[tabs tab1=”Intro” tab2=”Background” tab3=”Strutter” tab4=”Industry” tab5=”Message” count=”5″]
American movie STRUTTER turned out to be one of the sleeper hits of TOKYO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL (TIFF) 2012. Brought to us by LA-based ALLISON ANDERS and KURT VOSS (“Border Radio,” “Sugar Town”), the film took the press by surprise with its crisp black-and-white look, funky music, quirky characters, and hilariously awkward moments featuring lead character Brett played by real-life musician Flannery Lunsford, around whom the core of the storyline was built.
With its charm and artistic yet powerful simplicity, the movie had the press audience in fits of laughter – no easy feat in a city where giggling in public is usually left to the teen population. Seemingly appealing to both male and female members, it successfully tapped into the geeky ‘otaku’ mentality of many a Japanese adolescent who had now grown up to be film journalist. The biggest guffaws emanated from male middle-aged journos slumped in their seats after night after night of zero sleep, appearing sincerely grateful for the chance to let loose and enjoy the snappy dialogue and clumsy antics of the protagonist. At least they weren’t falling asleep – always a good sign in Japan. In short: this film had one of the best audience reactions I’ve ever seen in a Tokyo press screening. So, congratulations to the “Strutter” team, first of all.
Having said that, it didn’t seem to gather much buzz during the festival, simply due to the lack of pushing ahead of time, but those who did see it had for the most part instantly fallen in love with it. This is a film which is organically gathering a cult following – surely the best kind of following.
It’s not too difficult to fall in love also with Kurt Voss and Sara Ashley, Kurt being the film’s co-director/writer and Sara the actress who plays Brett’s friend Tessa (in her first acting role), as they float around the festival awe-inspired and soaking up the intricacies of Japanese culture, food and people. It’s refreshing to talk to dedicated artists so humble and willing to engage with and learn more about the city that they find themselves in. Bumping into each other outside of the press screening, they are eager to hear feedback and meet their public. It’s not too long before I realise that they are incredibly passionate and down-to-earth, true believers in the beauty of film and essentially in people. They ooze ‘LA’ chill as we get familiar while showing them round some sights in Tokyo. From one big city to another, the meeting of international minds through culture is always inspiring, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they were to come back to Japan sooner rather than later.
So, tell me about your background and entry into film.
KURT: Allison (Anders) and I actually met at junior college. I was a high school dropout, she was 9 years my senior and was just coming back to school – she’d had children and they were at the age where she could put them in daycare. We were both film fanatics – Allison especially had an encyclopaedic knowledge – so we’d stay up and watch films on TV at 3 in the morning. We both got the idea at junior college to apply to UCLA, and we were accepted into the programme together which statistically was unusual – even at that time, it was difficult to get into. From there on, we were off and running – in fact, we started that feature the minute I completed my undergraduate degree, so I was about 20 years old and pretty keen.
I trained at UCLA film school, graduated in ‘82, and the first film I made out of university was “Border Radio” which was a punkrock black and white movie about bands in Los Angeles which I codirected with Allison. This latest film is a return to that film. In between, I’ve made of whole lot of films, my CV’s all over the map: I’ve done some art stuff, Sundance movies, shoot ‘em up with Ice-T, B movies, a “Poison Ivy” sequel with Jaime Pressly – it was a money job but a good one because it’s a picture that’s lived on and had a long afterlife.
It’s quite unusual to meet someone early on that you click with and share similar ideas with, but were you always clear about what you wanted to do?
KURT: Well the first film was just a matter of expedience. Allison and I and a third student who is also credited as a director on “Border Radio” had all made black and white short films in the programme. We acted as each other’s crew, so people in the department said there was a similarity in style, and in fact there was: we were really interested in new German cinema, that was the altar that we worshipped at the time – Herzog, and Wenders was Allison’s favourite – in fact, Dean and Allison went on to PA on “Paris, Texas” as part of their work studies. “Stranger Than Paradise” was coming out, that whole cycle was just beginning – it was kind of a wave, so we felt very much a part of that, aesthetically. Allison and I have a-30 year relationship and there’s been quite an ebb and flow to it.
What about you, Sara?
SARA: This was my first feature film. Up until filming “Strutter,” I was a student in junior college – my focus was in English literature and writing, which I hope to pursue again, one day…
KURT: It was a good opportunity to drop out…
So, you’re creating this whole generation of dropouts, Kurt?!
KURT: Yeah, exactly!
SARA: School is just not for me… It’s not to say that I don’t have interests and educational goals, but I don’t like university atmospheres and environments – I’m uncomfortable in them.
So how did you get on board the “Strutter” project, Sara?
SARA: I met Kurt through a mutual friend of mine, Flannery Lunsford, who played the lead in “Strutter” and that’s how we all got together.
KURT: In fact, among the many things Allison does, she teaches at UC Santa Barbara, and our lead actor Flannery was her teaching assistant, grading her papers and so forth, and then I substitute taught for Allison on a couple of occasions when she couldn’t make it to class. Flannery’s one of these puppy dog kids in the front row who’s really keen, so we became fast friends. Again, we had a trio, because Flannery was definitely the third leg in the tripod. Once we got the thing rolling, we kind of took Flannery’s whole life in total and pulled it into the movie. The band that’s featured in the movie is his band, the girlfriend is his girlfriend, and Sara is friends with his girlfriend so she was in fact the friend.
There’s something very ‘retro’ about the film in the way it’s been pulled together. It’s something that doesn’t happen as much these days – filmmakers pointing the camera on an existing group of friends…
KURT: And the film turned out to be predictive too, because the band broke up, the relationship went south…
Oh, it’s like a curse!
KURT: Yeah, that’s what Flannery always says, he calls it the “Strutter” curse.
SARA: Yeah, the “Strutter” prophecy!
Did all that happen quite soon after it was completed or actually during the process of filming?
SARA: During the process, I became more aware that tensions between people were becoming more evident, there were more arguments between friends…
KURT: But the film didn’t expedite that process – bands are always fighting and breaking up. The whole picture’s like that. Craig Stark, who plays the father figure, lived for years out in Joshua Tree. He’s a musician torn between LA and Joshua Tree and he’s got a long interesting CV: he was factotum to both Brando and Nicholson so he’s got a pedigree in that sense. He lived on the ranch that Victoria Williams is in in the film – that’s her property – and Craig was going through what he described as a mid-life crisis at the time of the film, he’d just broken up with a young girl… so we wrote all that into the film. It was really like looking in the refrigerator, seeing what was in there and making something out of that, like a parlour game.
So in terms of scripting, did you consciously go to these guys and ask what’s going on in their lives?
KURT: No, it happened naturally. Flannery and Craig would come round to my place 11 or 12 o’clock at night, and they’d bang on the piano for a couple of hours and vent. So it just gestated in that way – that was the beginning of it. Then Allison attacked it from a different angle and brought her sensibility: the mother talking about the transience of romantic love and the importance of friendship, which is something that I would never put in. So the movie’s a little bit of a dialogue.
You clearly have a love of music, Kurt, and it really comes across in this film. It’s quite an honest depiction of the lost musician. Did you relate personally to those characters?
KURT: Of course, I related quite a bit to the Terry Graham character who owns the music store – I wrote most of those scenes. Yeah, I drew in a lot of my own experience, but also knowing so many musicians for so many years, all of these crises are very predictable: the odds of becoming a hit band are astronomical, it’s very hard to monetise.
I enjoyed the scene with the debate over what a “muse” is, and we learn more about Justine, a character that we never see but who dominates in the background, seemingly driving guys crazy. Did that come from you Kurt or Allison?
KURT: That’s Allison. And also it was her idea that we not see this character. We were originally going to have her in the picture, but we had trouble casting – we just couldn’t find the right person, and Allison had the brainwave of having her off-screen since no-one would live up to this mythic heartbreaker… Allison has had her male muses over the years – “Grace of My Heart” was a picture that was driven by an impossible love of hers. So this idea of an absolute muse is something that has run through her own work.
It’s rare that you see any film talking about this, but many artists will understand what is being referred to: an unattainable creature or success which somehow drives you on…
KURT: Yeah, it could be anything. You need that grist to be inspired – it needn’t be a person, it could be an idea or an impulse. And you’re always searching for that, then you’re empty and you need to find that again and regenerate to keep going – it’s very tricky.
I also love the scene where the mother talks to Brett about the importance of friendship in relationships….
SARA: Oh, yeah… “Romantic love is a drug… but honey, that doesn’t last.”
Yes, it’s rare for any film to verbalize that. Even in this day and age, we still rarely see characters being so open and honest about decisions in life…
KURT: True, very true. Allison didn’t really have an agenda with that scene, it just happened naturally. The mother, by the way, is played by her sister who is also in “Border Radio.”
Another connection! And how do you feel about the film’s reception so far?
It’s great, people like it and are passionately fond of it, so that’s fantastic. It’s obviously not for everyone. But that is the trick for all filmmakers – how do you find that community or that sliver of people out there.
On that subject, there was a review I read about “Strutter” where the writer claimed that people under 30 wouldn’t be interested in the film – I’d say that’s a pretty narrow-minded assessment…
SARA: The Hollywood Reporter? Yeah, I think the rest of the sentence is that it’s almost inaccessible to the Miley Cyrus generation… I don’t think that’s necessarily true…
KURT: That being said, in Mill Valley, we had septuagenarians coming up saying, “Oh, I love this movie!” so maybe we should go the other direction with our audience! No, going back to what we were saying about mum’s advice about romantic love, does a 19-year old want to go to the movies and hear a lecture from mum? No. But this also happened when Allison and I did “Sugar Town” in ‘99, the one with John Taylor and Martin Kemp about musicians in their 40s living in Los Angeles, who are very successful and trying to re-invent themselves. We thought we were making a ‘youth movie’ there too, but that’s very much a middle-age spread movie and that’s also got a family theme in it: family is where you find it, chasing the brass ring is fine but home and hearth, and all that…
Well you got a really good reaction last night at the press screening.
The film was impressively funded 100% through Kickstarter. Do you feel that independent film is now in a good position in the States?
KURT: I’d say it’s the best of times and the worst of times. I mean, technology and the miniaturisation of the cameras is just incredible – we made this movie for 22,000 dollars in cash, and 2,000 dollars we owe in music, so it would be under 25,000, and that’s it. We even bought the cameras, the lenses, the sound gear – that includes all the equipment we used to make the movie, except for the lighting kit which was borrowed from a buddy of mine in the film department.
So did a lot of that help come through your network?
KURT: Absolutely. And the celebrities listed at the end of the film are all friends of Allison’s. She’s an incredibly charismatic woman who’s generated a lot of goodwill over the years.
Being the first film set you’ve worked on, Sara, how was it? You had a really broad range of people around you…
SARA: The set was very intimate, so I was very comfortable every day with my first script, reading my first lines.
Is it something you’re going to do again?
SARA: Yes. More and more I’m becoming aware that it is something that I want to do further. And I want to work together with Kurt again.
Do a completely different role maybe?
SARA: Yes! And maybe be a lead next time. In fact, I hung out on set at “Strutter” more and more so they would put me in more! In the opening scene, I’m in the background. I showed up that day, and Kurt said, “You can go in the back and just smoke and pretend like you’re talking…”
So it pays to be on set?
SARA: Yes, it pays to be on set!
KURT: I mean, if you look at the credits, there are names that come up over and over again. Allison’s son is in the movie like 5 times as an extra, it’s almost like Where’s Waldo: he’s in the club, he’s at the pier, he’s having drinks when Flannery knocks the beer into the pool. He’s a moustachioed guy and he’s in throughout the film.
And Sara, you’re learning the industry as you’re going along. The film industry is traditionally male-dominated and notoriously difficult to make a living off, but does it scare you at all to jump in the deep end?
SARA: It doesn’t scare me, because I know what to expect – not much! I’ve learned so much, and I even picked up the camera a few weeks ago and shot some stuff and found out that I wasn’t too bad a cameraman so I feel very inspired. I’m just going to finish a script I’m working on for a feature. I jumped straight into it because I saw how Strutter was written and created.
KURT: It demystifies the process…
In your case, Kurt, you’ve been making films for a while. How do you keep going? What’s your driving force in terms of going forwards and making films?
KURT: Boy, at this point, I just feel like I’m having a gun fight and keep shooting until I fall down! If you’re talking about the ‘plan’ to keep going, I’m not sure, except to keep making films. Going back to your question about the state of independent film being the best and worst of times: the best is because the tools are so accessible and it’s an incredible democratic turn of events where anyone can pick up a camera and make a feature, but the bad news is that it’s harder to recoup your costs because it’s a very glutted market, and theatrical is very weak especially for independents. Viewers in America have migrated to television, not just because it’s simpler to sit at home, they like the format – they like “Mad Men” that runs for 5 years and they grow with these characters. These TV series have replaced the novel, and film has been relegated to the spectacle.
It’s a shame, because it could affect the scriptwriting for a lot of films in terms of what’s marketable…
KURT: There’s not much that is marketable. Allison’s contention is that the ‘adult drama’ is fairly dead. We were just in Tucson for the film and music festival there, where we met an old producer friend of ours who’s produced I think 40 or 50 films through RCA Columbia – he pulled the trigger on “Reservoir Dogs,” Allison’s “Gas Food Lodging,” and a picture of mine “Genuine Risk” with Terence Stamp, and he has a new picture with a lot of cast and a 3 million dollar budget, but he can’t sell it. He said he can sell it to Netflix for 40,000 dollars! So, it’s really tough – you gotta make these things as cheap as possible. I think it’s great though, I’m a guttersnipe myself. I was saying earlier my hero was always Werner Herzog. As a kid, I loved his attitude Columbia – when he did “Nosferatu” for the studios, they asked him what he needed to write the script and he said, “Well, I need 2 dollars for the paper.”
For me, I think the upside is that if you can’t justify your actions with your money, then the only standard becomes excellence, so it could have a positive effect on the work – it could lead to a renaissance of sorts.
Any words of advice to pass on to the next generation of filmmakers?
KURT: Go for it. The equipment is there, and if you start the project, considering how little you can finish something for, if you’re diligent, it’s inevitable that you will complete. The result is not something you can control. Past that point, you have to surrender to fate a little bit. You can apply your will and do it, so I don’t see any reason anyone shouldn’t dive in.
SARA: My advice for young people who want to get involved in making films is: Go to the film festivals, go to the directors’ lounge, have business cards ready, strike up conversations with producers and directors and say, “I’ll work for free on your next film.” You’ll establish a relationship and get your foot in there. Start with a film festival.
It’s great that you say that, because the future of film festivals is very much up in the air, but you think that festivals serve a strong purpose?
SARA: Oh yes! Yes, I do.
KURT: In fact, they may be replacing theatrical for smaller films, which is to say your festival run is your theatrical and then you have to find somewhere to place your film on the heels of that.
So the festival circuit remains very important for independent filmmakers?
KURT: Yes, extremely. Actually one practical piece of advice is: whatever your budget, reserve 30% of that for promotions and festival submissions – that can run to a thousand or 2 thousand dollars. Don’t think that just finishing the film is it – the finish line is a little further down from locking your picture.