For anyone who has ever paused a video during a record store scene to see which albums were on the wall of the record store or rented a movie because Lee Ving was in the cast, there is now a book that obsessively documents the phenomenon of punks making appearances in film. Writer and film programmer Zack Carlson along with Bryan Connolly and a handful of helpers participated in a seven-plus-year project of screening films from the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, pursuing the actors and filmmakers who produced an eclectic mix of films, and compiling their research into a book that categorizes appearances of punk rockers in movies. Everything from seminal documentaries, punks playing people, actors playing punks, and minor crowd shots are acknowledged in Destroy All Movies!!!: The Complete Guide to Punks on Film. The book acts as a film guide that archives these flashes through short reviews and a series of interviews with players and filmmakers who put punk rock in both Hollywood and underground movies. Zack Carlson talked to Razorcake.
Billups: I would think programming a small theater would be a great job for a film enthusiast.
Zack: I’ve done it for twelve years. I’ve done it at Alamo for five. It’s been my main job for most of my adult life.
Billups: The book is dedicated to Penelope Spheris and Jon Gries. Were they an inspiration or did they have some influence on the book?
Zack: I got married a few months ago and Jon Gries came to the wedding. I didn’t really have much prior contact with him at all. Penelope Spheris is coming out to screenings that we are doing relating to the book itself. I was really impressed with their work and that is why I dedicated the book to them. The reason the book is split between the two of them is she, in my opinion, did the most legitimate representation of punks in her movie Suburbia. And then he did the best completely false representation of a punk in Joysticks where it was an offensively inaccurate version of a punk but it was so entertaining that you can’t be mad at it. Have you seen the movie?
Billups: I have.
Zack: It’s got its problems logically. I can see why someone might not get into it. But for a fun loving schmoe, it’s as good as it gets.
Billups: It sounds like they represent the spectrum of representations of punks in the movies.
Zack: Yeah. They are at the absolute opposite ends and pretty much cover it. Jon was the first to admit that he was not part of the scene. He was just playing it up for effect. Those are my two favorite films in the book. Suburbia and Joysticks.
Billups: Jacob Covey did the design of the book. I think he really nailed the look of the project.
Zack: Jacob is Fantagraphics’ only in-house designer. He does projects for them all the time. He also had no interest in punk at all. It wasn’t his thing. When they decided to release the book, he requested the job. He’s not the only guy they use. Normally, he does more respectable projects. As a Fantagraphics consumer, I was aware of his work but never once thought he would do it. I was really excited that he wanted to do it. He had me send him samples of old punk flyers and album covers. And he was totally open to collaborating with someone like me who was not a professional.
Billups: The book looks beautiful. It’s such a bonus.
Zack: Looking for the art was really difficult because we didn’t do any screen captures. Everything that’s in the book came from existing promotional materials that we had to actually track down. We would go to Los Angeles to stores that sell old production glossies. That was a whole other side of the book: playing detective.
Billups: That must have been quite an undertaking.
Zack: I looked at it as a fun headache. Something we totally enjoyed.
Billups: Some of the interviews are very in-depth, but some are very short. What were some of the responses you received from interviewees related to the book?
Zack: There were some people who were less involved. A lot of people were genuinely ashamed of the movies they were involved in. We’d have to kind of harass them to the point that they would do the interview begrudgingly. There were people we were writing to who asked, “How much are you gonna pay me for this?” Unfortunately, the most glaringly abbreviated interview in the book was Dan O’Bannon who directed Return of the Living Dead. I didn’t understand why at the time, but all the communication was through his wife. She was really helpful, but I didn’t get why he wouldn’t talk to us directly. Then she told us he wants to but he can’t. Then she told us he could do it and I thought it was just a busy schedule. Then we did it by email and the answers were so short. He passed away two weeks later. So, I found out it was all because he was really ill, but he wanted to help us out.
Billups: That’s sad.
Billups: Did you run across people who were hostile about talking about their past? There must have been a range of interest.
Zack: We were fortunate that the people we really were hoping to get a hold of were very generous with their time. The best example of that is Richard Hell. He’s such an icon in various types of media like the art community and film writing and all this stuff. I figured that he gets hit up more than anybody. He was so open to talking that he was fun. He mocked himself a lot. He was a really great interview. And when it came time to write a forward for the book, he was like, “Yeah, of course I’ll do it. Why wouldn’t I?”
Billups: That interview with him was very candid. He is someone I would be intimidated to speak to.
Zack: Yeah, I don’t know why he was so open with me. I didn’t know him at all and he was talking about drugs and people he worked with and he was like, “It’s all true. Put it all in.”
Billups: Was it nerve racking at all trying to hunt down obscure actors and filmmakers? Did you get a lot of “no”s?
Zack: We did. It was funny. There were two types of “no.” The first was people who were obviously above it. Maybe they were nice guys, I don’t know. But someone like Emilio Estevez doesn’t want to talk about his role in Nightmares, much less Repo Man. Nicolas Cage was someone I really wanted to talk to because I really enjoy a lot of what he does. I think he is sort of a miracle—I mean, he does a lot of bullshit movies too—but maybe that’s most of what there is to do in Hollywood. The point is, there were people like him who were, of course, unattainable. The other type of “no” we got was someone who had directed or starred in, maybe, one movie, ever, or a bunch of really low budget stuff, and they’d come back and say, “We want $250.” To me that’s a “no.”
Billups: That’s disappointing.
Zack: I know. When it is someone who hasn’t talked to you about your movie in eight years and here comes someone who wants to hear about it. The best near miss we had was—have you seen the movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains?
Billups: Yes, I like that one.
Zack: I love that movie. It was unlikely that Ray Winstone was gonna want to talk to us about it because he is a really big actor now. We contacted everyone from it, even if it was a long shot, and his agent got back to us and said that Ray was really excited about the book and he wanted to order a copy but he was shooting in India or something and wouldn’t be available. That was the friendliest turn down we got. That was a cool one.
Billups: You would figure that people would be interested in talking about a body of work they were a part of.
Zack: What happened a lot also was—we searched for people for nine months once we realized the book was going to be released—we figured it was time to seek out individual interviews. I really wanted to talk to Tim Roth because he was really good in Made in Britain. Then one day, two weeks after the book went to the printer, Tim Roth walked into my work. He told me that was one of his favorite performances and he would have been glad to talk about it. I also almost got run over by John Stamos after I had spent almost two months trying to contact him through his agent.
Billups: Since the book has been released, have you received any feedback from any of the participants?
Zack: We sent Richard Hell two copies because he did the forward and he wanted an extra copy for his friend. After he got the book and read it, he bought five extra copies as Christmas presents. The people I am most curious about their reactions: one of them is Ian MacKaye. You know, for some reason, everyone fears his judgment.
Billups: The cutoff seems to be ’99. Is there a reason you chose to pick movies from a very specific era?
Zack: The end of the century had only been a few years back when we started working on the book. We started the book in 2003. We selfishly recognized that the cutoff point would negate the phenomenon that cameras were cheap and now any college student could buy a camera and make a movie.
Billups: I’m more suspicious of punks in movies nowadays.
Zack: Even the stuff in the late ‘90s. What’s more tragic than Adrien Brody’s punk in Summer of Sam? It’s so lame, and it only got worse. I love ‘80s stuff and I’m an apologist for the ‘80s, but when it comes down to it, it was the most real in its depiction. Those who were actually aware of the movement were making the films. Even when it got stupid like Joysticks style, it was fun. There was still some genuine energy behind it in its depiction.
Billups: Why do you think it was such a fun period to write about?
Zack: What was fun about those films is that they were exposing you to something that you didn’t necessarily know about. Or they were screwing something up in such an exciting way.
Billups: I think there were movies that introduced certain bands to me. Do you feel you were exposed to certain bands that way?
Zack: Yeah. I was very young and unaware the first time I saw Suburbia. It was all new to me. I’m trying to think of other things. I think a natural part of watching these movies for a lot of people is other people giving them mix tapes and that would be the first time they heard of Black Flag or something. I think movies worked that way, too.
Billups: I think it did for me.
Zack: What were some of the bands for you?
Billups: I can definitely remember hearing Bad Brains for the first time in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours. I also don’t recall being aware of the Circle Jerks before I had seen Repo Man. I was pretty young and sheltered when I first saw that. I’m sure there were more. I’m almost certain I didn’t know any of the bands in Suburbia before I saw the movie on Night Flight.
Zack:A lot of people who I talked to said a gateway punk movie was either Suburbia or Star Trek 4.
Billups: That’s interesting.Isn’t there a scene with a guy with a mohawk on a bus or something?
Zack: Yeah, so many people said, “Get that guy in Star Trek 4.”
Billups: That’s what I love about the book is how complete it is. It really captures so many small moments. It is amazing how those things stick in your mind.
Zack: I think it’s true for everybody. I can’t think of a better stereotype to get wedged in your memory.
Billups: Why do you think the image of the idiot punk rocker became such a reliable bad guy in the movies?
Zack: You mean as a villain?
Billups: I think punks were utilized as villains—unless I am thinking about it wrong—at least known for villainous behavior. Do you disagree?
Zack: No. Even if they are not doing something directly villainous, they are used to indicate that a character is in a bad part of town or there is some bad shit going on. I think it can be blamed entirely on filmmakers who were sixty-five-year-old wealthy dudes who have seen punks walking around. “Let’s use one of those ugly kids from the mall.” It was that easy. For a long time punk was the go-to thing. That was enough.
Billups: Did you keep tabs or have any temptation to touch on some of the infamous punk rock episodes of television shows like Quincy, CHiPs, or 21 Jump Street?
Zack: We did consider doing TV as well. But it took us seven years to watch the movies. And there is more access to the movies. If you try to watch every episode of Silver Spoons, it’s just not gonna happen. Maybe the first couple of seasons are on DVD. After that, you’re fucked. It just wasn’t feasible. Somebody would have to be a true research warrior. It would be a book just as large as ours.
Billups: Did you have any trouble finding source material?
Zack: It was really hard to get everything. Over seven years I spent about four-thousand dollars on bootlegs and VHS tapes. That wouldn’t have been so bad if there had been any regularity of them being relevant. For the most part, they weren’t. We averaged one out of every twelve movies we watched had a punk in it. It got pretty slim.
Billups: What would influence you to order something that you hadn’t heard of?
Zack: It would be if a movie took place in New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago or had a high school scene in it, or if it was an ‘80s boner comedy. Or maybe an action movie that takes place on the “hard streets” of any given city. Then we felt it was our duty to watch it.
Billups: That considerably bumps up the scope of how much time I imagine you spent watching films for the book.
Zack: It was really three people. Me, Brian, and this guy Spencer who wrote reviews featured in the book. We watched 18,000 to 20,000 movies.
Billups: Were there any discussions or omissions based on what someone thought was relevant?
Zack: There were times when someone would be on the fence. We’d show each other for a democratic consensus. It went like that.
Billups: I wondered if anything was ever deemed “too metal.” Was that ever a factor?
Zack: Yeah, that happened a lot. Those are both cultures where an older filmmaker would have no idea. A really great example of that was a movie called Heavy Metal Summer. It’s a really entertaining movie. There are these two characters who are best friends and one is clearly a glam metal guy and one is a dumb ass ‘80s fart comedy style punk. But in the movie, he is written so he is supposed to be a heavy metal dude. They drive it in so hard that he is metal, but he has spiked hair and an anarchy T-shirt. He looks like a punk from any movie. Then this girl falls in love with him and says, “I can’t date a heavy metaller,” and he says, “No, heavy metallers are the greatest.” And they have this entire conversation about how these guys are all heavy metal people. But this guy is definantly dressed as a punk. We ended up erring on the side of including it.
Billups: Do you feel that the process of putting the book together gave you any revelations about punk rock or punks in the movies?
Zack: I guess I have much more painful and clear vision of punk’s decline. Looking at a film from the late seventies and comparing it with a film from the late nineties shows that something has survived as long as it has, even when its identity has been shafted. But the decline was very tangible when looking at it in chronological order. It hurt.
Billups: I bet the chronology is interesting. I didn’t think about that when reading the book.
Zack: Yeah, that is something we talked about because the book is A-Z. We thought that offered the reader the most variety. We also figured no one would want to read the stuff at the end of the book, the ‘90s stuff.
Billups: I like the cultural aspect of the book, but I like the book also as a film guide. I think it works on a lot of levels for me, but I think it’s fun being alphabetical.
Zack: The hope was that it would appeal to people who didn’t give a rat’s ass about punk and it would still be a fun book. My grandma got a copy, so I guess it worked.