Exclusive SXSW Interview: Brendan Toller talks about directing his second music documentary Danny Says

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Brendan Toller is a rock and roll maniac. Having directed his first film, I Need that Record: The Death (or Possible Survival) of the Independent Record Store, he came into contact with many of rock and roll’s greatest figures, including the lesser known Danny Fields, who was responsible for the success of many iconic bands such as The Ramones, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, MC5, The Doors, Nico and the Velvet Underground… to name by a few. At just 28 years old, Toller has now completed his second documentary, Danny Says. The Iris’ Larry Heath spoke to Toller about his new film, how animation played a vital role in his documentary, and what it was like to hear all about rock’s greatest figures.

Larry: You’ve talked about influence and there are very few names that spring to mind from people who know the industry, but I think the average punter would not have heard of Danny before. So what was your first introduction to Danny?

BT: It’s a shame that most people haven’t… obviously this film is hopefully going to make him more wider known to audiences that are fans of this music, because he’s sort of the conduit for all of these people, for the American underground that has influenced everything we hear today. I first heard of Danny Fields while reading No one Here Gets Out Alive, the Danny Sugarman book, you know, the John Morrison/Nico kidnapping story is in there. Not in as full detail as we get it in the movie, but he’s sort of the publicist that grooms Jim to be the wild sex symbol that changed everyone’s lives in the late sixties.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, isn’t it?

Yeah, Danny started in 1966 where he broke John Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus” quote in America, which eventually with all the Beatle burnings, the KKK demonstrations, and the death threats led to the end of the Beatles’ live performing career, I mean they’re performing on a little rooftop away from the crowd years later and in videos and stuff like that, but no more American tours after that.

No more tours anywhere after that!

Yeah. So Danny – when I first met him and first interviewed him for my first film, I Need That Record – I talked to him a lot about that, and I said “What was your thought behind that?” and he said “Oh, I just wanted to get the ball rolling, enough already about these Beatles! What about The Kinks, what about The Who, what about Jefferson Airplane?!”. So he’s always a guy that’s looking underneath all the rocks and stuff and looking for the next underbelly of cool things and helping to shine the light on them.

And the other way you can look at that too is that they went and made Sgt. Pepper’s and after that the rest is history, so it’s not all bad! I was surprised he didn’t take credit for that, actually! Let’s talk about how the process of this film started. Obviously you’d met him working on your previous film, was that the catalyst for wanting to look at his life story a bit more?

Yeah, I went out to dinner with him and we interviewed him for I Need That Record and unfortunately he ended up on the cutting room floor because he was just way too fabulous and brilliant a person that we didn’t even talk about record stores per se. So he became a friend and a real supporter of the film and of my work in a really big way, as he probably has done for so many in this great pantheon of people that we all know, who are all featured in the movie, Iggy and Joey Ramone and people like that, not that I’m even near what they have done for culture and for people personally at large.

But yeah, we became friends for two years, had him up to Thurston Moore’s house in Western Massachusetts  when I was living up there and they did a nice little bar interview together and he’s just such a brilliant guy and a great storyteller, and it’s not even about him getting his due, I just want these stories and the way hes tells them to be preserved, and this music is so intensely important to me and he’s just a great catalyst and brilliant person to spend time with, so why not? Why not a Danny Fields documentary? So I asked him and he graciously said yes, and it’s been five and a half years up until this point, the premiere at South By Southwest.

It’s a long process, and I can certainly imagine the difficulty of getting the archival content and putting all of that together. I’ve been talking to quite a few documentary filmmakers at the festival, and as someone who makes documentaries myself, there’s always that saying that the movie finds itself in the cutting room. Talk me through a little bit about how you took what you were doing, sitting down in those interviews, and then turning that into the structure of the film that we see today.

Sure. Well a lot of the interviews I did with Danny and with the 60 other people we interviewed helped give us a round portrait of him. This wasn’t a guy who you could look in books or necessarily old news stories and find the complete trajectory of how he got from an amphetamine-addled textbook-memorising smarty-pants to a Warhol confidant and legendary guy at Electra Records, the company freak there, and then the punk pioneer that he was. So basically what we did was we sat down with Danny every Sunday and just interviewed him for two hours, and I started sculpting and in a linear way putting together all of the pieces because no one had really done that before. Then it got more focused on what makes him an active player in rock and roll and culture at large, so the great stories about Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix or The Who unfortunately had to lay by the wayside, because whilst he was a playing in all those bands’ history and story, it wasn’t as major as, say, inventing someone like Iggy Pop and the Stooges, or getting someone like MC5 signed in one day with that phone call.

I should make it noted that you are wearing an MC5 badge here today. You’ve always been a fan of them?

Yeah, yeah, kick out the jams motherfucker! When I was fifteen my uncle gave me Funhouse and Kick Out the Jams and that was it for me. Everybody in my age group at that time was listening to Good Charlotte and I thought “Fuck those guys, man! This is the real deal.” It’s always better when you go back in time to the source.

Good Charlotte and Linkin Park! Indeed it is, and I think, myself as well, as someone who was given those sort of records when I was younger, you’re thankful that you’re around people who have taste in music. Let’s talk a little bit about where the film goes from here. So it’s about to show at South by Southwest, will it be the first time you’ve sat in a room with an audience?

With this cut of it, yes. We did a lot of rough cut screenings from July 2014 up until now, and that really helped shape the film into what it is now, and then we did really good colour and post at Final Frame in New York City, so it’s really going to – and I hate to use a cliche – but it really is going to rock, it’s going to look and sound great. But no, I’ve only sat and watched this cut with about five other people, so it’s going to be incredible being in the Vimeo theater with 750 seats and a huge screen and huge sound system to really make the ears bleed!

Beyond South by Southwest, are there hopes to get it around the world?

Yeah, our sales agents are looking into distribution deals, for sure, worldwide, and we’ll be at the Chicago International Music and Movies Festival, April 16-19, along with my hero Julian Temple, who’s also here, I love that guy’s work. I’m so glad he’s here and I’m so glad I got to meet him.

Did you see the film (The Ecstasy of Wilko Johnson, reviewed HERE)?

I haven’t seen the film yet, I should go tomorrow after some more press, it looks like. Filth and the Fury, that Sex Pistols documentary, is one of my favourites of all time. Just the form of it, the juxtaposition with Richard the Third, I think it is, the Shakespeare play that he juxtaposes the Sex Pistols against, as these deformed English oddities.

Did you use, on purpose or not, being a fan of these documentaries, were they a point of reference in thinking, ‘how do I make this work”?

I think that they’re just a stylistic point of reference. The way he uses archive, and colour, and approach differently on each one, I mean the Joe Strummer one where everyone’s sitting by a fire, Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten, he’s just an unheralded pioneer of innovation and form and storytelling in documentary, and he always works within the Rock and Roll mode, I mean I’m not much different. I know I’m only 28 so there’s opportunity for me to do some different things down the road, hopefully, but he’s just so great. So when it came to this, obviously there’s the archive, about 70% of this is Danny’s photographs and found ephemera, stuff like audio tapes from ’68 of him talking to Iggy saying “Why do you use heroin?”, stuff like that…

I’m amazed some of that stuff existed, too, those conversations.

Yeah, it was a Warhol thing too, I think, he was friends with this woman, Brigid Berlin, who was very into instantaneous forms of documentation, whether they be polaroids or audio cassettes. The Velvets live at Max’s was her tape, she sat there with a tape recorded and Danny was like “Oh, let’s put this out. This is the Velvet’s last show, you got it on tape here”. As Danny says, when they first put it out they put it out on toilet paper and now it’s a deluxe thing with nice liner notes and a two disc version. So yeah, when it came to how do we approach this story, the animation was a big thing for me. Danny’s stories are so descriptive and visual, and I didn’t want to do reenactments but I thought we could do some cool stuff with animation.

I was going to end with talking about the animation, because I think it is definitely the stylistic signifier of the film, that really sets it apart from others. Tell me a little about how that all came together,  who animated it?

Sure. So my friend Sage, she makes these kind of really grand doll houses, and she does alot of fingernail art, but she’s great at illustrations, so we got her to do the black and white line drawings with minimal colour that you see in the film, and those sequences are animated by Johnny Woods and they just took it and ran. When I started I was going to do storyboards and bad drawings myself, and they were just so brilliant and they knew what to do and they could just visualise it in their brains. The other two animators were Emily Hubley and her son Max Rosenthal, both Hampshire alumni, where I went to school, as did Brett Morgan the director of Montage of Heck (the new Kurt Cobain film), it’s a nice crew we got going there!

She does the more abstract or ethereal ones, and obviously she’s the animator from Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and I love that connection, I love that the style are both similar. We love Hedwig and Danny’s a great confidant of John Cameron Mitchell and John was so helpful with his advice to me about this film and that certainly went into the final edit. The third one was Matt Newman, he did all of the cutout animations fromI Need That Record, so it was just a great team to work with. But animation takes a long time, I should warn documentary filmmakers, I mean it took a few years.

Not the easiest route to take.

No, but in most cases it’s cheaper than archival, so think about it!

That’s fair, and I actually would have never thought about that. What’s the best thing and hardest thing about creating the film?

The best thing was just getting to spend time with Danny. I can have an afternoon with Danny whenever I schedule it, and he’s just a person who’s so generous with his intellect and his stories and his mind and his brilliance and it’s what thwarts people to do great things, whether it’s Lenny K or Iggy Pop or Jann Wenner, or any of the people that are in the film really, like Jonathon Richmond. Just knowing him and getting that boost of confidence from him, because when you’re young you need that confidence and somebody to say that you’re doing great work, and for Danny to become an early fan of mine from I Need that Record and then also to say yes to this project was a huge leg up for me, and it was just amazing going through his archives and finding the Lou Reed listens to the Ramones for the first time tape, it was just a total treat.

The worst thing was that for about three or four years this whole project just ran on fumes, on tenacity and faith and passion, so I’ll probably be very emotional at the South by Southwest screening, because this took five and a half years, it was done for the most part with little to no money. Now, thankfully, we had some angel donators come our way to make it sound and look great for the festival and help with clearances and stuff like that, but it was hard when you’re doing a film where no one knows who he is, and then even more than that, as culture moves on and progresses and everyone’s into Rock and Roll, you might say it’s the guy behind The Ramones, The Doors, and they might see as some distant thing. So they might be like why the fuck are you spending so much time doing this?

And I’m so glad that I did but the road to get here was hard, you know, friends and family didn’t think it was a big deal until I got an article in W magazine! So now I’m not some slack stoner that’s trying to escape the real world, I’m very much in it now and I’m grateful for that.

Danny Says premiered at SXSW. Read the review HERE.

Interview and Photo by Larry Heath. Transcript and Article by Amy Nancarrow.