Brian Loschiavo, Erika Wollam Nichols, and Jeff Molyneaux spoke to Solzy at the Movies about Bluebird during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
When Bluebird was announced for the 2019 SXSW Film Festival, the title immediately grabbed my attention. Unfortunately, the film would premiere after I returned to Chicago. I decided to look into pre-premiere interview opportunities because I had a strong interest in covering the film. One, I watched Nashville regularly before the series ended. Two, one of my friends from high school, Heather Bond, is making it in the Nashville music scene. Knowing that she’s performed in the past at The Bluebird, I thought maybe there’s a chance that she’s in the film (she isn’t). Taylor Swift, however, is in the film.
Brian, this is your directorial debut. When did you first get the idea to make a documentary on The Bluebird Café?
Brian Loschiavo: I was gifted the idea by Erika Wollam Nichols sitting next to me here. The Bluebird became known to me through the show, Nashville. I worked at ABC with Jeff, actually, and got to come to Nashville and work with the songwriters that wrote the music for the show and did a series about them. In part, I got to learn about the Bluebird, what it meant to the songwriting community, and what it meant to the city. I knew how special it was and knew how important it was. I never thought I’d get to tell this story because I was honestly surprised that the story had never been told before. We had a very serendipitous meet-up in London during the Country to Country Festival and had dinner with Erika. About halfway through dinner, she asked us if we’d be interested in doing a doc on the Bluebird. It was the coolest opportunity I’ve ever been getting in my career so we ran with it.
Erika, what does it mean to you to be able get your start as a waitress at the Bluebird, climb up the ranks, and see the reputation it has built in the country music scene?
Erika Wollam Nichols: When I started at the Bluebird, it wasn’t what it is now. I saw quite a bit of that growth when I was in college. I went back and forth—worked at the Bluebird off and on throughout. Having the opportunity to take over the operations of the Bluebird and to really see in more depth what it meant to the songwriting community from a different perspective—from the outside, I understood it from my personal relationship to discovering the importance of songwriters. In watching it grow to be sort of now almost a household word—probably not completely—but in a lot of ways to have a lot more national recognition and international recognition. It’s gratifying mostly because I want people to understand what songwriters do and how important songwriters are. The Nashville community is—and you know this—is based in that magnetism of the song.
Taylor Swift is one of the biggest names in music. How often does she make surprise performances like the one we see in the film? (Laughs)
Brian Loschiavo: It’s once a week, right?
Erika Wollam Nichols: I’d like to say it was a surprise. People tell me that people will come up and they’ll be like, “Oh my G-d, she just showed up. Did you know?” Well, actually the Taylor Swift machine doesn’t move somewhere people don’t know. But all that to say she’s popped in a few times but she does have quite a bit going on. We were so grateful to have that performance and to have her belief in what we were doing to tell the story and how she saw herself as a part of that story. Not as the key player but as a part of that whole story of what the Bluebird means and what the Bluebird
Brian Loschiavo: I think it was great trying to hide the fact that she was coming from the staff and our crew that was filming it. So nobody knew except for the three of us.
In watching the documentary, I got a sense of a financial struggle before the Nashville series premiered on ABC. Was the situation so bad that the café could have possibly closed?
Erika Wollam Nichols: I think that would have been extreme and with 90 seats seating them twice—that puts the revenue in a real framework. So to be able to—oh, here is our founder Amy Kurland, founder of The Bluebird Cafe. Danielle.
Amy Kurland: Hi Danielle, How are you doing?
Erika Wollam Nichols: So to finish that, I don’t know that there was necessarily a risk that The Bluebird would have closed. I do know that we had to make certain decisions as we were watching the revenue and making sure that—could we buy a new fryer? Probably not. We probably need to buy a used fryer. Things like that to be able to just make sure that our budget was going to hit.
With developers purchasing land around The Bluebird, what steps are being done to ensure the future?
Erika Wollam Nichols: The Bluebird itself—the property is still owned by Amy. We rent it from her. There’s an association of four businesses in the middle of that strip mall: the barber shop downstairs, the Beauty Shop, and the dry cleaner. All of those owners are committed to keeping that property. So for the time being, we have a fair bit of security. None of those owners are particularly interested in selling. Amy is certainly not interested.
Brian Loschiavo: Amy is the developer’s worst nightmare. (Laughs)
Erika Wollam Nichols: So I feel like currently, there’s that stability. Also, I’m in conversation with the developer fairly regularly to see what their plans are and to just kind of make sure that they know that we’ve got a stake in the game.
How long was the initial cut of the film?
Brian Loschiavo: I think the first cut was about two hours and twenty minutes.
Is it hard to get some of that narrowed down?
Brian Loschiavo: Extremely hard because you’re in love with all these stories. It’s very much a movie of scenes and chapters. It became a puzzle of moving these stories around to see what created a through line and what created the right pacing. There was a lot of shuffling that was happening of where to put—certain stories had to be in the beginning like the origin story and certain things chronologically kind of had to stay in line. A lot of them were kind of interchangeable pieces. Sometimes, there were a few pieces that we just didn’t feel like for pacing purposes or whatever we had to lose which was very, very difficult.
Erika Wollam Nichols: Painful decisions!
Brian Loschiavo: We have some really great cutting room floor stuff that we’re hoping that we can hopefully utilize at some point.
When you first saw the set of Nashville, how shocked were you at the accuracy?
Erika Wollam Nichols: They had spent three weeks in the club measuring and taking color samples. They took every photograph—every headshot—off the wall, scanned it and put it on the wall exactly as it is in our place. Actually, Amy and I went over together. It was astounding! Even the times when I would be on the set for a shoot or whatever, I’d still like go, “Oh, I can go get a glass of—no, I can’t get a glass of water.” Or “Let’s go to the bathroom—that’s a monitor!” There’s no bathroom there. It was interesting—kind of the reflex that would happen in that space. It was so accurately depicted.
Brian Loschiavo: I will note that there’s two poles in the actual Bluebird that are very hard to film around that the show Nashville had in the first season and then they took them out because they realized how hard they were to get to navigate around.
Erika Wollam Nichols: That’s right!
Brian Loschiavo: The fact that they can pull walls out and shoot in their made it much was easier for them than it was for us.
Erika Wollam Nichols: Go on record and say it.
Brian Loschiavo: Yes, please!
What were the challenges of shooting aside from those poles?
Brian Loschiavo: Not disrupting the intimacy with the Bluebird. I think there’s a lot of documentaries that always have their challenges of things—not going into the battle but it kind of feels that way because you’re in such a quiet intimate place with no real space to move around. We kind of had to try and find our positions. Sometimes, those were under tables and under pianos and things but for the most part, we were just trying to shift at a moment where there was some sort of gap because what a lot of people don’t realize is we were trying to film the dialogue leading into the song as well. Even that part of it—normally, when you’re shooting the music you could just shift around at that part but you’re also trying to shoot that. You have four people in four different places at the same time in the circle.
Jeff Molyneaux: I would say that when we’re shooting the stage, it’s clearly a lot easier. It’s two dimensional. We can put our positions and kind of stick to them and no one’s going anywhere. When they’re in the round in the center of the room, if a person is performing, you may be positioned behind them and suddenly you’re looking at the back of their head so you’ve got to get to the other side of the room but be able to do it discreetly and not actually knock over people’s dinner and or get in the way of the wait staff. That was definitely always a challenge—filming in the round.
Are there any current Bluebird regulars that might make it big in the music scene over the next few years?
And are there any current regulars that might make it big in the music scene in the next few years same.
Erika Wollam Nichols: I would say yes. Sometimes, it’s a surprise. Sometimes it’s—you can spot somebody a mile away. There’s a writer called Adam James, who came in through an audition. After the audition, all of the judges were like, “That guy.” That guy is going to make it and he’s been working hard. He was a hard worker—you could tell from the audition. He’s now starting to really get traction. Carly Pearce used to play early shows with us. Same thing. You can watch somebody and just see that there’s a lot of talent. There’s also somebody that’s really going to give everything up for it. I think that’s the kind of thing that we keep an eye on. You’ll see—like Landon Wall in the film. He has worked so hard and I can absolutely see that something is going to happen for him. They’re peppered her throughout the performances that we see.