You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder is making some noise on the festival circuit. Director Emma Westenberg's fiction feature debut--which recently premiered at South by Southwest (SXSW) as part of its Narrative Spotlight lineup--centers on a father-daughter relationship which is rekindled on an impromptu road trip. We learn about the protagonists’ strained past as they go about their journey during which they encounter strangers who bring them closer together. Ruby Caster wrote the script, which tells a story of healing through connection.
And it’s a story that from the outset connected with Westenberg from a personal familial perspective in that she regards her relationship with her father as being the “most formative” relative to “who I am and how I navigate the world.”
She thus gravitated naturally to the film’s central relationship--which depicts both the good and the bad--while benefiting from having the lead roles portrayed by a real-life dad and his daughter, Ewan McGregor (who’s also an exec producer on the movie) and Clara McGregor (one of the film’s producers). In fact, Clara McGregor teamed with Caster and Vera Bulder, another cast member and producer, in helping to fashion the story on which the film is based.
It was Bulder who initially reached out to Westenberg with the first version of the script for You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder. “Vera put my name in the hat” as a director, recalled Westenberg who knew Bulder from their days in Amsterdam starting out in the business, teaming on some music videos and short films. They later both moved to the U.S. around the same time and separately continued their ascent in filmmaking.
The move marked a return to the U.S. for Westenberg. The Dutch director was born in Berkeley, Calif. and through an exchange program later studied art for a stretch at The Cooper Union in NY. Westenberg’s formal education then took her to Gerrit Rietveld Academy, a school for fine arts and design in Amsterdam. There she turned her attention to film, graduating with a short she wrote, directed, produced and art directed, The Still Life of Estelle, which gained recognition at a Dutch film festival. She established herself as an artist and filmmaker in Amsterdam and then came back stateside.
Westenberg went on to make a major splash in the American market, first by directing Janelle Monae’s “Pynk” music video which earned a Grammy Award nomination. Then Westenberg garnered her first U.S. ad assignment, directing Zoe Kravitz in a 2019 Super Bowl commercial, Michelob Ultra Pure Gold’s “The Pure Experience” for agency FCB Chicago. The spot registered with viewers by departing from the loud Big Game norm as Kravitz whispers into two microphones and softly taps on a bottle, techniques meant to stir autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR), which some claim helps to elicit a tingling euphoric feel. The commercial not only gained exposure on a mega broadcast platform but also generated millions of viral hits.
Westenberg brought her varied filmmaking experience to You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder--ranging from music videos to commercials, short films, a TV series for the Netherlands, and a feature that was sort of a hybrid documentary/fiction narrative, Stranger’s Arms. The latter experience in the long-form discipline was pivotal in helping Westenberg make a seamless transition to developing her vision and bringing it to fruition for You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder.
In her director’s statement, Westenberg related, “I wanted to depict the complicated dynamic between a father and daughter involving substance abuse and how addictive behavior can get passed on from parent to child. We imitate the coping mechanisms of our parents and even pass it on genetically. In this story, father has been sober for eight years, which had led the daughter to feel conflicted about the person she grew up loving so deeply. Because even though father’s sobriety is obviously the healthy choice, for daughter it is also confusing and destabilizing as she has a split perception of her parent. The mending of the different perceptions one can have of their parents is a rite of passage to adulthood and that is what this movie is about--about accepting the other person for who they are.”
Westenberg added that she also “wanted to show that the warmth and depth between father and daughter can rise above the pain. The story ultimately celebrates their love, as they are able to find healing through reconnecting and that is the point of the film.”
For You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder, Westenberg connected with new and previous collaborators. Among the former were cinematographer Christopher Ripley and editor Autumn Dea. Westenberg said that a couple of close producer friends recommended Ripley not only in terms of his talent but also his personal positive orientation. “He’s a true collaborator,” assessed Westenberg, describing the DP as “pleasant and respectful,” helping to bring about a creative working atmosphere where everyone is engaged and contributing. Westenberg’s initial conversation with Ripley wound up lasting about two hours and she felt he was completely in tune with the feel and tone she sought for the story.
Similarly Westenberg recalled that her first conversation with Dea left an overwhelmingly positive impression both personally and professionally. Although Dea had only cut one feature up to that point, Westenberg was drawn to the editor’s sensibilities and the rapport they immediately developed. “As a director, you have to sit with the editor for weeks on end in a room,” related Westenberg, who found the prospect of spending that time with Dea appealing in that she was someone easy to talk to while also providing interesting insights and possibilities throughout the process.
As for those with whom she already had a track record, Westenberg felt confident about reconnecting with such artists as composer Raven Aartsen and costume designer Sophie Hardeman. Both are trusted collaborators. Aartsen, for example, composed for several of Westenberg’s short films as well as Stranger’s Arms. Meanwhile Hardeman had served as costume designer previously for Westenberg on the modern Western short Burning Oceans Into Deserts.
Westenberg found her first fiction feature to be a gratifying experience with all her prior work building toward it, capped by the bonus of making the cut for SXSW. “It made me excited to do so much more. Being on set is such a practice in being present, having to listen and take in everything going on around you.” Westenberg added that You Sing Loud, I Sing Louder gave her an even greater “sense of being present” so that she could properly react and be open to what she encounters, being responsive and collaborative while also “almost meditative” about the work, enabling her to “treasure and cherish” the opportunity to tell a story whether it be short or long-form.
On the short-form front, Westenberg continues to be represented in the U.S. by Epoch Films for commercials, branded content and music videos. And her latest work in the advertising arena includes an Estee Lauder spot produced through her European production roost, Amsterdam-based Halal.