I caught What We Do Is Secret as part of the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal on July 6. It was packed – most of the audience had been waiting many, many years for a film about their favorite band, The Germs and frontman Darby Crash.
The film’s title comes from an album of the same name produced in 1981 – after Crash’s suicide. It was the first record that director Rodger Grossman bought and needless to say it had a lasting impression on him as he has spent 15 years making this film. He hosted the screening, staying for almost an hour afterward doing a Q&A session.
What We Do Is Secret has created much success, not just for Grossman but for Shane West (who plays Crash) and the Germs. The band got back together (for the first time since 1980) during production of the film and recruited West as their lead singer after hearing/seeing his performances in the studios. They tour when guitarist Pat Smear is not working his day job with the Foo Fighters.
Smear also worked on the film very closely with Grossman. He sat for hours of interviews and also taught the actors how to play the instruments properly so that the performances in What We Do Is Secret were as authentic as possible – they are playing and West is singing. The entire film is based on authenticity and honesty. Of course, some people were left out, but how can you cover someone’s entire life and surroundings in just 92 minutes when you’re on a very low budget? Grossman said that they “made nickels scream” and that several times the financing had fallen through. The Germs’ first gig as a reunited band was at the wrap party for the film – but there was no film, only a party. Even so, the filmmakers went on and made one hell of a film.
In the beginning What We Do Is Secret showcases West’s eerie resemblance of Crash. Not just physically, but emotionally, vocally, spiritually even. The film is intercut with interview clips of Darby Crash (West) as he talks about the band’s formation and his five-year plan. This is where the film introduces Crash’s infatuation with circles and how everything comes back around. There are other interview sessions with band members Pat Smear (Rick Gonzalez), Lorna Doom (Bijou Phillips) and Don Bolles (Noah Segan), who are talking about Crash after his suicide at the age of 22.
The film begins with the audience having an impression of its ending, but it’s in now way predictable. One of the first comments about Crash by a band member is that his mom was like a character from a John Waters movie. And there’s a scene of supposed home videos and I’ll be damned if Grossman didn’t go and dig up Edith Massey for that role. The casting is phenomenal and each actor holds their own in this ensemble piece (though West is the star).
What We Do Is Secret sets itself apart from other biopics and “punk” pics by fully capturing the rise and esoteric fame of the Germs and their scene in LA during the ’70s. While a huge part of the film is drugs, sex, and self-harm – these issues are not the main focus, which is usually the case with “drug” or “punk” films that don’t have substance (as opposed to substance abuse) to rely on. But What We Do Is Secret is more than just the band’s exterior actions; it is about the commitment and passion that Crash felt toward his band and his friends. It is about their friendship and his surrounding himself with all these great people. Yet, it’s not contrived as I’m probably making it sound.
What We Do Is Secret is raw and fresh and exciting. It covers important aspects of Crash’s life, his homosexuality and insecurities, his pleasure of pain, his relationship with Rob Henley (Ashton Holmes) and the fighting within the band. The film has as many funny scenes as highly intense, emotional ones. When these characters laugh you laugh with them as though they were your friends, and when they cry you cry with them too. The performances also bring the audience in – so much so that I felt the need to cheer during the end of each of the live performances (and I wasn’t the only one).
On top of all the energy and emotion that Grossman put into his 15-year labor of love, What We Do Is Secret actually looks fantastic. There are directors who have made five or ten films who do not know how to set up shots and handle actors and dramatic tension the way Grossman does in his feature-film debut. The real kicker is that he could only shoot what they needed; there are no extras, nothing got cut. Everything was so tight during shooting that Grossman and company had to be on the ball every step of the way. Sure this leads to a few continuity errors – the only major one being the length of Crash’s Mohican haircut. But these are little things.
It’s curious how a film so involved with chaos and instinct was so controlled and calculated – though it still seems like chaos. The musical performances are intense; it was like watching blood pump through the veins of an adrenalin high field goal-kicker going for the final win. And it affected people. The final scenes, which include Crash’s suicide – intercut with news of John Lennon’s death on the same day – and funeral, caused almost an entire room of hardcore spike-wearing men and women to drop tears.
What We Do Is Secret has been picked up by Canadian distributor Peach Arch and is set for wide release on August 8 starting in New York City. There are plans for the film to be shown in 25-50 cities and a DVD set for November. If you think you’re hardcore, go see What We Do Is Secret to find out how hardcore Grossman is. Fifteen years on the same project and he’s still going with it. The only thing I’ve done consistently for 15 years is eat, sleep, and watch movies, not always in that order.
What We Do Is Secret is surely up for some awards and fan recognition. A few hundred punks can’t be wrong.
© Keith Waterfield
What We Do Is Secret (2008). Dir.: Rodger Grossman. Scr.: Michelle Baer Ghaffari, Rodger Grossman. Cast: Shane West, Bijou Phillips, Rick Gonzalez, Noah Segan, Ashton Holmes.