INTERVIEW: Anders and Voss Reunite for "Sugar Town"
by Dimitra Kessenides
Love, marriage, fame, ambition, fidelity, maturity, family, men, women and children. These are the themes that fill Allison Anders and Kurt Voss‘ latest collaboration, “Sugar Town,” which hit theaters in New York City and Los Angeles last Friday. The themes and characters are to a large extent things that have inhabited Anders’s and Voss’ lives, from the days when they were film students together at UCLA in the mid-1980’s through to the present.
With an ensemble cast that includes Rosanna Arquette, Ally Sheedy, John Taylor (formerly of Duran Duran), Michael Des Barres (formerly of Power Station), Beverly D’Angelo, and John Doe (of the late punk rock band X), Anders and Voss (who both co-wrote and co-directed the story) use the world of the LA music scene to set the stage for their themes. There are ’80’s rockers fading away in obscurity, aging movie stars coming to terms with maturity, and pretty young things who’ll stop at nothing to reach the top, among others.
Written in eight days, and filmed in just over three weeks, “Sugar Town” wrapped in time to make it to last January’s Sundance Film Festival, where it marked its World Premiere. Recently, Anders and Voss sat down for a conversation about the film, and how different, or not, the experience was from the collaboration on their first film “Border Radio” ten years ago.
indieWIRE: You’ve said that part of what you wanted to do with “Sugar Town” was to just go out and make a film together, to just do it. How did it compare to “Border Radio”?
Kurt Voss: It was almost night and day. Because the first film took us four years to finish. We did it piece-meal, we never even truly had a finished script because when we began the film we didn’t know a lick about screenwriting, and by the time we were finished we were sort of writing scenes to fill the holes in the story. So there was no script per se on that film. Whereas here we had a full-form script in almost an unnaturally fast period of time.
Allison Anders: [It’s a] very tight script. There is practically nothing that we wrote that isn’t in the movie.
Voss: Again, in comparison to the first film, we literally shot drafts of that movie to figure out the basics of dramatic construction. They were really different in that respect. In terms of the money and the ease with which the financing came together, they were completely different. That was why the first film took so long, it was just so hard to raise capital. Here we were very fortunate to have the financing come together pretty quickly.
Anders: Small financing , but still … it was bare minimum. Everyone was on a certain low budget scale with deferments to protect each of our guild standing. The rest of it was all on the screen. The costume designer had $500. And we had to get a lot of free stuff – -free clothes, actors wore their own clothes. [It was] complete[ly] bare minimum. No trailers, we didn’t have a caterer, the line producer cooked us breakfast and lunch.
iW: Lack, or little, financing is a hardship, but can that in some way be liberating?
Anders: The obvious thing was that it liberated us in terms of, when we got the financing it was kind of with this attitude of here’s the script, here’s the cast, we’re going to make this film anyway because we’ll do it on Hi 8 if we have to. We just kind of had that aggressive kind of focus. There was complete creative control. But then there was the kind of beauty of having everyone in the same room. I mean, people aren’t isolated off in their own little trailers. They’re all really together with each other. And in fact, they’re not even off with the makeup artist, because there was none of that either. So we were all there, and they were watching the process and they were there with the crew and they were hanging out together.
Voss: Which we also had on [“Border Radio”], come to think of it, which we shot in a trailer in Mexico, and everyone slept in the trailer…. The more you think of about it, the more parallels there are between the two movies. It’d kind of like we perfected the model, or learned enough about the craft to do it more effectively.
iW: Three weeks to shoot is incredibly tight. What was that like?
Anders: Absolutely, it was like eight days from start to finish. Then we did a read through with the actors, and made a few changes based on that, but they were very minor.
iW: The two of you worked together on “Border Radio,” and then went off and did your own thing. How was it coming together again to write this?
Anders: That was very interesting, because we started out with a similar vision [back in the 80’s], then we went off, once we broke up actually, once we weren’t living together anymore. We both established completely separate voices. His work was very masculine and my work was very female-centered. And then, now we came back together to do this piece that was very interesting — taking both of these sensibilities we had. It was liberating again because I wasn’t just doing the chick thing, which I was really feeling very hampered by. Likewise, he was able to break out of genre.
Voss: Right, which was very liberating for me because Allison has always sort of started out at a place of character, character first. When you do genre films, you do genre first. It’s the action, or the genre just has its own demands which supersedes characters. It was a liberation and also really instructive.
iW: When you’re creating a script, do you start that way, by first thinking of interesting characters and getting them down on paper?
Voss: It was basically character first and foremost, well really actor first and foremost. Because we devised a story for these [specific] people. We not only thought about actors, we cast them, approached them. In every case they said yes [to being part of this].
Anders: Then we went from there to developing the characters and outlining and writing the script.
iW: The writing must be easier now than 10 years ago.
Anders: I think it is experience. When I look at it and think of what were facing, it is the type of film, not to underplay what we accomplished, but it is a little easier than a lot of scripts.
Voss: It was a happy occurrence too, because the form and the theme helped each other, because you have these guys chasing success and that’s ostensibly what the plot revolves around. But the important thing proves to be the human connection, and the plot turns out to be not so important. Chasing fame is shown to be a distraction from the real stuff. You have more craft every time out, but you re always back to square one when you re writing a new script. Sometimes even with craft you can’t lick certain inherent flaws.
Anders: We tried to do it again for the same characters and the same actors, all together, the ensemble thing, and we couldn’t make it work. It’s trickier than it seems. You really do have to have the right content to fit this form.
iW: Music is really central to your movies, both as part of the story line and the music that you choose. Do people take its importance for granted, or underestimate how big a part it can play in films?
Anders: Well, I Think that with the success of, like VH1’s “Behind The Music” and stuff like that, the fact that it’s so successful, it’s clear that people are interested in rock lives. You know they’re interested in the drama of those lifestyles, which are all dramatic. I also think that there are very few filmmakers who do music well; [most] don t choose music well and they don’t portray music well, the exceptions being Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders and a few young filmmakers who do music really well. I thought that Wes Anderson actually, there should be a special award for the music and the soundtrack, because “Rushmore,” you know I couldn’t really relate to it. I’m not like the young boy, and I’m not tall and thin like the woman even, so I don’t know what’s going on in this movie. It’s just one hell of a soundtrack and I was very jealous because I always wanted to put that “Concrete & Clay” by Unit 4+2 in a movie. So I think that’s a good example of someone using music really well, but there aren’t so many people that use music well in movies.
I also really loved, one of the first films that really influenced me a lot was a “Hard Day’s Night,” so you know you can’t really get much better than that for a music film and for using musicians really well as actors, in dramatic roles. . . .And that was a very independent film as well, $100,000. . . . I love the movie so much and it still gives me the same kick.
iW: The whole chick flick thing, how do you feel about that?
Anders: I was so happy when we went to Sheffield, England with this film, and people started talking about rock filmmaking. You know, that maybe I was making rock films. I was like, God, anything to get out of the girl ghettoized . . .which isn’t to say that I won’t always want strong female characters, but it’s a very limiting place to be, instead of people thinking of me in any other way. [It] was great for us to kind of have strong men and women within the same film. The other thing is that I felt like people don’t allow you enough weak women. Why can’t you have bad women and good women, why is that so taboo for a woman to do? Women that make stupid choices, or are too hung up on guys, why is it so taboo for a woman to do?
iW: Is this in some way a movie about LA also, the place?
Anders: Maybe it’s a little about LA.
Voss: [We’re dealing with] universal problems — ageism, fidelity within a marriage, men having to reinvent themselves in the workplace in their 40’s.
[Dimitra Kessenides is an associate editor at Brill’s Content magazine in New York City.]