Sing Us a Song: The piano men and women of "Duelers" star in a new Michigan-produced film with deep local connections
Duelers Piano Bar is the home of five young musicians who trade keyboard licks and share solace, shots, and sounds on a nightly basis. But the venue that offers them a routine and respite from problems is about to be sold by a money-hungry owner, which will turn their lives upside down.
This is the plot of Duelers, a new movie made by a group of multi-talented Michigan creatives. Writer/composer/co-star Drew De Four, producer / cinematographer Danny Mooney, and their cast of real-life performers straddle the line between a concert film and backstage drama. The film was shot at the now-closed J.D.'s Key Club piano bar in Pontiac, Michigan, taking 12 days over two weeks.
Like his co-stars, De Four is a real dueling pianist, and his talents have taken him around the globe. During shooting, he lived with the actors who play Tyler (Tom McGovern), Jane (Elisa Carlson), Skip (Danny Korzelius), and Bethany (Shelby Winfrey), the multi-talented musicians who share the stage nightly with Drew (De Four) at the fictional Duelers Piano Bar.
De Four, 40, has been playing in piano bars since he was 19. He was a student at Eastern Michigan University when he saw an ad for Pub 13, a dueling pianos bar in Ypsilanti.
"I took five years of piano lessons from ages 7 to 12," De Four says. "From 12 to 18, I taught myself piano, guitar, bass, mandolin—a little bit of drums. When I was 19 I went to Eastern for a year to study piano, and my professor told me I should not be studying classical piano because when I came back from the piano bars asking, 'How do I do stride piano?' He said, 'You could teach me. You seem to know exactly what you want to do. We're studying Rachmaninoff and Liszt: That's not what you're meant for.'"
The conversation proved liberating. As a high schooler, De Four had applied to and was accepted by the University of Michigan (U-M), but not its music program due to his lack of jazz and classical training, so he went to Eastern. But after a year at EMU, he took U-M up on its offer and transferred. He was working on musical theater productions at U-M's Residential College (RC) when he decided to pursue an education in musical theater at the university. It felt like a natural fit considering De Four had already worked on multiple productions at the RC in addition to being best friends with Jay Golden, who would go on to become casting director for Duelers.
After a long day of classes at U-M, De Four would spend his nights entertaining the crowds at J.D.'s Key Club.
"When I graduated, I just kept playing piano bars," De Four says. "I was releasing records. Half the year I'd tour my music and make no money; half the year I'd play piano bars and make a lot of money.
"I played 100 piano bars from age 19 to 40; I used to just drive around the country and sit in everywhere, and it just became a network," says De Four. It was around age 22 that the network connected him with Duelers co-star Elisa Carlson.
Also during that time, De Four says, "I got to record with some of the best in Michigan. I was friends with Theo Katzman [from Vulfpak] and neighbors with [actor-producer-musician] Darren Criss. I was a satellite member of StarKid and all these things." (StarKid launched at U-M as a collective of musical-comedy creators; they had several viral hits on YouTube.)
Even though De Four's music took him around the world, every go at the music industry ended in disappointment, despite consistent and encouraging responses. Eventually, De Four made a blip on the radar of Howard Hertz, the entertainment attorney famous for representing Eminem. The lawyer used his considerable muscle to help push the young hopeful into the limelight.
The result was more positive praise for De Four, but that was routinely negated by concerns over how exactly to sell his distinctive style. The music, they claimed, was too cinematic.
This repeated critique prompted some deep introspection, but De Four realized his musical talent had already been tied to his cinematic sensibilities for as far back as he remembered. From directing a TV pilot with his brother to projects with Duelers producer Mooney, to working alongside Jeff Blim on what would become the 2014 StarKid original musical-comedy The Trail to Oregon, all signs pointed directly to the obvious answer: openly embrace the theatrical.
At the time, De Four had been kicking around a screenplay idea he dubbed The Life and Death of a Piano Bar. Inspired by his experiences in piano bars and the friendships forged along the way, the sprawling initial script documented a decade with the musicians. It would be an epic undertaking for a major studio, much less a small group of independent filmmakers from Michigan.
De Four took this feedback to heart and decided to approach the script from the angle of a producer, rather than a writer. How could he tell a similarly compelling story without going overboard?
Inspired by Duelers producer Jack Watkins, who said the greatest stories take only one night to tell, De Four switched the script's focus. He was already 15 drafts into the process at that point, and it would take another 10 revisions before the film was shot.
De Four also wrote 10 songs specifically for the feature and resurrected some older originals that fit the film's theme, including "In My Dreams," written more than two decades ago about a girl he had a crush on when he was a student at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.
While De Four's upbringing was in Metro Detroit, Duelers' Ann Arbor roots run deep.
"I'm from Ann Arbor," says Duelers producer / cinematographer Mooney, who also went to U-M. "Drew currently lives on the outskirts of Ann Arbor. Of our crew of Ann Arbor natives, Drew Hill, our costume designer—his dad, Denny Hill, is the legendary all-time leading swimming coach in the nation and coached at Pioneer High School."
Mooney says they did the math at one point and roughly 80 percent of the crew came out of U-M, including production designer Joey Ostrander, Hill, and executive producer / first assistant director Anthony Kalil. And everyone involved with Duelers is a Michigan native.
A scene from Duelers, left to right: Kin Curran (Kin), Drew De Four (Drew), Tom McGovern (Tyler), Elisa Carlson (Jane), Danny Korzelius (Skip), and Shelby Winfrey (Bethany). Photo courtesy of Duelers' Facebook page.
Because the cast is made up of piano players, there's a naturalistic air to Duelers that could only come from years of in-person observation.
"I took most of the plot from things that I had seen, and people I had seen," De Four says. "I would say the ethos of a lot of the characters is stuff that I either formerly thought or think now, and I try to represent a large swath of the dueling pianos philosophy. There's the spectrum of people who do it for themselves, and others for the audience, but I would probably be Jane the most at this point in my career, trying to just be kind and make everything cohesive."
One real-life incident that De Four experienced is when a veteran piano player slipped performance "notes" to him in the middle of his set.
"He's not well-regarded to this day in the industry," says De Four, but the experience informs a tense moment in Duelers when the senior pianist at the bar (De Four) commits a similar faux pas while performing with Tyler. It's a scene that works well to establish the tension between the two characters whose friendship and professional relationship appear to be on a collision course.
As for J.D.'s Key Club, the venue had already been closed for three years before Duelers was shot. "It was a barren bar; there was nothing in that space," Mooney says. "The standing bar was there, but nothing else."
It was the perfect location considering De Four's connection with the venue, but this indie film didn't have the budget required to restore J.D.'s Key Club to its former glory. In a stroke of good fortune, the property manager of the shuttered bar was also a U-M alum, so the crew was granted cheap use of the space for two months as long as they paid utilities and cleaned the place up.
"That's when Joey Ostrander, our production designer, came in and more or less single-handedly built a bar in three weeks," Mooney says. "No one would ever know that that was an empty shell of a building."
Mooney affectionately recalls the morning he came into the set early to begin work and was surprised to hear shuffling behind him when he thought he was alone. Ostrander had been sleeping under a piano, wrapped in a painting cloth. He immediately sprung up and went back to work.
The stage Ostrander built was superior to the one that De Four played on there years ago, according to the performer himself. With stage lighting courtesy of the father-son duo William G. Pierson and Wilm Pierson of Ann Arbor-based Complete Production Systems, Duelers was destined to look convincing. A veteran of the concert lighting world, the elder Pierson has lit the likes of John Mellencamp, Vince Gill, Joe Cocker, Aretha Franklin, and Richard Pryor, among others.
Meanwhile, behind the camera, producer Mooney found himself in a pinch when the project's original cinematographer fell through shortly before production. He took on the cinematographer role himself but knew he'd need help in pre-production getting the bar pre-lit and as camera-ready as possible while he continued to produce full-time. So Mooney called in two old friends from U-M to help with the cinematography: Chris Miller (Detroiters, The Suicide Squad), with additional assistance from gaffer / key grip Josh Ficken.
With all the cast and crew assembled, the film needed some warm bodies to make the concert scenes believable.
"There's only two nights [of filming] when there was an actual audience in the crowd," Mooney says, but the crew made the most of it, even in moments when one of the stars needed to hide out in the crowd to flesh out the numbers. "Me. It was always me!" laughs De Four.
There were even instances in which stray people wandered in assuming the bar was open for business. Most quickly left upon learning their drinks would be colored water, but a few were kind enough to sit in as extras if they could spare a few hours.
Duelers was shot in the later days of January 2019, wrapping on Mooney's February 2 birthday. A little over four years later, the film was finished. If that seems like an eternity in post-production, there's a good reason for it. The editors tasked with turning Duelers into something coherent were working on what amounts to a feature film and 22 music videos amid a global pandemic.
The film marks the feature directorial debut of Christian Cicerone. The freshman director brings intimacy to the film's quieter moments and a raucous swagger to the stage-bound scenes in which the club turns electric.
While Cicerone didn't attend college or formally study movie-making, he went to summer film camps in Pennsylvania since he was 12 and has experience building cameras. He was also friends with De Four's younger sister and later worked with him on four music videos and a pilot for the pianist's brother about "a bisexual, atheist teacher in a Catholic school" called Unaffiliated.
Cicerone and De Four were already searching for a bigger project to work on together when Mooney, energized by the duo's resourcefulness and inspired by their skill for problem-solving on a budget, saw potential in the screenplay for Duelers.
Mooney's experience in the film industry was just what their pair needed to get the project off the ground.
"The job of any good producer is to be an enabler," Mooney says. "You've just got to clear space, and give tools. With Drew and Christian, all they needed was the confidence and the tools. All of the talent and creativity was there in spades."
Mooney's other critical contribution to Duelers—and one that would present its fair share of technical challenges—was the suggestion to record the piano bar set pieces live. Though he admits it was a lot for the crew to wrap their heads around early on, Mooney felt it was critical to capturing the magic of those live performances, including little flaws.
Recording high-quality live performances wouldn't have been possible without sound mixer Steve Sholtes, Mooney says: "Steve pulled off miracle after miracle while we were shooting this movie." With a prolific list of film credits stretching back to 2009, Sholtes' additional background in music made him the ideal candidate for the gig.
To hear (and see) the results, the film is streaming for free on YouTube. Viewers are encouraged to show support by tipping the artists or buying merch. It's an unconventional approach to releasing a feature, but the move ensures the film company retains all rights to the movie and the music therein.
"We believe in this," De Four says. "In the long run, we think we can do more things with it."
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
For more info, visit duelersfilm.com. There will also be a two-night "Duelers" celebration at Bobby McKey's in National Harbor, Washington, D.C., on August 11-12. Friday night will be an all-request live concert featuring the entire cast of "Duelers," with Saturday featuring a red carpet premiere followed by dinner and another all-request concert.