Opening October 11th, “CBGB,” directed by Randall Miller from a screenplay co-written with his wife and producing partner, Jody Savin, is an engaging serio-comic tale of the early days of New York’s legendary Lower East Side punk club told from the point of view of its struggling owner and music impresario, Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman). The film also stars Malin Akerman, Justin Bartha, Richard de Klerk, Johnny Galecki, Ashley Greene, Rupert Grint, Taylor Hawkins, Stana Katic, Donal Logue, Joel David Moore, Freddy Rodriguez, Mickey Sumner and Bradley Whitford.
In 1973, after two bankruptcies and an acrimonious divorce, the ever-determined Kristal borrowed money to buy the Palace Bar, a watering hole for the indigent of what was then New York’s seething skid row. Hilly had a dream. He wanted to give a stage to live musicians, albeit Country, Bluegrass and Blues musicians, thus the acronym CBGB. When it proved impossible to book the likes of Conway Twitty on The Bowery, Hilly opened his doors to local talent. The bands that came were primitive and unrehearsed, but by giving them a stage, Hilly gave them a forum in which to grow. Variously angry, nihilistic, political and raw, this music was a radical departure from the disco and ultra studio produced rock of the times. It was fundamentally DIY.
Audiences responded to the egalitarian nature of the CBGB bands. It was an antidote to the harsh socio-political times. Nixon was impeached. New York was on the verge of bankruptcy. Ford was refusing to bail the city out. But the music did not have a name until Punk Magazine was established in the Connecticut basement of the parents of a young illustrator named John Holmstrom (Josh Zuckerman) who gave a signature look to the movement. Filled with irreverence and irony, the magazine lent a kind of aberrant formality to the downtown music scene. Punk was born. And the world of music was changed forever.
At the film’s recent press day held at L.A.’s iconic Whisky A Go Go on the Sunset Strip, actors Galecki, Moore, and de Klerk, director Miller, writer/producer Savin, and cartoonist/writer Holmstrom talked about the origins of the Punk music scene, how the filmmakers decided which seminal acts and songs to include in the movie, the meticulous casting process, how the actors researched and discovered their characters, what it was like working with Alan Rickman, how they used some of the original CBGB fixtures to lend authenticity to the film’s production design, and the pivotal role CBGB played in nurturing a young generation of underground, cutting edge artists and musicians that gave birth to a new genre of music.
Question: John, how did you know to create this magazine called Punk Magazine? How did you know what this was when nobody else did?
John Holmstrom: I read an article in the Village Voice by James Walkin and it described the Ramones in a paragraph and I knew I was going to love them. And then, Lisa Robinson had done a story about the way they looked for Creem Magazine. So, there was an awareness about the CBGB scene if you were a rock and roll fan and went to every concert you could go to.
Q: Out of the group of you here, I know that John was at CBGB. Did anybody else get a chance to go to the original CBGB’s?
Randy Miller: We did. (referring to Jody Savin and himself)
Q: How did you decide which seminal acts and songs to include in the film?
Miller: We wanted to tell the best story that we could. And it’s the story of Hilly (Kristal) really. It’s the story of how Hilly started this club. And so, you have Television and you have some of the lesser known groups that started it, and even the Ramones were not known at the time. They just happened to become big. It was about telling the journey of the beginning of the club. So, that rules out a whole bunch of bands – Green Day and all the other bands later on. That’s what that’s all about.
Jody Savin: We do have peppered throughout a little bit of homage to some of these bands that came later by putting them on the wall even though it’s out of time, out of period for some of the religious punkers. It throws them off. But it is a movie after all, and so we wanted to give a hint of what was to come. We made some choices that were not chronologically accurate, but sometimes either the message of the song or the soul of the song was what we felt was right for that moment and so we took a few leaps of faith.
Miller: In music, we don’t just have the famous songs. There are a lot of really obscure things on the soundtrack. We think that’s fun. There will be discoveries for people. There’s 67 songs in the movie or something like that, so there are a lot of songs that nobody’s ever heard of that we really like.
Savin: There are some great discoveries we made in the process. There’s a Wayne County tune in the movie that was a discovery for all of us. It’s a great tune. So it will be great for audiences to find that because I think it was pretty obscure before this movie.
Q: Were there songs you wanted that you couldn’t get because of licensing issues?
Miller: There were some songs. We were at one point going to have some more known Ramones songs, but we couldn’t figure that out. But we have two Joey Ramone songs in there. It is the same sound, but it’s his voice, and they’re not known songs. There’s a Patti Smith song, “Because the Night,” which is a Bruce Springsteen-Patti Smith song that’s from a little bit later time period. We picked that because that song was about the scene and about the concept of the movie, but it would have been great to have maybe another Patti Smith song from earlier. It’s always a sort of give and take. You have a limited budget, so you have to decide what’s important and what’s not important. Hopefully, we made the right choice. I mean, that’s what we tried to do.
Q: For the actors, can you talk a little bit about your characters, getting into them, and what surprised or shocked you and made you adore them or hate them?
Richard de Klerk: I play Taxi. He’s the sound guy in the club, and Taxi is actually a character that’s written. He’s a mixture of four different guys that were sound men at the club: Charlie Martin, Norman Dunn, Cosmo Ohms and Taxi. I spent a lot of time with Taxi. He wrote a lot of stories. He’s a very good writer and he taught me how to sound mix. If you asked me to sound mix today, I probably could not do it. But when I was playing the character, what was amazing was everything he told me about the character was, “There’s one thing you have to portray and that’s the love of the music.” And I didn’t know a lot of the bands. I’m a Canadian kid. So, punk? Green Day. Right? Not Television, Blondie, the Ramones. That’s just not in my vocabulary. So I had to learn all of these different acts. I’d seen the way that Joel David Moore comes in and plays his role, and Mickey Sumner coming in and playing her role. I had the best spot in the entire house, so I just absolutely got an education playing the role.
Joel David Moore: Overall, it was really tough to find how to get into the mind space and the realm of where we were. I grew up knowing some of these bands. I was a skater kid, so skater kids like to punk. In fact, the first band shirt that I owned was a Ramones shirt, because my parents were conservative and they wouldn’t allow any skulls and crossbones, but the Ramones shirt was just the pictures of their faces. And so, that was actually the first punk shirt that I owned and the most rebellious I ever got as a child. But playing Joey was interesting because he had a mixture of different accents. He was from Queens. He had a Jewish Queens accent off stage, and then, on stage, it was a faux Brit-Queens-Jewish accent that he would bring and developed into something else through time. So picking with Randy what we were going to go with and what genre we were going to play Joey was fun and creative and difficult. What we tried to do was just create the essence of the Ramones for people so that we weren’t as much worried about what era, what exact time, what year we were in, what month we were in, and more what made sense for the overall accessing the understanding of the Ramones.
Q: What surprised you about him?
Moore: Everything. Joey was a very awkward fella and he did not want the spotlight. He didn’t start as the leader of the group. He started as a drummer, and they needed somebody to sing, and he couldn’t drum and sing at the same time. It was just a nightmare. And so, they were always fighting. They were never happy. They ended up throwing him up to the top and he started singing, and then he never did anything else. He just sang. He was a very interesting guy because he was sort of the spotlight of that band, but off of stage he didn’t want anything to do with any version of the spotlight. Probably we can relate to that at some point when we’re doing something as actors or producers or directors. And then, when you’re asked questions about what you do, you’re like, “I don’t know. I’m like here, right now. It’s me, guys!” I’m just kidding. This is fine. This is healthy. (laughs)
Johnny Galecki: I play a gentleman named Terry Ork who was a band manager and music promoter. He’s no longer with us, unfortunately. And, despite the fact that Terry was not a recognizable celebrity, it’s such a gift and a luxury to have a blueprint of the character, as opposed to when you’re playing a character that’s purely fictional where you’re like, “I don’t even know where to start with this guy.” It was wonderful. I could look up a picture of Terry. “Oh, he had a beard. Oh, he wore a scarf.” It alleviates you of a lot of insecurities that you might have as an actor if your decisions are right or wrong. Nobody could argue that that’s what Terry looked like. With that comes a responsibility that you want to pay this person homage. I did track down some friends of Terry’s and spoke with them. I loved his passion for these artists and the support and generosity that he gave them and his fun-loving nature and ambitiousness. I’m nothing if not ambitious, so I thought I could really contribute to that. (laughs) And then, I’m a fan and follower of many of these performers. What I didn’t know is, first of all, I think I harbored the same misconception that a lot of people do about the club in general which was just this very hostile, drug-spit-mosh pit kind of thing early on. I think in later and later years it became more hardcore, but initially you’re talking about Patti Smith’s spoken word poetry and things of that nature. It was such a diverse group of artists that were very supportive of one another it seemed. There was a real endearing vein through the story that touched me as someone who likes to support his fellow artists as well. It was a very nurturing place which is what surprised me.
Q: Johnny, did you have fun rocking the beard?
Galecki: The beard was no fun at all. It was about 105 degrees in Savannah.
Savin: I didn’t recognize you that day you showed up.
Miller: I was like, “This is Johnny.”
Savin: I said, “Hi. I’m Jody.”
Q: Was it fun going from the science world of “The Big Bang Theory” into this total rock star world?
Galecki: Well absolutely. I mean, selfishly, just to be associated with something like CBGB which is so synonymous with what’s badass cool is not something you just want to be a part of that paragraph in its history. And I really thought it was… I mean, some of the younger actors who were in the band Television and played those songs, they had never heard of those guys before. Twenty years ago you couldn’t have made…but now there’s such a wealth of information and research that we can all go to online and things of that nature where you guys really did a fucking fantastic job crawling into those performances.
Moore: And it’s interesting because sometimes Johnny and you (de Klerk) got to hang out with Taxi. All of our guys have passed away, and your character had passed away as well. Right? So there were certain people that were on set, and there were a lot of people that were involved in the CBGB world that helped us establish the parameters of where we were. I remember making some decisions early on, and Lisa Kristal (Hilly Kristal’s daughter) said, “I don’t know. He wouldn’t have done that.” And we all discussed what to do with the smoking scenario because everybody smoked back then. But nobody really knew Joey as a smoker because he had quit pretty early on before the Ramones got big, so we had to make those decisions as we went. But just the wonderful world of CBGB is so interesting and unique and something that was trying to bear a child of a certain genre of music that beared an entire other genre and actually collaborating between a lot of different artists was the born punk in and of its roots, and I think that’s pretty cool.
Q: Speaking of Lisa, how involved were Hilly’s children if at all with this project?
Miller: Lisa was very, very involved. Right from the very beginning, we talked to Lisa. We still talk to Lisa probably several times a day. She came over to our house yesterday. She’s out here for the premiere.
Savin: She brought me these punk CBGB earrings.
Miller: What happened was, when we secured the rights to make the movie, it was really with her and we had to figure this out. And then, Lisa hooked us up with everybody. She hooked us up with you, John (Holmstrom), and various band members.
Savin: She made this big, long list and said, “This is everybody who worked there, everybody that hung around all the time, and this is everybody that was born out of there. I’m in touch with them all, so whoever you want to talk to…” So we were like, “We want to talk to everyone.”
Miller: We just went down the list. We talked to more than a hundred people. It was like, “Who are we talking to today?” “Well, this is the doorman who was there for many years.” “This was Taxi” or “This was Cosmo.” Cheetah Chrome was on the set, too. Cheetah was one of The Dead Boys. Rupert Grint plays Cheetah Chrome in the movie. It was pretty amazing to have that wealth of knowledge and everything. She was really involved.
Q: Can you talk about the casting? Everyone seems like they were born for these roles.
Miller: Well, we had a great casting director. We worked with Rick Pagano and Cassidy Boyd, his assistant, quite a bit. We were just really fortunate. We’ve worked with Alan Rickman before on two other movies: “Bottle Shock” and “Nobel Son.” It was interesting because we cast him, and then we were putting together the pieces. The idea was we wanted to have a mix of complete unknown people in some of the roles, like we do with Keene McRae who plays Sting, for example. He was an open casting call guy. He was amazing.
Savin: Yeah. He was a kid from Alabama.
de Klerk: I thought he was British the first time I met him.
Miller: We told him, because Alan is actually friends with Sting in real life, and he came in and he did an amazing accent. He said he was from Birmingham, Alabama, and we said, “No. You’re from Birmingham, England. And you’re never going to say you’re not from Birmingham, England.” So just keep that, and he kept that until he finished shooting. And then he asked us, and we said, “Yeah. You can tell Alan now where you’re from.”
Savin: But we saw so many people for that role. It’s not a big role, but we just had to find someone. Keene is actually a wonderful musician and singer, so he really knew his way around.
Miller: So we looked around, and we had pictures, and we matched people, and we figured out who could be this person. We were just really fortunate that it all worked out. I think the CBGB name and what it stood for and the club, it also really attracted people. Like Johnny said, it was an interesting thing for him to go do and Joel.
Savin: Most of the crew were really serious music fans, if not punk fans. And so, the extras casting person, Abba, she took it so seriously. She had pictures of even non-speaking roles. The extras were cast.
Miller: Band members.
Savin: She would have people come in and they would have to be able to play because they couldn’t fake it if they couldn’t really play. And then we’d pick from a series of people, but even the extras look a lot alike. That was really hard work on her part.
Q: John, you knew Hilly. How does the movie stand up?
Holmstrom: I think it’s a very accurate reflection of what the club was like. Alan Rickman does a great job as Hilly. He’s like the glue that holds that thing together. Randy and Jody did a great job of choosing Hilly as a way to tell the story of what happened at CBGB’s back then. At first, when I heard about it, I thought, “Hilly? Who wants to see a movie about Hilly?” But he’s like the straight man. Right? And everybody else is the crazy person. And what I really love is they made it a comedy. They made it a funny film. So many rock and roll movies are so deadly serious and boring. And then, when I saw this was going to be funny, I couldn’t wait to get on board.
Q: Hilly appears to be such a character in the movie. Was he a character in real life?
Holmstrom: Oh yeah. They all were – Merv (Ferguson). Merv was everybody’s favorite person at CBGB’s. He was the good guy.
Miller: And did he have an English accent? Wasn’t he sort of faking this accent that he put on?
Holmstrom: It was like a mild Scottish accent, I think.
Miller: And nobody was really sure if he put that on or whether he was from there.
Savin: Apparently he spent some time there, but we don’t know if it was weeks, months or days.
Miller: He wore a hard hat all the time and nobody really knew why. We would ask so many people and they were like, “Well he just liked to wear a hard hat.”
Savin: In the club.
Holmstrom: Well I think he was really like the bouncer. It was a Hells Angels bar when it started. That’s in the film. It’s not the Angels, but it was a biker place. I was afraid to go to CBGB’s at first because I was afraid of the Hells Angels. I remember being there when they did have a big bar fight in the back by the pool table.
Galecki: I don’t think that was an unreasonable fear. (laughs)
Miller: Well, you were like a long-haired hippy guy. And these bikers didn’t necessarily get along with those guys.
Q: CBGB represented a community for kids from Long Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and all over the country to come and learn about this type of music and be a part of an atmosphere. Do you think the internet is killing places like this?
Moore: Actually that’s an interesting question. The internet is CBGB for these people now. I don’t know that there’s ever going to be another place like this with the origins of a genre of music, but these little sites that you can go to. It was Myspace at one time and now it’s something else. It may be Myspace again depending on how good Justin (Timberlake) does with it.
Miller: But it has the CBGB mark and the sort of nostalgia and the mystique of it. People talk about it in that way because I’ve had those questions from people in Brazil who say the same thing, like “Do you think there’ll be another place like that?” And I do think there is something about the internet. It’s like everybody can put their music up there. People can put their videos up there. I mean, there are lots of artists who just get discovered because people discover them on the internet, and that didn’t happen back then. You had to perform at CBGB. You had to hope that some manager or producer guy would come in and see you, and then you’d get to the next step. Nowadays, it can happen overnight. It does with these TV shows and these internet things. So there’s something interesting about that. It’s a little different than it was.
Q: Do you feel like there’s a musical equivalent to that or that that’s even possible now?
Miller: A musical movie, you mean, or… ?
Q: I mean, a musical movement that could originate from that sort of grass roots place?
Miller: It feels like there are a lot of people who are reacting to the fact that you don’t necessarily need a record company or a big label and that you can create your own music. It’s interesting because Taylor Hawkins is in the movie playing Iggy, and they’re one of the biggest bands in the world and they recorded one of their albums in the garage — The Foo Fighters – just so that they could show that you don’t need all this stuff. That’s really what CBGB was. There wasn’t a lot of producing going on there. They would just practice and they would do it. John will even tell you these guys would come in and they weren’t that good. They’d work for a few weeks. They’d get better and better and better. And that was their incubation period.
Galecki: I think it’s cycular, too, in that something strikes a chord in the pop culture via a fashion of music or a fashion of fashion and then it just snowballs and becomes very bloated. If you look at the bands of the time that were the top bands then like Journey, for example, that did massive stadium tours with lasers and smoke, when that happens, someone inevitably then breaks it down, trims the fat off, boils it down to the purest expression of what that expression is of art. That’s what they shared in at that time in those hallowed walls. But I think Jack Black is a pretty good example of spearheading and getting down to the basics. Currently, I think he’s a great example of that personally.
Q: You had access to some of the original CBGB fixtures that the family had in storage. How important was that in your production design and for the actors to be immersed in the actual history?
Miller: Interestingly, when we made our deal to do the movie with Lisa, there was another group that was buying the mark to do this CBGB Festival and eventually maybe do a club. When they tore down the club, and I don’t know, maybe Hilly just knew this or something, they tore everything out of the club – the bar, the front doors, pieces of the wall, the urinals, all kinds of stuff – and it was in this shipping container in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. We shot the movie in Georgia and New York. We went to New York at the end to get all the ins and outs and everything. So we had this shipping container put on a truck and shipped to us, and we had the bar and we had the front doors. And instead of the hydraulics that doors have, these front doors had bungee cords, and we had those actual bungee cords. So there’s something weird about that. When Alan comes in the door and he pushes the door, and it’s the real door that his character probably went through, there’s something intrinsic. I don’t know what that is. It helps the crew. It helps everybody.
Savin: I remember when this stuff arrived, the crew was so excited. And then they opened the box to the toilets, and no one had cleaned those toilets since the day [they were removed]. They were like, “Get out the rubber gloves!”
Miller: People wore gloves putting them together, but we had them on the set. We wanted to have them. We wanted to have all this real stuff like the cash register and his desk. Alan sits down at the desk, and he’s doing the scene with Ashley (Greene), and he opens the drawer and stops for a second, and he pulls out this deli menu which was scribbled on. It was like, “I’ll have the matzo ball soup and the pastrami.” This was his desk. It’s kind of cool! It had his phone list in there, too. There were phone numbers that were like Lisa’s phone number. Her actual phone number was on the desk. It does something. I think it adds authenticity to it.
de Klerk: Not to get too metaphysical or anything, but I really felt somehow supported by the ghosts in that wood of the bar and those walls. It made it feel very authentic.
Miller: Which is what you hope for. And then, when you’re on a sound stage, it’s always weirdly foreign anyway because you take off a wall to shoot this angle and you put the wall back on, and you take off the other wall and shoot another angle. For an actor, that must be strange. It’s like, “What am I looking at now?” We thought that it would add some authenticity to it.
Q: Hilly had quite a dog. Was that real dog poop you used in the movie?
Miller: That was not. In the original cut, there was more dog poop. But my wife, my partner, said, “You’ve got to take it out.” No, it was like brownie mix. The prop guy shows up with a platter and he’s like, “Do you want the more chunky?”
Q: You didn’t want to step in it?
de Klerk: Yeah. I’m not going to lie. When we did the close-up on the feet, I was gagging.
Q: Johnny, you have several scenes with Alan Rickman. How was that?
Galecki: Oh wonderful. I’m sure you guys had a similar experience. He’s just a very, very generous actor and he has a real presence in reality that also translates obviously onto the film. He can hold a pause in a way that’s very unique and yet magnetic at the same time. Few people can do that.
Q: Most of the characters in this movie have very rebellious spirits. For all of you, what’s the most rebellious thing you’ve ever done?
Miller: The most rebellious in our personal filmmaking experience is when we decided to make independent films. We used to make studio films and we started to make independent films. The first independent film we did was a film called “Marilyn Hotchkiss’s Ballroom Dancing & Charm School.” We took the money out of our house. We put the mortgage of our house into the movie, and that was the initial funding for that movie. And that was probably the most rebellious, crazy thing that we’ve ever done. We had two little kids. That was pretty crazy.
Savin: We just wanted to tell stories that we cared about. We were getting up there in age and we thought we weren’t 20 anymore. We just thought if we don’t do it now, we’re never going to do it. We figured there would always be other options that didn’t involve much money for us in life, and so we started making independent films.
Moore: Without going into specifics, I think that there are a lot of rebellious decisions you have to make to do anything that we’re doing, more on just the dumb and crazy, like why are we taking this time and sacrificing our life. But once it pays off, and this is actually a great example of a movie that we get to shed things that we do being a very notable person on television and jump into a role and climb into clothes and get into wigs and be a character and actually just live outside of Los Angeles. And it did help that it was shooting outside of L.A. as well because you’re not even going home to your home. You’re not getting into your own bed. You are living in somebody else’s world for a little bit, and there’s something really beautiful and creative and fun and brave and rebellious about those things.
Q: For Randy and Jody, in too many movies about the music business and rock and roll especially, women are often the girlfriends or the groupies, but in this, women are professionals – musicians, producers and journalists. Was that true to what the scene was actually at that time?
Miller: Well, there were mostly guys there. There were some women. Genya Ravan was a good friend of Hilly’s.
Savin: And Hilly loved women and trusted women probably more than men. Hilly was a complicated guy to befriend. I think Alan plays him accurately. He was somewhat unapproachable. He could be gruff. He had a huge heart and he really just wanted art to live. I mean, he was simple in some ways, but he wasn’t so easy to be friends with if you were a guy. He was much easier to be friends with if you were a female. So, even though the club filled with…I don’t even know if it was mostly men, but with a large majority of men at night, Tish and Snooky from Manic Panic…I don’t know if you know but Manic Panic did the wigs and they really made that New York punk look. He was very good friends with them. He was very good friends with Roberta Bayley who manned the door. And it was his own daughter and Susanna Ryan – the character Lisa is a combination of both of them — who came in and said, “Hilly, this place is going to shut down if you don’t start paying the bills and get them out of Budweiser boxes and organize them.” Merv was his friend, but only women could come in and redirect him. So the women were really important.