Strutter, the third film installment of Allison Anders' and Kurt Voss' trilogy of rock n' roll films, follows in a tradition of self-financed films from the two writer-directors, allowing them full reign of telling their unique storytelling vision. Their first collaboration, Border Radio (1988), is a gritty, loose-knit story laced with a punk rock soundtrack, while Sugar Town(1999) unleashes a story about decaying rock stardom. Through Kickstarter, Anders and Voss were able to raise funding for production of Strutter, and surpassed their goal by quite a wide margin. Strutter takes place in contemporary Los Angeles and tells a story about an aspiring rock singer named Brett whose girlfriend just left him for the more alluring and popular musician, Damon. Brett's heartache eventually gives over when he falls for his filmmaker friend Reggie, and builds an unexpected bond with Damon, meanwhile gaining new perspective on other aspects of his life.
This Saturday night, The Frida cinema will host a screening of Strutter, followed by a Q&A session with Anders and Voss. In anticipation of said screening, I spoke with both directors about keeping that DIY spirit alive in filmmaking, using music to tell a story, and that '80s film look. Come out Saturday night for this event, and be sure to see Strutter again and again when it reaches wide release.
OCW: When was the last time you guys hung out with each other?
Voss: Uh, it's been a good six months since next Wednesday.
Anders: Has it, really?
Voss: I really wanted to make a movie with her, so, I've talked to her about it for a long time. And when she finally had the time, she spearheaded the Kickstarter campaign, she made it happen.
OCW: It's so awesome that Kickstarter can work out for filmmakers now, especially those that don't have as much currency in the film industry and are just starting out.
Voss: Yeah absolutely, I mean, in terms of a place to start, you know, it really levels the playing field for a lot for them. It's really just amazing, the whole miniaturization of the cameras and sound equipment and all that stuff. I mean it's been, it's so much easier to make than our first co-feature, Border Radio, in the 80's, that was a lot harder with that gear. It was expensive, the first time, the film negative, you know.
OCW: And how long did it take to shoot Strutter?
Voss: Hm, I don't, we didn't have a schedule, I don't think.
Anders: Yeah, I think it's come down to about, I would say, contractually, even though we had no restrictions on our schedule, like they do on a movie where you're paying people, we still ended up being about 24 days, I think.
Voss: Yeah, I think so.
Anders: So that would be a kind of a luxurious schedule for me, or rather, that's kind of a tough schedule for an independent film, for most people.
Voss: Like when we had shot in the desert, that was pretty hectic and exhausting, and that was the only time during production we got on each other's, you know, just cause we were so exhausted, no sleep, slogging in the sun for twelve, fourteen hours, three days straight. But otherwise, you know we would just do half days, or if we need would go out and shoot at three [o'clock] for three or four hours and knock off. It's a very civilized way to make a movie.
Anders: Yeah, very.
Voss: On the other hand, we could wait around. We could take the whole day just to get one shot, to get a sunset or something, like that. Something you could never do on a standard, low-budget schedule where you have to seven or eight pages, you know, with the sunset.
OCW: So is that free-form schedule typical of your projects when you're working together and have a limited budget?
Anders: Well it was on Border Radio, a little too much time we had on that one but that's 'cause we were film students and we didn't have any investments, so we'd have to get a little money and then we get film from the lab, and then we'd shoot, get the equipment, shoot a little more, you know, but, but with Sugar Town, that was a financed movie.
Voss: Free-form is a good word for Strutter because sometimes we had script pages,sometimes we didn't. Alison and I had an outline that the movie kind of eats and captures, but as a structure it was very free-form.
Anders: And we have two different, we have different styles but somehow they work together.
Voss: It's a little bit like child rearing in that respect, it's definitely like a different job in different places. And the movies are a little bit like kids too, a bit of me and a bit of her. We don't necessarily approve 100% (laughs).
OCW: Yeah, so how do you guys negotiate those different film voices when you're writing a script?
Voss: Uh, 'negotiation' is not the right word, it's more 'refining'...
Anders: Yeah, I mean, we're pretty much in agreement on the characters before we actually start writing so I think in that regard, you know, we're aligned, so we don't have something coming out of left field. 'No, that character wouldn't do that', you know.
OCW: In going back and forth from the trailer for Strutter to the trailer for Border Radio, you can see so many likenesses and parallels, despite the different decades they were made. They're both black and white films, but Border Radio has that grainy film aesthetic while Strutter is cleaner and sharper digital, yet they both speak to their specific generations. But Border Radio just evokes that punk rock filmmaker ethos, which is evident in many filmmakers' debut films.
Voss: It's got that extra grit. You know, your first films tend to be 'cheapies' that're kind of ramshackle and by the seat of your pants, so black and white definitely serves the vibe, you know, of low budget and all that. You can't change colors.
Anders: When we made Border Radio, color [film] was really ugly. And it's much more beautiful now and you can push it in different ways, but if you wanted films made in the early 80's, with the exception of the stuff that Ed Lachman was shooting, color film just...not working.
Voss: Why, Allison, why do you reckon?
Anders: I just think the stock was really crappy at that point, and the black and white stuff was quite beautiful. And I think the stuff that was coming out was just bad with me, you know, in the early 80s. I mean, can you think of anything that looked good? With the exception of Desperately Seeking Susan.
Voss: Yeah, now that I think about it, guys would shoot [with] Fuji, right, cause they hated Kodak, yeah, I forgot about that.
OCW: So how did you guys decide to make Strutter in black and white?
Voss: Well we havent been able to work in black and white since Border Radio 'cause it's pretty esoteric. So hard for the money guys to wrap their head around, get excited about it. It's a lot of outlets, it's just too, not like black and white. So this was the first time we could really afford to do it, since it was very easy, it was a low-budget movie. And the only people we had to answer to was our constituents on Kickstarter, you know.
Voss: And all we promised them was that we'd finish the movie and we'd do our best, and my God we did both of those things.
Anders: We sure did. And they all got their reward.
OCW: So Allison, I know you teach film at UCSB, so I would like to know your approach to teaching filmmaking, and about the projects that you might see or discuss with students.
Anders: Well, I don't teach film production, I teach writing. I teach art and biographic screenwriting, and I also teach a class in what real production is like. So I take them all the way through pre-production, we take one of my scripts, we break it down, and they have to go put the film together, based on what I teach them.
You should always try to be creating your voice. And you should not be worrying about gear and all that stuff when you're making your first film; you should be working on finding your voice and creating that [voice] and getting out there and hanging on wherever you're at, and trying to be inventive within your lack of resources. Because you're gonna need to be resourceful to the bitter end. So, that's what I stress, with my students, you know, to find your voice.
And you know, it's interesting because Kurt and I started to develop our voices in some schools, and we have a shared voice, which is what you see in Border Radio and Strutter and other things that we wrote together like the film Things Behind the Sun, which Kurt and I wrote together. And then we have our own separate voices, you know. He went and did his work, I went and did my work, and all that. That's what you should be doing as a young filmmaker, 'cause that's the only thing that's gonna keep you going forever. I mean, if you don't have a voice, who's gonna care? You just, you're gonna be a hack.
Voss: Step out and go back to your real life and plunge back into that thing. And that's the important thing, is to live and know stuff and all that. Our friend Howard who teaches at UCLA says 'Yeah, all these new kids, they can all shoot and none of them can write'.
OCW: Allison, I read in an interview you were discussing filmmakers who used music effectively in their films, like Martin Scorsese and Wes Anderson. Seeing as how your films have strong connections to music, what do you think is the successful way to merge music into film?
Anders: Everything in a film should be telling a story. It may sound a little pretentious when you hear the costume designer saying they're trying to tell a story with the clothes, or when you realize that your production designer feels like they're telling a story with the set, but it really is true that everybody should be telling a story with what they're doing. You should be using music so that it's helping to drive the narrative and helping to develop characters. Your music should be pushing the story forward just as much as everything else. Would you agree, Kurt?
Voss: Yeah, advancing the story is what it's all about. That being said, Strutter is kind of a shaggy dog plot that hangs around a lot. If we're talking ideals, then everything is as you said is for advancing and serving the story, moment by moment advancing and deepening the plot. Those are the movies that really grab us and occupy the throat and won't let us go.
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Anders: Yeah. And I think that even in Strutter you got music that completely is key to the characters, and is key to their [story], is just sort of used. And another thing that you must do when you're shooting live stuff or when you've got a character performing on the stage, shooting stops, and the music stops telling the story, so that you can have a little break with the song, you know? There still has to be stuff going on between the characters while someone's performing on stage. Otherwise you just stop the narrative.
Voss: Yeah, I'll give you a good example with this, Nine Songs, which kind of like stalls with each musical interlude, as opposed to, Wings of Desire, where the music stops at the end, even though it's a little more loose and concert-like, it still carries emotional impact, dramatic impact, somehow in that movie, it's weird. So how he pulls that off, how that makes a great filmmaker, I don't know, but it does.
Strutter screens at The Frida cinema this Saturday with Q&A to follow. For tickets and info, please visit thefridacinema.org