Photo © Getty Images
Interview conducted by Lily and Generoso Fierro
The 1980s saw a boon of American independent cinema.
As John Sayles said during his recent interview with us about that era, “There was this new thing called “home video,” and so the theaters that showed non-Hollywood movies can’t just trot out 400 Blows every August 5th and play it for two weeks because people could now own that movie, so what else are we going to show now? So, there was an audience, and there were playdates for independent movies.”
This demand saw the rise of independent filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch and Alex Cox, and a wave of powerful female American independent directors who could finally tell deeply personal stories outside of the Hollywood system. These filmmakers included Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Sara Driver, and the woman we broke seafood pancake with this past week at our favorite spot in Koreatown, Allison Anders.
When Cinefamily released their schedule for the Underground USA series, we immediately circled Allison Anders’ appearance for the screening of her 1987 debut film, Border Radio, a film that we both greatly admire, but to be honest, we have always appreciated her entire catalog for its honesty and consistently personal approach to filmmaking. We did discuss Border Radio as well as her films, Gas Food Lodging, Grace Of My Heart, and Things Behind The Sun. We also focused on the role that women took during the West Coast punk movement that was a source of inspiration for her and that era’s independent female directors and the social climate of a now gentrified Los Angeles, and because we couldn’t bear to leave it out, we had to ask about Allison’s experiences working with our hero and songwriting legend, Burt Bacharach.
|Generoso and Lily: Post seafood pancake, gal bi tang, and film conversation with Allison Anders!|
Generoso Fierro: We re-watched Gas Food Lodging this week, and afterwards, Lily brought up a very strange comparison to a pre-code William Seiter film that you may have seen called Hot Saturday that starred Cary Grant, Nancy Carroll, and Randolph Scott. In the film, Nancy Carroll’s character is a very urbane woman who has a respectable position at her local bank, but after it is rumored that she spent the night with Cary Grant, who plays the local playboy, her reputation is destroyed. To the rescue is a handsome, sensitive geologist played by Randolph Scott, who could potentially restore her credibility in the community through marriage. A key scene is after Nancy Carroll’s character is condemned by her own parents, she clumsily attempts to finds Randolph Scott while he’s working in a cave. He discovers her in the mud when she faints on her way up and brings her back to the cave, and while she’s unconscious, he proceeds to remove and hang dry her clothing to prevent her from getting pneumonia. What we find interesting in comparison is how your film and Hot Saturday use the natural landscape as a soul and innocence restorative place for both female characters whose reputations are sullied. The desert is also a place of escape for Jeff in Border Radio, so can you discuss the importance of the natural landscape in Border Radio and Gas Food Lodging?
Allison Anders: I don’t know Hot Saturday very well, but I vaguely remember it from watching it on TCM recently. I definitely didn’t see it prior to Gas Food Lodging. You know, it’s funny, the desert has come to mean a bit more to me now. When I first moved down here, I kind of hated that about Los Angeles. I was always trying to get back to where I came from, which is Kentucky, which is all mountains and hills. I recently watched this documentary on American Masters about Loretta Lynn, and she is very close to where I am originally from except that she is more from the mountains than I am, but those mountains surrounded my town.
|Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk in Gas Food Lodging (1992)|
I was raised in the Ohio River Valley, which is sadly is now referred to as “Chemical Valley,” but those mountains, the ones that still exist because many of them have been destroyed due to strip mining…Sissy Spacek felt that those mountains were very spiritual for Loretta Lynn and they became that for her as well. My mother looked at those mountains of some kind of imprisonment to the point that she just wanted to push those mountains away and get the hell out of there. But for me, that density is a little bit overwhelming, but that lushness was a part of my DNA, and I realize now that it really was part of my DNA, now that I know what my DNA is, which is very English and Irish and Eastern European, that that landscape was really who I am.
So, coming here it was completely void of what I was used to. In fact, I was just in Sacramento, the “city of trees,” actually, and it was kind of amazing, and it didn’t feel like anything here, but now I have come to cherish the Southwest, and living in Altadena now, when I look at the San Gabriel Mountains, it reminds me of when I first got here I thought, “Wow, those are the ugliest things I have ever seen,” but now they are the most majestic and beautiful things I have ever seen. Now that I live next to them, I think, “This is my home,” and so somehow I think that I have changed my DNA. When my mother and sister visited me, and we went to Sacramento, I would comment on how the landscape reminded me of Ashland, which is where I am from in Kentucky, but now it doesn’t mean the same thing to me. It is not the only beauty there is.
Generoso Fierro: When we first met up today we discussed Los Angeles and how its rapidly changing and that kind of feeds into our question that you may be able to answer on why independent film coming out of cities like New York and Los Angeles might be lacking the vitality it once had. One theory I have comes from one of the most vibrant music scenes that I have ever personally witnessed which was the independent experimental music scene that took place in Providence Rhode Island during the mid to late 1990s. Due to the very inexpensive rent in that town at the time (especially in the factory district known as Olneyville), people could spend most of their time working on music that wasn’t necessarily commercially viable and could dedicate more time to music than to a job that high rent for an apartment and a practice space would require. When you were making your early films Allison, did Los Angeles have a similar kind of environment that made it easier to make indie film?
Allison Anders: LA was ripe for indie DIY movements from the 1970s through the end of the millennium. But sorry kids — LA does not have this anymore. Terry (Graham) and I were talking this morning about how during the punk days Hollywood was abandoned and therefore affordable — there were affordable pockets all over LA. The problem now is every single part of LA is priced out for young people. UNLESS you are a trust fund kid, and that is simply the truth. As we discussed this is happening in every city in the US and especially NYC, LA and SF. But it’s everywhere. If I were a betting man — I would say the new vibrant film and music movements are going to come from mid size cities, college towns, outer suburbs.
Lily Fierro: We understand that Things Behind The Sun is a very personal story that comes from your own experience. What motivated you after exploring those experiences through the character of Trudi in Gas Food Lodging to revisit and expand on them through Sherry in Things Behind The Sun?
Allison Anders: The reason I revisited my own rape again in Things Behind The Sun is because I had hit a new level of difficulty and healing, so I returned — physically — to the scene of the crime in 1998, Cape Canaveral, FL. And there — I found my release by confronting — well — the house itself. And when I did, a 12 year old girl ran out of that house and into my clothes, and I became a whole person again. This is not for everyone, not every rape survivor has to do that to heal — let me be clear — but this is what worked for me.
|Kim Dickens in Things Behind The Sun (2001)|
And once I had done that, Kurt Voss and I wrote the script, with tremendous care and guidance from my friend journalist Chris Connelly, and also with some wonderful insight from author and sexual abuse and trauma therapist Staci Haines. Then I made the movie — and shot it in the very house where it happened. And my life radically changed. And it’s, of all my films, I feel most MINE, I was 100% present emotionally spiritually intellectually for every frame of that film, there is not one single regret.
Generoso Fierro: I should explain that I saw Gas Food Lodging in 1992, the same year as Gillian Armstrong’s The Last Days of Chez-Nous. And again, there is a comparison to be made here as far as narrative, in that here are two non-traditional families with a strong matriarch who is trying to raise children despite the detrimental effects of the male character in the matriarch’s life. I was thrilled to see such strong and complex female characters in two vital films in the same year. It’s impressive that Gillian Armstrong is making female-character driven film in Australia at the time, as was Jane Campion in New Zealand, and both cultures can be described as male dominant. In the series that is happening at Cinefamily, you realize that there was also a significant presence of women in American independent cinema at the time, including Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, and Sara Driver, who are all part of this series. Did you find that this wave of American independent film also created a landscape that allowed more women to tell more personal and introspective stories about the complexities of life?
Allison Anders: Absolutely, and I’ll go back to Border Radio and punk rock. I would say that my generation of filmmakers, male or female, but particularly female were empowered by DIY culture. Because we all saw that the big and bloated music industry, if it exemplified anything close to reality, it exemplified bloat, and I don’t think that they are conscious of it. I think the people within that industry believe that their industry resembles real life, but the bloated music industry had closed ranks, and no one was getting in. None of those punk bands could get in like X, none of them, so they created their own record labels, their own clubs; they created their own pop culture, their clothes, they created everything. So, I would say that my generation was emboldened by that. In the 1980s, we (filmmakers) were shut out too as it was the “blockbuster era,” so the film industry was the most bloated film industry ever.
So, for us to get in, we needed something like Kickstarter. Actually, it was an idea in my head back then that I wrote down. Kurt Voss still has that list of names of people that I wrote down, and I said to him, “If we can get these hundred people to each contribute something, then we could get our film out of the lab, and then we could give them each something,” so that was Kickstarter before Kickstarter, but we needed the internet for that to happen, which we didn’t have at that time. So, I would say that DIY culture truly emboldened my generation. Now in terms of women, what had happened was, women were suddenly in bands in capacities doing something other than just standing there and looking pretty in front of the microphone. They were playing instruments and everything.
Suddenly in 1977 and 78, there were more than a few bands with girls in every capacity, so we saw that and thought, if they can hold a guitar, then I can hold a camera. There had been women singer songwriters previously, but for them to be in charge of a band and to be in a band like the Go-Go’s where everyone was female, that was very empowering.
|The Go-Go’s, 1979 (image source: David Ferguson via)|
Generoso Fierro: I know, the California band The Alley Cats not only had a woman in the band, but an Asian woman named Diane Chai.
Allison Anders: And that was the amazing thing about LA: the diversity, as opposed to other cities. It’s funny, I was just looking at The Daily Mail, my news source (laughs). They had this whole punk pictorial centered around 1977/78 in London, and it was almost all white kids, and in New York, it was also an almost completely white scene, but here it was very diverse. You had Diane Chai in the Alley Cats. You also had Carla “Maddog” du Plantier from The Controllers, who was African American. The Bags, The Plugz, and The Zeros, all diverse as well, which inspired us even more.
Lily Fierro: Staying with the punk ethos and more personal stories…The “Scenester” character that Iris Berry plays in your debut film Border Radio acts as a foil to Luanna in every way. In some ways, by the comparison of the two, based on her responsibilities to her marriage and her daughter, Luanna faces the same struggles as a domestic woman of the 50s as she says goodbye to the punk world. By including Berry’s “Scenester” to offset Luanna in the film, were you trying to give us as the audience a sense that life for a woman is not any easier, despite the progression of time and the punk ethos?
Allison Anders: It’s funny, but I had written something for Criterion for Wim Wenders film, Alice In The Cities, and the mother in that is a very self-involved character; I mean she abandons her kids to be with this guy that she doesn’t even know, and she is so selfish, but I totally understood this woman. She is a young, single mother, and some guy has gotten her attention right now, and she cannot focus on her kids. I mean, she does her best thinking, “I guess this guy is OK. I almost slept with him, but I didn’t. I think that he won’t harm my child, so I will meet up with you guys in a bit.”
Now, that sounds insane to me right now, but I understood it at the time. I mean, I hook into Alice, that’s who you hook into, but I didn’t hate that mother, and Luanna in Border Radio is kind of the same thing. She is such a selfish mother, but she’s like, “being a mother is fun and cool,” and there she is, smoking with the kid right there playing on the little ferris wheel ride looking totally bored. There was a way that I think that complicated female characters like that were starting to come in, and you wouldn’t believe how many women really hated that female character in Border Radio and took offense to her for trying to maneuver these guys who were such fuck ups. I mean, she was trying to fix the situation by saying, “cut the crap.”
|From 1987’s Border Radio
In the case of the scenester played by Iris, I was really taken with how these young punk girls kind of saw themselves as too old for the punk scene, and they were slightly younger than Luanna and I. To explain, the LA punk scene considered itself very young, and in fact, they called Terry Graham, who was a year younger than me, “Dad Bag” because they thought of him as a paternal figure, and he was only 23 at the time. So, it was a really young scene, and they prided themselves on that. They also referred to everywhere as “Hollywood.” I mean, they would call Koreatown, “Southeast Hollywood.” They called Silverlake, “East Hollywood.”
It was the weirdest thing, but it was mostly because Hollywood was filled with complete derelicts at the time, a real shithole. It was practically abandoned, filled with hookers, and deviants, so, in a way, Iris was like a starlet, a kind of a “punk princess,” if you would call it that. It’s like someone recently asked me “What is your film Border Radio about?”
And I thought, “Wow, how can I answer that?” So, I said that it’s a post-punk movie, but I don’t know how to get into the fact that the story is really a “shaggy dog story,” meaning that the story is not going to pan out in any satisfying way dramatically (laughs) because it’s just not. That’s not the point. Luanna in a way is saying that all of this drama is bullshit.
Lily Fierro: In one way it’s like she is saying “goodbye” to punk.
Allison Anders: Yes, exactly. She is saying, “This is really silly, and you guys have made it silly because you guys are playing with guns and hanging out in Mexico, and really there is no drama here at all. It has all been nonsense.”
Generoso Fierro: This last question may be the antithesis of the punk, but as we’re huge fans of your film, Grace of My Heart, and as we have both been radio disc jockeys for years, and we often speak of the Brill Building and its enormous role in the evolution in American popular music. This is where the geekiness comes in, as we worship Burt Bacharach, who of course, like Carole King, whom Edna Buckston is somewhat based on, is essential to the history of songwriting that came of the Brill building. To get Burt Bacharach to create a new composition for your film soundtrack went beyond our wildest dreams. What did it mean for you?
Allison Anders: Yes, Burt baby! (laughs) Here’s what happened…I made a list. As I have said, I am very fond of lists. I made a list of songwriters of the era on one side and then present songwriters on the other side. So, I went to Karyn Rachtman, who was my brilliant music supervisor, and I said, “Here’s what I’m thinking, since this movie is about songwriting, why don’t we create songwriting teams to make these songs?”
|Allison Anders with Matt Dillon on the set of Grace of My Heart|
Then, I showed her my list, and she said, “This is brilliant, but I am going to kill you. This is going to be so much work.” (laughs) So, then we took a pencil and started drawing lines between one songwriter and another to match them. I would like to take credit for putting Burt and Elvis together, and I did put them both on the lists, but that was Karyn’s idea to put them together, and I was speechless.
So, the day that I talked with Elvis, I got one of those phone message notes that said, “Allison, Burt and Elvis are going to talk!” And when I talked to Elvis for the first time, it was an amazing conversation, and he said, “I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job, and to work with Burt Bacharach is an honor, but why was I asked to do this? What about Ellie Greenwich or Laura Nyro?” and I said, “Elvis, they have all been approached.” We didn’t know then, but Laura Nyro was sick at the time, and she was like “Oh, I’d have to come to LA, and see, it’s all getting so complicated.”
|The phone memo confirming the Burt and Elvis collaboration|
In fact, I’ll never forget her saying, “It’s all going to be so complicated,” and now we know that she would be dead within a year. Now, with Ellie Greenwich, I had approached her about possibly writing a song with Madonna, but then Ellie got very suspicious, and then this man whom she worked with also got very suspicious, but I get it, women get screwed over so often that she didn’t believe it. I tried to get Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and they were suspicious too, but the ones who weren’t like Carol Bayer Sager, ended up working for us.
So, with Burt and Elvis, it was amazing because when there would be a place in the script where we knew we needed a song like in the case of “God Give Me Strength,” Larry Klein and I would put together about five tracks and say, “Maybe it could sound like this, or that, kind of thing.” And, it would correlate to where Denise Waverly’s music was going at the time and where her songwriting evolved into, so each track was very specific to what was going on with her. It wasn’t like, “Go ahead, write a song,” it was very very focused. We ended up with about five tracks with the main one being, Dusty Springfield’s “I Don’t Want To Hear It Anymore,” which was written by Randy Newman from the Dusty In Memphis record, but it wasn’t written by Burt, even though it sounded like Burt, and Elvis really loved the song. And then, there was lyrical content as well; it needed to hit certain kinds of feelings because this was what was going on with her at the time. Like the part with the journalist, whom Denise was in love with and who she finds out that he’s leaving town with his family and that he will never see her again–the song had to feel right for that moment.
What I can also say about the Burt and Elvis collaboration is that their song, “God Give Me Strength,” was the only song that Larry Klein didn’t produce for the film. Burt and Elvis produced the song themselves in New York City, and it came out great.