Interview: The Greatest Hits Filmmaker and Stars Lucy Boynton and Justin H. Min Discuss the Film’s Ties to Music, Memory and a Unique Love Triangle

Ten years ago, writer/director Ned Benson made a film—actually three films—called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, that attempted to explore the inner workings of a relationship from two different perspectives. One version, subtitled Him, looked at their relationship from the male perspective, while Her followed the title character; there were shared scenes, but each perspective leant these moments a unique, often differing interpretation. A third version, Them, has the two separate films edited into a more traditional linear story, something the distributor insisted upon. In the 10 years since that film experiment, Benson’s only other screen credit was as a story contributor on Marvel’s Black Widow.

Which brings us to the present day and his latest movie, The Greatest Hits, in which a young woman named Harriet (Lucy Boynton) discovers that certain songs can transport her back in time—literally—to the point in her life where that song became important to her and her two-years-dead boyfriend, Max (David Corenswet). While she relives the past through romantic memories of her former boyfriend in an attempt to avert the terrible car accident that took his life, her time-traveling collides with a burgeoning new love interest in the present, a man named David (Justin H. Min). Two years into worrying about hearing the wrong song in the wrong moment, she must consider whether or not she should change the past so she can finally move into her future. The film takes that transportive feeling we get when we hear an important songs from our past and turns it into a romantic time-travel story that feels grounded and heartfelt.

I had the chance recently to sit down with filmmaker Benson and actors Boynton and Min on their recent visit to Chicago, during which we broke down the film into its essential musical notes and discussed how it balances the celebratory and deeply sad. The film is now streaming on Hulu. Please enjoy our talk…

After seeing Eleanor Rigby and this film, my first question has to be: why do you hate linear storytelling? This is another film where you see certain moments in a person’s life for a second time, and it reveals so much more about the moment. Why do tell your stories likes this? What do you gain in terms of the storytelling?

Ned Benson: I just find that experience is so subjective, and it’s interesting to me that the same moment that’s lived in a few different ways can be seen or experienced in so many different ways as well. We all had the experience of making this movie together, and we’re all talking about it differently, and somewhere in the middle, there is the truth of that experience. As people, we live on narrative and we tell our own version of events. Looking at it from different facets is often fascinating.

In real life, we don’t ever get to do that. There are two things I know for sure after watching this movie: that most of what we see here is not possible, but almost everything in it feels possible. Songs do transport us, and to see it visualized like this, I was floored that you did it and no one else has done this before. As writer, director, and performers, how do you sell this idea and not let it feel corny—believable enough to take us through the rest of Harriet’s journey?

NB: You don’t know up front. I remember sitting with both of these amazing actors and saying “We’re going to try and ground this in emotion and reality,” and I think that was the attempt that we were making. And the end result is what it is. What we hoped was that it wouldn’t be a sci-fi movie, but one about emotion, grounded in these characters, so that the time-travel aspect felt more psychological and emotionally based, as opposed to a device. Like you said, most people have an emotional connection to music in terms of the story of our lives, and I wanted to ground it in all that.

Lucy Boynton: For me, when I first read it, the grounding comes from meeting her two years into her engaging with this process of time travel, whether it be sci-fi or psychological. From just an audience perspective, it’s so gratifying to be catching up with a character, rather than knowing more than they do. That also allowed it to be slightly grittier, because the way she’s utilizing it becomes a form of self-torture. So immediately, it takes on a darker, more grounded view of time travel, rather than lighter options.

I was going to ask about that, because it’s clear she’s going slowly insane from having to block out the world so that she doesn’t hear the wrong song. We’re catching her at her wit’s end at this point; she just wants this experience to be over, but she doesn’t want to stop trying to save Max’s life in the past. She’s both celebratory and sad, which had to a challenging balance to strike.

LB: Again, that was another appeal when I first read the script. You meet her at a point where she’s at a fork in the road, against her will. She cannot continue this way, so for the sake of entertainment, you have this time-travel element, but I think that’s also a very devastating and very relatable thing. Grieving someone is holding you back and holding you tethered to the past, and you have to make an active decision to start moving forward, and I think that’s always really shocking and difficult. One of the most moving parts of this film is watching this person come to terms with that, and figuring out is that letting someone go? Is that dishonoring them, deciding to move forward into a future that they will never have? Or is it just the way you serve yourself, and is that selfish or necessary? Getting into the thick of those emotions was gratifying as an actor and devastating as a person.

Justin, your character is in a unique position in a romance film. We’re rooting for Harriet to save her dead boyfriend, but we’re also rooting for you because David is such a nice guy, maybe even a better match for her. Again, how do you play a guy who puts the audience in that position?

Justin Min: I’m so glad that’s how you felt because that’s what we were trying to create. One of the first things I said to Ned was “I love this love triangle that’s been turned on its head.” Usually the audience is heavily rooting for one or the other; one is kind of heroic, one is more villainous, in one shape or another. Here, there are no villains. It’s really about who’s the right fit at the right time. Ned has talked extensively about having the ability to have multiple loves throughout your lifetime. For me, it wasn’t like I was trying to be better than Max, but it was about trying to find an authentic connection with someone that David finds in a grief group, and I love that their chemistry evolves through that grief and that connection through grief, whereas her connection with Max was a lot different.

I’m sure you’ve had a few people tell you that The Greatest Hits reminds you of one movie or another, but the one that I saw connections to is Truly, Madly, Deeply, because a big part of this film is asking whether the person you are grieving really is the person you were living with in the past. Max seems like a little bit of a pain in the ass sometimes. Once he’s got his mind set on something, that’s what he wants to do, and that’s what gets him killed. I don’t assume that film was in the forefront of your mind, but was some of that here?

NB: Actually, there’s a scene where she sits with her friend Morris, and they’re putting the speakers in in the back of the El Camino, and he says, “You don’t know who you were going to become, and you don’t know who he was going to become,” and I think that’s what tormenting Harriet a lot, that she will never know if this relationship was going to stand the test of time. Part of her experience is being willing to let go of that idea. All she has is the past; she doesn’t have the future. And what becomes clear is that letting go opens the door to have a future with someone like David. And David’s beautiful gift to her is being accepting of all of this stuff that she’s hanging onto and accepting the fact that he wants what’s best for her. To answer your question, yes, it is something we thought about.

Putting together the music for this must have been a blast. Did you two know or hear the songs beforehand, and did all of the songs you wanted make it into the movie?

LB: That was the joy of reading the script for the first time: all of the songs were in there. Very few of them changed. It was a different experience getting to live in the song that you know is going to end up in that moment in the film. It definitely informs the way you can perform in that scene; it alters the tone and temperature of it. It was great to be surrounded by that music.

Were these songs that you liked or ones that fit the story being told?

NB: Both. We worked with Mary Ramos, our music supervisor, and DJ Harvey and Ryan Lott, the composer, really looking at songs that lyrically were helping tell the story and give you the subtext for each scene. For example, “This Is the Day” by The The, which opens the movie, or “Loud Places” by Jamie XX, if you listen to the lyrics to that song. “Make Me Believe in You” by Patti Jo, where Morris is sitting with Harriet, and he’s like “Come on.” Everything was driving toward something and complimenting the script with the stories the songs were telling.

The first time I ever learned your name, Lucy, was after seeing Sing Street. Was that a film that changed the importance of music in your life?

LB: My appreciation of music was deeply engrained in me before that film because the majority of my introduction to the music I grew up loving was from my dad. That was such a center-point of our relationship. But I didn’t really did dissect that until doing Sing Street and hearing John talking about the songs that were important during his upbringing, and who brought him this song and therefore why it’s definitely going to be in the film. It was the same conversations we’re having about the transportive, sentimental nature of all of this. And also analyzing all of that in the press for Sing Street and having people telling me about being whipped back to their own youth in the 1980s by seeing that film, it was a huge learning curve in understanding how universal that impact really is.

Today, the way music is ingested is more random and there’s less searching as much as you’re just finding it. Do moments like the ones in this movie—transportive moments—still happen today? Do people still connect with music as deeply and identify them with specific moments in their lives?

NB: I think so, although maybe not in the same tangible way of putting a vinyl album on. I do still think there’s this incredible communal experience of going to seeing live music or going to a gig and hearing someone DJ, and everyone is dancing together to the same rhythm. There’s something beautiful and shared about that, and sometimes those moments are so ephemeral because you listen to the song outside of that context, and it’s not the same experience. You try and recapture that in a way, and I think that’s what the movie is about.

JM: I have my feeling about technology and music, but I think one of the true benefits of music as it exists on the internet and Spotify is that you can hear a song in cafe, Shazam it, and have it on a playlist within seconds, and that was never a thing we were able to do. There were so many songs in my childhood where I was like “I love this song,” and then I’d never hear it again . That allows those seminal moments to not be lost, by having immediate access to it and listen to it 5,000 times. It’s amazing.

NB: We had fun in pre-production sharing playlists with each other; that’s the beauty of something like Spotify—we can create these mix-and-match playlists. It’s not like giving someone a record, per se, which again, there’s that tangibility, but there is this shared experience we’re all having by listening to each other’s music and opening each other’s eyes and ears to new things and sounds.

Did David get a playlist too? He doesn’t get to share in the music memories the way Harriet does.

JM: Oh absolutely. We talked extensively about that. We were sending each other playlists before filming started, and it was very much a core part of my prep work, and I was listening to those playlists before filming every day.

NB: We did a double-vinyl album for the soundtrack, and each side is like “Harriet with Max,” “Harriet with David,” “Harriet with Morris,” and then Harriet’s own collection.

JM: David had some Frank Ocean, Wild Youth, Beach House.

That’s awesome. Thank you all so much. Best of luck with this.

NB: Nice to meet you, Steve.

LB: Thank you so much.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.