of the band that had a deep voice back then. So that is one character choice I made. My character is more of an amalgamation then just based on one guy in particular." Parnell didn't base his character on one guy in particular either, "I think I'd seen most of the musical biopics. My character wasn't based on any person from any one of those movies. It was more based on looking at stock footage of Johnny Cash, Buddy Holly, and those kinds of performers that supported them. We all read this book called Elvis Presley and the Memphis Mafia. That was quite helpful in getting into that mindset of something like this?"
Meadows probably has the most memorable scene in the entire picture. He leads Dewey down the long hard road of substance abuse, getting him started on his journey by extrapolating on the "positive" effects of marijuana as if they are evil. Did he know it was going to be so quotable when he was doing it?, "No. You don't know if that will happen. You just hope that it gets made. You don't think, 'Oh, this scene is the one that is going to get talked about.' Who even knows if it is going to be in the movie." Besser is quick to correct the comedic actor, "Every time Jake would yell cut, you would scream, 'Classic. That is the catch phrase of next year.' You knew you were doing something." Meadows agrees, "I totally forgot about that. But I was totally joking." Besser didn't think it was a joke, "You would do the gopher dance from Caddyshack." Parnell explains, "It got really annoying."
Meadows described the inspection of the running joke, "The stuff in that scene? I would love to take full credit for it. But part of it was already written. And then, the other part, we all as a cast sort of came up with that in a preproduction meeting. We started talking about all of the other scenes that we were in. We came up with this idea that we'd say all of these positive things about marijuana, but we would say them as scary and negative. We were all laughing in the room when we were coming up with it. You know? When we were filming it, they would tell me to say a line form the meeting. And I would do it. Some of it we would improvise. I think John had a lot to do with that. He would set up the questions. And that's how it came off." Parnell is quick to offer his band mate a compliment, "It is one of the best runs in the movie. It really is."
If the Box of Cox goes Gold, do the boys think they'd come back for a second round? Parnell thinks so, "We would love to come in and sing." Though, it is Besser that is quick to point out the problem with that, "We would love to be a part of that. But it would take a lot of work on our part to have a hand in something legitimate. We'd have to learn all new songs."
You can catch Dewey and the Hard Walkers when they hit theaters this Friday, December 21st, 2007. Don't run, Walk Hard to The Dewey Cox Story!