'Daisy Jones & the Six' and the ballad of making rock 'n' roll TV
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'Daisy Jones & the Six' and the ballad of making rock 'n' roll TV
The stars of “Daisy Jones & the Six,” from left, Camila Morrone, Riley Keough and Sam Claflin in Los Angeles, Feb. 9, 2023. After more than a year of delays and adjustments, the big-budget adaptation of a best-selling novel about music, love and fame hopes to become this year’s irresistible streaming series. (Chantal Anderson/The New York Times)

by Katherine Rosman

NEW YORK, NY.- It was the 36th day of what was supposed to be a 30-day shoot in New Orleans, but the cast and crew of the rock drama “Daisy Jones & the Six” were still at it.

They were filming a scene, set in 1977, in which actors Riley Keough and Sam Claflin, as the lead singers of the band Daisy Jones & the Six, unwind backstage after performing on “Saturday Night Live” for the first time. Half-empty liquor bottles, wood paneling, smoke-machine haze and framed photos of the Coneheads and Gilda Radner surround them.

Claflin, who plays Billy Dunne, asks Keough, in the title role of Daisy Jones: “How’d it feel?”

“It felt good, yeah,” she says, “I mean, not as good as cocaine.”

Before New Orleans, the cast and crew had filmed for 69 days in the Los Angeles area, and afterward some of them headed to Athens and the Greek island of Hydra for a key episode. Production on “Daisy Jones & the Six” was initially scheduled to begin in April 2020, and even after it was postponed because of COVID-19 for about 18 months, it had to be suspended a few more times. Despite daily testing protocols and mask mandates, the reality of filming concerts with hundreds of extras, hookup scenes and booze-and-Quaalude-fueled bacchanals had taken a toll.

“Sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll is hard to do in a pandemic,” said Lauren Neustadter, who with Reese Witherspoon executive-produced the series.

“Daisy Jones & the Six” tells the story of a band’s rise to sold-out-stadium-level fame thanks to a hit album, “Aurora.” The musicians make and promote “Aurora” as Daisy, Billy and his wife, Camila Dunne (Camila Morrone), try to navigate the sharp edges of a love triangle.

It’s based on a 2019 novel of the same name by Taylor Jenkins Reid that has sold more than 1 million e-book and print copies, according to NPD BookScan, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. Part of its appeal is the storytelling approach: Reid creates an oral history that reads like nonfiction, populating it with musicians and record producers who reminisce against the backdrop of beater vans, tour buses and Sunset Strip stages.

To answer many Google searches: The Six is not a real band, although it’s inspired by Fleetwood Mac and others. Still, that uncertainty — as well as the will-they-or-won’t-they tension between Keough’s and Claflin’s characters — is something Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, and Amazon Studios hope will grip viewers when “Daisy Jones & the Six” begins streaming its 10 episodes on Amazon Prime Video, starting March 3.

For Hello Sunshine, “Daisy Jones” could affirm its book-to-screen dominance after its successes with the film “Where the Crawdads Sing” and the Netflix series “From Scratch.” For Reid, whose books have become coveted source material in Hollywood, this will be the first adaptation to reach audiences, so its popularity is likely to influence the market for her material. For the up-and-coming actors in the cast, many of whom sidelined other projects to stick with “Daisy Jones” amid its re-aligned shooting schedule, it’s a chance to break out.

The built-in fan base that the book provides will be a boon for the series but also brings its own anxieties. “There is for me a desire to make the fans happy and bring to life this book that has lived in their hearts and in all of our hearts for so long,” Morrone said. “I don’t think I’ve ever done a project that has this many eyes on it.”

It is one of the first projects that the head of Amazon Studios, Jennifer Salke, ordered after Jeff Bezos hired her in 2018. “You have to make noise,” she said, discussing her early days at the company and her reaction to the “Daisy Jones” pitch. “You have to be able to do something that is different. It can’t feel like a show that you could just get everywhere.”

“Daisy Jones” promised to deliver that, she said, and Amazon stood by the production as it waited out the restrictions of the pandemic.

COVID delays provided a significant benefit: more than a year for the actors to take music lessons. Before then, the most noteworthy musical credential any of them had was that Keough is Elvis Presley’s granddaughter.

‘I need you to bring your iPad to the beach tomorrow’

If streaming-television economics are under pressure, as layoffs at Disney, Netflix and other companies indicate, you would not know it from Amazon’s investment in “Daisy Jones & the Six.”

The 1970s-era sets are designed to shag-carpeted verisimilitude. For a week, the production took over the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, using vintage pornography as a visual reference when they transformed the Viper Room into the seedy Filthy McNasty’s. The principal characters alone required 1,500 wardrobe changes in the first half of production. With other characters and extras, the production sometimes needed 250 outfits a night.

About 25 original songs have been written by Blake Mills, who wrote some in collaboration with others, including Phoebe Bridgers, Marcus Mumford and Chris Weisman. Eleven of those songs make up “Aurora,” which Atlantic Records will release when the series begins streaming. The first track, “Regret Me,” dropped this month and by mid-February had garnered about 2 million streams on Spotify.

Even the show’s public relations efforts hark back to the era of big-studio budgets: More than 30 publicists were involved (or hoped to be involved) in the reporting, photographing and fact-checking of this article. The photo shoot drew multiple entourages.

But the TV version of “Daisy Jones” started small, with a wife and husband in Los Angeles.

The husband is Scott Neustadter, a screenwriter whose credits include the 2009 movie “500 Days of Summer,” which he wrote with Michael H. Weber.

One day in 2017, Neustadter’s representatives got a call from Brad Mendelsohn, Reid’s manager, asking if the screenwriter might want to take a look at a manuscript about a fictional 1970s rock band whose trajectory and interpersonal drama resembled Fleetwood Mac’s. Neustadter, a fan of that era’s music, started reading it that morning.

He got in touch later that day with his wife, Lauren, who had just been hired by Witherspoon to lead Hello Sunshine’s film and TV division. He reminded her that he and Witherspoon had once talked about being captivated by Stevie Nicks. “I knew this was a passion of Reese’s,” he said.

Lauren spent a few hours reading Reid’s manuscript. Then she interrupted her boss’s vacation. “I need you to bring your iPad to the beach tomorrow morning,” she remembered emailing Witherspoon, “because this book is so good, and it’s going to be so competitive.”

The next morning, she said, Witherspoon replied: “I’m obsessed.”

‘I have prepared my whole life to write this’

Days later, the Neustadters hatched a plan.

Lauren took Reid to breakfast at Hugo’s, in the San Fernando Valley. As she was praising the book, her phone rang.

“I think this is for you,” Neustadter said, handing it to Reid, who by then had achieved modest success as an author. She maintained her chill, at least on the outside, as she listened to Witherspoon tell her how much she loved her book.

That afternoon, Scott took Reid to lunch at a coffee shop on Larchmont Avenue. “I told her I have prepared my whole life to write this,” meaning a film or TV version of “Daisy Jones,” he said.

Reid decided she wanted Hello Sunshine to spearhead the screen version, with Scott and his writing partner Weber attached as creators. She ultimately sold the “Daisy Jones” manuscript to Penguin Random House.

In May 2018, Lauren Neustadter and Witherspoon met Salke for lunch at Tavern, a restaurant in Brentwood. Salke, a former NBC executive, told them she was looking for big, ambitious projects that could benefit from the breadth of Amazon, including its ability to market and sell books, audiobooks, music and merchandise.

“They teased me with something, but they wouldn’t tell me what it was,” Salke said. “They were like, ‘We might have something right up your alley.’”

On a Friday in July, Neustadter sent her the “Daisy Jones” manuscript, a series overview and a script for the pilot episode, written by her husband and Weber, and said Salke had the weekend to consider it before Hello Sunshine would shop the series to others. Salke ordered it to series on Monday. “We just were really invested from the get-go,” she said.

The following March, the novel came out and was named the pick for Witherspoon’s book club. It sailed onto The New York Times’ bestseller list, as did one of Reid’s earlier books, “The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo.” That novel’s paperback version has now spent more than 100 weeks on the list, and Netflix said last year that it is planning a screen adaptation.

‘I was put on this earth to be Daisy’

A few months later, the producers began to think about casting. Lauren Neustadter received a call from Alexandra Trustman, one of Hello Sunshine’s agents at Creative Artists Agency, who suggested one of her other clients, Riley Keough, for the role of Daisy.

Keough had recently finished filming Janicza Bravo’s film “Zola,” in which she played a stripper, when she met in May 2019 with the Neustadters, along with Will Graham, who shared the job of being the showrunner of “Daisy Jones” with Scott Neustadter; and Mendelsohn, an executive producer of the series.

“I was put on this earth to be Daisy,” Keough told them.

Keough declined an interview request in the weeks after the death of her mother, Lisa Marie Presley, but in an email, she said that it was the character’s combination of strength and vulnerability that moved her. “Daisy is complicated,” she wrote. “I didn’t identify with Daisy’s desire to sing and write songs, because that’s something I had never done. What I connected with was Daisy’s artistry and how she felt, not being taken seriously as a young woman.”

She was one of several actors playing musicians who first came to the roles without much musical training. Suki Waterhouse, a novice pianist when she was cast, plays keyboardist Karen Sirko. Will Harrison, who was in a band in college, plays lead guitarist Graham Dunne. Sebastian Chacon, who had drummed a bit, plays drummer Warren Rojas (in the book, his last name is Rhodes). Josh Whitehouse, who actually knows how to play guitar, was cast as bassist Eddie Roundtree.

Claflin was the final band member cast. He had never played guitar. As part of an audition, he began to sing Elton John’s “Your Song,” before the musical supervisor urged him to stop. When Tony Berg — a veteran producer who has worked with artists including Bob Dylan, Aimee Mann and Bridgers, and who is the show’s music consultant — asked Claflin to sing a Beatles song, the actor couldn’t think of one.

“Out of everyone involved in this project, my knowledge of ’70s music, ’70s LA, ’70s anything — especially in America and especially in the music sphere — was very, very, very lackluster,” Claflin said in an interview.

The producers were determined to make it work. “We were going to lean on movie magic,” Lauren Neustadter said.

After the pandemic upended the 2020 production schedule, the actors threw themselves into music. “I was incredibly into the idea of having three hours of piano lessons every single day,” Waterhouse said. “This is something that nobody gets a chance to do.”

‘They sounded like a real band’

The work of transforming actors pretending to be in a band into a band became the professional preoccupation of music supervisor Frankie Pine. She oversaw a monthslong “band camp” consisting of one-on-one instruction and group rehearsal, in addition to taking and reviewing video footage of practice sessions so they could listen to their pitch and timing and watch their comportment.

“I wanted to really try to create a sense that this is a real band,” Pine said. “When you’re a real band, you hang out together, you eat together, you drink together, you bitch to each other. You go through the normal motions of a group of people that are constantly together. So I was really trying to create this camaraderie that a true rock ’n’ roll band has.”

As the production prepared to start shooting in Los Angeles in September 2021, Lauren Neustadter felt it was important for the band to put on a live concert, performing songs from the show. They rented a Hollywood studio with a stage and, still limited by COVID, invited about 40 people who were working on the series.

In attendance was Tom Wright, a veteran actor (“Tales From the Hood,” “Sunshine State”) who plays Teddy Price, a Berry Gordy-Quincy Jones-esque record producer. He was prepared to be underwhelmed.

As a young actor, Wright lived in New York in the 1970s and had a roommate in the music business. “I got to know and hang out with people like Ornette Coleman and Chet Baker and Jim Hall — you know, some great jazz musicians. And I got to see them perform live, so I kind of have a high bar,” he said.

At the friends-and-family concert, “I was shocked,” Wright said. “They sounded like a real band. It was incredible.”

If this was the band’s smallest-scale concert, the largest was in New Orleans, where the production design team refitted the 26,500-seat Tad Gormley Stadium to appear, on camera at least, as if it were Soldier Field in Chicago, where the story’s biggest concert occurs.

This was the accomplishment of the show’s production designer Jessica Kender, who said that because the look of the 1970s is so recognizable, details mattered. A scene at a gas station, for example, required them to remove ethanol warnings on the pumps that wouldn’t have been there decades ago.

When Nzingha Stewart, who directed four episodes, envisioned a montage in which Billy and Daisy visited dozens of radio stations, the production design crew built one radio broadcasting booth that Kender remade over and over again with decals and details summoning Tulsa, Dallas and Fort Worth. In a concert scene, merch stands are piled with band T-shirts, including one with a sepia photo of Keough that reads, “Daisy Jones and the Six: Amsterdam, the Netherlands 5 Jun 1976.”

Denise Wingate, a costume designer, once traveled with the 1980s band the Bangles. When she read “Daisy Jones,” she said, “I was like, ‘I have to do it.’” During the pandemic delay, she spent hours every day searching eBay and vintage sites. Once lockdowns eased, she said, “I went to flea markets every weekend for a year.”

And she fielded requests. When Keough asked for “Stevie Nicks vibes” for the Soldier Field performance, Wingate found a Halston caftan in gold lamé that she cut up the front to turn it into a cape and paired with a vintage metallic crochet dress. (“Daisy’s wardrobe was a true highlight of my life,” Keough wrote.)

To find inspiration for the “Aurora” album cover, Wingate made a mood board featuring Nicks in a billowing white dress. In the cover that resulted, Billy is in a denim shirt and Daisy wears a dress similar to the one Nicks wore, which Wingate had made. Just as it is described in the book, the rock stars are staring into each other’s eyes, but a space exists between them.

For Reid, who imagined this story and took it from her head to paper starting in 2016, it’s hard to believe it’s all happening. “If your book is like your baby,” she said, “then the adaptation is like my grandchild. I don’t really get to take credit, but boy, am I so proud of them.”

She is thrilled by the show, she said. “When I think of Daisy now, I see Riley’s face. When I think of Billy, I think of Sam.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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