Punk as we know it was born in a John Varvatos on Bowery in the East Village, just down the street from a delightful local restaurant called Peels, which is known for its wonderful brunch. Of course, before the Bowery was gentrified into the eastern seaboards’s mimosa epicenter, it was home to junkies and gangs and all sorts of other ruffians, and before 315 was a John Varvatos it was the legendary CBGB, where a struggling club owner named Hilly Kristal once invested all of the money he didn’t have into the greatest (read: foulest) bar / concert venue in all of New York… for country and bluegrass music. But that’s not quite how things worked out.
The history of CBGB is the history of punk in America, from the stage where it was born to the magazine that named it and the bands that brought it to life, kicking and screaming and vomiting everywhere. Randall Miller’s new film “CBGB” reanimates Hilly Kristal’s legacy (often literally) as a star-studded sprint through one of the most exciting eras in modern music history, casting the appropriately legendary Alan Rickman as Kristal and surrounding him with everyone from Malin Akerman (as Blondie singer Debbie Harry) to Ron Weasley himself, Rupert Grint (as Dead Boys guitarist Cheetah Chrome).
I recently had the chance to hop on the phone and chat with Randall (Randy) and screenwriter Jody Savin (Randy's wife) about recreating the genesis of punk and moving CBGB down to Georgia.
RANDY: [Seeing a (203) number on his caller ID] Are you in Connecticut? Where are you?
DAVID: It’s a Connecticut number – where punk was born, I recently learned – but I’m actually in the middle of Times Square right now.
RANDY: Jody and I, we write together, produce together, make movies together –
JODY: – And I’m from Connecticut! I’m from New Haven.
DAVID: Oh, yes.
JODY: Toad’s Place.
DAVID: I was about to say, Toad’s Place is pretty much the beginning and end of my experience with punk shows. I guess my first question about punk as we see it in the movie is that – for me – the key thing about Hilly is that he never judges anybody, he finds potential in everyone and everything. Punk is always so anarchic, but do you think there’s ultimately something of a loving, accepting spirit underneath it all?
RANDY: Yes, I do think he was that way, and had this enormous heart, even though he was very gruff on the outside. So there was this interesting dichotomy about him, but the story that people would always tell about Hilly, from David Byrne on, is that they would often find him in the middle of the night, sleeping on the couch by the front door, and right as the guys were loading up their equipment in and out of the place, he’d wake up and say something like “you know that third song in your set? Well there was this one note...” and he’d give them some advice, he was really watching paying attention even though he seemed gruff or sometimes even out of it. But what is sort of interesting about him is that he never really made much money, he basically funded so many people as they went into rehab or other things would happen to them, and he gave his money away to help artists. So that was sort of interesting to us, hardcore punkers but this guy was helping them.
DAVID: And the way you describe him it makes perfect sense that you would cast Alan Rickman to play Hilly, because your description of Hilly, both gruff and loving, describes how I think audiences tend to see Alan Rickman.
RANDY: That’s the thing about Alan, he can seem gruff if you don’t know him but he’s got an enormous heart. He really does care about causes, and he cares about people.
JODY: He’s a great friend. You could never have a better friend.
RANDY: If he’s your friend.
DAVID: Everyone sees him in “Die Hard” and I’m not sure if the first thought is that you want to be his friend...
RANDY: He’s a lover of the arts, he really is. He’s an interesting guy, because he does these gigantic blockbuster movies, but then he does these smaller movies that he really cares about.
JODY: And it’s always about the character.
DAVID: Switching gears a little bit, I was really struck by how you used music in the movie. it feels very different from what we’re used to in a movie like this. The movie doesn’t stop for the music, rather the music is built into the overall texture of the narrative.
RANDY: Well the music is another character in the movie, ya know? There are 67 different pieces of music in the movie, no score, even though we use some of the songs as score in certain places. The idea was, and I’m glad you touched on this, because some people say like “Oh I really wanted to stay on Blondie as she was singing, or watch the Talking Heads for longer,” but it’s not a concert film. It’s a story about this guy and his journey, and even if he’s not the one singing, he’s the one affected by this whole thing, partaking in this moment. So you want to give the audience a taste of the song and the performance, but you don’t want to make it the meal, because it’s not. So that’s what we set out to do, to tell a story that makes you feel like you’re part of the scene.
DAVID: Sure, and if people are like me, they’ll think to go listen to those bands when the movie is over.
RANDY: It was also important to have like 15 or 20 songs that are really well known, but there are a lot of songs in there that you’ve probably never heard of. And that was part of it too, to say that these are great artists that could easily have been the Ramones or Blondie.
JODY: Discover them now!
DAVID: Was there one of those lesser-known songs that was especially important to you guys to get in the movie?
RANDY: Well the music of Television, I mean Television was arguably the first band that broke there, but they weren’t as well known. And it was really important to get “Marquee Moon” and “I Don’t Care” in there, because they were so much of the time and the place.
JODY: And also Television is a really terrific band. And their music is so great.
RANDY: And there’s this song that’s from a slightly earlier time period, this song “Psychotic Reaction”, that was a song that so many people said Hilly played on the jukebox every single day, and that’s in the movie, a really fun crazy song with a harmonica, it plays in the movie when they’re moving the piano. The New York Dolls, Mink DeVille, I don’t know if people fully know how great Mink DeVille was, but he has four or five songs in the movie. Just so much great music that’s still waiting to be re-discovered.
DAVID: Of any of those bands, I’d say that Television is the one that has made the best impression on contemporary listeners, but it was great to see them reborn like this. And you were talking about making a sense of place, and I know that you guys imported a lot of the actual CBGB down to Savannah where you were filming. Did that stuff still smell?
RANDY: Well the funny thing is we located it in a big shipping container in Williamsburg. They tore down CBGB, and maybe Hilly thought he would eventually rebuild the club...
JODY: Or maybe he just couldn’t part with this stuff, who knows?
RANDY: But they put it all in this container and it was shipped to us on the back of a truck. The bar, the front doors... you know how doors will have hydraulics at the top? This one had bungee cords like the truck of your car or something like that. And the wood between the doors was totally worn... obviously back in the day, wind and winter would go right through those club doors with no problem. And then the bar, we had about 40 feet of bar but the bar in the movie is about 80 feet long, so we matched the other bar with his bar.
JODY: We built the remaining section.
RANDY: And in order to make it look like the original they used chains and John Holmstrom showed up and said to make it really like the original you have to pour beer all over it, and yeah... it definitely smelled like the club used to.
DAVID: And this was all in a studio, right? You didn’t built it on the streets of Savannah so it’s like CBGB currently exists somewhere down in Georgia?
RANDY: No, we built it in the studio. And it’s a very tight area, the bar is not that large, it’s like a railroad car. So the reason also to have it on a soundstage is that in order to film people at the bar you’d have to move things around, so much takes place in the bar you’d have to do it on a soundstage of some kind. It actually makes it feel more authentic.
DAVID: The last thing I wanted to ask about was the graphic novel device that’s used to frame the story. At what point in the process did you guys think of that, and is there some sort of connection between the graphic novel form and punk?
JODY: It was actually in the script from the get go, because in doing the research we thought... well, when you think of punk you think of the music and the attitude and the clothing and the sociopolitical element of it, but very few people think of the graphics of of punk. I think it gets overlooked in the history of it, and I don’t think that punk would have ever been fully fleshed punk without the look of it that John Holmstrom and Punk Magazine created. So I think it’s inseparable in a way. They branded their movement punk, and then they gave it a visual element, so we thought from the get go that it was one of the ways that we could contribute to the memory of it was to maybe correct that perception and infuse the visual onto the memory.
RANDY: And we got to know John, and he got more and more involved, and he came out in the editing process and he actually created many of those cels himself. He made them for us and we animated the artwork. So we had the guy who created the look of punk creating the stuff for the movie.
DAVID: I appreciated those touches throughout the movie, all the way through the end credits.
RANDY: “Dailies by FotoKem, nightlies by your mom.”
“CBGB” opens on October 11th.