'CBGB' Filmmakers on Finding the 'Human Story' of the Famed Punk Rock Club (Q&A)
CBGB may already be immortalized in pop culture, but the famed New York City club that birthed a punk rock movement is now immortalized in Hollywood, as well.
"We weren't exactly sure what this story would be, but we knew there was a story to tell [about CBGB]," says director Randall Miller (Bottle Shock), who wrote the screenplay about CBGB & OMFUG founder Hilly Kristal alongside his wife and writing partner Jody Savin.
"We go for what the human story is and then it's usually an event that also has long-term effects," he says. "In this case, it was a guy who started a country bluegrass place, in the Bowery of all places, in the '70s, and how that morphed into what it became. He became the godfather of punk and underground rock and roll."
The real-life Kristal died in 2007, but his daughter Lisa Kristal Burgman -- who worked tirelessly to keep her father's business financially afloat -- lent a hand on set as an advisor and co-producer on the film.
"For my character, it was less about the punk movement and more about the relationship between Lisa and Hilly," Ashley Greene, who portrays Lisa on screen, told The Hollywood Reporter at the film's New York premiere. "A lot of it was me asking her a ton of questions, her telling me loads of stories so that I could get a sense of what really went on behind the scenes at CBGB and why their relationships was what it was."
For Alan Rickman, who plays club founder Hilly, and frequently spars with his on-screen daughter, Kristal Burgman offered a simple bit of advice: "To remember that she loved him," he told THR.
In addition to Rickman and Greene, CBGB boasts a star-studded cast with Sons of Anarchy alum Donal Logue playing Hilly's longtime business partner Merv, Johnny Galecki as the band manager for Television, and Malin Akerman, Taylor Hawkins, Justin Bartha, Rupert Grint, Ryan Hurst, Stana Katic, Bradley Whitford, Joel David Moore, Freddy Rodriguez and Sting's daughter Mickey Sumner among the supporting acts flowing in and out of the storyline.
Below, filmmakers Miller and Savin tell THR how they found Hilly's story, why they brought the film to DirecTV ahead of its premiere and how they built the Bowery in Savannah, Ga.
CBGB opens theatrically in select cities on Oct. 11, via XLRator Media, with a planned expansion to 140 screens in over 100 markets.
Editor's note: This Q&A has been edited and condensed.
So many bands got their start at this club. How did you decide who to feature and to what extent you wanted to feature them?
Miller: We started at the beginning of the club. And there are actually some other great bands in the beginning of the club. We try to pick a few of the iconic bands and then a few of the bands that were not as well known.
Savin: You can't tell the story of CBGB without Television and The Dead Boys.
Miller: In the movie, when Hilly announces lots of bands, we tried to pick as many as we could. [Some artists] we have their music in the movie, but we don't actually see them. It's hard because you try to mention as many bands as we could, and it's a tricky thing. You are gonna have some hard feelings of people want to be in it, but you tried.
Savin: A lot of the sorting happens naturally because you know who is the key to the story that we are trying to tell. And you also know the sound that complements -- when it's not a piece of music that directly addresses narrative -- just how the sound of whatever piece complements the underscore of the story being told. Some of that just happens naturally in a way.
You've said that you stumbled across Hilly's story while researching for another project. What project was it?
Miller: We started on this road of making a movie about Dennis Wilson and the Beach Boys, and we were looking for other projects when we were in the music world. We weren't exactly sure what this story would be, but we knew there was a story to tell [about CBGB] because it was so influential and yet it was such a strange thing that it was called Country Bluegrass Blues.
Savin: For me, after college I lived in New York and there was very little I could do because I had no money at all. One of the things I could do was go to CBGB cause it cost so little money. When I told my [former] roommate that we were doing a movie about CBGB she was like, 'Oh man, do you remember the toilets?' She's an infectious diseases doctor now.
Miller: It was like peeling away an onion, and you start to see the true story and the story that you think is the most compelling. Bottle Shock was the same thing, we go for what the human story is and then it's usually an event that also has long-term effects. In this case, it was a guy who started a country bluegrass place, in the Bowery of all places, in the '70s, and how that morphed into what it became. He became the godfather of punk and underground rock and roll.
Savin: And he gave a stage and a voice to so many of the youth of downtown New York at the time.
Miller: Eventually it became the beacon for artists all around the world.
Savin: But it was born out of the spirit of one man and that is heroic in it's own niche way.
Miller: That's what we like -- one man changes all, so to speak.
You had Hilly's daughter Lisa on-set as an advisor. What sort of notes did she give you with regards to the script and the story?
Savin: She always said, "I never smoked!"
Miller: Though we indeed have smoking scenes in the movie. You know, she really understood that in a movie you have to combine characters, or maybe some scenes. She really got that the essence of what we were trying to tell is the most important thing, and in some instances with her father we had to put this scene next to that scene, even though they may have happened months or half-a-year apart. That's what made her such a great partner for us.
Savin: Plus, she took her role as an advisor very, very seriously. She was really there for us anytime we needed her and opened a lot of doors for us and stepped in when there were conflicts. She was just a great asset to this production in every way.
I understand that you shot this in Savannah, Ga.? Not in New York.
Miller: Yes. We had to figure out how to do the Bowery, which has changed quite a bit and it was quite expensive. New York is not cheap to shoot in. We found a studio in Savannah called Meddin Studios. We built the club there, and we shot in down town -- which was remarkably similar to the Bowery. At the end of the movie, we shot exteriors for a week in New York. In addition to that, we were fortunate in that when they tore down the club, they put stuff -- the bar, the bathrooms, the front door, the phone booths, parts of the wall -- in shipping containers. We were able to load it on a truck and ship it down to Savannah, and we built the interior of the club with a lot of actual parts of the real club.
How difficult was scheduling on this film? You have all these great actors coming and going, I imagine it had to be a nightmare to schedule everything.
Savin: Oh yeah.
Miller: You're always asking favors of people. It's like a checkerboard. I would walk into the assistant director's office and I would say, 'So, the good thing is, we have Ashley [Greene]. The bad thing is, she has to leave in the middle and go do another movie.' We shot for 30 days in Savannah and for five days up in New York.
There is always some debate on whether punk still exists, seeing as it's so ingrained in mainstream culture today. How do you think the artists would have reacted back then to having a film made about the movement?
Savin: I think they would have laughed so hard.
Miller: If you look at Punk Magazine, they have a sense of humor. They know it's nihilistic and all that stuff, but they definitely have a sense of humor. I think they would think, 'What a gas that people are dressing up like us and making a movie about us. That's crazy.'
Savin: They were living day-to-day, hour-to-hour. They weren't thinking long term -- they were young, they were experimenting. I don't think they ever thought 'legacy,' and they did, they left a legacy thanks to Hilly.
Your movie is screening at the CBGB festival, which is a natural fit. Did you consider actually premiering it there? Why did you decide to go the DirecTV route, instead? (CBGB debuted on DirecTV earlier this year ahead of its Oct. 11 theatrical release.)
Miller: No matter what size film you have, there's a budget that it costs to put out a movie and it's really hard to get people to know about your movie. The DirecTV thing, it was three weeks on DirecTV and the amount of awareness because of that is tremendous and so, it's almost like having those millions of dollars that you would have to spend if you were a studio to market your movie. That's why it's very beneficial. There's different experiences for every movie and some people don't understand it but I actually think it is the wave of the future. I think there are people who want to see rock and roll on their TV at home, there's people who want to see it in the concert hall, people who want to listen in their car, movies are like that too. Some people want to see it by themselves, some people want to see it in a theater and that's what's great about it.
Savin: The distribution model is definitely changing.
Additional reporting by Ashley Lee.