Steve Anderson‘s provocative new documentary, “Fuck,” debuted at AFI Fest exactly one year ago this week, a few months before it was acquired by ThinkFilm. The origins of the four-letter word, the prevalence of its usage in movies, on TV and in music, and the tightening of restrictions regarding free expression in this country are among the topics explored in Anderson’s new film. Through animated segments by Bill Plympton, and conversations with late author Hunter S. Thompson, filmmaker Kevin Smith, critic Michael Medved, columnist Judith Martin (aka “Miss Manners”), rapper Ice-T, porn figure Ron Jeremy, newsman Sam Donaldson, comedians Billy Connolly, Janeane Garofalo, and Drew Carey, and more, Anderson considers the history of the word and its role in popular culture and throughout history. The word is used more than 600 times in the film.
“What really intrigued me at first was the word itself,” explained Anderson, whose narrative feature film “The Big Empty” screened at AFI Fest three years ago. Chatting with indieWIRE last year at the festival he said that in exploring the origin of the word, he realized that it offered a way to look at free speech. As we reported in the AFI Fest dispatch last year, in the film Anderson not only delves into the rumors surrounding its original meaning — some believe it is an acronym, “fornicate under command of the king” — but he also explores the work of comedians Lenny Bruce and George Carlin, the recent decision of Howard Stern to move to satellite radio, the controversial tenure of FCC chief Michael Powell, incidents such as U2’s Bono saying the word ‘Fuck’ on national television and Janet Jackson’s breast being exposed during the Super Bowl halftime show, and the incident in which U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told a U.S. Senator, “Go fuck yourself,” during a heated congressional session.
Filmmaker Steve Anderson recently participated in indieWIRE’s email interview series and his answers to our standard set of questions are published below.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I heard Rob Reiner say once that he wasn’t great at any one thing, but was really good at a lot of things. All those things put together helped him be a director. I like to look at it the same way. There’s so many things a filmmaker, and especially a director, needs to do to get a film done: you have to be good at business and contracts, a realist, an idealist, be able to work both with actors and executives, be charming, be seductive, be an asshole, be focused and passionate, but loose enough not to get locked into one idea when there might be a better one. And all of that can happen within a few minutes. Listen, I’m a writer, a musician, a photographer, and I make a study of all the creative arts I can. I like to think that all of those add up to me being a really good director and filmmaker. And one day, if I’m lucky and keep learning, a great one.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?
I think there’s just one thing any filmmaker really wants to do – and that’s make another great movie – and soon. That’s me.
Please talk about how the initial idea for this film came about?
The first time I ever thought about it, I said it as a joke. I said, “We should make a movie about the word fuck.” And the second I said it I knew it was really great idea. It could be very funny and entertaining, but we could use this dark prince of all curse words word as a catalyst to debate some really important and current issues, like freedom of speech and censorship. As it turned out, “Fuck” was very high concept. My Executive Producers Steve Kaplan and Gregg Daniel at Rainstorm and also Bruce Leiserowitz, they all got it right away. It doesn’t need a lot of explaining. Everyone has an opinion about the word.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I like to make films that entertain first, but also, after they’re over make you think. I find films that engage the audience as an active participant much more rewarding. I like to find works of art that appear simple on the surface, if that’s what you want from them, put if you plumb their depths you’ll find that’s there’s so much more there. Our lives are a puzzle that we need to put together in some fashion in order for them to make sense and I like films that reflect that. David Lynch is a master at this, Wim Wenders, Brian DePalma and the Coen Brothers for their engaging visual dialogs. The ultimate engager of course is William Shakespeare and I love how his work and words can retain their power over centuries. Bob Dylan as well, our modern day troubadour twists his word puzzles into beautiful poetry and melody. I love all kinds of music, but I’m an unabashed fan of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead. Listening to their music will reward you with simple folk tales that are expanded and jammed into morality tales, murder ballads and all things Americana. I also love author Paul Auster, who can take the simplest story and layer it into levels of noir and nuance that can really blow you away. Listen, it’s all cool stuff. I wish I had more time to read, listen and watch.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, as well as your overall goals for the project?
I knew from the very beginning that the film would be much more interesting if we had both liberal and conservative voices in the film. My views certainly tended towards the liberal side of things, but I wanted to hear other opinions and treat them fairly. But the challenge was how to get conservatives into a film about this word. It turned out to be easier than I anticipated. It wasn’t a cakewalk by any means, we got turned down by quite a few. But once I said we were using this word to also debate bigger issues, a lot of people wanted to be heard. Pat Boone for example, was the second or third person to agree to be interviewed. Freedom of speech is not an absolute, it’s almost a living thing that needs to be constantly debated and talked about or we’ll lose it. I like to look at fuck as the word that’s often at the very center of the debate on Free Speech. Words leading up to it get worse and worse, and there are certainly words more obscene, but once you hit fuck, the shit hits the fan.
As far as overall goals, I’d like to get a copy of this film into the hands of every person on Earth.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced?
Well, I think it’s safe to say that there were many challenges along the way. Make a movie about fuck and challenges get in line to fuck with you. But of course that’s the same for almost any film. Once day everything seems great, the next day you’re on the Titanic and the iceberg is approaching. But I think that one thing that separates our film from others, in terms of marketing challenges anyway, it the title itself – “Fuck.”
From the very beginning we didn’t know what we were going to call it. For the entire production is was known as “The Untitled F-Word Film.” I always harbored the desire to eventually call it “Fuck” but as a producer as well as a director, you have to consider getting the film into theaters. People need to be able to see the film. In the end, after much discussion and many alternate titles, we decided to simply call if “Fuck.” It was the honest thing to do. What the film is about how popular culture responds to this one simple – yet highly charged – word, and we figured the film would undergo the same scrutiny and that would make the whole experience more more engaging. Much to their credit, everyone at THINKfilm embraced the title and the challenges that came along with it. And they’re the best at this kind of thing. It’ll be fun to track exactly what ends up on all the marquees.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
As far as financing, I called Steve Kaplan at Rainstorm and my friend Bruce Leiserowitz and they wrote checks. Simple as that. I’ll always thank them for that and all the hard work they did on the film. I also made a great post production deal with my friends up at North by Northwest in Spokane, who produced under their Bad Apple Films banner. Money is always challenging, and yes it did cost more than we originally budgeted, but everyone involved in the film believed in it and that made it much easier.
In lining up the interviews I was assisted by Jory Weitz. He a friend and had also casted my previous film, “The Big Empty.” He had recently struck gold as being the Executive Producer of a little film called “Napoleon Dynamite” so that opened a number of doors. We tracked down managers, agents, PR types, friends, cousins and anyone else who might be a contact of someone we wanted to interview. There were many people who turned us down along the way for various reasons, but in the end, we ended up with the perfect balance and a great cast of characters for the film. I mean come on, where else are you going to see Miss Manners and Ron Jeremy, or Hunter S. Thompson and Pat Boone in the same movie? That’s fun stuff.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
Well, as a filmmaker I hope to keep moving back and forth between dramatic features and docs. It’s great to do both, and filmmakers I admire, like Martin Scorsese and Jonathan Demme, do both equally well. It’s awful tough to follow with another doc after you’ve tackled “Fuck” so I’m in the process of setting up a couple of original scripts at my company Mudflap Films. (you can keep up on news along way at my blog Mudflap Cafe)
The first is “Vlad the Impaler.” I’m doing it with the guys at Rainstorm. It’s a very funny horror film about a Southwestern traveling salesman Art Vladinski, who gets seduced by the beautiful vampire Carmen. She tries to convince him to murder her husband, who just happens to be the King of All Vampires. So Art has to decide whether he wants to remain a simple mediocre salesman the rest of his life, or, well, The Prince of Darkness.
I’m working with Bad Apple Films on a project I wrote called “Pink Butterfly” a dark comic noir about a crime scene cleaner who gets a little too involved in his work. I’ve also just optioned a script from my friend Matt Healy called “Stealing Lyle’s Money.” So if every star in the universe aligned I could shoot three films next year. Some might think that to be too many but not me. Too much of a good thing is never enough.
What is your definition of “independent film?”
For me, independent film is when the financing comes from outside the established studio, or mini-major system, and there is a singularity of vision on the part of the filmmakers, especially the director.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Well, the easiest and the most basic is to never give up. Always keep moving forward. This is a tough business, one that can test every part of your soul. But listen, for first timers, even if you got a great script and people behind you, it’s going to take a long time, maybe years, to get the film on the screen. In the meantime you should learn everything you can about the business of film. I’m going to assume that you’ve already watched thousands of movies, studied the creative side and know exactly what you want your film to look and sound like. But in the meantime, you should study all the stuff that’s not so fun: budgets, schedules, financing, contracts, agents and managers, how deals – both financing and talent – are put together, distribution and marketing. All that stuff and more, it’ll make you a better filmmaker and in today’s marketplace, if you actually ever want to make any money at this (and don’t count on that by the way, I’ve made two feature films and I’m still waiting) then you need to understand the dollar as well as camera lens. I’ve learned a good script gets you nowhere, but what does work is that script with a solid plan, a solid budget and schedule and an understanding how you’re going to get your investors their money back. If you don’t know what MFN, pari passu or what the current SAG fringe rates are, you’ve got plenty to study up on.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
Well, for this question, I’d like to quote from my bio our website – www.fourletterfilm.com
Steve Anderson made his feature film writing and directing debut with THE BIG EMPTY which starred Jon Favreau, Kelsey Grammer, and Daryl Hannah. It was one of the ten films selected for the American Directions portion of the 2003 American Film Institute Film Festival, where it had its world premiere. A Peabody Award winning cameraman, Steve Anderson has shot seven national documentaries for PBS and thousands of hours of broadcast television. He’s been charged by lions on the Serengeti Plain, caught fire in the Malibu fires and been rattled homeless by an earthquake. He’s been blessed by Mother Teresa; seen John Wayne Bobbit’s penis and even once danced with Angelyne. Anderson has gotten drunk with Captain Kangaroo, been trained as a Hollywood stunt driver and flown upside-down with the Ray-Ban Gold Aerial Acrobatic Team. He’s been shot at in the L.A. riots, chased O.J. up the freeway and witnessed both breast and ass implants. Anderson has lounged in the grotto at the Playboy Mansion, walked the red carpet at the Oscars and met celebrities, politicians and movie stars from the Flying Elvises to Bozo the Clown to President Bush.
There’s a lot there to be proud of, take your pick.
Then come see “Fuck.”