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Stephen Dorff blurs fiction and reality in ‘Wheeler’

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For his new film “Wheeler,” actor Stephen Dorff (“Blade,” “Backbeat,” “The Power of One”) plays aspiring country music singer-songwriter Wheeler Bryson who moves from Texas to Nashville in hope of being discovered. 

What is most unusual about this documentary-style musical drama is that Dorff immersed himself in a real world as a character he created, blurring the line between fiction and reality.

Transformed by prosthetic makeup, Dorff performs original songs as Wheeler, in legendary Nashville music venues and recording studios, before unaware audiences. The idea for the film, Dorff says, was sparked by a batch of new original songs.

“I played some of the songs to Ryan Ross, who directed the movie,” Dorff told me during a recent interview. “They didn’t sound like the songs I wrote for “Wheeler.” It was a little more indie-pop. I had no interest in doing a Stephen Dorff pop record so we landed on a world I’m familiar with – Nashville. My father and brother were very successful in that arena.”

Dorff’s father (Stephen “Steve” Dorff) wrote huge hits for Eddie Rabbit, George Strait, Kenny Rogers and others, while also dabbling in the world of TV theme songs (“Spencer For Hire,” “Murphy Brown”).

Dorff’s brother Andrew was one of Nashville’s go-to songwriters and the composer of massive hits by Blake Shelton, Kenny Chesney, Hunter Hayes and Rascal Flatts, among others. Rascal Flatts’ current hit “Yours If You Want It” was one of his. Andrew Dorff died unexpectedly in Nashville in December of last year. He was 40-years old.

“My brother was really proud of this movie and his death is a huge tragedy for my dad, me, my family and all of his friends in Nashville,” Dorff said. “He wrote (“Wheeler” lead single) “Pour Me Out of This Town” with me. I had loaned him an early copy of the movie on Blu-ray but I was worried that someone might try to pirate it and he didn’t want to give it back. He loved this movie.”

According to Dorff, once the character of Wheeler Bryson had been created, he and Ross decided to take him in a direction not too far removed from “Borat” – the mockumentary comedy from Sacha Baron Cohen.

“I’ve never seen a drama approached in that same kind of way, where you go out and get people to play themselves where they think you’re just doing something for YouTube, and meanwhile you’re really making a movie.”

 In “Wheeler,” we see Dorff performing in a variety of famed Nashville venues in front of audiences who have no idea that Wheeler Bryson doesn’t really exist. We also see him performing for Bart Herbison (Executive Director for the Nashville Songwriters Association), and recording with some of Nashville’s finest session players, none of them aware that Wheeler wasn’t real.

“I’m playing dumb, like it’s my first time,” Dorff said. “They bought into it and ended up talking about Wheeler on camera. They thought I was some unknown shooting a promo for his website. I told them the truth after we shot it because I knew half of them from my dad,” he said with a laugh.

One night during filming, Dorff visited The Palm, a popular steakhouse and bar, while in character.

“I watched the hockey game next to my father and had a conversation with him in my accent and makeup,” he said. “He had no idea that he was sitting next to his son. I knew I had Academy Award makeup on and I knew that if I rock this and perform live well enough to win over a crowd, we’ve got a movie. We let the movie write itself.”

With a seven-page treatment outlining where they wanted to take their film, Dorff said he and director Ross left a lot of room for spontaneity. “I would say that about 65 percent of the movie is all real and improvised with nobody knowing it’s me. About 30 percent was just filling in the blanks.”

“We thought, ‘Let’s get Wheeler into The Bluebird, (a storied Nashville songwriters venue) Let’s get him backstage at The Ryman. Let’s have him meet Kris Kristofferson.’ It was bananas but we got a great movie and soundtrack out of it, with songs that I wrote plus the great track that Kristofferson gave us for the record.”

Kristofferson’s involvement in the film was pivotal, according to Dorff.

“What I miss about country music are people like Kris, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. We only have Kris and Willie Nelson left. This was my opportunity to pay my homage to one of the greatest songwriters of all time.”

The character is a throwback to a different era of country music artists.

“When you listen to the record, you hear that his phrasing is right out of the 60s and 70s. He’s kind of an old cowboy thrown into a world of Facetime, Snapchat and YouTube. In a weird way, that world helped us make the movie. Most people we encountered thought ‘Oh, here’s another songwriter trying to get a deal being followed around with a camera.’”

Dorff said “Wheeler” is a tribute to his father, his brother and the world of songwriting. “Songwriters are usually those quiet geniuses in the background while the artist is the focus. That’s understandable, but without the songwriter, there ain’t no song.”

“Wheeler” can be seen now in select theaters and on demand from most digital platforms. 

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