Actor, singer and musician Stephen Dorff blended fiction and reality by going undercover in Nashville for the filming of his new movie Wheeler, which released Feb. 3, 2017.
Dorff stars as Wheeler Bryson, a 41-year-old singer-songwriter who finally chases his dreams to Nashville. Under the direction of Ryan Ross, Dorff went undercover for the documentary-style shooting, which covers an approximately three-week journey that follows Wheeler from Nashville haunts like Corner Music, to the Bluebird Café, to a studio meeting with Kris Kristofferson, and finally an invitation to fulfill a lifelong vision of performing onstage at the Ryman Auditorium.
“Wheeler was as character a throwback to a lot of those guys that I thought were the sexy guys in country, as far as their vibe and music—Kristofferson, [Johnny] Cash, Waylon [Jennings],” Dorff said of his character during a recent visit to the MusicRow office. “Wheeler is an old-school cowboy. He’s the kind of guy that wouldn’t go on The Voice or wouldn’t know what to do with $5 million. There was something mysterious in those guys and we wanted a little bit of that in Wheeler.”
In February 2015, Dorff arrived in Nashville and enlisted the help of influential Nashville industry members including songwriter Bobby Tomberlin, Curb Record’s Jim Ed Norman, Bluebird Café’s Erica Wollam Nichols, and Nashville Songwriters Association International’s Bart Herbison.
Dorff performed live during the filming process, having written or co-written all 13 tracks the accompanying soundtrack, including the lead track “Pour Me Out Of This Town,” “Ryman,” and “She’s Only 20.” Tomberlin, who joined Dorff for the MusicRow visit, co-wrote “Pour Me Out of This Town” and “Move On.”
Dorff gave credit to Ross for making his vision a reality. “We didn’t have a script,” Dorff recalls. “We had more of an experiment and idea and Ryan made a feature film out of it.”
Staying undercover often meant Dorff spent 18-hour days in makeup and prosthetics. Dorff went to Christien Tinsley (Westworld, The Passion of the Christ), who created five pieces, including a chin piece, nose, eyebrow piece, and a lip. “We played him four songs and showed him the treatment Ryan and I came up with. I think he got off on the fact that it wasn’t aliens or blood. They do a head cast of my head and a month later we start seeing these pictures of Wheeler. At first he has a goatee, then another one with Kristofferson hair and a little too cheekbone/cavemannish look. Finally we found this version that was more subtle. It constrained my normal Stephen faces. No matter how much I wanted to move my eyebrows, I couldn’t.”
Sometimes the crew had to improvise to keep Dorff in character.
“Once I wear prosthetics it goes in the garbage. There was an ice storm and we were traveling from Nashville back to Texas. I remember the chin piece didn’t arrive to where we were staying on the road. So my makeup artist who works with Christen is going through the trash trying to salvage the chin from yesterday so we can shoot the scene.”
Portraying Wheeler also allowed Dorff to venture into the world of music, a world familiar to his father and brother, without being overshadowed by his name and career.
Raised in Los Angeles, Dorff focused on his acting career accumulating roles in The Power of One, Blade, Backbeat, and Somewhere, among other roles. Meanwhile, Dorff’s father and brother had both pursued careers in music. His father, Steve, was the music supervisor for Pure Country and penned songs including “I Cross My Heart,” recorded by George Strait. Dorff’s brother Andrew found success as a Nashville songwriter with hits for Kenny Chesney (“Save It For A Rainy Day”), Blake Shelton (“My Eyes,” “Neon Light”), Hunter Hayes (“Somebody’s Heartbreak”) and more. “Pour Me Out Of This Town” was co-written with his brother Andrew and with Tomberlin.
“I made this movie as a tribute to my dad and my brother in the beginning,” recalls Dorff. “The country world is not my world. But it’s one I came to know my whole life. I went off into the Hollywood world and we pretty much separated for a while even though we are a very tight family. My dad and my brother are more in this community of songwriting with Bobby with these great artists and people. I never was, and I guess now I am a little bit. I wanted to be able to stand at the bar next to my dad and brother and be able to carry on a conversation and not have people know who the hell I am,” Dorff said.
“The last thing I wanted to do was have a vanity band like a lot of actors do. It’s never really taken seriously. The only person…is Jared Leto with Thirty Seconds to Mars, and he’s got a following in Europe and China. But I didn’t want to do a Stephen Dorff record. I wanted to do a character the way Sasha Baron Cohen would do for Borat or how I’ve seen it done in comedies, where they commit to a character and drop them on the ground. My buddies are shooting on little cameras, and people think they are doing a YouTube video for this singer-songwriter guy.”
Dorff and Ross eschewed the typical Hollywood ending for Wheeler.
“We knew where the movie needed to end. A lot of big producers that loved Wheeler said, ‘You should have done the end scene of Wheeler with Kris at the Ryman.’ The Hollywood ending would have been the shot of me going onstage with Kris, with the crowd shot and fade out…but I loved the way we chose to shoot that and you remember it. I feel like it would have been a little glossy and vanilla if I was playing at the Ryman. There is a certain thing that happens after death when music is there, that can live forever.”
Tragically, Dorff’s brother Andrew died on Dec. 19, 2016, just days after his 40th birthday, and a few months before Wheeler was released. Andrew’s death sent a shock through Nashville’s music community, and created an odd parallel with Stephen’s Wheeler character.
“I had no idea that this movie would have some similarities,” Dorff said. “The world is weird. He’s got so many hits coming, and the one on the radio now with Rascal Flatts (“Yours If You Want It”). The kid’s gonna have No.1 s for days and he’s not here. He will be remembered of course in this community, and for future generations through his songs.”
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