Interview: Rodger Grossman, Director of Germs Biopic, What We Do Is Secret
Rodger Grossman, 42, lives in Los Angeles and is the director of What We Do is Secret, the biopic about early Los Angeles punk band, the Germs. The movie premieres on Friday, September 12, in St. Louis at the Tivoli Theatre. Show times are at 5 p.m., 7:20 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. Friday. The film runs through Thursday, September 18. (Annie Zaleski's review is here.)
Nick Lucchesi: Many remember this movie being filmed years ago, three or four years ago. What took so long to release What We Do is Secret?
Rodger Grossman: It's coming out now as opposed to three years ago when people may have heard about the film because we went into production about three years ago, with an even longer-ago-than-that commitment from a financier to finance the entire budget of the film, around $3 million. And then she disappeared. We shut down production without having shot a frame of the film. We had cast and prepped the movie. The day before we were supposed to start principal photography, and she disappeared and we shut down.
Well, what did people think of the movie?
The reception there was phenomenal. We had three sold-out shows and standing ovations and incredible reviews and articles about the film. And based on the strength of that, we started negotiations with distributors and we had about five different offers from distributors. Peace Arch was the best offer, have given us an extraordinary theatrical release, and with today's market of indie films, that is rare and truly exciting.
What We Do Is Secret shows in St. Louis September 12, which is toward the end of the line for this film's U.S. tour. Tell us about the previous cities.
We're being released in 25-30 cities theatrically. They are doing a phenomenal job. It took a very long time obviously to get from the first phase of production to completion. And completing the film actually was never assured throughout the entire process until we actually sold the film and paid for the music. This whole process has a happy ending which is extraordinary given how brutally difficult it was from the start.
Shane West, who plays Darby Crash, speaks directly, a camera documentary-style, throughout the movie, but it's never really explained why. It What We Do Is Secret supposed to be a biopic disguised as a documentary? Is it intentionally similar to Decline of Western Civilization in this way?
The genesis of this movie for me started with Penelope Spheeris' Decline that was playing on Z Channel, that existed for a very brief period of time. They used to show that movie all the time. My entry point into this material was through Penelope's documentary. It was always framed and contextualized within a documentary format.
When I started to write the script, I thought about structuring the film from Penelope's point of view, doing the documentary about the movie and then going in and out of the narrative through this documentary perspective. Which I ultimately abandoned in later drafts of the script because -- principally because I spent time with Penelope and she wasn't enthusiastic about the idea. Out of respect for her, I kept the documentary perspective, which I love, and which was also in a movie that was highly influential which was Star 80.
Has this movie been able to draw in a broader audience than just punks or former Germs fans?
There's a very real moving human drama here and there's a story that anybody can relate to. I find that a lot of our most passionate discussions and reaction comes from people in their 40s and 50s who are certainly not punk rock fans. They see this a movie and they find fascinating.
Darby was very private about his sexuality. There was more of a discussion and debate within our own group internally, because the Germs made this movie with me. There was a lot of discussion internally about how much we wanted to make this his sexuality present. ''It should be in the film but not what the movie was about.'' That wasn't Darby. Darby was about becoming a legendary hero. That is the primary focus of the film. At the same time, I felt it was not important to shy away form that aspect of it, but treat it with weight as he dealt with it in his personal life.
How much of a role did the real-life members of the Germs play in the making of this film?
Everybody came together to make this movie because they were passionate about it and committed fully to it. Bijou (Phillips), so fully inhabits Lorna Doom. She's extraordinary. Lorna was there on set, in the band room, taught her how to play bass along with Pat (Smear). She delivered completely. Rick (Gonzalez) had never played guitar in his life before he did in this movie. He's this bright shining beam of light in this movie (as Pat Smear.) Noah (Segan) freaks a lot of people out because he's so much like Don (Bolles), the drummer of the Germs. Shane, what can you say about his performance other than it’s revelatory?
You're mentioning movies that really affected me growing up, Repo Man and Decline, these were movies that changed my life, and when I set out to make this movie, I knew we were obviously tackling a very important, a sacred, subject matter and we had to do it right. We worked from original research with everybody that was there at the time. We worked from original photographs, video and audio tape. What we created I think is a very layered, slavishly truthful -- in many respects -- work that really does everything we could to capture the details and essence of that time and those characters.
When you go back and watch the movie repeatedly, you'll start seeing more and more details that you didn't see the first time because it's so crammed with things from the period that were slavishly recreated.
Is there any lip syncing in this movie on the part of West?
None of it is lip syncing. Well, the recording of "Richie Dagger's Crime," that's really Darby and we only used Darby there because by the time we go to that scene, Shane had lost his voice. All the actors learned how to play their instruments under Pat Smear's direction. On the day we shot the performances, the actors were playing to play back of their own recording and Shane sang the vocal live. That's how he lost his voice, because he sang.
Would you make any other music biopics? If so, about who?
Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith or maybe The New York Dolls.
Do you stay in touch with the Germs?
I saw them just last week. We've been doing a lot of press and Shane became the lead singer of the Germs. The shows are great and the Germs are an amazing band. Don is an extraordinary drummer. Pat is a superstar and Lorna is as beautiful as ever. They love playing as the Germs and they love Shane and they love creating the music and it's actually -- it's very real.