The Ain’t Rights are All Right: Four Days in the Green Room

Hutch Harris of the Thermals talks teaching actors how to be musicians.

Actors will do all kinds of crazy things to prepare for a role. Renée Zellweger gained around thirty pounds to play Bridget Jones. Christian Bale lost sixty pounds for The Machinist. One thing it seems most actors won’t do for a role, though, is learn the basics of a musical instrument.

Often when you see actors portraying musicians, they’re only pretending to play their character’s instrument — hands out of view, head bopping out of time. When I see an actor strum one sad, poorly fingered G chord for an entire song on screen, I’m not so much disappointed as I am surprised. There are creative people in this world who don’t know how to play guitar? Guitar can be learned quickly and easily, and entire careers have been made by people who barely know how to play it — see Johnny Ramone (who supposedly didn’t keep a guitar at home so he wouldn’t get too proficient) or, uh, me. Learning even just the rudiments of an instrument can be a very gratifying experience — and should be a lot easier than losing (or even gaining) a ridiculous amount of weight.

A year and a half ago, the independent film production company Film Science contacted me about a potential job. Jeremy Saulnier (director of the awesome 2013 revenge flick Blue Ruin) was shooting a movie called Green Room in Portland, Oregon, about a punk band on tour that gets trapped in a green room and terrorized by skinheads. Saulnier needed someone to work with the actors to help them look and sound like a real band. I was eager to take the job for many reasons, one being that I enjoy doing music-related work (especially in the film industry, which is still magical and mysterious to me), another being I was happy to hear that the director cared enough to take the time and expense to ensure the “realness” of his onscreen band, the Ain’t Rights.

Silly as it may be, my model for portraying musicians correctly onscreen is the 1984 film This is Spinal Tap. Although the movie is a spoof, it gets so many things right about the culture and lifestyle of a rock band on the road: the vanity, jealousy and interpersonal squabbles of talented but petty artists living in close quarters for extended periods of time. But what the movie really gets right is something almost no movie about musicians ever nails: the music. The titular band in This is Spinal Tap actually played their instruments and the songs in the film — they were a real band playing real songs. The fact that Saulnier also didn’t want his actors faking it shows his dedication to the craft; his attention to detail is one of the things that make Green Room such an intense and believable film.

Every time I challenge myself (usually by taking on a job with which I have no experience), the first thing I wonder is: how will I screw up? Every day on a new job is a new day to make new mistakes. I didn’t know much about the production or actors when I agreed to work a few days on Green Room. All I knew about the cast before I met with them for the first time was that Alia Shawkat (Arrested Development) was playing the guitarist. Normally, I’m not incredibly impressed by celebrities, but I am a huge fan of Arrested Development and I will be in love with Alia for the rest of my life, so I had prepared a list of “do not”s in my head: do not gush, do not crush and, most important, DO NOT CALL HER MAEBY. I listened to the loud, anxious voice inside my head and treated Shawkat like a normal human being. I was happy to learn that not only is she a normal human being, but incredibly friendly and unpretentious.

I was also surprised to learn that the band was already kind of OK! Their de facto leader both on and off screen was Anton Yelchin, who had some experience playing in bands. I couldn’t place Yelchin at first; I didn’t recognize him despite his sizable roles as young Kyle Reese in 2009’s Terminator Salvation and Scotty in the rebooted Star Trek franchise. When I finally did place him, it wasn’t “OH YEAH he was in all those blockbusters!” it was “OH MY GOD he was the magician kid in that one episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm!” I kept my mouth shut about this so as not to offend the talent.

Yelchin played bass in the Ain’t Rights and was not only skilled at his instrument but was invaluable in helping the cast coalesce into an actual band, which was just what Saulnier was hoping for. I found Anton to be highly intelligent, focused and motivated — a person whose success should surprise no one. Honestly, he could’ve done my job.

So what exactly was my job? I can tell you what I did, even if it’s not exactly what the producers had in mind. I wasn’t given a ton of direction except to “help the band learn the songs.” I coached, I advised, I kept the energy up. I told them to watch each other — to pay attention to what the other members were doing, something that can be hard for young bands to remember as the tendency is to focus only on yourself and what you are playing. I showed them how to loop their cables through their guitar straps so they wouldn’t accidentally get disconnected. I helped them learn the fretting for the Dead Kennedys’ 1981 track “Nazi Punks Fuck Off,” a deceptively complicated song — especially considering it’s barely more than a minute long. I didn’t have a lot to say to the Ain’t Rights drummer Joe Cole (he had already been expertly trained by Portland rhythm goddess Lisa Schonberg), and he didn’t have a lot to say to me. He was chaos at the kit and mostly silent otherwise — the perfect drummer in every way.

We didn’t get to rehearse with our singer, Callum Singer (an English citizen, he had been delayed due to visa complications), until our last practice. He had done his homework, though, and was ready to jump in with the band and tell those Nazi punks to fuck right off. Watching Singer — a 6’2″ skinny white male — bop around and spit out anthemic rock lyrics was like looking in a mirror for me.

At one point I thought to myself, with a touch of jealousy, “Why can’t I be the lead singer for the Ain’t Rights?” Then I remembered that being the lead singer in a scrappy punk band is a role I get to play in real life, every day. I spent our last rehearsal just keeping the band in time — mostly clapping and jumping up and down like an insane forty-year-old yell leader.

Four days in the green room were plenty for me. It was a fun and fresh experience, but spending entire days listening to amateur musicians pound away at punk covers is not my dream job, no matter how much it pays. Like with just about every event in my life (including my own shows and tours) I was happy to do it, happy when it was over, and would be happy to do it again.

When I finally saw the band onscreen, I was proud. The Ain’t Rights were all right. The film’s cast and crew worked hard to create a band and a world that is realistic and therefore truly terrifying. Green Room is a devastatingly horrific hell ride. At the Portland screening, a girlfriend of mine screamed bloody murder (along with most of the audience) more than once. I had only one problem with the film (no spoilers): the Ain’t Rights were an unknown band thrown on the bill as a last-minute opener. They had no business being in the green room in the first place.

Hutch Harris was born in New York City, raised in Silicon Valley and has resided in Portland, Oregon for the past eighteen years.  Harris founded and is the lead singer/songwriter of Portland post-pop-punk band the ThermalsIn fourteen years, the band has toured fifteen countries and released seven records. Follow Harris on Twitter here.