There is a mythology that is attached to rock stars because there are a large number of them who have died at the age of 27. Kurt Cobain, Brian Jones (rhythm guitarist for the Rolling Stones), bluesman Robert Johnson, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix are the most well-known but “The 27 Club” also includes Chris Bell of Big Star, D. Boon of the Minutemen, Mia Zapata of the Gits and Kristen Pfaff of Hole.
Filmmaker Erica Dunton explores this idea with her very fascinating film The 27 Club, which just played at the Seattle International Film Festival. The story is that there is a band called Finn that is enormously popular and successful and one day Tom, the frontman for the band, dies of a drug overdose(somewhere after his 27th birthday but before his 28th). His best friend and bandmate Elliot is fearful that he may end up with the same fate. He enlists a stranger, a supermarket clerk he barely knows to drive him across the country to New York for his best friend’s funeral.
The clerk, who we only know as 3 Words (because all of the sentences he speaks have only 3 words), could not be more different and they form an unlikely bond and friendship, needing one another to grow and survive.
I spoke with Erica Dunton for a brief interview just before her film played an 11 am screening at SIFF last Saturday morning.
One of the things I really enjoyed with this film was that you had two completely different characters, Elliot and 3 Words, who were from two different worlds. Elliot was a rock star living that life and 3 Words was from a small town, red state, Christian, he could have voted for Bush…
He (3 Words) has a magical element to him. He has spirituality; but what I think I did was tell Elliot’s story in 3 Words’ world. So, if Elliot chose anyone else to be his driver, he might not have survived – but he chose this guy and this guy was picked. Now Elliot finds himself immersed in 3 Words’ world. That is that the world that saved him because it is a good, simple world. I wouldn’t say Republican/Bush but there is a Christian element to it. He’s a good boy, not stupid or naïve, but there’s a sweetness to his soul. If I set it in a different world, one that is gritty or dark, Elliot might not have survived. Or if I set him with any other character as a driver, he would not have come through.
Another thing I really liked about the film was the cinematography, the long songs of the countryside.
We first shot in Wilmington, North Carolina and then flew the cast and crew to LA and shot on the west coast for about 2 weeks: Sunset Blvd, Santa Monica, that whole area. Then we went to Joshua Tree. We used Colorado and Joshua Tree for the desert stuff and then to get all the landscapes on the way back we drove the camera truck back and did a second unit. It was our journey on the trip back home. It was the all the idea of the landscape of America and getting lost in Elliot’s mind. I didn’t want to do the really beautiful locations like Flagstaff, AZ. It wasn’t like the Thelma and Louise landscape. It was more real than that; places like New Mexico, Arkansas, Missouri, and Texas. Not exactly the prettiest landscapes but it really is Middle America.
You also used a distinctive color scheme: lots of browns and pale yellows, not a lot of loud, vibrant colors.
I’m a big color palette person. I worked with the same costume designer and film production designer for the last couple of films. We chose a color palette and said “these are our colors”. For instance, there is no green: no green in the wardrobe, in the locations. The only green you will find in the film is from trees or grass. Our color palette was brown, orange, yellow and blue. You can create a wash if everyone concentrates on that; you get obsessed with these colors and really can control how the film looks without cinematography, just within the production design. Then you shoot and you’ve got this amazing wash. In the first film I shot, RedMeansGo, we shot it in red, yellow and green. The costume lady renamed it “Red Means Brown” because if she couldn’t find anything, she was allowed to use brown. That was it. For example, I didn’t want blue in that film. I think it is something filmmakers without a lot of money can do. It takes a lot of time and preparation and everyone has to be on board but you can do it if you know your color palette. It is like if you go shopping to find a dress. You can look at all the dresses but if you say that you’re going to find a pink dress, you’ll find it a lot quicker. You’ll be looking for a pink dress and can cut out everything that isn’t pink. In that respect, it is very efficient and it gives you a really amazing wash. What it does is make everyone say the cinematography is amazing but it actually has a lot to do with productions and wardrobe.
Elliot was in very strong, black silhouettes. The car we bought was actually white and we painted it black so that you got this black silhouette driving a black car across the country landscape. There is no color with Elliot, apart from the red t-shirt. Red was one of the colors I allowed only for LA: red post-it notes, torn red t-shirt. Anything from LA was allowed red but you have to make sure you are working with people who understand what you are trying to do.
What was it about the idea of the 27 Club (the legend surrounding musicians who died at the age of 27, which includes Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Kurt Cobain) that drew you to making this film?
I think it was that I was approaching 30 when I was writing this film. I don’t think it was so much 27, although there is this fantastic myth about all of those people who died at 27. I think it was more about the creative minds who reached that age around 30. It is a turning point and you either make the decision to grow up or not grow up. I think it is a very crucial age. I wanted to capture that, and then I found out more about the 27 Club and the musicians who died at 27. It wasn’t that I professed to know the answer but I wanted to ask the question: why have all these people died at 27? I’m not saying I know – I think it takes more than a number – and I think it is more that age going from young adulthood into, hopefully, more maturity. They all have music in common and all were successful and they all had a creative mind – there is a genius there. Nick Drake, for example, died at 28 and others died at 26, so it is around that age, from 26 to 30. There’s lots of growing up.
In your film, Elliot seems to be fighting that, even though he thinks it could be his fate. There is the scene in the beginning where he stocks up on all the drugs but doesn’t touch them for the trip, which lasts about 5 days.
If I had to sum the film up in one sentence it would be that if you spent 27 years of your life with someone and all of a sudden, they aren’t there anymore and they were the only person you had, what would make you get up in the morning? That is what you struggle with and drugs become a part of that.
That story in the film about the lady who locks herself in a room with all of her favorite foods to diet is true. She looked at all of her favorite foods for several days and didn’t touch them. Or it is like if someone is quitting smoking and they have to have a pack of cigarettes with them wherever they go.
What is interesting is that Tom’s death creates a new life for Elliot. It is a new beginning for him. If Tom hadn’t died, they might have both ended up the same way. It is something interesting to me that death can create life. That chapter is closed and you have to find a new reality.
There is a choir that is featured prominently in the film that is made up of recovering addicts and homeless people. How did you find them?
Oh you should check them out. There’s a link on the
film’s website. I had gone to the Vail Film Festival and met a gal named Soozie Eastman and she made a film called By the Wayside. It was a film about recovering addicts in Louisville, Kentucky and this choir was amazing. They sang all of the songs they sing in the film.
When you make a road movie, you have the luxury of taking your characters wherever you go. I was on the road a lot, on the film festival circuit, so wherever I went, Elliot came along with me. I met this choir along the way and felt Elliot had to meet this choir.
It is basically that Elliot meets this choir to find the music again. To meet the choir, Elliot finds the music in the place he would never think to look. He never wants to hear that one thing until he meets them.
So… what happened was that I met Soozie and I had this line in my head about not having a home but you have a choir – they were semi-homeless or people from a halfway house. I told her I was going to write them in and she said to do it. Six months later, I called her and said I wrote them in and had the money and told her she had to help me. So we bused them from Louisville, KY for the film. It was amazing. They spent three days with them. They were a real choir and everything.
It was my favorite moment in the whole film because they were real people and their stories were real. There was a 39 year old chap who had been a prostitute since he was 9. There was another girl, she was the only one who wasn’t an addict, and she had woken up one morning and on her 18th birthday, her mother put all of her stuff downstairs and told her “you’re 18 now and I’m not responsible for you any longer.” It was those stories like that. We are going to take the film to Louisville so they can see it.
And then there is Peter Stampfel. Are you familiar with his story?
Unfortunately, I’m not.
He wrote the song “Fly Like a Bird” from Easy Rider and started the Holy Modal Rounders. He wrote this song, played while Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda were on the backs of the bikes. It was a big success and he made a lot of money but became an addict for 22 years. He decides to give up and goes to his first [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting and hates it. He comes back and wrote that song “Take Me Away”. “I don’t want to drink, just take me away.” He got completely cleaned up and doesn’t do drugs. That was his first response to the NA meeting. He is such a nice man that I asked him to sing that song for us in the bar.
The other nice musical fact you should mention, if you can, is that James Forgey, who plays Tom has been a musician since he was four and wrote almost all of the music for the film. James and I wrote the “Happy Birthday” song and he is just a phenomenal talent. I hope the film opens some doors for him. As an actor, too, but as a musician he just blew me away: that very lovely voice, it’s very emotional. Music-wise, I hope people like it very much.
I really thought those songs could fit in on the radio. It was not a stretch to hear those songs and think that the band in the film, Finn, could be so influential to a lot of fans and have thousands of people flock to New York for the funeral.
I needed the boys to feel like they were in a band. I didn’t expect them to write the music but I found a rehearsal space and got them some beer and put them in a room and told them to just hang out. Then they came back with this song and I was like “woah.”