Down and Out with Kurt Voss
Feature and interview by Carlo Cavagna
DOWN AND OUT WITH THE DOLLS
USA, 2002. Rated R. 87 minutes.
ZoŽ Poledouris, Nicole Barrett, Melody Moore, Kinnie Star, Brendan O'Hara,
Coyote Shivers, Lemmy Kilmister, Shawn Robinson, Sierra Feldner-Shaw,
Jennifer Shepard, Mikael Jehanno, Inger Lorre, Janis Tanaka
urt Voss and I have been playing phone tag for a couple weeks now. The fault is mine. I have been juggling a dozen different obligations, but Kurt has been most accommodating, even going so far as overnighting me a copy of one of his earlier movies, Sugar Town, so I can watch it before the interview. Kurt may not be Mr. Big Famous Film Director, but it's not supposed to be this way. The interviewer should not make things difficult for the interviewee. We agree to talk in the morning and identify a mutually convenient location to have a coffee and a talk.
My phone call wakes Voss the next morning, so he calls me back after taking twenty minutes to pull his brain together. We kick around the names of a few establishments and meet an hour later. In person, the forty-year-old Voss looks like he could be a character from one of his films, with a large tattoo on one arm and black-and-white clothes that might be described as "rock-and-roll casual," except that "rock-and-roll" doesn't quite fit with a Starbucks in Brentwood.
Voss's flexibility in meeting me is not surprising. He embodies the independent spirit and do-it-yourself filmmaking ethic. In 1987, after graduating from UCLA film school, Voss co-wrote and co-directed Border Radio with frequent collaborator and former classmate Allison Anders (Gas Food Lodging, Mi Vida Loca). The shoestring-budget movie about three desperate L.A. punk musicians who steal money and flee to Mexico didn't make an impact, and the next few years found Voss dabbling in both directing and screenwriting. Bills have to be paid, however, so in the '90s, Voss directed a string of straight-to-video genre pictures such as Poison Ivy: The New Seduction, Below Utopia (later renamed Body Count), and The Heist. Yet Kurt often found ways to work with musicians in them, such as Ice-T, John Doe of X, and Michael Des Barres of Power Station.
In 1998, as the straight-to-video/cable market for action movies began sputtering, Voss reconnected with Anders, both of them resolved to rediscover their filmmaking roots. They conceived a film about aging rock-and-rollers that unfolds along multiple storylines. Determined to shoot right away, they wrote the script in just a couple weeks and recruited a cast whose real lives paralleled those of their characters. They included Rosanna Arquette, Ally Sheedy, Beverly D'Angelo, and many actual musicians such as John Taylor (Duran Duran, Power Station), John Doe, Michael Des Barres, and Martin Kemp (Spandau Ballet).
The resulting film, Sugar Town, was conceived and completed in an unheard-of six months, and received a strong critical welcome. Not long after, Kurt and Anders collaborated again on Things Behind the Sun, a semi-autobiographical movie inspired by Anders' rape as a teenager, and also set against the backdrop of the music business.
Kurt Voss and Allison Anders play rock/paper/scissors on the set of Sugar Town to determine who gets to call "Action!"
Working on his own again, Kurt now invites us to go Down and Out with the Dolls. Instead of a story about struggling veterans, Dolls is about four young musicians trying to make it in the Portland riot grrrl scene. They are the snarling, ambitiously ruthless frontwoman (ZoŽ Poledouris), the immature, heart-on-her-sleeve guitarist (Nicole Barrett), the stoner drummer (Kinnie Starr) who just wants to rock (and sleep with female groupies), and the bassist (Melody Moore) who sacrifices the most but is reduced to a helpless spectator when the band members fight. Just as they stand on the verge of success, the none-too-bright Paper Dolls implode because of their inability to get along.
As with many of Kurt's films, the cast is populated with real-life rockers--the four leads are all musicians and Poledouris, daughter of renowned film composer Basil Poledouris (Conan the Barbarian, The Hunt for Red October), wrote the film's music, having already worked on a score for John Waters (Cecil B. Demented). Other musicians include Coyote Shivers as the object of two of the Dolls' desire, and Janis Tanaka of L7, Inger Lorre of the Nymphs, and Lemmy Kilmister of MotŲrhead among the Paper Dolls' hangers-on. With the same do-it-yourself aesthetic and real-world absurdities that characterized Sugar Town, Dolls is everything that most bigger-budget rock-and-roll movies aren't--both authentic and amusing.
AboutFilm: Obviously you have a film background; you went UCLA film school. What's the music connection? How do you know all these musicians; how is it that you're interested in musical themes?
Voss: I don't know, just a rock fan from adolescence really. It's almost like a religion--a secular one, of course. John, Paul, George, and Ringo were the gods on my wall when I was a little kid. I just always loved pop music, and then English punk. 'Around '78 or '79 I got really into that, at the end of the Pistols. At the same the LA punk scene started to happen, and that's what Border Radio grew out of. I guess it was about '81 when I met Allison. We were both going to Valley College. Allison had just come back to the Valley after having lived there several years earlier. I was a high school dropout, and her second daughter was just old enough to go back to day care. She was big into punk rock, the LA punk scene, so she introduced me to some of those bands--I was following the English stuff. Out of our interest in LA punk came Border Radio, later, when we eventually got into UCLA and decided to make a feature.
AF: I'd like to backtrack over your career, but let's start with your current movie, Down and Out with the Dolls. How did you meet the four leads and the other musicians involved in this movie?
Voss: It was just a very diligent casting process that led us eventually to the players. We did a lot of open casting, in the Pacific Northwest primarily.
AF: So you always knew that you wanted to make it up in Portland?
Voss: Always had that in mind. Ideally I wanted to use all local players, or at least people exclusively from there and Seattle, but we ended up bringing in a couple of people. Kinnie Starr came in from Canada, and ZoŽ Poledouris came in from LA.
AF: And Coyote Shivers, also.
Voss: Coyote also came in from LA, that's right. You would think with all the musicians in Portland we would have had it absolutely surrounded, but it didn't work out totally that way. So they were all fresh faces, not just to me. Most of them hadn't acted at all. Nicole Barrett, who plays Kali, and Melody Moore who plays Lavender, were both 19 or so when we filmed. They had done a little high school theater or something, maybe.
AF: When did you film, exactly?
Voss: End of 2000.
AF: Did you put this together as quickly as you did Sugar Town? I understand that movie was six months from conception to finish.
Voss: Yeah, about that fast, although getting it to the marketplace turned out to be a longer haul, a bigger proposition, for a number of reasons. Number one, no cast--no names to speak of--always poses a greater challenge. And, of course, the industry is just in total, utter turmoil. I don't know where it's going to land, what's going to happen to the independent thing. I don't know who's going to even afford to make little movies as an ongoing proposition.
AF: Were you trying to get a studio or distributor attached beforehand, or did you want to finish the product first?
Voss: Yeah, the idea was to finish the product first, as was the case with Sugar Town, to strike fast. In that case we sold the film to Film Four, and they paid for the whole thing. But we still retained the U.S. rights, which turned out to be financially quite a good deal for us, for a change. But, similarly, in that case, we didn't know where we were going to land with it.
AF: What was your budget for Dolls and for Sugar Town?
Voss: Sugar Town was under four hundred thousand dollars, and Dolls was not terribly far off.
AF: How did you fund it?
Voss: Dolls was financed by an Australian company called White House. I actually got to know the heads of the company on a previous straight-to-video title I did called The Heist, which was a shoot-'em-up thing with Ice-T and Luke Perry. They were investors on that film, and we became friendly and decided to work on something a little more quirky.
AF: Did you originate the concept for Dolls completely on your own or did you collaborate?
Voss: No, I collaborated with [co-writer and production designer] Nalini Cheriel, who had performed in several bands up in that part of the world in the '90s. It was really out of her anecdotal stories, just funny shit she told me about the indignities of life on the road, and cohabitation with other musicians and related stuff that suggested the movie.
AF: With real musicians and real experiences influencing the film, it had a very natural feel, I thought. That's obviously something you were conscious of as you worked on it?
Voss: Right, we were quite intent on that, and similarly, to make the girls not only plausible players, but to make sure they didn't look like a Coyote Ugly-type rock band. They seem like real girls from that part of the world.
AF: In Dolls, Fauna [played by ZoŽ Poledouris] seems to be cut from the same cloth as some of the characters in Sugar Town. Ambition, desperation, and desire for fame all wrapped into the same person. Is that a character you find particularly interesting?
Voss: Well, in the case of Dolls, it's de rigeur to have the bitch-on-wheels singer, and obviously it's a clichť because it's such a pervasive truth. In Sugar Town, the character of Gwen [played by Jade Gordon]--I don't know, we were thinking of almost a Courtney Love type of person, as our inspiration--someone who is totally dedicated to the idea of success at any and all costs.
AF: Well, Gwen's a sociopath; I wouldn't call Fauna a sociopath.
Voss: Absolutely. If Fauna were as purely calculating as Gwen, then the band wouldn't implode. So yeah, I agree, she's not quite as much a sociopath.
AF: You chose Melody's character, Lavender, as sort of the point-of-view of the film. Is that because she was caught in the middle and had less of her own drama?
Voss: Yeah, it's a little bit of that. She's supposed to be the straighter one, if you will. A certain segment of the audience will relate to her a little more easily.
AF: In Sugar Town, you worked with veteran musicians, whereas in Dolls, though have some supporting players who are veterans, you're primarily working with people who are fairly new on the scene. What was the difference in working with them?
Voss: Well, one big difference was that they didn't have the relationship with the camera that someone like John Taylor has, who was in Duran Duran and photographed probably a million times. Someone like that knows instinctively where the lens is. Ice-T is another guy who comes to mind who has done so many movies that you say, "Hey, Ice, walk backwards across the camera track, pivot, find your light, and shoot the gun," and he'll do it in the first take. It was difficult sometimes for these people to walk and act at the same time. Having been in front of the camera just a couple of times, I'm empathetic, because it's very disconcerting. Someone shuffles you off to the trailer; you sit there for eleven hours wondering what the hell's going on. Then someone comes and drags you in front of the camera, and they're already saying, "Okay, we got it. Moving on." You get one or two takes. So it's a tough job.
And it was good in a way, it forced me to reconsider some of my tricks, my ways of covering action. I'm used to doing a lot of dolly tracks. We were using a dolly track, for instance; you turn around with the same track and film the other side of the room, and a lot of those tricks didn't work in this case. I had to be a little more seat-of-the-pants to accommodate the players.
AF: I guess when you film one side of the room and then the other, you have to make sure people hit the exact same marks, otherwise it doesn't look right.
Voss: Right. Just the math of it, the geometry of it all was really wigging some of them out when we started filming. I remember Kinnie Starr, the drummer, saying as actors do, "My character would walk over here and then go stand over here," not realizing this choice she made at 8:30 in rehearsal that morning [would mean that at] 3:30, we'd go, "Okay, now we [need] the little piece of film where she crossed to here and back again." Suddenly you've broken the whole thing into thirty shots, and they're ready to cry. So, yeah, I started trying to get people a big wide frame to wander around in, that kind of stuff.
AF: You shot in digital video. Was that helpful with that kind of thing, in addition to being cheaper?
Voss: Yeah, it's helpful in terms of being able to do more with choice. That's the main benefit. The downside was that, having never worked with it before, I was dubious that it would ever look like a movie. You have to use a lot of light and achieve a lot of contrast for the transfer. When you're shooting interiors with white walls and a lot of light, it looks like a sitcom on video. It looked like we were doing Who's the Boss?. You look at the dailies and go, "whoa."
AF: I've seen digital video movies that are of wildly different visual quality. Sometimes they look very pristine and other times they look very muddy. It has to do with the lighting?
Voss: Yeah, I think that's largely it.
AF: So these were small-budget films. What's the biggest budget you've ever had to work with?
Voss: Two million dollars, maybe. Baja was around two million dollars. Yeah, we're really small fish, especially nowadays. I really don't know where the independent fits in anymore when twenty-five million dollar movies are considered straight-to-video fare. We're like penny postage stamps.
AF: Have you ever been offered a major studio film? Would you do one?
Voss: Sure, why not? I'd direct a James Bond movie or something. It hasn't been the case of preserving my integrity. I've just never had the opportunity. I wouldn't want to put myself up for something that I didn't think I could do a good job on. I wouldn't to direct material I didn't feel I could serve, but I don't have anything against doing bigger pictures.
AF: Of course, the more money and the bigger the picture, the less freedom you probably have.
Voss: That's the trade-off, I suppose. But the other way around is you can have a lot of control and an infinitesimal audience, or no audience at all.
AF: How widely is Dolls going to be released initially?
Voss: I think twelve cities the opening weekend, and the rollout from there will probably depend on who comes out to see it. The film succeeding depends to a certain degree on people going to see it for the more universal aspects, which I think are there. Women in their fifties at European film festivals have come up to me and said, "You know, it reminds me of when of lived in a squat." Hopefully we can reach some non-rock fans.
AF: I'd like to talk a little bit about the music of the movie. ZoŽ was the primary composer. The only composer?
The Fighting Dolls
Voss: She was. She wrote the underscore and she wrote all of the Paper Dolls songs.
AF: Did she write Kinnie's lyrics? Or did you?
Voss: The corny ones? I didn't write those. You know who wrote those? Jeff McDonald from Redd Kross. In Sugar Town he plays the junkie who Gwen leaves to die. He's a very good pop writer, very funny. All we gave him was the set-up, and he wrote her lyrics based on that. But Kinnie writes her own very earnest little folk songs, so she could have written her own version.
AF: So how did the music come together? How was it developed?
Voss: We had a music supervisor named Howard Paar. I hadn't worked with Howard before--I've worked with him subsequently--and Howard knew of ZoŽ. She had done a John Waters movie [Cecil B. Demented]. Originally we were just talking to her about the score, but then we screen tested her as well. We liked her very much. She really understood the world. She had been with a girl rock band, though she hadn't lived with one. She's more of a Hollywood kid, in fact. And then, in terms of the texture of the band's music and stuff, ZoŽ knew we wanted it to sound plausible that a twenty-year-old four-piece band would play this stuff. They, in fact, can play all that stuff together.
AF: So they all played their own instruments in the film.
Voss: Yeah, well, they're playing the playback. The music isn't live. But they recorded the basic tracks. They recorded those in ZoŽ's hotel room while we were doing the film. I'm very happy with the music, and I'd love to work with ZoŽ again.
AF: What kind of challenges did you run into when you began shooting? Did anything go unexpectedly wrong?
Voss: Not beyond the usual. We were shooting in Portland, so it rained all the time. That posed the usual continuity headaches, especially in the beginning when they're having a barbecue and running around and so forth, trying to figure out how you're going to deal with the wet sidewalk in one shot. It's amazing that Citizen Kane type movies get made. How do they get it so right? But no, no huge production tales. Though Lemmy [bassist and singer for MotŲrhead, former roadie for Jimi Hendrix] was quite an adventure. Lemmy Kilmister, he's such a beast.
AF: I assume he's slightly more coherent in real life than he sounds in the film.
Voss: Mm, no, not terribly so. Actually he's quite bright, but he's surreal.
AF: So was he being himself? The personas in Sugar Town seemed to be very close to the musicians themselves. Was that also the case in Dolls?
Voss: In the case of Sugar Town, we actually cast before we wrote the script, so we were quite consciously playing with the actors' personas. In this case it was just a matter of casting close to the bone, you know, including casting Lemmy as a speed freak.
He was actually based on a guy I knew as an adolescent. He was renting a walk-in closet. He was a guy in his twenties. Me and the other little suburban mallrats I ran with idealized this guy. We all thought he was really interesting because he lived in closets. But again, that's the sort of thing you would find in Portland. A lot of people live with no apparent means of support. I kind of envy the musicians up there. You're down here, busting your ass in Hollywood, and it's like Lily Tomlin's joke about the rat race--all you prove in the end is that you're a rat. These kids, even people in their thirties, they live out there for ten thousand dollars a year or something. They've got a band; they've got a girlfriend; they've got a two-hundred-dollar car. Their friends are all waiters; they all eat for free. They got it wired.
AF: What are some of your favorite rock-and-roll movies by other people?
Voss: Oh god, my favorite rock and roll movies? I haven't seen it in years--I liked Phantom of the Paradise a whole lot; it's real corny. It's a Brian de Palma movie. Its pedigree is a little dubious--it's got a rock score by Paul Williams--but it's very pop; it's good in that respect. I don't know, I think Abel Ferrara's stuff actually qualifies as rock and roll. It's got an anarchic spirit even when it's not dealing with it in terms of the subject matter. I wish I had Allison here to jog my memory. She's teaching a class in rock films at UCSB. We just showed Dolls up there about a week ago. She had Michael Apted there Friday to show Stardust, I think, from the '70s.
AF: I'd like to go over your filmography now. Could you tell me a little something about each film--maybe something that sticks out or how you remember the film in your head? Let's start with your first movie with Allison and your first movie overall, Border Radio.
Voss: I saw it again recently because I transferred it--made a new digital master.
AF: Is it coming to DVD?
Voss: It was supposed to come out with Sugar Town. I worked on this project for about eight months for no pay, including getting all the releases from Sugar Town performers. To put restored or omitted scenes on the disk, you gotta get a new release. There's no one at these companies who does this; they kick it back to the producers. So anyway, I spent a long time on this. The whole thing was ready to go, and then USA Entertainment got bought by Universal, who promptly shelved the project. Universal wouldn't even call me back about it. It's indefinitely in limbo.
AF: I'm sorry to hear that. Was it released on video at all?
Voss: It was, it was released at Blockbuster, as a 'Premiere.' We heard subsequently from Universal--their official explanation was that films released in that manner don't do so well in sell-through. Whether that means anything or not, I don't know. In any case, having seen Border Radio recently, it's a total shaggy-dog story. Barely coherent plot, but very nice to look at. It's shot in glimmering black and white by Dean Lent, who subsequently shot Gas Food Lodging for Allison and Genuine Risk for me.
AF: And you worked with John Doe.
Voss: Yeah, it featured John and The Blasters, so it had people from the punk bands. And Allison and I think that, though we've obviously learned our trade since making it, we've also lost something, maybe. There's some really beautiful shots in it. We'd spend half a day waiting for the sun. David Lean, you know. Stuff that you can't do when you have a six-page schedule on the day, which is what moviemaking ultimately became for usÖ I don't know, it's an interesting little curio, and it definitely captures the L.A. punk scene in the '80s.
AF: Next was Genuine Risk .
Voss: Genuine Risk was a movie with Peter Berg and Terence Stamp that was done as part of the noir wave of the time. Actually a better example of the genre was Delusion , which I was a writer on. But Genuine Risk had some good stuff in it, too. I really liked working with Terence Stamp, because he's so economical an actor.
AF: Horseplayer  with Brad Dourif.
Voss: Horseplayer was made very inexpensively around the same time and ended up at Sundance. I ended up marrying Sammi Davis [Hope and Glory], who acted in it. We were married for a few years. I've just seen her again this past year. She moved to the Midlands and has left the business pretty much. But I went up there to talk about doing a new film together. I think we're going to work with the writer David Birke, who co-wrote Horseplayer, and re-activate that whole team. I'm developing a script for her that's based on a short I wrote that I was going to do last year with Katrin Cartlidge before she died. She was in Naked, the Mike Leigh movie. I think From Hell was her final movie. A brilliant, strange, gawky woman. I was really looking forward to working with her. She was going to play an artist based on Tracey Emin, a contemporary conceptual artist in London. Anyway, Katrin got ill and died this past fall--41 years old. It was quite shocking. So anyway, I'm taking the character out of that short to develop a feature.
AF: Is that what's next for you?
Voss: Maybe. There's four or five things juggling. There's something to be said for just sticking to one project and being very kamikaze, but in this climate you've gotta have a couple of things going because everything is so apt to crash and burn. Ideally, that would be next.
AF: Okay, Baha in 1995.
Voss: Yeah, Baha was several years later. I had a couple of lean years in between. Where the Day Takes You came out in '92, which I wrote, and Dangerous Touch in '94, which I also wrote, a straight-to-video thing. I think Allison and I were selling stuff in the recycler in '93. Baha was a movie I did with Molly Ringwald, Lance Henriksen, and Donal Logue. It was a lot of fun to make. We shot out on the Salton Sea, south of Palm Springs. On a budget it was a challenge to re-create Mexico. For example, there's a hotel opposite a strip mall, but I wanted to make it appear that it was next to a body of water, so I shot all the reverses at the Salton Sea two weeks later, that kind of thing. I like that part of filmmaking, all the jigsaw puzzle stuff. I don't know, it's got some virtues. I think Lance Henriksen gives a very good performance.
AF: One of the Poison Ivy movies was next [Poison Ivy: The New Seduction (1997)].
Voss: I don't know. I needed a paycheck, and I knew it would recoup its costs. I liked all those kids very much. It's nice working with really young kids because they don't know--I just told them to stand there and do what they're told, and they did it. That movie was made for well under a million dollars. I should sue New Line because it's a perennial seller, and they've never paid me a nickel in royalties. For how little money we made it for, I thought it was a pretty slick-looking product, which came down to that photographer, a lot of it--a very good DP [Feliks Parnell], who I'd like to work with again.
AF: The interesting thing about these straight-to-video movies is that they do make a profit. They have a certain budget, five hundred thousand to a million dollars, and they're expected to recoup. They tend to do well in international sales, like on cable in Asia.
Voss: Well, they always have, and that's the problem. It's not happening now. Roundabout '97, the Asian market collapsed for action movies. And now I think part of the problem is all the DV films. There's more movies now than ever, and competition for the entertainment dollar. These movies aren't recouping the way they used to. These little producers used to make something for a million, and get on a roll. One would finance the next. They crap out eventually, but then they go start a new company. But these guys just aren't getting to first base.
The buyer for USA Home Entertainment before they were bought by Universal was bragging to me--it was like a big fish bragging about eating little fish before he himself was swallowed--he was saying he was getting all these straight-to-video films for no advance at all to the producers, just part of the profit. Two, three million dollar movies that would have two or three solid names for the video box. There's no cash flow in that, if the producer has to wait not only two years after the movie is finished, but another six months for the video to ship. And it's always been the sort of business where you're betting dollars to make nickels. Slim profit margins. Sex Lies and Videotape once every hundred times at bat. On average it's a grind-it-out proposition. And now I think these poor guys are really hurting.
AF: Amnesia ?
Voss: AmnesiaÖ who was in that? A bunch of nutters. [laughs] Sally Kirkland, John SavageÖ Ally Sheedy and Nicholas Walker both ended up appearing in Sugar Town. This was a quirky little movie. It was a TV premiere on Showtime. It got some good notices. They called it housebroken David Lynch. It was a noir thing, but it got progressively stranger. It was a tongue-in-cheek little movie. I liked that one.
AF: Below Utopia, renamed Body Count , with Ice-T, Alyssa Milano, and Justin Theroux.
Voss: That was the first of the two times I worked with Ice-T. All good people, quite an enjoyable shoot. It deals with a home invasion, and so you spend a lot of time with the protagonists hiding in the unlit basement waiting for the other shoe to drop, so it had kind of radio-play elements to it. Pretty solid little thriller. I think it was a budget of about a million dollars.
AF: Okay, The Pass, aka Highway Hitcher , with William Forsythe, Elizabeth PeŮa, and James LeGros.
Voss: Not a movie I have really any fondness for. William Forsythe plays a guy who has a midlife crisis and he's reinvigorated by an incident he has while he's on the road to Reno. I don't know, it was a little too schematic. A bit of a misfire. And I loathe William Forsythe. He's a total fucking prick. And that you can print. There's something with actors in their 40s, I don't know--there's this tendency with these guys, either they're not where they wanted to be, or--I mean, this guy was making good money and working a lot. It's almost like they have a bad conscience about the job, like it's unmanly or something, so they try to compensate by busting the director's balls 24/7.
I had heard terrible things about this guy taking over people's shows, essentially. Alex Rockwell did a movie with him [Sons]. Apparently he just hijacked the movie. It's just unpleasant to deal with a guy like that. Really contentious and petulant. Ö James LeGros is a lovely guy, but by his own admission he was miscast, because he's supposed to be quite scary, and he told me afterwards, "Ah, it never works." I kind of had a sinking feeling even during the table readings that there was something not quite right. But again, I had no money, I was down to my last five hundred bucks. That was the cast that worked for the producers, so you had to hold your nose and proceed.
AF: Which brings us up to Sugar Town. It sounds like after some paycheck movies that Sugar Town really was a reconnection with some of the things you were passionate about.
Voss: It was. For Allison, too, it was a necessary return to that stuff. Stuff she was developing with the studios just wasn't advancing. We made Sugar Town to combine our strengths and our resources at that point. I should say, too, going back to what I said earlier, the Asian action market had fallen apart at that point. Sugar Town's distribution ultimately got screwed up, because it was bought up by October, who were then bought by USA immediately. Then when it came time for USA to release the DVD, the home entertainment side wanted to rectify the poor treatment on the theatrical front, but they were bought by Universal and are now Focus. But financially, it improbably turned out to be quite a payday for us.
AF: One of our writers reviewed Sugar Town quite positively, but her one complaint of it was that she didn't get to spend enough time with the characters. It was only ninety minutes. She wanted to get to know them even more. What do you think hearing that? Could there have been more movie?
Voss: We only had 18 days to shoot the thing. We just didn't have the resources to make the story any longer. I don't really take that as a criticism, in fact, it's a compliment. It's nice that she felt that way. But I think there was just enough of the movie. We had a two-hour cut at one point. There was a little bit more time spent at John Doe's house, a couple more scenes with the wife, but nothing that really advanced the plot. We had to pace it out to make sure the first act break occurred where it did. It needed to have that to keep rolling. So no, there wasn't really too much more movie. A couple of funny outtakes though. There was a funny bit with Michael Des Barres screwing Beverly D'Angelo--
AF: Yeah, we didn't see the actual sex scene.
Voss: Right. And she's telling him that he should ditch the band, and I think she's promising she's got a contact to get him a solo recording contract. This is the thing that gets him off ultimately. It was a funny little bit, but it was too off-the-wall for the movie. The other scene is very gentle. It just proved redundant and breaks the tone.
AF: Then after that you did The Heist , which was another action movie.
Voss: Yeah, that was something I'd committed to before Sugar Town. It just took awhile for the money to come together. That was a crazy movie. I had a producer on it who was trying to get around paying certain deposits to SAG. SAG came and shut us down, and took all my actors away. I was shooting close-ups with the script girl's hands for inserts, anything to make it work. It's an armored-car heist movie. An armored car gets jacked. So then we sent the armored car out to do some running shots, second-unit-type shots. We had one of the guys from the camera crew, a black guy who was dressed to double as Ice-T. He had a bandana on, and some stage blood to match an earlier scene. There was also stage blood on the window of this armored car, and when they stop to refuel it, some good Samaritan puts two and two together. Next thing we know SWAT was mobilized. SWAT actually surrounded these guys on the 6th Street bridge. Helicopters, police cars, the whole thing. The guys are lucky they weren't shot, because apparently they came out brandishing their walkie-talkies to prove they were a movie crew. That whole movie was like that. De'aundre Bonds was in that, playing the third member of Ice-T's crew. I just got a call from Patrick Goldstein from the L.A. Times who wanted a quote because De'aundre is in prison for twelve years for murder. He stabbed his aunt's boyfriend to death. He wasn't violent when we shot, but he was a pretty live wire. I don't know, that whole shoot was just nutty. But it's a pretty solid little genre movie. Probably of all those I'm proudest of it, because it was so hard to make, and it holds together pretty well. I like Richmond Arquette a lot; I've worked with him a lot and would like to do so again.
AF: Then you co-wrote Things Behind the Sun , again with Allison.
Voss: Right. Actually the script for that went back to '96, I think. I was spending a lot of time in Mexico City. Allison and I met in El Paso, and laid out the story, which is pretty much based on her own rape as a teenager. So, quite autobiographical. In fact, she went back and filmed the rape at the very house she had been raped at thirty years earlier. I went down to Mexico City with the outline and wrote the script in a hotel room down there over the course of a couple of months. It was kind of like almost like channeling Allison a little bit. It was a moving experience, actually, to write.
AF: I would imagine it was good to collaborate, if it was really personal for her. I imagine there were times she needed a more objective, detached person.
Voss: Yeah, absolutely. I think specifically what I was most able to provide was--the movie treats the guys, even the rapists, with a certain amount of empathy and tries to understand them. I think, by her own admission, that she couldn't have made that leap without someone to mediate to a certain extent. But yeah, that's a good film. It took ages to get made. Winona Ryder was supposed to star for awhile, then Heather Graham was supposed to star. They had these names attached, and they would sit around at studio level awaiting development. I kept telling these guys, you have to come back to this. I thought it was going to win some sort of award., I just had a feeling. It did, in fact, win a Peabody ultimately, which was a trip.
AF: And now, Down and Out with the Dolls. You didn't work with Allison on this film. What kind of working relationship do you have? You seem to go away from it and come back to it every once in awhile, and have maintained that for a long time.
Voss: Yeah, in addition to the stuff we've had produced, we wrote a spec script on Darby Crash of the LA punk band The Germs. It was about '91 that we did that. It's still kicking around; I think HBO or Showtime are looking at it at the moment. Madonna was actually going to make, or announced it for Maverick at one point, though it was probably just for the sake of that day's publicity. River Phoenix was interested in starring in it at one point. That isn't going to happen either. We're talking about trying doing something else. We wanted to perhaps develop a TV show for Don Cheadle, who was so good in Things Behind the Sun. We have an idea for that. We'll probably take that out with us this pitch season, which is coming upon us.
And that was it. I couldn't think of anything else to ask and didn't have a big tie-everything-up-with-a-bow type question prepared. So I asked Voss if there was anything he wished I had asked him that I hadn't. There wasn't. He asked me if I had any leading questions I might want to ask. I didn't. So he inquired about the history of AboutFilm and revealed that he had once written for Film Threat. After that we went our separate ways. I left making a mental note to find a copy of Things Behind the Sun and hoping to see more from Voss in the future--perhaps even interview him again, though next time in a more contextually appropriate location than a corporate latte outlet in O.J.'s old neighborhood.
Feature and interviews
© March 2003 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
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