The first time I ever really
paid attention to the fact that movies had such things as directors and writers
was seeing Gas Food Lodging (1992) on cassette. My mom had partied with one
of the actresses and rented the film to figure out what was so hot about her.
She switched the thing off after maybe 10 minutes, declaring the actress was
an ugly bitch and no big fucking deal. I waited till she passed out and quietly
put the cassette back in. I had been caught by the realistic story of a single
mom waitress raising two girls in a trailer and their struggle to find love
and figure out who they are.
I would read articles about
Allison Anders, the director and cowriter of Gas Food Lodging, and she
just seemed so fucking cool. She talked openly about surviving a severely fucked-up
childhood, not for sympathy or some press angle. She was offering herself as
inspiration of what is possible. In her next film, Mi Vida Loca (1993),
she immersed herself in the Latina gang culture, and became a mentor and support
to the real-life gang girls in her film. She wound up adopting a child from
She directed a segment of
Four Rooms (1995). Grace of My Heart (1996), starring Illeana
Douglas and Matt Dillon, came in 1996. Sugar Town, cowritten and codirected
by Kurt Voss (Where the Day Takes You), focuses on a group of people
in and around the music industry. It’s like the music business is a big
sugar cube and most folks get zapped trying to fly up and steal a taste. Real-life
former band members of Duran Duran, Power Station and Spandau Ballet play washed-up
Brit rockers. Jade Gordon is great as a ruthless rock-star wannabe. It opens
in New York this Friday, Sept. 17.
What drew me
to your films is the way you capture desire, longing, loneliness, the heartbreaking
extremes folks will go to to get their needs fulfilled.
I am very interested in
desire, so thanks for noticing. I think desire makes people uncomfortable precisely
because of what you see in the films—people will go to great lengths to
have their desires met. Desire thwarts everything and all ways of defining oneself—it
overtakes a political way of seeing yourself. Certainly desire challenges all
religious ways of looking at oneself; in fact, some would argue desire is the
only demon we have to fight in most religions. Anyway, I could go on about that
forever, but it is the great taboo, and it is why I think more films about women
aren’t made, because if you really tap into what women are, desire is overwhelmingly
there, and this has always been too scary for the Western world to deal with.
“Fear of a Female Planet,” as Chuck D. says in the Sonic Youth song.
For your last two films,
Grace of My Heart and now Sugar Town, you’ve
chosen the backdrop of the music business. You obviously have a music fetish.
Are you a musician or wish you had been and what do you think draws you?
I like making rock films
because that world provides tremendous human drama. This is no doubt why VH1’s
Behind the Music is so popular—because even the Bay City Rollers
have this heavy story of obscurity, rise to fame, intoxication with it and mass
adoration and then the inevitable decline, tragedy and victimization and then
the uplifting possibility of renewal. Not all celebrity stories are interesting,
but every rock story is… I love that you call it a fetish.
There’s a lot of heartbreak,
betrayal and ruthlessness in the movie.
Before we made Sugar
Town I had gone into a severe depression… I felt powerless over my career,
and, well, over everything. I was in love with someone who was so completely
unavailable to me, and so I felt my hands were tied in every way. I went to
bed for six weeks. I would get up and take my son to school, then come home
and go to sleep until it was time to pick him up. Then after dinner, I’d
put him to bed and I’d sleep again. I also went from believing in everything
to wanting to wipe all that away and find out what was true, what was real for
me. So I threw away the crystals and rocks and incense and all the little goddess
statues I had everywhere, and all my self-help books, and got down to the core
of what I truly believed in—which was pretty simple—the pure humanity
in almost everyone, and my own personal contact with a very loose-fitting God.
I also believed very strongly
in romantic love and the grounding power of children. I was willing therefore
to poke fun at myself and things I indulged in before—such as self-help
books—and was willing to look at a character who had no humanity at all,
such as Gwen. And of course children were, as always for me—well, the hope,
You daughter is a musician.
How much of her experience did you use in Sugar Town?
Tiffany has a song in the
movie. She is also always a very strong influence on me. She keeps me in touch
with music she likes. Just as I turn her on to music from, say, the 60s or 50s,
she is playing music for me by Built To Spill or Guided By Voices, Quasi or
A Tribe Called Quest—all stuff she knows I’ll like. She is also longtime
friends with J. Mascis, who is my friend, too, and who does music for almost
all my films; and Jade Gordon, who plays Gwen, was her girlhood friend. Tiffany
and I probably have a similar sense of humor. She’s a little more wry than
I am maybe, and that’s probably Kurt’s influence on her as she was
growing up—he’s not her dad, but he raised her with me, and my kids
all consider him their dad.
After Grace of
My Heart, was it hard to get folks to go back and do another music business
movie? How hard or easy was it to get funding? How much did the movie cost?
It wasn’t hard, because
we needed so little money. We made the film for under $400,000, which came from
England. In the UK rock stars are viable as “stars”—they know how to promote
movies based on the fame of a rocker, which no one in the States knows how to
do. While the U.S. would be dismissive of a rock star in a lead role, in the
UK that’s a real star to take to the bank.
Did you pick the soundtrack?
I really didn’t notice the soundtrack as much in this movie as I did in
your others. I remember loving the music in Gas Food Lodging,
and then when I got into Dinosaur Jr., I noticed it was J. Mascis that did the
soundtrack. How did you hook up with him?
We went with a very indie
soundtrack on this film, ’cause I in particular was sick to death of working
with record companies forcing their awful bands on you, and I was sick of hearing
these bad, overpackaged soundtracks—even oldies soundtracks. So I love
the soundtrack we ended up with from Sub Pop, Matador, Up and various other
indie labels. I met J. after seeing him in NME constantly—at the
time he was one of the few rock guys with long hair. This was before grunge,
around 1989 I guess. I went to a show at the Roxy where some friends of mine,
the Lazy Cowgirls, were opening for him. I was intrigued, because while everyone
was there to see him, no one would talk to him—he was so insulated he managed
to keep everyone away. I decided I wanted to talk to him, so I went up and introduced
myself and asked if he was interested in doing music for films.
After that he and Tiffany
became friends. She was only 14 at the time, but she was so smart and so cool,
she could hold her own with people older than herself. She was the one who suggested
him doing my score for Gas Food Lodging. I love J. He has been a good
pal, and he led me to a deeper spiritual life—which is wild to think…but
he did. And golf was not involved.
I’ve seen Ally Sheedy
in Breakfast Club and weird movies at 3 a.m. She really is great
in this movie, really convincing. What attracted you to using her?
I love Ally too, and had
been blown away by her in High Art. Kurt had worked with her before on
a film he did with her, and Vincent Berry, who plays Nerve. I was so thrilled
to get to work with her. Every time I see the film again, I’m so astounded
by all these surprising things she does in her performance. I could watch her
How did you get all those
old rock stars willing to play old rock stars?
They were all so incredibly
willing, and in some cases had to play characters close to home, but they went
with it, which is very brave and brought so much beauty to their roles as a
result. The film deals with fame a lot, which has been one of those things I’m
preoccupied with…seeing how people get it all wrong. First of all, there are
very few people who are famous who didn’t do a fuck of a lot to get it.
There are few people who become accidentally famous. There has also been this
kinda cult of the poor little celebrity in the late 90s, where they beg for
sympathy from the public and lawmakers—it’s really laughable, I think.
“Ohhh poor little celebrities—people chase them with cameras—their
lives are so awful!” I can’t even imagine that in the context of the horrors
the average person lives with. These people can be so shallow and arrogant.
And who do they imagine has “privacy,” anyway? Celebrities have more privacy
than anyone on the damn planet—do they think poor people have privacy?
Whatever happened to the celebrity with grace?
Well, there are still a
few, thank God, who understand what most people who want to be famous do not
get—that fame is a spiritual gift. It’s a tremendous position of giving,
not getting. Fame does not give you anything—a few perks here and there,
and attention, but it is a position of service. And very few people are strong
enough to see that. I think Paul McCartney and Robert Redford are great examples
of people who use their fame, in a very grounded way, and understand that it
is a position of service, and they use their fame to do good in the world. Both
of these men had strong families, with children who knew them as Dad, and when
they became aware of the public persona, they nearly made fun of it to keep
Dad in line. Paul McCartney has often talked of the day when either Stella or
Mary looked up at him while he was riding her around on a pony and said, “Are
you Paul McCartney?” Likewise, Robert Redford said whenever he was returning
home from a movie shoot his kids used to call the movie star persona “RR”—and
drolly say, “Ohhhh, RR’s comin’ home today.” But most people can’t
handle it—and so they complain about paparazzi and tabloids at best, and
at worst they kill themselves with arrogance and drugs and indulgence. In this
movie we were interested in both.