How a Beloved Tori Amos B-Side Transformed 'Of An Age'

Director Goran Stolevski talks assembling his gay indie's stellar soundtrack, from The Cardigans to Nelly Furtado and more.

Minor spoilers ahead for Of An Age.

Of An Age is the latest in a long line of gay coming-of-age romantic indies like Shelter, Weekend, and End of the Century

The new Focus Features film is written and directed by Goran Stolevski, and it hits theaters on Feb. 17. The official synopsis reads: "Set in the summer of 1999, Of An Age follows Kol a 17-year-old Australian amateur ballroom dancer as he experiences an unexpected and intense 24-hour romance with a friend’s older brother." Some elements of Stolevski's life did inspire the movie, like how Kol is a Serbian immigrant living in Melbourne, and Stolevski did emigrate from Macedonia to Australia with his parents when he was in his teens.

Since the majority of the film is set in the late '90s, the millennial music cues are on point, with a stellar soundtrack featuring songs from Tori Amos, Nelly Furtado, and The Cardigans. Music plays such an important role that there is an intimate scene between the two main characters, Kol (Elias Anton) and Adam (Thom Green), where they talk about Amos, while one of her most beloved B-sides, "Cooling," plays in the background.

Logo spoke with director Goran Stolevski about how Before Sunrise and Happy Together inspired Of An Age, the process of assembling the soundtrack, and how he personally got approval from Amos to use her song.

Hi Goran! I really liked the movie, but it was after the scene where the characters talk about Tori Amos that I knew I had to talk to you. 

I love that a few Tori Amos fans have emerged [during these interviews] because I think the only thing lonelier than growing up as a queer kid in the suburbs of Melbourne in 1999 was being a Tori Amos kid in the suburbs of California in 1999. But yeah, it's actually been the most delightful aspect of meeting people for this movie.

Well, first of off, what's your Tori origin story? When did you first get into her?

I don't know. I think in the early days, I used to mainly listen to music that is similar to the rest of the soundtrack in the sense that with the romantic French and Spanish and other languages, music in other languages that I didn't understand or I could project a lot more on. I look to art to be transported. Not just the music, but even books and movies. I didn't want to be in Australia. I didn't want to be a migrant. And it wasn't Australia's fault, I just found that I could not emotionally connect with my surroundings. And somehow even music in English felt a little too close. And then gradually, I started discovering indie tracks. I think Björk, because the European connection led me to Björk. And then looking for artists who are similar to Björk, I went to Tori Amos. Then as much as I worship the fuck out of Björk to this day, with Tori it became something so intense.

And actually, around that time I was realizing I was a gay kid myself, I was listening to a lot of Tori. I don't think I look to her to guide me through that in that sense, but I think music that is very richly emotional and was like a world of feelings as well and it felt so textured. I think that there's so much range of feeling in her voice that I think is really rare, especially in music. I don't know if you call it pop, I guess it's indie, but I do find it's really rare both in the indie and the pop roles such a range of feeling in someone's voice. And also [she has] just so many songs. There were the B-sides on top of everything. The way people can be nerds about Lord the Rings and learn Elvish, I could quote so many lyrics and just get lost in all these story worlds. And then there were live versions that were entirely different. So there was just a world that kept unfolding that you could lose yourself in if you had the emotional need to do that.

And was it always "Cooling" in the script or did that come later?

Well, it wasn't specified which song plays in the script, but the thing is as a screenwriter, you know you can't make things too specific because you don't know if you're going to get the copyright. So as soon as we had any financing and it looked like the film was about to be shot, the first thing I went to our producer Kristina [Ceyton] and was like, "We have to email Tori right away."

Focus Features

'Of An Age' director Goran Stolevski

What was the process of getting that song cleared?

That was the first part. The scene rests on it as well. I mean, if you replace it with another musician, but also for a film that is extremely personal to me in many specific ways, I'm just like, "Well, it can't just be replaced with any musician." I need to figure out how to build the scene because the whole scene revolves around there being a B-side by Tori Amos playing in the background. My music supervisor who's in charge of all the contracting he had a relationship with her label and he knew who to contact. And I also wrote a personal letter specifically explaining why Tori and why "Cooling." The letter was mainly about, "Thank you for existing, even if you don't want me to use the song." But she was very kind and personally approved me using this song, as if I wasn't already grateful enough. Grateful for life.

In the wedding scene later in the movie, you included two of my other favorite songs: "Lovefool" by The Cardigans and "Maneater" by Nelly Furtado. How did those song selections come about?

I think I did have "Maneater" in my head when I was writing, but that one was even more like, "As if I would ever get the permission." And also it's a very low budget film. So not only getting the permission and being able to afford songs. So Nelly Furtado and her team were extremely generous letting me use this song because again, these were things that we had to pre-approve quite in advance. And there's always a limited amount of time you're working when you're putting a film together because neither of these two kids have ever done any dancing in their lives. I think Hattie [Hook, who plays Ebony] was maybe in some musical theater when she was little, but Elias had never danced and suddenly he has to play someone who knows how to dance professionally and he had three weeks to learn. Two songs had to be in place very early in the process.

With The Cardigans, no. It was suggested more when we were talking with the music supervisor about what other songs were accessible. He gave me a list of people he had good relationships with. And then I was picking things that I felt I connected to personally just from my own life and then also connected to the story in a particular way.

So are you a fan of The Cardigans' discography outside of "Lovefool?" 

No, I'm not a cool person. I know nothing about music beyond what's on screen. So no. And I also didn't realize it was actually quite cool to like The Cardigans. I thought growing up in a rough school in late '90s suburban Australia, you could only listen to Pearl Jam or Nirvana, otherwise you would have to pretend. My tastes are a lot nerdier in other directions. A lot of the tacky Serbian pop I'm like, "I did not listen to that ironically."

I kept waiting for Kylie [Minogue], since it's in Australia...

Again, I did not want to be in Australia. Listening to Kylie doesn't help with that feeling. Tori was my Kylie.

What I loved about this movie was that it reminded me of gay coming-of-age movies from the late '90s or early 2000s. What were some of the movies that you were inspired by? I read that the Before trilogy was an inspiration.

Yeah. In terms of getting the idea, it came from this particular flashback to my own teenage years, which was a time I'm never thinking back on because I was sort of absent from it. It was just the waiting room before you get to university. I didn't think life was happening yet. It was going to happen later on. And so just having this very vivid feeling of what it felt like, what I thought life was, and just walking into that part of my brain that was me at 16, 17, that's where the idea came from. I had this vivid image of these two guys talking in the car. And it was only when I was writing it that I was like, "What are the reference points, because eventually I'm going to have to pitch this damn thing." And I was like, "Oh, like Before Sunrise and Sunset."

Before Sunrise mainly because it was the first time I saw romance on TV. I was the kind of boy that watches Julie Delpy and goes, "Oh, this is what love is. This is what romance is. One day I'm going to meet Julie Delpy on a train in Vienna and that's the connection you're looking for." But I was going, "Is there a way to have something as intensely romantic happen and authentic be experienced in the least romantic place in the world," which was the place I grew up in. So that was the reference.

Focus Features

And then in terms of queerness, I saw Happy Together before I realized that I was gay, and I was around 14, 15. I think at the time it was still quite homophobic I would say. I grew up in a very conservative culture and lower socioeconomic circumstances. I don't even think you think of homophobia. It's just the natural state. It wasn't anything else. And there were feelings percolating, but I wasn't processing them that way. But then I just got really enthralled more and more in the movie as it went along and just sort of didn't really think about why I was so emotionally attached to it.

And it was only years later that I was openly gay to myself, about 16, but it was years later that I watched it again and watched it in a different way and realized how horny Tony Leung made me. But Happy Together was an important film in that sense. And then Law of Desire by Pedro Almodovar. After that, once I was realizing I'm very comfortable by this point with my queerness, I sought out everything Todd Haynes ever did, everything Gregg Araki...

Going back to Tori, if after watching the movie, someone's like, "Who's this Tori Amos? I should check her out," where do you suggest they start? 

It's so hard. I mean, Little Earthquakes seems to be the introduction point that works for most people. It seems to be the gateway, but I actually think Scarlet's Walk is better for people in their twenties and thirties. That was the first album I ever purchased in my life. I'd heard other Tori songs as singles, but Scarlet's Walk was the first one I bought. I think Boys For Pele is probably my favorite, but also Under the Pink is the one I've listened to the most according to statistics on my computer. But it's really hard to pick. I guess just play them Little Earthquakes. If they're not fully on board by "Precious Things" they should just never speak to me again.

Of An Age is in theaters now.

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