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Top Five: An Oral History of High Fidelity

on April 01, 2020, 12:00am
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Oral History offers the most comprehensive retelling of a pop culture artifact.

Top five reasons High Fidelity still resonates with us 20 years later…

Number 1: Love him or hate him, we all know Rob Gordon. Number 2: We all think John Cusack’s cool. Number 3: We’ve all been in relationships. Number 4: Even worse, we’ve all been heartbroken. And finally, number 5, with a bullet: We all live for music.

Need we say more?

High Fidelity had a lot to live up to ahead of its March 31, 2000, release. By then, Nick Hornby’s book already had a cult following; it was a bible for music obsessives. So, adapting its pages to the screen was a challenging, if not unenviable, task for screenwriters Cusack, D.V. DeVincentis, and Steve Pink. Mercifully, they rose to the challenge, and the film was met with similar critical acclaim that Spring.

Two decades later, the film’s popularity has only strengthened. It’s made the leap to the stage as a musical, pivoted over to television as a Hulu series, and Cusack himself has toured behind it. It’s a cult classic gone mainstream, and it’s since become one of those films that you can remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when you saw it for the first time. That’s a powerful thing.

In celebration of its 20th anniversary, we’re retracing the steps of how it all came together. Below, you’ll hear from all the key members, including author Nick Hornby, director Stephen Frears, screenwriters D.V. DeVincentis, John Cusack, and Steve Pink, actors Jack Black, Todd Louiso, and Iben Hjejle, production consultant and Drag City co-founder Dan Koretzky, music supervisor Kathy Nelson, in addition to the creators of the critically acclaimed Hulu series Veronica West and Sara Kucserka.

NICK HORNBY (AUTHOR): My first impulse was to write about a romantic relationship from the guy’s point of view. I had read quite a lot of fiction by women, and that was my favorite kind of fiction, but at that time, it occurred to me that there was a book from the guy’s perspective about that side of life. And certainly not one that was plain spoken I suppose.

And what I started with was the shape of a relationship that was busted at the beginning and was sort of fixed by the end. And it was really the end of the book, the end of thinking about it, that I thought, What’s this guy going to do? And I thought, Oh, he could work in a record store. I know stuff about music and record stores. And then that kind of played more importance than I thought it would at the beginning.

high fidelity Top Five: An Oral History of High Fidelity

Published in 1995, the novel became a critical hit and a favorite among readers. However, it would take half a decade for Hornby’s story to hit the screen.

HORNBY: Well, it was optioned I think before the book came out or maybe about the time it came out, which I was really surprised about. But with that particular iteration of the option, nothing really happened with it. It was going to be directed by Mike Newell, the English director, and it was bought by Disney from Mike Newell’s company — and that was in 1995.

It just disappeared for four years. I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know where it had gone or what had happened to it. And I now understand that this is pretty standard for the process. Because I’ve had some things optioned, and they’ve all disappeared in the same way. But at the time, I did not have that experience, so I just presumed it was just dead.

D.V. DEVINCENTIS (CO-SCREENWRITER/CO-PRODUCER): I read the book when it came out because everybody kept telling me, “You’ve got to read this book. It’s you. You have to read this book.” So, I read the book, and I loved it. I related to it so much. I happened to have always been a music obsessive. I’ve got thousands and thousands of records. I get into these types of conversations all the time. And it was sort of written by somebody who understood this and was also poking fun at it in the perfect way. I loved it.

But, at that time in my life, my pleasure reading was being intercepted by my business brain, because I was just starting out in the business. And I was like, “No, I don’t want to always read things in terms of adapting them. I don’t want to think that way about this book. I want to protect this book from my adapting brain.” And so I didn’t do anything like pick up the phone and call my agent and see if anybody owned it. And I left it alone. And then about six or eight months later, we got a call from Kathy Nelson.

KATHY NELSON (MUSIC SUPERVISOR): I was working at Disney for Joe Roth, and a friend of mine from the music business from my MCA days, Roger Ames, called me and he goes, “Oh, while you’re at Disney, they own a property of a book that is just amazing called High Fidelity.” And I said, “Really?” And he said, “Yeah. This book is amazing.” And I called Joe and said, “Joe, do we have a property called High Fidelity that we own?” And he called me back and went, “No, we don’t.” I called Roger and said, “Roger, Joe said we don’t have it.” And Roger said, “Yes you do. I know you do because I’ve been tracking this forever.” Long story short, they did own it and it was about to expire. And so I got ahold of the book and I read it. And I had done Grosse Point Blank with John Cusack, and Johnny and I had been friends for a very long time. So I called Joe and said, “Joe, you know this would be a perfect project for John Cusack. He actually is this guy.” So Joe said ,“Go ahead and send him the book. It sounds like a great idea.”

JOHN CUSACK (“ROB”/CO-SCREENWRITER): Initially what happened was I had made Grosse Point Blank with Joe Roth and Kathy Nelson over at Touchstone. And we had sort of just finished a film where music was super important. We got Joe Strummer, we managed to get David Bowie and Queen’s “Under Pressure”. And so, we had gone through the process of making a cool soundtrack and Joe and Kathy knew how important music was to me, to the movies that I was producing. And so we were sort of primed up, so Kathy knew that they had High Fidelity as a property and said, “Why don’t you give it to John to write?” And so that’s how the story came up.

STEVE PINK (CO-SCREENWRITER/CO-PRODUCER): We wrote an adaptation. And when you’re in development — we were young, we were in our 20s — you just don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s so hard to get movies made, and we didn’t actually know. We were like, “Well, we love writing this movie,” and whether or not the script will become an actual movie, you just never know. And one day we were on the Disney lot for some reason and Joe Roth, who is getting out of the parking lot, pulls over. And he’s the chairman of the studio. And he pauses and says “Hey. How’s it going on the script? Because I’m making that movie” or something like that. And he then drove off. And we’re like, “Holy shit. We better get to work.”

High Fidelity Oral History

High Fidelity (Touchstone Pictures)

With the writers all on board, they had to meet with the director who was already attached to the project, Mike Newell. Newell, at the time, was coming hot off of the success of films like Four Weddings and a Funeral and Donnie Brasco. At that time, he was actually working on another film, Pushing Tin, starring John Cusack.

DEVINCENTIS: I had to pitch to Mike Newell. This was before the Internet and cell phones and Mike Newell needed to be pitched to — pretty immediately. And I was the only one around. And my Chicago transposition was something I had to work out in preparation to talk to Mike Newell. And so I got to basically outline the Chicago transposition in Sharpie and on note cards on a wall in my dining room like A Beautiful Mind. Except it was much less beautiful. Mike Newell was in London and I took him through the Chicago transposition of the story and he loved it.

We had a great conversation for a couple of hours, and at the end, he said something so charming and sweet which was ,“Does it have to be in Chicago? Could it be in London?” I said, “Yes, but if it were to be in London, you might want to consider getting a British actor and British writers. Why do you think it should be in London?” He said, “Well, the only reason I really think it should be in London is because I have a family and they live there. And I think it would be really nice to make the film around my family.”

PINK: I remember it being a very good experience with Mike. I remember meeting with Mike, I remember getting notes, I even remember maybe doing some work for him on the script. And then he left the project.

DEVINCENTIS: We had a draft, and suddenly, Mike Newell couldn’t do it anymore. We were trying to think of directors to go to. And John was like, “What about Stephen Frears?” That was both a dream to me and completely impossible.

CUSACK: I did a film with Stephen when I was 25 called The Grifters, and that was an intense, cool film. So I had a good understanding of how he worked. I don’t know if everybody else did. But how could they? I sort of knew what he was up to and how to deal with it. But it was great. He’s a very intense, creative guy.

HORNBY: I used to buy my cigarettes, back when I smoked, from the same kiosk outside Arsenal Underground Station every day. And one day the guy who ran the kiosk gave me a piece of paper, and on the piece of paper, it said “Phone Stephen Frears on this number.” Stephen knew someone who knew that he was a neighbor of mine. And he said, “Can you get this to Nick?” And he said, “Well, I think he goes to the kiosk at the end of my street, so I’ll give it to the guy there.”

STEPHEN FREARS (DIRECTOR): Nick [Hornby] always tells that story. I remember I got a phone call from John Cusack saying would I like to do it? Yes. And then I guess a bit later, they must have said, “Well, come and meet Nick.” I have no memory of that [story Nick tells], but I had a friend who lived near the kiosk, so I guess that’s how it happened. But I got a phone call from John Cusack and everything really followed from that.

DEVINCENTIS: We went to New York and met with Stephen. He walked into the room, it was in a hotel room, and he never sat down. He leaned against the wall, and then paced, and then leaned against the wall. And I can’t remember all of the conversation but it was brief. And he said, “Well, alright. This sounds like jolly good fun” or something.

HORNBY: When I spoke to Stephen, he said, “Well I’ve been called in to direct this film and I’m working with the people who are writing it. Will you come and talk to them?” So that was the first time I met DV and Steve and John. And the most gratifying thing was that they thought it was a book about them. And you can’t be in safer hands than that. That all three of them felt that the book spoke directly to them. That it was about their lives when they were growing up in Chicago at a different time. And that was what they wanted to make the movie about.

High Fidelity Oral History

High Fidelity (Touchstone Pictures)

CUSACK: I thought, The only difference with the record store that I grew up in is we were obsessed with British music and the characters in the Hornby novel were obsessed with Soul, Rhythm and Blues. But once you switched those, it was the same guys. It was just a male confessional. And also it was about a love affair with music. Themes about how music is autobiographical in our lives. How deep and meaningful music is to people. So it’s a really fun and soulful thing to do.

FREARS: John said to me, “It’s set in Chicago.” And I thought, Well, that’s not a very good idea. And then I read the script and then read the book and thought, Well, that’s perfectly alright. That isn’t what’s important. The script they had written really got to the heart of the book. And I could see that they had taken their experiences from Chicago, but I also realized that somehow saying, “It’s all about England,” I didn’t think that was terribly important. You could see that the boys had changed it to suit their age and their taste in music.

HORNBY: That seemed to me a ridiculous thing to have any objection to. I had just started going on tour with the book, and whether I went to New York or whether I went to Hamburg, no one ever said to me, “Oh, that’s what it’s like to be English.” They always said, “Well, I’m like this and my brother’s like this and my boyfriend’s like this.” And the nationality of Rob really had no baring on anything.

DEVINCENTIS: It all made sense. It dovetails right into all of my record stores. It dovetails right into my friends’ bars and my friends’ bands and the conversations that I’ve had throughout my whole life — teen into adult life in Chicago. Like this is easy for me. I could transpose this thing to it effortlessly.

PINK: It’s a post-industrial town that has a vibrant counter culture. And Chicago has always had that, like London. So we all identified with that because there’s almost no limit of all the cultural stuff you could get into in Chicago.

chicago Top Five: An Oral History of High Fidelity

CUSACK: And it’s hard to get a movie like that right, but the book was right and I think we did the book justice. I think we did the book proud.

FREARS: I realized that it was about love. It wasn’t about music. It was about love. And so you had to create a couple who were convincing. A couple you cared about.

PINK: I feel like we wrote the movie 100 times. Easily. All the way through production we would constantly be rewriting and making things better.

DEVINCENTIS: And a very important project to New Crime, which was the company we had, and I think John still has, was a film called The Jack Bull. It was this great movie that was hard to get made. We eventually got it made for HBO. But it had to be made in Calgary, so John and Steve went up to do it. John was starring in it. And Stephen wanted to get going on the script. And so he said, “Alright, just send the other one,” which was me, to London. It was September of ’98. So suddenly, I’m getting on a plane to go to London to be supervised through a draft by one of my all-time heroes.

PINK: Well, the process generally was that DV and I would draft and then Johnny would revise and then we would draft. Pretty much DV and I would just draft. There was a point in which I was producing a movie for HBO that Johnny was starring in, and DV flew to London and did a draft with Frears, so that was a draft he did without us. But generally, we would get notes from Frears, and then we would incorporate those notes.

DEVINCENTIS: What had happened was the prose is so good in the book. I’m not a big voice-over guy, and I don’t like movies that tend to depend upon it, but the prose is so good and so insightful into Rob’s character that you don’t want to lose it. Because it counters the story so beautifully, and it just wasn’t going to be as good without it.

High Fidelity Oral History

High Fidelity (Touchstone Pictures)

FREARS: It was written with voice-over. And then I said to DV, “Look, I don’t think this is a very good idea as voice-over. The ratio will get lost.” I actually said, “I think it should be some form of direct address.”

DEVINCENTIS: Then the next thing was I sent the script to John and Steve who were in Calgary making a movie, and then Stephen and I flew to Calgary to go over it and work on it with those guys. Which we did. And it got better. And then Stephen and I actually flew in an unpressurized four-seat plane from Calgary to Montana, because Stephen wanted to drive to LA, but nobody would give us a car to go from Canada to LA. So he found a way to get to the most Northerly point in America, where you could land a plane and rent a car and then we drove to California. He wanted to drive. He loves road trips. It’s one of his favorite things. It was like My Favorite Year.

DAN KORETZKY (DRAG CITY FOUNDER): I think I might have been the only obsessive music fan they knew, took pity on, and subsequently found a good use for.

DEVINCENTIS: Dan has always been my greatest source of music to listen to. If I need new stuff to listen to, I ask him and that’s how I get turned onto a whole wealth of stuff. So when I was thinking of this thing with Rob, I was thinking about putting out records like Dan did. There was a day when Dan decided he was going to put out his first single and it was Royal Trux actually. That was a big deal. And it took him from a spectator to someone taking part in the process. So, to me, that was something I thought would be great for Rob.

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