Q&A with Sugar Town's Allison Anders

| 17 Feb 2015 | 01:26

    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 that world.

    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, the answer.

    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 endlessly.

    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.