The life of Darby Crash and the Germs was based around a five-year plan. Director Rodger Grossman would spend triple that amount of time making a film version of the events surrounding those five years. What We Do Is Secret is a biopic of Crash (played by Shane West) – a young individual with powerful focus and drive who began the hardcore punk scene in LA during the ’70s. Crash would speak to his friends about his five-year plan, which included getting band members, instruments, gigs, and then advertise all before they could learn how to play.
What We Do Is Secret had its Montreal premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 6 and was hosted by director Grossman. The auditorium was packed to the rafters – most of the viewers would be classified as “punk” though that is merely a sartorial speculation. Punk has less to do with clothing than it does with attitude and commitment – and Grossman is a fine example of that.
To see Grossman on the street you would not think that he has spent the last 15 years hanging out with former members of the Germs, Black Flag, or Penelope Spheeris (director of The Decline of Western Civilization). Or that Pat Smears, former lead guitarist of the Germs, Nirvana and Foo Fighters would go over to Grossman’s house bringing with him his vinyl and CD collection to decide what should be in the film.
In fact, Grossman looks like many English professors – longish brown hair and stylish glasses, untucked dress shirt, jeans, and sneakers. He answered many audience questions after the screening, the first one being something along the lines of “How can you have the ego make a film where someone says ‘punk is dead’ when it was during the beginning of punk?” The girl who asked was very young and the audience shouted at her, one saying “Were you there?” and another “Next question!” but Grossman entertained her crassness and was very pleasant and explained how that throughout production he had the bands who created that scene and they were all very happy about the end result. He added that the filmmakers’ approach was that if it wasn’t present during the actual events then it wouldn’t appear in the fictional account.
After the audience Q&A, I got a chance to talk with Grossman a little bit and he agreed to do an interview with me for the next day. We talked for over half an hour and this is what was said:
Keith: To me, being punk or living a punk lifestyle is quite a commitment – in the same way as making a film. There is order to the seeming chaos which allows for a visual fluidity (both in “punk” and film). How did you prepare yourself for this commitment?
Rodger: Wow. That’s a good question. Let me think. I didn’t really understand – I don’t think I knew what I was getting into. I was just out of film school. I felt the story was compelling and I had to see it through to the end. I don’t feel I was really prepared until it just started happening.
K: We talked briefly last night about your placement of camera and how tight the shots were in order to make the audience feel they were a part of the performances. You said there was an entire order to how you placed the camera – does that go beyond the regular storyboarding sessions?
R: Well, it started in the conceptual stage and my idea was to change the audience’s relationship to Darby and the band and the performances as the film progressed. So you’ll notice that when you look at the first performances the camera is actually above the Germs looking down on them, and as we get further in the movie the band starts rising and the camera starts going down until the last performance and you’re looking up at them. It’s actually something that I’m really proud of because it’s a very subtle effect. And you know, kudos to you because no one has mentioned it, yet. But you know, we start sort of above the Germs and we end with the Germs being above us.
K: That’s great. I wish I had picked up on it a bit more.
R: There’s a lot of things about this movie that you’ll see if you see it repeatedly. I still pick up on things that people put in there that I hadn’t noticed before. We talked about a lot of things conceptually that we wanted to do and a lot of is in there, [but] we were moving so fast that even I didn’t catch a lot of the stuff that we had talked about. It’s a very dense film and there’s a lot to see there. I think people that see it for a second or third time actually start to enjoy it more because there’s so many references and hidden little Easter eggs in there that you discover as you go.
K: I look forward to the second time I see it. This leads to another question that I have. When you show a film that is so much a part of your life you are essentially putting yourself in front of hundreds of people. How many times has this film screened with you in the audience? How did you feel during the screenings?
R: Well, honestly I used to be – I don’t know if “terrified” is the word, but it was almost like an out-of-body experience because it was such a personal film that to put it out there it feels like you’re just bearing your soul. And I think I am bearing my soul. And it’s not even about being nervous, it’s so far beyond that. But as we’ve screened it a lot more and now we’ve been at, I don’t know, 15 film festivals or more and we’ve screened it as many as three times at each festival. So, now I know what the audience’s reaction is going to be and it has always been positive. People are embracing this movie. And many people truly love this movie. We have not had a bad screening. So, now I go into these screenings feeling a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident. I’m actually really enjoying the process.
K: As a 15-year commitment, or more, how has your life changed during these years? Were you always working on this project, or did you have real breaks, beginning other projects?
R: I’ve worked on a lot of other projects, but the interesting thing is that this film has been in active development or production at one company or another ever since I finished the first draft of the script. Which was a year or two after I started the process. So I’ve always been working on this and it’s gotten very close to being made at other companies, but then fallen apart. So no matter what I’ve been doing, I’ve always been doing this movie.
K: So you did this right out of film school?
R: I did. I started this after I graduated from the American Film Institute.
K: Really? Wow. That’s incredible. What kind of projects did you do there?
R: I made three short films at AFI. One was a Charles Bukowski short.
K: Oh, really?
R: Yeah – it’s one of my favorite things that I’ve ever done and I would love to remake it sometime if I could find the money to make a short film. And I’d like to do it on a little bit of a bigger scale.
K: So you had someone portraying Bukowski?
R: Yeah, it’s a short story. I mean obviously his stories are first person and very personal, but I cast someone as that character. And it worked out great. It’s a really exciting short that I love. That I’d love to do at some point. And then interestingly, I worked with a writer, a really phenomenal writer named Jesse Alexander who’s now a producer on Heroes. He came to me with the idea of doing Men in Black which was before Dreamworks had made the movie. And at AFI we didn’t have to secure any rights because these films were never made for the public, they were just exercises. So, on our two thousand-dollar budget we made Men in Black as a short, which was pretty funny. The effects didn’t turn out so great because we were told that rendering times were going to be a lot faster on the spaceship than they actually were. And at AFI you have a really short window to make your film and then they take it away from you. So, the spaceship turned out kind of half-rendered – which is kind of funny. But it was pretty fun.
K: Wow. That’s very interesting.
R: Yeah, very ambitious, you know, for a two thousand-dollar student film that you shoot in four days.
K: Well you’re definitely not lacking in ambition, I can tell that.
K: What films or which directors are your influences?
R: Let’s see – there’s so many. I love a lot of the studio directors of the golden era of Hollywood. I love Minelli, and Sturges and Hitchcock – I love Bob Fosse. Scorsese obviously is fantastic. And then filmmakers today – I think I love individual movies because so many people run hot and cold. I loved The Sweet Hereafter, I thought it was phenomenal.
K: You mentioned Bob Fosse and last night you mentioned that you kind of treat this movie as a musical. Do you have much musical background? Or are you a really big fan of musicals? Thinking of musicals compared to What We Do Is Secret and I can see some correlation.
R: Well, you know, I do love musicals. And I’ve studied musicals. I love Minelli musicals especially. The way I approached this was as a musical, structurally. There’s a sub-section of musicals that are performance musicals and this is very much a performance musical in my mind. Structurally, it is like a musical in that there are a specific number of musical numbers and it has to be the right amount. It can’t be too many, it can’t be too few for pacing purposes. And each musical number drives narrative. It’s not like you get to a performance and then all of a sudden the engine of the film stops and you watch a performance. It’s that each musical number has ramifications from a story or character perspective and it keeps the narrative kinetic and it keeps the movie going forward. That’s how I approached it, and I’m very proud of that approach and I’m proud that it does work and it does keep the movie moving.
K: There’s another element that keeps the movie going and that’s the recorded portions of the movie – the interview aspects or the documentary aspects. And those are shot in black in white and everything that is meant to be happening is in color. Is that a way to differentiate between the two, or do you have an opinion where recorded life is black and white – it is what it is.
R: Well, actually what we did was we made the Darby interviews in black in white and the other ones are in color. The idea is that the ones that are in color were made after Darby’s killed himself – from that perspective. And the Darby ones are obviously made while he’s alive, but they have a little bit of a rougher documentary feel. We use a different lens, this special shift and tilt lens that gives it a different quality. We framed them differently and we did them in black and white to really set them off and make it feel like a different beast. And I think that it’s an interesting approach; it’s interesting and effective.
K: There are just a few scenes that I wanted to touch on. There’s a scene where Darby smashes a mirror during a performance, there’s all this energy and I always feel that smashing mirrors is very symbolic – a person seeing their reflection and then smashing it. What does that scene mean to you? What does it represent in your opinion?
R: (Laughing.) To me personally it kind of represents victory.
R: Well, I’ll tell you it’s an interesting story about that scene. It was always one of the pivotal scenes in the movie for me and one of the most important ones. We shot this film over three different periods, because we kept running out of money. And after the first period, which was a fifteen-day shoot, we only had about eighty percent of the film completed, even less. Probably seventy percent of the film. And at that point some of the investors and the producer didn’t want to shoot any more footage. So, there was a struggle that went on to raise more money and convince the team that we needed to shoot more. And one of the scenes that we did not have was the “We Must Bleed” performance, which I felt was absolutely critical to telling the story.
That shot of him looking at his reflection and smashing the mirror, to me, was the iconic image and the iconic moment of the film. Without that I felt that this movie could never be complete. I’m happy that you hit on that because actually getting that performance was a huge victory for me, personally, and a victory for the film because it meant that we were actually on the road to completing this movie.
K: That’s a great story.
R: Yeah. I mean, obviously Darby was suicidal – that’s how the movie ends. He was self-destructive. I think that smashing your own reflection is emblematic of that. A very powerful visual metaphor for that.
K: Another scene that I was curious about was the ending with the juxtaposition of John Lennon’s death; it was quite powerful. Was Pat Smear really watching the news footage of Lennon’s death when he heard about Darby Crash or was that a creative liberty?
R: I’m not sure if that is how it actually played. Creative liberties for sure. The John Lennon got a lot of press for many, many days while everyone in the scene was mourning Darby.
K: You mentioned that you were not a fan of the Germs until after Darby’s death – but you must have known about John Lennon. How did that affect you?
R: It’s one of those things where everybody knows where they were when it happened. I was a young kid and I remember going into my notebook and writing about it. A lot of times when you read about Darby, you see Lennon. Everybody was mourning Lennon and in the punk scene they were mourning Darby. It came up so much that I realized it was such an important touchstone and [I] used it.
K: That ending scene was quite emotional. You play David Bowie’s “Five Years” and I have never had an emotional reaction to that song until last night.
R: Yeah. Me neither. It was a sort of chart song, a Bowie classic. But once I put it up to the picture it took on a meaning and an emotion for me that I had never had before. And I think it’s absolutely incredible and I am so grateful to David Bowie for letting us use it.
K: It’s amazing. I mean, it’s your first feature and you’ve got Bowie songs, and Alice Cooper and Joy Division right? That’s quite impressive.
R: Yeah, we actually have three Bowie songs – um…
K: Yeah – “Rock and Roll Suicide” and “Queen Bitch,” right?
R: Yeah. We have an extraordinary music supervisor named Howard Paar. And he prepared me for not getting them. Pat [Smear] and I would go over [the] music. He would come with his CDs and vinyl and we chose whatever we wanted. We were just dreaming. And then Howard went out and got them. Oddly enough, Pat and I both actually wrote personal letters to David Bowie about the songs.
K: Did he respond?
R: Not with a letter, but we got the songs.
K: I guess he responded. Who saw the first screening of the final cut? How did you feel when it was done?
R: I saw the film at the LA Film Festival while still editing. We had a very short post period; it was an insane mad dash to the finish line – I was working around the clock, on the mixing stage, color suite, simultaneously. A lot of the elements I never saw all together until we actually screened the film, 10 pm on a Saturday night. We screened it digitally because we didn’t have enough money for a film print. But it looked beautiful and sounded beautiful, and it was in a really big theatre with a great sound system. It was a really emotional experience for a number of reasons. I hadn’t slept in weeks also. That was the first time I had seen it.
K: What is next for you? Another passion project?
R: I don’t know if I’ll ever have another passion project like this. I have a couple of scripts I’m working on which are thrilling stories that I can’t wait to tell.
What We Do Is Secret is scheduled to open in select US cities in August/September 2008.
© Keith Waterfield
What We Do Is Secret images: Kevin Estrada