All with Baby Toys: Ryan O’Nan on Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best

Getting a record deal off his hit indie film, 'Battle of the Bands' movies and making music with baby toys.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel


Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival. It was a fun and entertaining comedy so I’m glad to see it get a theatrical release, New York on September 21 and Los Angeles September 28 (at the brand new Sundance Cinemas). Ryan O’Nan wrote and directed his first feature and stars as Alex, a struggling musician who’s only paid work is dressing as a moose and singing to children. A crazy fan, Jim (Michael Weston), convinces him to form a band with Jim playing baby toys to backup Alex’s guitar. Their road trip takes them to many kooky towns, a fraternity called Theta Beta Potato, and Alex’s religious brother’s house. We chatted with O’Nan about his music and his movie.


CraveOnline: We met after your screening at TIFF last year. What has been your journey with the film over the last year?

Ryan O’Nan: It’s been nuts, man. It’s a little Cinderella story in the sense of we got bought by a really brilliant company. It’s one of my favorite companies, a young indie company, Oscilloscope Laboratories. I just love them so much and I’ve always loved everything that they put out. They put out these really interesting little films and documentaries. I feel so lucky to be part of their catalog. And the band, we got signed to a major label, Warner Brothers Music. We went in and recorded a record which, seriously man, is one of my proudest things I’ve ever done. We went into the studio and put together this record. It doesn’t sound too produced or anything. It sounds nice and kind of homegrown the way I really wanted it. It comes out on CD and on iTunes and we have pressed vinyl LPs too, which has always been a dream of mine to have a vinyl record.


Is that as The Brooklyn Brothers?

Yeah, it’s called Brooklyn Brothers: The Album.


Is it music from the movie or all new music?

It’s six songs from the movie that we play in the movie, all those six songs. Then two songs that are in the movie that I wrote and have other people covering in the film. Then there’s two new songs that are not in the film at all. I wanted a sense of this is where the Brooklyn Brothers could go or continue onto.


And that’s you and Michael Weston?

Yeah, it’s me and Mike.


I think I have one of your soundtracks from Toronto.

Oh yeah, we had those little 7”es. This is like a full LP, like the real deal, man. Like Michael Jackson’s Thriller LP back in the day was my first thing that I was like this belongs to me, this defines me, this is the coolest sh*t.


I knew your work as an actor in movies like The Dry Land. Were you just not being offered comedies so you made one yourself?

Oh, I don’t even know that it lands like that. The life of an actor is a tough one, man. You go out for stuff, you hope for this and you hope for that. You never know what’s going to land first. For me, I love dramas so much and I really love comedies. John Hughes is my favorite writer/director of all time. I’ve always loved all his sh*t. I like a good mix. I guess the beginning of my career, I mean I’m still in the beginning of my career, started off with a little more dramas being what landed first, which I’m very thankful for. Like that movie The Dry Land, I love that film. I’m so proud of it. It couldn’t be more different than Brooklyn Brothers. It does have that road trip aspect.


But making your own movie, you wanted to do a comedy?

Yeah, I love comedies, man. I like dramedies I guess. I like comedies that open you up with some laughs and then they get you in the gut with some of the deeper, more human stuff. My favorite movies have always been like that.


Were you a fan of the Battle of the Bands genre where you’re following the underdog band to the show?

You know, everybody always mentions, “Oh, it’s another…” How many movies are like that? I can’t think of too many. There’s definitely some. Once is an amazing music movie and I love Spinal Tap, but maybe I just didn’t watch enough music movies because I can’t think of too many. Maybe they had them in the ‘80s. What are some good Battle of the Band movies?


I feel like Blues Brothers had a big show at the end, whether it was a battle or not. Bill and Ted was obviously a different sort of road trip but they had a battle of the bands in Bogus Journey.

That’s true, totally. I definitely wasn’t trying to redefine [a genre]. It’s a genre piece in the sense of it is a road trip movie, [and a] Battle of the Bands. For me sometimes it’s not as much about what happens. It’s more how it happens. That’s what I really dig. I’m not comparing myself to John Hughes, he’s on a whole other level as far as I’m concerned, but you could look at his stuff and say, “Oh my God, his stuff is about teenagers that don’t quite fit in and then all of a sudden they find themselves with somebody that sees them, just reoccurring themes over and over again in all his stuff.” But I love that stuff.


Right, I asked actually because Brooklyn Brothers kind of subverts some of the conventions of Battle of the Bands movies.

What I was trying to get at I guess to a certain extent, if I wanted anybody to take anything away from it at the end it would be I guess that it’s not about the end goal as much. The sooner we lose these definitions of what success are and failure, the quicker we grow I think. It’s less about the destination and more about the journey that you go on. This actually happened to me in real life. With one of my bands we were supposed to play this big New Years Eve concert in this big arena, a sports arena, and it was like a coveted bill. If you get the opening slight on this, oh my God. We worked like crazy and then we got that slot. Then at the very last second we got bumped but the people didn’t tell us that we got bumped or they tried to but they didn’t have the right number or something like that. So we show up and we’re not on the show and we’re like, “What the f***? Oh my God, what the hell? This is so awful.” But what we ended up doing is we just ended up playing in front of the arena for about 100 kids that had gone there hoping to get tickets and didn’t get into the show and it was so much fun. It was a real learning lesson too of just where the heart center of something can be.


How much else was autobiographical? Did you ever have a job involving a moose suit, or a brother with really bible-centric values?

There’s definitely things in there. It’s not my specific life but my younger sister is wicked smart. She taught herself how to read when she was three years old and her teachers recommended that she skip second grade and she did, and had a real hard time in school because of it because she was just so different from everybody else. She was so different from everybody else. She was so much younger and still smart, like faster and quicker. She was reading novels when she was in kindergarten when the rest of the kids were still learning their ABCs and stuff like that and it was really hard for her. I remember at the time, she was like 10 years younger than me and I was still going through my own stuff as a teenager. I just wanted to say, “Man, hold onto it. Hold on. You’ll come out the other side and you’ll be stronger because of it but it seems so hard in the moment.” I based  [Alex’s nephew] Jackson a lot on my relationship with my little sister Sarah. What else is in the movie? Oh, when I was on tour in my band years ago, we actually played at the Theta Beta Potato house. I remember waking up, we were driving around in this nearly windowless van, obviously not the front window. That wouldn’t work. We were driving into a residential avenue and I was like, “What the hell? Are we playing at somebody’s house?” They were like, “I don’t know, man. The address is weird.” We literally pulled up in front of this old dilapidated mansion and there was a big symbol that said Beta, Theta and a big Potato symbol. It was just these punk kids that had kind of co-opted this building that was going to be demolished. They just threw concerts there every day and nobody got paid and it was such a blast. My drummer actually did wake up only in his underwear next to some random person the next morning.


Was your music always in the style of Brooklyn Brothers?

No, I played in an indie punk band for a few different bands. The one I toured around in the most was this band called Against the Wall. It was definitely kind of a more socio-political band,very influenced by bands like Propagandhi and At the Drive-In. Then I was in a band with my brother and one of my best friends at the time called Jennifer’s Tigers that was very post-punk influenced by bands like The Who and Unwound and stuff. I guess as I got older and I was thinking about what I wanted to do with the movie, the music for the movie, I didn’t want it to be lost in any particular time period or any particular fad. I thought it would be really interesting to explore this idea of can you bring your childhood dreams into your adult life and do they in fact survive. I thought that would be interesting for it to be the method they explore that is with the tools of children essentially. I’d seen a friend’s band that played like this called Crayon Rosary. I just thought that that sound would be perfect for this. So I started writing all these songs. I had a few songs written and they were all kind of influenced by the music I listened to as a young kid riding around in my dad’s car with all that kind of ‘80s new wave like The Cure and Men at Work and Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, The Police and The Cars, stuff like that. I’d say those are my biggest influences in writing the songs.


Are you keeping the baby instruments on the album?

Yes. We’re on tour right now. We just stopped back in L.A. We’ve been playing on the east coast and from here we’re going back to New York for the opening, the premiere and stuff. Then we’re going to Portland and Seattle and then we’re playing a few shows in L.A. All with baby toys.