Kathie Lee Gifford Talks New Movie, Working With Brett James, And New Beginnings [Interview]

Photo Courtesy Fathom Events

Television star, actress, singer, and songwriter Kathie Lee Gifford has lent her artistry to a new film, Then Came You. Gifford wrote, produced, and starred in the film, and she wrote the music with Music Row hit-maker Brett James. Film distributor Vertical Entertainment plans a one-night showing of Then Came You nationwide via Fathom Events on Sept. 30, followed by an on-demand and digital release on Oct. 2.

Then Came You tells the story of Annabelle Wilson, Gifford’s character, who is suddenly widowed after a 32-year marriage. While reading her late husband’s will, she discovers that upon his death he wishes to be cremated and have his ashes put in a ‘box of chocolates’ because Forrest Gump was his favorite movie.

Annabelle makes a list of their favorite 20 movies, sells her house and the hardware store she and her husband owned in their hometown of Nantucket, Massachusetts, and sets out on a traveling adventure. In honor of the movie Braveheart, Annabelle goes to Scotland first. There she meets an Inn owner, Lord Howard Awd (played by Craig Ferguson), and the two develop an unlikely friendship that ultimately leads to love. The only problem is that Lord Howard Awd is engaged to Clare (Elizabeth Hurley).

Then Came You starring Kathie Lee Gifford. Credit: Vertical Entertainment

MusicRow spoke to Gifford, who now calls Tennessee her home, about the film, writing with Brett James, and what the Nashville creative community means to her.

MR: You wrote, produced, starred in, and composed the music for Then Came You.

Yes! I would have also catered it, but everybody would have died of starvation. I would do whatever it took to get this movie made.

How did you get to know Brett James?

In June of 2017, The Today Show sent Hoda [Kotb] and me down to Nashville to cover the CMAs. One of the segments we were going to do was about what it’s like to sit in one of those famous ‘writer’s rooms’ with some of the best writers in town. I am a writer, people didn’t know that I was a writer, but I have been for many years. I knew that I should have a little something prepared to go into the segment, so I wrote a very short, funny little lyric and just brought it in. They said, ‘You’re going to be writing with Brett James,’ and I had never heard of him. They said, ‘Well, he’s one of the greatest writers in town,’ and they rattled off a few songs he had written and I went ‘That’s enough. That’s good!’ ‘Jesus Take The Wheel’ is all I needed to hear!

We came down and wrote this silly little song and did a 15-second, ‘nothing burger’ of an interview, it might have lasted 2 minutes on the air. As we were wrapping up and putting all of our stuff away, getting ready to go to the next shoot—which was going to be hot chicken, giving everybody a taste of Nashville—Brett came over to me and said, ‘Kathie, I was a huge fan of your husband, and I’m so sorry that you lost him. How are you doing? How are you and your kids?’ I said, ‘Brett, I’m great. We’re great. I found him that morning and the look on his face was of wonder and awe. He saw Jesus and Jesus took his breath away. And one day I’m going to write that song.’ He just looked at me and goes, ‘Well, let’s write that song.’ So I came back to Nashville the next week and went over to Music Row where his office was.

I didn’t know what to expect. I want to learn every day; I’ve done a lot of things in this life and I’ve been extremely blessed and had success that I could have never dreamed of, but I have tons yet to learn. And I knew I could learn something from this man, but I didn’t want to insult him. I didn’t know what to do actually. So I came with three little lines: ‘A little kiss, a little coffee, a little moment to pray. Our Sunday mornings always started that way.‘ And Brett goes, ‘Well, that’s how we’re going to start our song.’ So we wrote a song called ‘He Saw Jesus,’ and then we made plans for him to come to my house in Connecticut a couple of weeks later and make the demo because I have a studio in my house up there. So that’s how it all started.

How did Brett get involved with the movie?

[He got involved] when I was there working with him. I always have in my bag the next project I’m working on. I have a yellow, legal pad and all my big pens. I don’t write on a computer. He goes, ‘What are you working on now?’ I said, ‘You know what, I’m writing a movie for a friend of mine. I just adore him. His name is Craig Ferguson.’ He goes, ‘Oh, I love that guy! I miss him on The Late Late Show. Can I look?’ So he took out the script, and I know no more how to write a hit song than I know how to write a broadway musical or know how to write a movie, I just do it. I have no idea what I’m doing, I just sit down and do it.

I had written half of the movie perhaps at that time, but I already started writing songs for it. I had written all of the lyrics for a song called ‘Once Again,’ and Brett takes it out and looks at it and he goes, ‘Oh my gosh, Kathie, these lyrics are gorgeous. Let’s write this one next.’ I just thought, ‘Well, I’ve got one of the top writers in the world wrangled here, I ain’t gonna let him go. Let’s do it!’

So when he came to my house to record, ‘He Saw Jesus,’ we wrote ‘Once Again.’ And that’s how he came to write all of the songs for the movie with me, and then he scored it with our dear friend whom he introduced me to. He’s the best gift Brett ever gave me, Sal Oliveri, this amazing producer in Brentwood, who has become a dear, cherished friend. We wrote all the songs together and then Brett and Sal scored the film.

What inspired you to write Then Came You?

Because of Brett’s schedule and my schedule, I kept coming down to Nashville on weekends. I was happy to get away from the world I was living in then. I’d lost my husband, it was lonely. I loved getting on a plane and coming to Nashville and getting just immersed in the creative joy of being here. Every time I would get on a plane to go back to New York and I would say to myself, ‘Why am I so happy here?’ And it dawned on me, because people are joyful here. People aren’t screaming at each other. I didn’t realize how much my soul had been sucked dry in that culture of chaos in New York. I had been there 40 years, I raised my children there. I married the love of my life there and he died in my arms, but along the way that culture sucked me dry. And I knew that I was dying, I know that sounds dramatic. It’s meant to. I was dying of loneliness.

There’s a line in the movie that I wrote for Craig. This heroin, Annabelle, is a widow, and the only life she had ever had was with this man that she married. She gave up her dreams for him. At the time I knew that there was 17 million widows in America and 5 million widowers. The other interesting statistic is that of all the mature adult women in our country, approximately 49% of them—this was a statistic from two years ago—are alone. They’re either single because they never married, they’re divorced or they’re widowed. So there’s a huge demographic out there of people that are alone. They’re sad, they’re lonely and they need hope, so I wanted to write this movie for two people like that. They don’t know yet that God loves them, they’re doing the best they can do.

In the movie when Annabelle says, ‘I love you, Fred, and I always will, but I have to go make new memories or the old ones are going to kill me.’ That’s the way I felt. [The movie] is not an autobiographical, the only thing I have in common with Annabelle is that she’s a widow, but I didn’t want it to be autobiographical. I wanted my imagination to soar, I’m bored with me. My life is nothing to sing about, but I can make up other people’s that are wonderful.

 

You’re putting a duet with Brett, “Whiskey and Wine,” out as a single. Tell me about writing that one.

It’s perfect for the movie. Because of my theater background, I don’t sit down to write a hit record, but I write for the characters. We shot our movie in June, so the Christmas before…I had been going through one of the worst depressions of my life for about a year. All different things that converged at the same time, like an imperfect emotional storm. My mother had passed, different friends of mine had been caught up in the MeToo movement that didn’t deserve it and I was crushed for my friends, and I was missing my husband. We were down at our house in the Keys, and my kids were there with their loved ones. Everybody had somebody but me, and only people that have lost the love of their life understand how that feels. It’s Christmas, and everybody’s happy. All of a sudden it dawns on you that the world is made up of couples and you’re not one anymore. So it was Christmas Eve, one of the darkest nights of my life and I sat down and wrote, ‘I’ll bring the whiskey, I’ll bring the wine, I’ll get my guitar, I’ll go and get mine.‘ And then when I gave it to Brett, it became this joyful thing. I wrote it in the saddest, worst night of my life in a year and a half, but it was there! This hopeful place was still there.

So we wrote ‘Whiskey and Wine’ and did a demo on it. Sometimes the demo doesn’t turn out the way you want, so I put my voice on it and then it still wasn’t as good. So he called me and says, ‘Kathie, you want me to sing it with you?’ I said, ‘Yeah, duh!’ So he came in and sang it with me and then it came to life. Our director [Adriana Trigiani] loved it so much because Annabelle, my character, was going to sing it with somebody in this Scottish pub, so she said, ‘Brett why don’t you just come [be in the movie]?’ It’s an independent movie, we can do anything we want. Brett said ‘Yes’ to Adriana, next thing you know, he’s in the movie.

What has Brett and the Nashville music community meant to you?

Oh my gosh, where do I start? I had no idea when I just picked up moved. I’m like Annabelle, that we have in common. There’s a song that Brett and I wrote in the movie that the amazing Katie O sings, it goes ‘How do I begin to begin again, breathe deep and let all the fresh clean air in? How do I find courage to say, I’m going to start a brand new life today.‘ And Brett wrote, ‘Here I go, taking a ride on a brand new road. Who knows if I’m going to make it, but I’m going to try, try. All you need is a new set of wings to fly, fly on my way to a new life, and new everything’s.

And that’s what it is all about.

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About the Author

LB Cantrell is Project Manager at MusicRow magazine. She heads up specific, large-scale projects for the company and assists in day-to-day tasks. LB also manages the MusicRow Top Songwriter Chart and contributes editorial for both the print and online platforms. She joined MusicRow full time in January of 2019, after interning and working part time for the company for a year. She is from Blairsville, Georgia and graduated from Middle Tennessee State University with a Music Business degree in 2018.

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