Short-lived LA band The Runaways were in many ways ahead of their time: predating punk and the riot-grrrl movement that would later claim them as their own, the all-girl quintet, led by guitarist Joan Jett and singer Cherie Currie, dared to play their own instruments and cover sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll from a female perspective in a world dominated by stadium rock machismo. That they were seen by some critics as a manufactured jailbait stunt — the band members were all underage — seems almost beside the point in retrospect. This year’s film The Runaways, written and directed by Floria Sigismondi from Currie’s memoir Neon Angel and Jett’s recollections, explores the band’s 1975 creation and turbulent not-quite-rise and fall at the hands of svengali producer Kim Fowley, while vividly capturing the bond between Currie (Dakota Fanning) and Jett (Kristen Stewart), two “dead end kids” clinging to each other in the media storm. With the movie opening in Australia this week, we spoke to Sigismondi about the film and just whose version of the controversial events it depicts.
RT: A film can sometimes live or die on its opening shot, and yours — Cherie’s first menstrual blood hitting the pavement — is a killer. What inspired that?
FS: Well, one of the things I was drawn to about making this film was that it was about young girls coming of age, and I thought, ‘How can I make a statement in the beginning of the film that personifies that time when a young girl is turning into a woman?’ — and there was that very physical body change that leads to other kinds of body changes. [laughs] The film is about girls, and that seemed to me to kind of jump out as an interesting way of starting the film, to tell people where they’re at and what kind of film they’re gonna see — about these girls who are young and their bodies are changing. It also gave me the chance to set the tone and the exterior of the Valley at the same time.
You also got to set the musical tone of the time with that great track, “Roxy Roller.”
Yeah, that totally brought me back to when I was a kid. It was one of those tracks they played on the radio all the time.
It’s such a cool song. Was that the first time that you heard The Runaways, when you were a kid?
I actually heard them a bit later. I’d moved to Toronto as an arts student and I heard them at the clubs. I was working at a club and they played them all the time. So I heard them then, a little bit later — I only would’ve been, I think, 10 [at the time], so it wouldn’t have been on my radar.
What was it that appealed to you about the band?
I mean, I loved the rawness but I loved that the girls played their instruments; they were super cool and they wrote their own songs. So there was a lot of appeal, you know. I guess I became a fan straight away.
At what point did the idea of turning Cherie’s book [Neon Angel] into a movie come about?
I was approached by Brian Young, who manages me now, and he took me to see [producers] the Linsons, and John and Art had bought the rights to the book. I read the book and I came back in. The film isn’t strictly, or solely, based on her book. It’s based on the book for Cherie’s side and then it’s based on a bunch of interviews that I had with Joan and Kim and other people. Then there was also all of my research that I had. Luckily for me there was a big sort of media explosion, here in the US and in Japan, so there were a lot of interviews that were really great to read because they were in the girls’ voices, in the first person, so I was really able to get a sense of how they spoke and all that stuff. That was really fun, to research all that stuff; and especially Kim’s interviews, if you could imagine.
Did you get a lot of feedback from Joan and Cherie during the process?
I got a little bit of feedback once they’d read the script, and it was mostly in details, you know — “I drank this” or “I did that kind of drug,” [laughs], you know what I mean, details of certain things. But I had taken license into dramatising certain things. When you have peoples’ lives but you have an hour and a half to tell them, you’ve got some constraints to deal with. So for me it was like, how do I, after meeting these people and reading about them, how do I personify the characteristics in a scene? So a lot of the times I was using scenes to do that — they weren’t necessarily scenes that they could comment on, but I did use them, especially for Cherie and her relationship with her sister, and that was quite important, but also in their relationship to Kim. I mean, I had this challenge of Kim being this character that helps them but in Cherie’s eye is quite intimidating, and in Joan’s eye he’s like funny and a friend and a partner in crime; so his character has to weave that delicate line between those two, because they both had extremely different views on him, and still do.
Between that and seeing [former bassist] Vicki Tischler-Blue’s documentary Edgeplay, there seem to be very different views as to just how creepy or manipulative Kim Fowley was. What’s your take — did you get speak to him directly?
Yeah I did. I had a couple of interviews with him and they lasted a long time. I think the first one I had was five hours. What I gathered from him, and how he also explained it to me, was that he was a different person to different people. If he walked in to a record company he’d be that guy, and if he walked in to meet some of the girls’ parents, he was another guy; and then when he was alone with them and he was the club guy, he was very different. I think he was a little bit of a chameleon, and I wish I had time to have more of that scene where he comes to meet the mum, the “I want to take her on tour” thing. It would have been fun to watch him do that. So I gathered that in life he was different kind of people. I think for Cherie she looked to him as possibly a father figure, because her father was not around; and I think he could not be that figure, although I’m sure he was very persuasive to the mum, in having her leave home and go on tour. And Joan just thought he was hysterical. [laughs]
Kristen and Dakota give really fantastic performances — particularly Dakota. What drew you to those two actresses?
Dakota wasn’t on our radar right away because she was too young when I was writing; she was probably 13. Then she kind of grew up. When I found out she was interested I really was excited because she’s a great actress and I feel like she’s quite mature for her age, so I felt confident that I was able to talk to her about some subjects and stuff that maybe you wouldn’t necessarily, you know- you’d have to talk about differently, if she hadn’t had all this experience. I mean, she had done, I think, 40 films before she’d done my film; so she’s incredibly experienced. But there’s something so fresh about her, in her eyes; I thought that what was so great is that she’d be good at both the more innocent Cherie and then the fallen Cherie. Her arc was tremendous so I was grateful to have her. Kristen Stewart I’d seen in Into the Wild, and the Twilight movies hadn’t come out, and there was something quite captivating about her. Although she was in that film for such a short period, there was something captivating when she came on the screen, and strong. She really emotes a lot with her eyes; both actresses do, and I think that was important because there was a lot of stuff said in looks in my film and I knew that I needed that. She also has this sort of toughness that Joan has.
They seemed to really get along so well, too.
They really did, they really bonded on the film which was great because in real life they are like that, you know. The two women, when we did our recording sessions for the music: Cherie came in and did backup vocals and it was like no time had passed once they got into a room together; it was like the good old days.
So Cherie sang backing vocals on the movie tracks?
Yes. And then Joan came in with her band and put all the musical tracks down.
Another great scene in the film is Dakota, as Cherie, performing David Bowie’s “Lady Grinning Soul.” You’ve actually directed clips for David — have you shown him that piece?
Yeah, you know I emailed him telling him that the main character in this film has been incredibly influenced by David Bowie, just to let him know that musicians are still being affected by his music and how great it is. He was just amazing to work with. I’ve not spoken to him about that scene but we were arranging a screening for him. I really don’t know if he went to see it or not. It would be interesting to see what he thought. Cherie was really taken by him and if you look at her whole image it’s sort of like, where he kind of went more feminine, she gets more masculine and it’s the whole idea of this androgynous kind of character.
Did you see any films from the era that influenced the way you put The Runaways together? I’m thinking of Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, or films of that calibre.
Yeah I saw The Fabulous Stains; I don’t know how much that film influenced me — and that’s a cool film — but I was more influenced by Christiane F., the German film about a junkie, although it was darker. I loved the way it was shot and I thought the young girl [Natja Brunckhorst] was really great. And Sid and Nancy, you know. I always went back to those two films. There was something about those two films that really grabbed me.
And Christiane had the obsession with Bowie, too.
Yes, I know! There were certain similarities there.
Do you think it’s difficult for an “all girl film,” as it were, to make it in the movie world, just as the band found it difficult to make it as an all-girl band in the male-dominated rock industry at the time?
I don’t know, you know. I think girls wanna go watch films about girls, so I don’t know that it’s that. It might be the distribution, just being a limited distribution. Being on limited distribution, you really have a limited amount of people that can see it. I really wouldn’t have thought that would be a hinderance. Also, it’s about young girls and being rated R makes it more difficult for the young girls to go see it.
Would you say it’s an appealing film for adolescent audiences?
I think it would be appealing. I don’t know if they could get out to see it because it’s restricted, so you’d have to have someone 17 or older, or a parent, to go see it. I don’t think a 15-year-old kid could just go and see it. The kids that I spoke to that had seen it were really kind of excited by it. You don’t see a lot of films — not that we’re promoting it — of young people being a bit raw, so I would think that that would be appealing.
There should be more of them.
[laughs] Yeah, I just make ’em.
You’re corrupting the youth one film at a time, Floria.
Oh dear, don’t give me that! [laughs] I think that because it’s restricted you kind of have to educate your kids going in; not everyone who sees those images is gonna go do stuff, you know. But I am telling the true lives of these people, and that’s what happened to them — you’ve gotta be true to that.