A little film I saw at Sundance last year is currently making some major waves at the box office. Filly Brown tells the story of aspiring Latina hip-hop star Maria, aka Filly Brown played by Gina Rodriguez. It opened last weekend on 188 screens, but netted $1.5 million in ticket sales. How? I credit the fact that Filly Brown takes the idea of the American dream and portrays it through the complicated, and at times difficult, lens of the music industry.
We’ve certainly seen this story play out time and again, watching as hot young acts quickly climb the charts only to fall hard. But Filly Brown isn’t the story of a young girl only hoping to become a successful musician ‐ it’s the story of a young girl desperate to put her family back together who stumbles across a talent that may help her make that happen. Driven by a commanding performance from Rodriguez, the music is as much a character in the film as any of the actors.
I spoke with the film’s composer, Reza Safinia, about working with Rodriguez (who had never rapped before making the film), his approach to such a music heavy story, and what artist he and Rodriguez listened to in the studio for inspiration.
Music, which can be something simply kept to the background in films, obviously plays a pivotal role in Filly Brown ‐ how did a soundtrack as co-lead influence your approach to creating and selecting the music for this film?
Well, it was pretty clearly written into the script. It was always there and [directors] Youssef [Delara] and Mike [D. Olmos] were very savvy about it and worked with me to create that character in itself without it dominating over everything else. There are two stories in parallel in Filly; one is her career story and the other the family drama. Both needed an arc, and both needed to co-exist, so my main approach was to come up with a chord progression and motif that could work in hip-hop and orchestra and then I would do varying balances of those scales of production based on the context of a scene.
In the music story there was an arc within itself where Filly had to start as an underground MC and be eventually groomed into a Nikki Minaj style urban pop princess, and there were the stages in between. In the family drama, there was a foreboding tension underscoring every character’s deceit that had to resolve into an earnest confession with hope at the end of the movie.
How did you work with Gina to teach her how to flow naturally on screen and make the rhymes feel like her own? Did she have any hand in writing that music to put her own, natural stamp on it?
Yes she wrote some of the lyrics in “Dream Big” and also a song called “Get ’Em Going.” Honestly, she’s a natural. I encouraged her to sing ‐ she has a beautiful husky voice that she didn’t even know about! I used to be a pop/hip-hop music producer back in the day, so I’ve had a lot of experience working with singers and rappers.
One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that when you put headphones on someone in a vocal booth, they hear their voice stronger in the cans than it actually records so you typically get timid performances. Gina started that way too, but we broke the ice by putting the mic up in the room with me and having a conversation about life with the mic on and the beat playing in the background. We also listened to a lot of Biggie, who has the ultimate flow ‐ he can hypnotize you into his flow just by listening!
Eventually she was so comfortable, the mic and headphones became invisible, and I encouraged her to freestyle with a stronger tone and soon after that she found her voice and was spitting hard. After that initial exercise, she was nailing every song within two takes! Listen to her now. She’s straight fire.
Watching Filly navigate the, at times, treacherous waters of the music industry felt very real and earnest ‐ did the filmmakers turn to you for insight on your experiences in the industry to help make this end of the narrative feel so real?
I’d like to say yes, but the truth is full credit goes to Youssef for writing it just that way in the script. He and Mike then did a great job translating that to the screen. There’s some great naturalistic and witty performances from real world music people in the film like Chingo Bling and Baby Bash too, bringing a lot of flavor.
How did you get involved with Filly Brown? Was this a project you sought out or was it brought to you thanks to your musical background?
I met Youssef in a bar; we swapped website info, and became mutual admirers of each other’s work. That was pretty much it. He sent me the script, I read it in record time, and I said, “I’m in!” You couldn’t write this stuff! I tell you what though; I’d love to do something like this again. It was really fun to be able to collaborate with great artists like Diamonique and Braxton Millz (who wrote a lot of the lyrics) on banging hip-hop one minute, and then write some solemn orchestral arrangements the next.
What is your favorite moment (or favorite song) in the film and why?
SPOILER ALERT! There’s a scene in the middle of the film where Filly goes to visit her mom in jail, there’s actually a few of those, but this is the one where she goes in all excited to tell her about her music, and her mom is just completely strung out and scary. I love the scene because after the mom leaves there’s this moment where Filly realizes her mom is beyond help and she may be scamming her and she has this lingering look on her face that captures about thirty emotions. Complex yet subtle. It was my favorite moment to score, and if I may say so myself, I’m really proud of the way my music interacts with Gina’s performance at this point.
Filly Brown is currently in theaters in limited release.