We Were There to Be There

Punk and to the left: An interview with filmmaking team Jason Willis and Mike Plante by Billups Allen

Splat the Movies, Episode 9

There are few things more iconic to punk rock than The Cramps. They engaged most punkers, along with a lot of rock fans. And they taught history. And put on a show. And they will hopefully always be remembered.

The Cramps, The Mutants, and members of the legendary collective Target Video put on a rock show for the patients of the California State Mental Hospital in Napa in 1978. The video ranks high in importance in the canon of punk footage. Twenty-plus minutes of footage shows The Cramps playing to the residents of the facility receiving help with their mental health issues. That afternoon they were just having a good time. The film was shot on early video equipment: the black-and-white format and occasionally wobbly framing inherent in shooting on early video equipment causes the footage to appear subversive and sometimes a bit scary. The film has been shared for decades on mix videos and internet trading, while being made available commercially on VHS and later on DVD through Target Video.
 
A new short film, We Were There to Be There, by Mike Plante and Jason Willis tells the story of the day of the show and the aftermath of the defunding of mental health facilities. The Cramps at Napa may seem like just an interesting footnote in the history of punk, but there really is a lot to unpack. Besides the rock legend status, the story has many avenues when it comes to exploring mental health treatment and the defunding of facilities like Napa. Before launching into “The Way I Walk,” Lux Interior tells the audience: “And somebody told me you people are crazy, but I’m not so sure about that.”

Billups: Tell me about how you started making a documentary about such an iconic and esoteric video.

Mike Plante: So we both grew up with Target Video. We’re just barely too late for a lot of these bands, but the videos were super key to us growing up. Saving us through the eighties. I wanted to make films and I moved to Tucson. Working at a film festival, I ended up meeting a bunch of companies that give a shit about films as something important.

Billups: You ended up putting the finished product on the short film website Field of Vision, a website dedicated to premiering a lot of political shorts. Was that by design?

Mike Plante: They have some straight stuff that’s very political and way more hardcore than what we’re doing. You know, stuff about Hong Kong. They have films made by people who are in a mess because they’ll get in real trouble. But they seem to care about style. So I met them through work. Jason and I had been working this film as a feature for a while and it’s been going slow because all these things go slow. We only have so much money and nobody really cares about us, which is fine. But it got to the point where we know the Napa story. Obviously, it’s the one that’s such a cool, weird, short story by itself.

Billups: Is there still a plan for a feature-length documentary?

Mike Plante: We’re still doing it, but the pandemic really shut it all down. I hit up Field of Vision because I knew them professionally to be trustworthy people. I like the stuff they put out and they pay for stuff. I hit them up and said: “Hey, me and this old friend are making this thing. It’s a feature, but we really have this side story that I’d already edited.”

Jason Willis: I’d already edited down the Napa chunk because that was the obvious starting point. We had the re-mastered footage. It’s a super rich story. We’d done a lot of the key interviews. So we already sort of, by accident, had something we could show somebody regarding the thing we wanted to do. And the more we got into it, it became political. It had the largest array of political, socioeconomic, cultural elements: all the stuff was really present in this story. That’s something we wanted woven throughout the whole thing. We’re attracted to telling the story that way. Using the skeleton of punk rock. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, particularly with this era. And to be able to get Target as a witness to all of the crazy stuff in the Bay Area flashpoint was already interesting. It’s a microcosm of a lot of other scenes.

Mike Plante: Field of Vision does great shorts, but they’re very much a political outfit. They’re big on great journalism. So we got lucky.

Jason Willis: When we’d had the first meeting with them I didn’t know what to expect. Mike had met a few of them. I met none of them. We did a Zoom meeting. They were so on board with it and also kind of had no notes except for: We were thinking you ought to do more of that political part and just kind of expand on what you’re already doing. It couldn’t have worked out better in terms of the fit.

Billups: I watched a few things on their website just to see what other sorts of things they back. I was impressed with the content on that channel. I think your film fits well. The Cramps footage is so legendary, but the way the story is presented, it’s not just a story about rock’n’roll. It’s a punk story and it’s a San Francisco story, but there’s also a very political story bubbling under the surface.

Mike Plante: We grew up in the eighties. We already hated Reagan. It must’ve been after I moved out here that I had heard more—and it’s always the story out here in California—Reagan fucked up mental health, and the homeless situation came out of that. When we started doing the research, I mean, it’s gnarly. And it’s way early. That’s the other thing. Some folks are like, “Well, he wasn’t governor in ’78.”

Billups: It’s silly to bring this up at this point, but there’s a horror movie I like where events unfold inside a disused mental institution in Massachusetts. So closing these large facilities was a country-wide phenomenon.

At some point most of those hospitals had 30,000 patients… those people ended up on the streets, and that’s just the Bay Area we’re talking about. So it wasn’t very hard just to read what Reagan said: We shouldn’t be paying for this. -Mike Plante


Mike Plante: At some point most of those hospitals had 30,000 patients. Might’ve had less when they closed, but those people ended up on the streets, and that’s just the Bay Area we’re talking about. So it wasn’t very hard just to read what Reagan said: We shouldn’t be paying for this.

I had no idea of the degree of self-sustaining philosophy Napa had going on. They had their own farm there… Everyone had jobs to do. -Jason Willis


Jason Willis: He made no bones about it. His goal was very much privatization. Reduction. There’s a quote around that time from the Republican party that says: “You want a government small enough so you can drown it in the bathtub.” You see them doing it incrementally from his governorship. Then when he gets to the national level it’s like: Oh, where do we cut the money? Obviously, it’s going to be all these social services. And so you see from the sixties up until he’s elected in the eighties, it’s a microcosm of his philosophy. This really shouldn’t have happened. Napa should have been able to continue being what it was. I had no idea of the degree of self-sustaining philosophy Napa had going on. They had their own farm there. Made clothes for the prison system. Everyone had jobs to do. I didn’t know any of that; that was all new to me.

Mike Plante: We wanted to have this political history because it is a fascinating time. And knowing Field of Vision wanted more of the politics, we were also just following what we learned from this music. San Francisco has that scene of very political bands—very smart lyrics and interesting songs. So we’re just kind of following what we learned going down that path, and doing more about it. We’re making a film to learn about what we’re making the film about. So it’s like, all right, we know all this stuff, but by making the film, we’re learning all this too. There’s something tragic here, but it’s also fun. It’s really enlightening.
 

The Cramps, illustration by Billups Allen

Billups: The film does a great job of creating its own context. On one hand, it’s The Cramps playing in a sort of unusual venue. But it’s hard to look at a subject without looking at what’s going on around it.

Jason Willis: Yeah. The goal was to begin with all of these different threads, just have people setting them up and watch them cascade into each other. But hopefully each one expands the scope of what’s being talked about, too. So, by the time you get to talking to a medical technician, it makes logical sense we’d be talking about a particular subject at this point.

This footage is really iconic to us. We’ve all watched the hell out of this show and we’ve memorized every nook. But there are a bunch of people who don’t know who The Cramps are. They’ve never seen it before. And that was actually one of the notes we got from Field of Vision. They were like: hold off on when you show the actual footage up until you really established everything because we’re so used to it. I was leading with it ’cause it’s so cool. I wanted to get to it right away. More and more we realized this has to be the big reveal. That there actually is footage of this band playing at this place. So that was really kind of cool to think this is the first time a lot of people are going to see this and it’s going to be really crazy to them.

Mike Plante: For us, we know the band. We know the legend and adore them. And then you hear they’ve played at a mental hospital. It’s not like you expect it, but you kind of were like, “Oh yeah.”

Billups: It feels very subversive to look at it on VHS. Did you guys get any feel from that when you were revisiting old tapes and VHS?

Jason Willis: Target in particular has their vibe. And VHS tape trading was super happening for a long time. And so maybe The Cramps footage is on a tape with some other crazy stuff as well, you know? Like there’d be those compilation tapes that lived in a context that felt dangerous and you didn’t know what was going to get thrown at you.

Mike Plante: Yeah. Totally dangerous. And we missed the era to see these bands, some of them, in their primes at least. The Cramps are somewhat timeless, but also the scene in ’78 is not the same in ’85. These tapes ended up being a time capsule already less than ten years after the date.

Billups: I feel like I saw so many tapes that would include The Cramps and the Budd Dwyer suicide. That is genuinely scary footage.

Mike Plante: Yeah, you often don’t know what’s coming either on those tapes.

Billups: Being familiar with some of Jason’s work, I noticed a lot of, like, collage-style segments incorporated in the storytelling. There are a lot of interviews, but you avoided a lot of talking heads. I was wondering how you went about strategizing the structure of the film.

Mike Plante: I can’t remember how much we discussed it. We were both into Julien Temple, who did The Filth and the Fury (2000). I saw an interview where he talked about why you don’t see them in the film. Part of it was he thought it’d be funny to present them as if they’re in the witness protection program. I also liked it because it made me ask myself: “Do we need to see what everyone looks like today? Do we need to see everybody old?” You want to present it as relevant—hearing people like you’re hanging out with them, talking to you, which is a little high concept. Also, we’re lucky Target made a bunch of videos. We have more photos and videos available to us. We’re very fortunate where we’ve got so much cool stuff that’s archived to work with.

Billups: How was it working with Joe Rees? Did you interview him several times?

Mike Plante: We spent one day up there where he’s living now. We were there seven hours talking to him.

Jason Willis: And some follow up on the phone.

Mike Plante: And with the feature, we’ll talk to him some more for sure. It’s apparent we’re major fan boys. We are so lucky to be able to talk to these people and most of them are alive.

We did think, “Okay, this isn’t a movie about an archival thing.” We’ve got our amazing footage. Let’s not waste time showing somebody sitting in a three-point lighting environment with a record collection behind them talking about the past. -Jason Willis


Jason Willis: We did think, “Okay, this isn’t a movie about an archival thing.” We’ve got our amazing footage. Let’s not waste time showing somebody sitting in a three-point lighting environment with a record collection behind them talking about the past. There’s so much art from that era. And Mike kept connecting with these amazing photographers and getting access to their archive that we just didn’t want to waste any time on anything else.

And then there’s this collage component that is really common in punk rock, but in particular for the Bay Area. I’m thinking about Winston Smith or any of the artists from that Target era included—rapid-fire editing pulled from movies and public news footage. And the idea was to make it seem as though it could have been made in that moment. That approach with the actual stuff the artists made, layered as much of it as possible without overwhelming the narrative was key. I really appreciate people who can do minimalist, but my brain will not accept it. I have to throw 900 textures on top of something. I love that the tape is degraded and that it is the way it is. And that’s something I really love about punk rock in general. In John Waters’ book Crackpot he was talking about if you’ve got something that seems like a weakness, amplify it and make it a strength. If you’ve got acne, rub potato chips all over your face and change your name to Pimples. Make that your thing. What punk rock does best is it leans into it: there’s Wite-Out and fingerprints and that’s the design choice.

Billups: And you’re going to continue the story of Target in a full-length film?

Mike Plante: Yes. We have all these sketches based on the interviews we’ve done. We could finish the film tomorrow, but a lot more footage has to get transferred, which could happen. USC has a bunker of work and USC wants to preserve it. So they’ll transfer it. That’s great. It’s just a slow process. And we want to save all this, too. We’ll make our fun doc—at least for fans and hopefully beyond that—but also if our little art project helps save all this footage, we’re going to be so thrilled.

Lux Interior of The Cramps, illustration by Billups Allen

Jason Willis: “Rockin’ Bones” in this Cramps footage has never been seen before. It was so exciting when we first actually got the footage and looked at it.

Billups: I hope this isn’t a sore comment, but The Cramps are noticeably absent from the film. Has anyone from that camp commented at all?

Jason Willis: None of them are alive, except for Ivy. Everyone from this lineup is gone.

Billups: I don’t think I realized that. But Poison Ivy is still alive.

Mike Plante: We’ve reached out. We both know people who have talked to Ivy in recent years. We would love to get her a take on it, or even if we could just talk to her for a minute. We would definitely want to make sure she thinks it’s cool too, but we haven’t heard back anything. Man, we listened to I don’t know how many interviews with them. And Napa only came up once for a second. Maybe by doing the short, word will get around and somebody knows an interview that’s not on YouTube or we just couldn’t find. That would be incredible. And it’s okay if it doesn’t happen. We’re really lucky The Mutants are around and still close with Target. We were able to get a hold of them easily. The extra special story is The Mutants were there. They’re an amazing band not enough people know about.

Jason Willis: That is something that feels more and more important as we continue doing this: The Mutants are real central to the origin story of Target. They all met at art school together. The Mutants occupy a unique space within what was happening in San Francisco. To highlight them and put them back where they belong in this story made me feel good. They were so cool to us and their interviews are great.

Billups: I think it comes across very well. I loved the short. I’m excited to hear what you guys do with the rest of it. I hope people get around to seeing it.

Something we really wanted to do was “Come for the rock, stay for the social commentary,” because it really is an amazing story. -Jason Willis


Jason Willis: Something we really wanted to do was “Come for the rock, stay for the social commentary,” because it really is an amazing story. It could’ve just been a rock doc and it would have worked, but we were not coming from that place. We really wanted to talk about all these things orbiting around it. And that includes performance art and technology.

Mike Plante: Not to get too high concept about it, but if I had heard a soundtrack of The Cramps playing at Napa state, I would love it. And I would love the theory behind it. It’d be amazing to see a video of it. I want to know who those people are. There’s that power of the image. Music is incredibly powerful. It’s just another layer, though. What’s the story of this place? And how did this amazing thing happen? And being able to see it just made us want to know so much more about it, too.

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Billups Allen spent his formative years in and around the Washington D.C. punk scene. He graduated from the University of Arizona with a creative writing major and a film minor and has worked in seven different record stores around the country. He currently lives in Memphis, Tenn. where he works for Goner Records, publishes Cramhole zine, contributes regularly to Razorcake, Ugly Things, and Lunchmeat magazines, and writes fiction. (cramholezine.com[email protected])