Sandy McKnight Explores New Artistic Avenues with Film, Band Boy
LEE, MA. – Adding yet another feather to his road-worn cap, Sandy McKnight can now add filmmaker to his resume. On top of writing all of the songs for his musical, Band Boy, McKnight also took upon himself the massive endeavor of writing the entire film, as well as being in charge of casting and much more – all with a limited budget. Determined to let his work speak for itself, the film is currently undergoing a few more adjustments before being released.
I had a chance to sit down with the songwriter this past week to discuss the film and more. What follows is our conversation.
Lucas Garrett: Sandy, thank you for taking the time to talk tonight. I’m glad our schedules finally lined up. How are you?
Sandy McKnight: I’m doing well. I had a series of health challenges this past year and I’m starting to come out of it a little bit. I’m feeling a lot better.
LG: Where did the inspiration to take on a movie come from?
SM: As you may know, my wife, Liv Cummins, is a musical theater person. She has written a few musicals that have been fairly successful. So, I – being the jealous husband – decided to write one of my own. About two years ago I started writing and started to do live readings in front of audiences to try and fine-tune it. I wrote the whole thing myself; I wrote all the music and everything. Then, COVID hit, and all of a sudden, there were no theaters and no plays. Nothing. I had to decide: do I want to wait until theater comes back to life or get it seen some other way?
I thought that a movie would be useful because it could be a demo, essentially, of what the play would be, and I could also show it to people. The only trick for me was I didn’t want it to look like a movie; not high-tech at all. All the sets were very simple; it was shot in an intimate way. That was my plan going on. Of course, I had no idea, having never made a movie before. But you gotta jump into things sometimes, right?
LG: Right. You’ve said a lot of the movie was inspired by your experiences in the 1980s. Let’s talk about that a bit.
SM: I was living in Brooklyn. I was in a band with Dennis Diken right before he joined The Smithereens. And I was in a band called Numbers, which played the CBGB’s circuit of the time… Electric Room… all those places. We had interest from A&M Records that never ended up working out. I was in another band called Hard Knox that had a high-powered manager. We did a bunch of showcases…
I cared more about [being a songwriter] than playing bass, or singing, or anything else. It was really hard to get songs in bands because there was usually someone else that’d written all the material. I’d get two or three songs in a set, and that would be about it. That was a little frustrating, but also, the business was so annoying. You had to go through all these hoops to meet people and talk to people, get people to hear your stuff. It was a big deal to record in those days…
SM: The main thing in those days is a lot of bands would buy a van and go on the road; play wherever they could find a gig. I did that in the 70s with another band. It was towards the end of when people thought they could get a record deal. The major labels were still looking for talent. It got harder and harder as it went along because there were so many insiders that it became hard unless you had a manager or lawyer willing to represent you…
When you go on the road, you’re subject to whatever happens: your band dies out, and you have to get to the next gig; you gotta sleep in the van because you don’t have money; maybe the club owner doesn’t pay you. All those things happen, and then there’s the internal conflict of the band itself.
All those things fed into my story, in which a band of four people – one of which was a girl, which, in those days, was more unusual… How do you get along with everybody? Everyone has their own agenda. The main person is a guy who grew up in Michigan that’s facing a life working in a factory for his whole life. He decides to leave town, hitchhikes, and goes down south. He meets people that are in a cover band, and they all decide, “Let’s do originals.”
They hit the road in a van and are playing crappy gigs – getting stiffed, all the things that happen. The girl sleeps with one of the band members, and the others get upset. All the things you think might happen in that situation. A guy approaches them at one of the clubs and offers to record them if they come to New York… all these things are happening at a time that was much different than what we try to do now.
These guys head to New York. The first thing the manager does—and this happened to me—is bring in an outside songwriter. For me, they brought in a guy named Benny Mardones. My manager was trying to foist it on us. Forced us to learn it; we didn’t like it. We had better songs. In the movie, there’s a scene where the manager tells the band that he’s bringing in a song from a well-established songwriter, Burk Bickarick. You may know where that name comes from.
LG: Sure do.
SM: Burk had a good track record, but he wrote hits in the 60s. Now the band has to do this song from this guy that is out of touch. They go in the studio begrudgingly and get assigned a producer, Spec Philtor. That’s, of course, a reference to a well-known murderer and producer.
SM: No one cares about them; they care if they can make money off them. It turns into a mess, and finally, they all split up, and our hero goes back home to Michigan. I won’t give away the ending, but a surprise happens. That’s the story of the movie; I drew from things I experienced or heard about.
The real challenge, because it’s a musical, you have to write songs that tell the story.
LG: Right. Musical works are a lot different than what you hear on the radio.
SM: Exactly, yes. Nowadays, Broadway musicals can have more pop or modern-sounding music, but the expectation is that the lyrics is more important, in a way, than the melody. There might be one or two songs from a show that you leave the theater humming, but you also have to tell a story. The lyrics and song have to make sense for the character. That was the challenge.
LG: Have you had experience doing that type of work?
SM: I’ve had some experience writing songs with Liv, my wife. We’d written a musical together, so I’d done it before, but it was a challenge. Then, because I wasn’t going to do a stage version, I recorded the songs. Essentially, I recorded an album of songs, and the actors lip-synced to those recordings.
LG: What kind of music is in the movie?
SM: I tried to draw from different styles; I wanted to make it pop. There’s a number of different styles, depending on the character who’s singing. I’ve written songs for many years, and so I can float in and out of different genres, but they’re all catchy pop songs, essentially. One of them is a Motown-ish, R&B one. It’s a diverse bunch of songs. The thing with the movie is: “How do you make a song interesting in a movie?” It’s not like a play, where you see a guy in person singing and acting. To do that in a movie is kind of boring. I had to think of ways to make each song visually interesting as well as be lyrically relevant.
LG: Your first screening was on June 25th, right?
SM: Yes, we did two screenings: one was in the Beacon Theater in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and one was in Madison Theater in Albany. We had a good house. It was a good research experience for me to see what people liked, didn’t like, and laughed at. After those, I had a health setback after that because I think the stress got to me. I started to have a lack of energy for three weeks; I couldn’t do anything.
When I snapped out of that, I thought that I should fix things that people didn’t like or mentioned things that were problems in holding them back from enjoying the movie. I’d gotten positive feedback, but wanted to make it as I possibly could. I’ve pulled the screeners off [the internet], and I’m having another editor come in, who happens to be my brother-in-law. He is doing a re-edit based on my input. I’ve brought in a colorist—it’s like mastering a record—to add not just deeper colors but make it more movie-like. I’m going to get the movie tracks—and audio in general—as good as I can get it, and then put it back out there. I’m going to do new screenings.
I’ve been talking to Rick Bedrosian. He has a new episode of his series, I Could Eat, and we’re going to do a double-bill in the near future. I’ll also do screenings in other parts of Upstate [New York] and New England.
LG: When will those screenings happen?
SM: We are working on planning more screenings in November!
LG: Thank you, Sandy, for taking the time to chat about your film!
SM: Of course! Thank you!