February 15th, 2011 | Interviews

Photography by Aaron Giesel

First came post-punk cult hit Border Radio and then came Sugar Town, a film about the music industry, aging rock stars, and the women in their lives.  Now Strutter, the final chapter in Allison Anders and Kurt Voss’ unexpected trilogy, is well underway.  Allison and Kurt have been friends since UCLA film school and even share matching tattoos of the girl in chains on the back of Leonard Cohen’s first album. This interview by Lainna Fader.

Congrats on the successful Kickstarter campaign for your new film!
Allison Anders: It’s pretty amazing!
What do you think about the fact that Strutter is entirely funded by the community? Why aren’t more artists doing that?
AA: I don’t know. They’re missing out. It’s a fantastic thing. We really enjoyed the whole process. Not only do you get to take creative control over your entire project, but the process of raising money this way is also creative. It keeps you in this creative space instead of—
Kurt Voss: That’s absolutely right. Absolutely true. I was just watching Abel Ferrera’s commentary track to Bad Lieutenant and he started musing on a scene and talking about how working in Hollywood system—everything about it made him feel uncreative. It took him away from—destroyed—well not to be too hyperbolic about it, but I feel the same way. What Allison said resonated with me. That approach to raising the money flows naturally into the next step of the project almost. It’s very liberating—it’s like getting a second first film.
Why aren’t artists good at funding their own projects? Are they any worse than any other group of people trying to raise money?
AA: Exactly. Most musicians and filmmakers and artists, they’re at their worst trying to raise money. And affix a value to their project. ‘Why should I invest in your record?’ or ‘Why should I invest in your movie?’ Well, that’s the one thing that artists are particularly bad at. That’s the way that the system works in Hollywood. Inevitably you go ‘Oh, my project has no value.’ Then, ‘If I have Brad Pitt attached, then I’d have value.’ Well that’s bullshit! Absolute bullshit. The thing is it’s just not true, as we see repeatedly from the box office. It should not have to be that you have all these other attachments to get to your project to make it valuable. Maybe the value for our project is $20,000. I don’t know!
I was going to ask you about that—your target was $17,500, which seems awfully low for a feature, even when you’re shooting digital. How’d you settle on that? Just because you had to affix some kind of specific value to the project to list it on Kickstarter?
KV: We just picked the lowest number we could think of to finish a ninety-minute piece.
How far into Strutter are you?
KV: We start shooting in Feburary. The trailer online on the Kickstarter site—we made it special for the page, without having shot anything else for the film. We made it just for the fundraising process. But it also was a laboratory for working out ideas for the picture.
AA: Helped us bring in ideas for the film.
KV: But in terms of the low number for the budget as we were discussing earlier—to add onto Allison’s thoughts about needing a cast member to make a movie valuable—I always liked artists or filmmakers who abandoned the idea that you need money to make money in film. Those are some of my heroes.
AA: Like Herzog.
KV: Yeah, those who dare to plow ahead, like Herzog. The talent and will is more important than money. Famous Herzog story is when they asked him to write the script for Nosferatu, he said all he needed was two boxes of paper. So that’s how we arrived at our $17,500—that’s how much we need for the paper!
I was kind of shocked when I watched the trailer because I recognized Flannery Lunsford. I didn’t know he even acted. I went to elementary school with him, and haven’t seen him since.
AA: How amazing!
KV: What’s that high school, Al? Where all our kids came out of? Is it Marshall?
AA: Oh yeah. Marshall.
KV: I think most of our cast came from there. He and his bandmates went there. They all came out of Marshall. Flannery’s an amazing guy.
AA: Didn’t I meet you over at the Silent Movie Theatre?
Yeah, I worked there for a few years.
AA: Not only did they contribute to our Kickstarter drive with memberships, but they’re letting us shoot there.
You’re shooting there? When I worked there there’d always be people coming in and shooting things but I never saw anything of it.
AA: One of our characters will be working at the Silent Movie Theatre!
And you’ve got Dante from Dante vs. Zombies in the film too right? I met him at a bar in Echo Park a few months ago through a friend who I think used to be in a band with him.
AA: ‘I met Dante at a bar’—that’s really good. That’s a good quote.
Why is he in your film?
AA: Well Dante, I met through my daughter Tiffany, who met him through Jessica Espeleta. His band Starlite Desperation played our festival, Don’t Knock The Rock, about four or five years ago and we invited him to participate in a Gun Club reunion, which was a concert coinciding with the premiere of Ghost on The Highway: A Portrait of Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club. They opened the festival with the premiere of Kurt’s movie and then Dante sang with the original band members.
KV: Yeah, it was kind of a pass-the-mic kind of format. Everyone was great but Dante really smoked. He gave an especially memorable performance. He was really very hot. Talented guy. We’re excited about him as an actor.
How’d you know he could act though?
AA: He has a little bit of experience. Same with Flannery. They’ve both done a little bit. They’re fairly new, but not totally inexperienced.
Do you look for musicians who are also actors, actors who play music or are just passionate about music, or someone with a little experience in both acting and music?
KV: That’s a stack of questions! But casting can go a number of ways.
AA: It helps if they all have bands.
KV: But in general, you introduce musicians into their first role.
Had John Taylor [Duran Duran] done anything before?
AA: He had never acted before.
KV: We put him in Sugar Town with no acting experience. He’s a musician who just fit the bill.
Have you ever made a movie without a musician?
AA: I don’t think I’ve ever—and I don’t think you have either, Kurt—made a movie without a musician. He’s even had Ice-T in one of his movies! We’re never without musicians as actors. It just gives us a little extra—an immediacy that musicians can bring to a role, and if you put them with professional actors like we did in Sugar Town, it can be really amazing. Like Rosanna Arquette working with John Taylor was really amazing. She was brand new and guided him every step of the way and yet he made her more immediate. She gave him the chops and he gave her the ability.
KV: Their scenes together are 85% exquisite in that movie. They’re very good. And you’re right, it was that mix and her generosity that made it. That was a great pleasure. And I always thought he should be the next James Bond.
That would’ve been amazing.
AA: Oh yeah, for sure! They really went down the wrong path with Daniel Craig. I think it should have been our Mr. Handsome, John Taylor from Duran Duran.
Yeah, he’s pretty handsome…
KV: If you go all the way back to Border Radio, we didn’t know what we were doing when we started that movie and neither did any of our musician actors. We chased them all down because they were the most attainable marquee value you could imagine. These people who had their name in the paper but were still approachable in nightclubs.
AA: And they were our idols too.
KV: So it all came together on that project.
Kurt, I read an interview about Border Radio where you were saying that you and Allison have really learned your trade since you made that film but you’ve also lost something in the process. What did you lose?
KV: I think one thing specifically that Allison and I continue to marvel at when we look at Border Radio is some of the exquisite landscapes and post card shots. A lot of horses on the beach. A lot of things that are largely a function of the time we had making the movie. You know, like hanging out in Mexico for a week or two and being there when stuff happened rather than squeeze a whole production into 17 days and having to shoot X number of pages per day. Then it becomes like cutting sausages. That’s what I think we’ve lost.
AA: And in that particular scene too—I’ve got to say, that scene with the horses—I don’t think I’ve ever really had anything but there’s just a couple of things like the guitar burning in the sand on the beach—moments that we had that were magical and unfortunately you just don’t get in a regular production because there you run into things like, ‘Oh, you need to get a permit for that’ and ‘Oh no, we can’t just run and grab that.’ It’s really infuriating. It takes so much out of the creative process.
KV: We’d wait around for four hours on the beach waiting for the right lighting. Can’t do that when you’re on a proper schedule. With this film, we’re going to go back to that. More cinema, really. And that’s part of the irony too—you do that with next to no money.
Will you borrow locations again too?
AA: Yeah, with some stuff in Echo Park, some in the Valley, some in the desert. Basically the same Border Radio haunts.
Are you going back to the Hong Kong Café?
AA: Oh! Wouldn’t that be something?
KV: Yeah, sure would! It’s still there, wonder if the doors are still open.
I heard you told some stories to get out of paying to shoot. How’d you convince them to shut down to shoot your film?
AA: Oh God, what did we tell them Kurt?
KV: That’s totally fallen off my hard drive. I have no idea.
AA: It’s really amazing, we really paid for nothing on that film.
KV: Someone must’ve hooked us up somehow. It’s not like we snuck in—they opened up their doors to us in the afternoon and we brought a band in. Maybe Chris D. or Dave Alvin called in a favor.
AA: At that point I don’t think they still had bands playing anymore. Are they even open anymore?
KV: No you’re right, I think they did close. That would’ve been cool to revisit though.
AA: It was a pretty incredible place back in the day. You could turn around and see David Bowie watching a band on stage. I remember seeing Danny DeVito of all people there watching X or something.
Did you see X when they came to the House of Blues a couple weeks ago? They played Los Angeles in full and screened The Unheard Music.
AA: Oh, fantastic! Wow. Wonderful. John Doe was—they were making that movie when we were making Border Radio.
What was your first encounter with John Doe like?
AA: I’ll never forget it actually—
KV: Oh I bet you won’t!
What does that mean?!
KV: She had such a crush on him back in the day.
That’s so cute!
KV: He was so cute! Now that I look back on pictures of him. He was such a dreamboat.
AA: I bet Kurt had a crush on him too.
KV: Fine, I had a man crush on him.
AA: He came to Malmuth Hall at UCLA to see some of the footage we had shot. Right Kurt?
KV: Sounds plausible.
AA: We had already shot something with Chris D., I think, and John Doe wanted to be in the movie. That was what I was hoping for, actually. Cause John Doe and Dave Alvin were in the Flesheaters at that point. That was their side band, with Chris D. So we met through Chris D. After seeing them a zillion times, at the Hong Kong Café—I think I was there that night that John Doe first saw the Blasters. It was quite an amazing show.
KV: And the way we met Chris D. was just by walking up to him and giving him a script.
How did the Gun Club steer your life in the right direction?
AA: It’s funny, I was just talking to someone through eBay today about the Gun Club today. I have a present for Kurt. I actually saw them for the first time before Terry was in the band. So I actually saw that first show, before Terry Gram and Rob Ritter joined the band. Then after that, it was just completely amazing. For me, it was that they had a quality different from other bands in L.A. They had the punk with the more rootsy Americana music to it. That’s why it holds up so well now. You can play any of the songs off Fire of Love, which is on so many people’s ‘Best Records of All Time’ lists. It’s timeless, really. Kurt and I used to go see the Gun Club together. They were his favorite band as well.
I was reading an interview you did, Allison, where you said, ‘Digital is the freeing device for women.’ How is digital more freeing than film and why is it more freeing for women than men?
AA: I felt like when I started working with digital—and I shot Things Behind the Sun on digital—that the language of working with digital, as opposed to working in film, is so much more accessible. In film school I’d always hear these guys walking around talking about film in a very nerdy way, a film nerdy way, and it seems so completely male-dominated. A ‘no girls allowed’ kind of thing. It’s not that we couldn’t learn that language but it seemed inherently exclusive. When digital came along, everything was open. The language of it is warmer and friendlier and anyone can access it. It felt like there was no more ‘boy’s club’ anymore. Open to anybody.
You’ve also said a female director mythology is starting to develop. What’s the mythology? Why is it developing now?
AA: I think that for a long time there was—well, after the silent movie period, because in the silent movie period there are annuals where you can see women directors, but women disappeared from the movie industry as directors with the talkies. You’d hear a lot about about ‘The Boy Wonder’ but not ‘The Girl Wonder.’ Things are so much better now. It’ll be interesting to see what happens now that Kathryn Bigelow broke the barrier. She really fought her entire career to not be trapped in some girl filmmaker ghetto. It’s so wonderful that she got the Academy Award. I feel like there’s so much more access now for women filmmakers. And I don’t even know if there needs to be a girl filmmaker mythology though, but there’s an open area now where you can be a wonder in yourself.
What does it mean to be a wonder in yourself?
AA: You can go with your own voice. I think there’s plenty of young women filmmakers who stand on their own. They don’t have to dabble quite the same way like I worried we were going to have to. For a while there were a lot of riot girl filmmakers—Sarah Jacobson—well not a lot, but a few that I thought were going to make a kind of new movement. Really audacious young women. And I think there’s a certain level of that still out there, and I think that helped save us. It’s been a long time coming, culminating in Kathryn [Bigelow] getting that Oscar. I don’t think there’s anyone who says ‘women can’t make films’ anymore, but things are still not great yet.
Yes there are. The person who introduced us is one of those people—one of my first interactions with him was him telling me that there are no good female directors. It was infuriating and insulting.
AA: Oh my God! Oh my God. I’m going to bitch at him all over the place. Unbelievable. Well, there’s definitely a male…fanboy part there still that doesn’t think women directors have much to offer. Or female guitarists. I remember Chrissie Hynde [singer/guitarist of The Pretenders] reading her thing ‘We have yet to have a female Jimi Hendrix—Why not?’ I mean, she had a really interesting argument for that. Not an argument, but a hypothesis. My daughter thought it was partly true as well. A lot of great male guitarists start playing at adolescense and play sports and channel that athleticism and put it into learning guitar. And that girls often are able to talk out all their stuff with each other, and are on the phone a lot, communicating together a lot, and using language more during adolesence than doing physical things like playing guitar.
KV: And the guys are going to all that trouble just to get girls. Why can’t we all just get along?
AA: And girls are wondering why the guys won’t put down the guitar! And instead the girls should be picking up the guitar.
KV: It’ll happen. It just takes that one girl and then the archetype will enter popular discourse.
AA: That’s the key. It just takes the one and the archetype enters. And that’s what will create ‘The Girl Wonder.’