As a film critic, it’s beneficial to see things from the other side of the silver screen every now and then, to know that there are real people and real passions behind many of the films I nonchalantly bang out 600 words on. Granted, film criticism would die as an art if every critic took into account the blood that was shed for each film, but speaking with those doing the bleeding from time to time puts things in perspective.
And if anyone has ever shed blood for a film, it’s Rodger Grossman, director of the Darby Crash biopic What We Do Is Secret (you can find my review here). Extremely gracious with his time, I had the chance to speak with Rodger on the phone for over an hour about his labor of love, what the original band members’ reaction to it was, and whether or not he pays any attention to film critics. The edited transcript is below.
Evan Derrick: I’m always fascinated by complex or dramatic production stories, and I know that you had some real difficulties getting the film made. How long have you been working on it?
Rodger Grossman: Well, I’ve been working on this movie for about 15 years.
ED: That is a long time.
RG: It is a long time. If you want to pick a type of project that’s hard to make, I couldn’t imagine anything more difficult than this: it’s a biopic of someone who is not well known, there’s homosexuality, intravenous drug use, punk rock, a young cast that is not well known. There’s not really room for the type of main actors that fund this sort of movie, so it’s a miracle that it exists. And it really only exists for one reason: people were passionate for the subject matter and fought like hell to get it done. It’s really a tribute to people coming together and being persistent against all odds, and not because there was any big paycheck out there, because there certainly was never a promise of that with this film.
ED: Was there ever a moment where you wanted to give up or thought to yourself, “This film will never get made?”
RG: No. There were tons of moments where I should have thought that, and if I was thinking logically and not emotionally, I probably would have given up. But I was always dedicated to getting this film done whatever the cost and I never gave up on it.
ED: To take a notion from the film, what was the germ of that passion for you?
RG: I felt that there had never been a movie that had done punk rock justice and I was heavily influenced by The Germs and Penelope Spheeris’ The Decline of Western Civilization and by Darby. I wanted to do this story right and I wanted to do it justice and a lot of people put their faith in me and at a certain point I just couldn’t let them down and I couldn’t let myself down. I had put too much of my life into this to see it fail. There was a point of no return and I knew that I couldn’t live my life having failed at this because I would always look back and think, if only I had pushed harder or been more aggressive or tried this and I couldn’t live the rest of my life second guessing myself, thinking what if. Making movies is the only thing I’ve ever been truly passionate about and really wanted to do and I could never be more passionate than about this movie or invested myself more in it. I think the subject matter and Darby’s journey are pretty similar. He was on a one way course and I saw myself on kind of a similar journey, obviously not leading to suicide, but leading to the successful completion of my objective. And there was no way I could give up on it.
ED: I have to credit you for you tenacity.
RG: Thank you.
ED: Do you remember the first moment you heard The Germs?
RD: I do actually. I’m a photographer and I was in my darkroom printing photographs and at my parents house, and I think it was ‘81 or ‘82, and Rodney Bingenheimer played “My Tunnel” on his Sunday night radio show, and I used to tape the show. So I heard the song and I was blown away by it. So I went back and listened to it repeatedly and I felt like it was something very unique and dark and haunting. So I went and I bought my first punk rock record, which was called “What We Do Is Secret,” which is why the movie is called What We Do Is Secret.
ED: That’s another question I had. From a marketing standpoint, as generic and pedestrian as a title like “Darby Crash and the Germs” would be, it seems to make more sense.
RD: There was a producer who lobbied very hard to have the movie called “Darby Crash,” but I just stood my ground because the first punk rock record I ever bought was called “What We Do Is Secret” and I always called the movie that, from my first draft, and in my mind that’s what the movie has always been called.
ED: I know the surviving band members were intimately involved with the film, but what was it like showing it to Pat and Lorna and Don for the very first time?
RG: From my perspective?
RG: It was terrifying, but there were different phases of that. During shooting, there was one scene right before they perform for The Decline of Western Civilization, where we recreated the “Manimal” performance, and Shane [Shane West, the actor playing Darby] is shooting dope and Rick Gonzalez [playing Pat Smear] says, “Is this what we’re all about? Do you need to do that?” And Shane tells him to go away. I turned around as I was shooting that and Pat, the real Pat Smear, was standing there. And he was just like, “F—!” and then he walked away. And I didn’t know what that meant. Was the scene too harsh? Did he not like the portrayal? So I finished the scene and I chased after him, and I found him out in the parking lot smoking a cigarette and asked him if he was cool, and he said, “Yeah, it was just so real, it freaked me out.”
RG: And there were other times, like when Paul Roessler from The Screamers was there and he just took me aside and gave me a big hug and said, “I feel, like being here on set, that you’ve brought my friend back to life, and I get to spend a little more time with him. Thank you so much for that.” That’s the deepest validation, to hear from The Germs or friends of Darby who say, “You brought my friend back to life for me.” Some of them couldn’t even watch the ending because they feel it’s too close to what actually happened. I’ve spent a lot of time with Lorna and Don, and they saw a lot of what happened in the film, because they were involved. We had script meetings and they were on set and I interviewed all of them. Our objective was always to make it as real as we could, and I feel like we really got there.
ED: Switching gears a little bit, one of the things that I really admired about the film was, obviously you had a very small budget, but it didn’t seem to be a liability. In many ways you really made it an asset. I didn’t notice any really big establishing shots that probably would have been harder and more expensive to pull off as vintage late 70s L.A., and you seemed to shoot a lot of close-ups and mediums, but it gave the film a kind of claustrophobic feeling which I think really helped. Were those conscious decisions, to really harness your low budget?
RG: Oh, sure. The budget of this movie affected our decision making process every step of the way. It’s a very astute observation that you made. The limitations became our partner in a certain sense, and it was always something we were mindful of, and it dictated so much of what we did. There’s one scene in there that speaks to this perhaps the most directly, the scene where Rob and Darby are sitting on the bed, and Darby shoots him up for the first time. In that scene we didn’t have enough money to build that set, I mean we had no money. And I asked the production designer, “What can you give me?” and he said, “Well, I can give you the bed. I can give you a wall. And that’s it.” And I asked for spraypaint and he gave me that, so we spraypainted the wall and I shot it really tight. Would I have shot it differently if I had had a full set? Probably. There’s all sorts of ways you can stage that scene. But that intimacy works, and I think it’s great. Another example, we had one big day, where we built 5 different stages and we did 6 different performances and we did MySpace blasts and we got people to come out for free. And we shot the bigger scenes at the beginning of the day as we had more extras, and the more intimate scenes as we kept going.
ED: As the free people left.
RG: Right, people would just start peeling off and that affected our coverage. The whole movie obviously had a plan, but we also had to create a B plan, a C plan, a D plan, because we had to keep factoring in all the different things that could screw up every plan. It was as challenging as any filmmaking experience that you could imagine because the plan was always changing, and budget did that to us. We had to work with given circumstances rather than what we created.
ED: Talking about the concerts, I loved how each of their gigs was titled very specifically. They weren’t generic shows, but specific places and dates and times, and it made them all feel like very unique events, as if each concert could be studied on its own in how it contributed to Darby’s evolution or the evolution to The Germs. What was your approach thematically and stylistically to the concerts?
RG: We did pick specific events and I structured the movie like a musical, in that there’s a very specific number of musicals, interspersed between narrative, but that the musical numbers drive narrative. So there’s really no way to remove a song or a performance from this film and have the film still make sense. In other words, all of the musical performances are weight bearing. So each one we approached differently, stylistically, according to what the meaning of that scene is. One little thing we did was we changed Darby and the band’s relationship to the camera as we moved through time, so at the beginning the camera looks down on them.
ED: Yeah, now that you say that, I remember that in the very first performance, where it’s like public access and they’re just terrible, the camera was much higher there.
RG: And then at the end, at the Starwood, we’re really looking up at The Germs. The coverage, the approach, everything that we did has a different meaning and resonance that is unique to that specific number.
ED: This is your first feature, right?
ED: Have you read any critical reactions to it?
RG: I have, yes.
ED: How does that affect you?
RG: It’s important to not get too high or too low. The response to this movie ranges all over the map…
ED: I noticed that.
RG: …and it’s been called the best musical biopic ever as well as the worst movie released this year. And I could really go crazy if I believed either of those. I always knew it was going to be a lightning rod for criticism, just as The Germs were lightning rods for criticism. I spoke with Lorna the other day and I said, “Does it surprise you that people are so vocal about this movie, both positive and negative?” and she’s like, “No, absolutely not, that’s exactly what it should be. When we were out there people loved us and people hated us, so this is perfect.” So I think all the debate is fantastic. Of course people are going to love the movie and of course people are going to hate it – it’s a Germs movie. Love it or hate it, it’s out there, which is the best thing possible. That, to me, is the greatest victory. There’s so much to be proud of here, so much great work in the movie by so many talented people. And I’m really grateful for the opportunity to have this film out there and for the hard work that everyone’s put into it.
ED: Has it opened up any opportunities for you?
RG: It has. I’m taking a bunch of meetings at some different companies.
ED: Do you have specific projects you’re working on and can you share?
RG: I have two scripts that I’m finishing up right now, and they’re both really exciting and hopefully I’ll have something to announce soon. That would be great.
Listen to selections from my interview with Rodger Grossman on Episode 6 of the MovieZeal Podcast.