How could a cinematographer possibly capture the adrenaline essence of the Runaways, that ephemeral, ill-fated, all-girl rock combo from the mid-'70s?
That was the task facing renowned photographer Floria Sigismondi (who's also directed videos for the likes of David Bowie, Marilyn Manson and the Dead Weather) when she agreed to write and helm the new biopic The Runaways, which premiered at Sundance earlier this year and is slated for release in Colorado Springs later this month.
But she got lucky in more ways than she can count. First, she based her script on Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, the newly reissued and revamped autobiography of band frontvixen Cherie Currie, who was nearly destroyed by the show-biz experience. Next, Sigismondi hit the casting jackpot with Kristen Stewart as founding guitarist Joan Jett, Michael Shannon as the Machiavellian Svengali Kim Fowley, and Dakota Fanning, who puts in a remarkably adult performance as Currie, complete with her own vocals on classics like "Cherry Bomb."
The film manages to convey the historical significance of the Runaways, who at the time had only Suzi Quatro for rock-chick competition. During a recent premiere whirlwind, Currie and her director stopped long enough to discuss their ultra-cool, cautionary-tale collaboration.
Indy: Floria, there are Kim Fowley lines in the film that are almost too corny to be true, like when he introduces Joan to Cherie and hisses, "Jail-fucking-bait jack-fucking-pot!" But I'll bet they were actually said.
Floria Sigismondi: Oh, a lot of that stuff happened — are you kidding? There are some crazy but great things that come out of Kim's mouth that are just unbelievable.
I remember my first meeting with him went on for hours and hours. He's not easy to try and capture — there are many, many sides to him. So I loosely based my script on Cherie's book, but I also interviewed Kim and Joan and other people around that scene to really figure out what the story was. It was a case of: What did I want to tell? And what did I decide the story was between Joan and Cherie? And was what I was putting into it furthering the story or not?
So that's how I made my decisions, even though there were a lot of things that happened that were hard to get in, in an hour and 40 minutes.
Indy: You brought a real photographer's eye to the shots. There's one scene that's totally done from a telephone's point of view.
FS: Yeah. I knew what I wanted to do. I spent ages just drawing up storyboards, figuring out compositions, trying to figure out how to tell the story. And I kinda can't help it — when I look at something, I'm gonna frame it in a certain way. And that sort of stuff just comes through naturally, the answers to "Where do I put my camera?"
One time it's hand-held, another time it's wide-angle, as everything starts to derail and Cherie starts to talk back to Kim. There's a scene where she gets down on the floor and says, "Yeah, I'm kinda bored, actually," and everything's shot through wide-angle lenses and it all starts to look distorted. So there were definitely challenges, but I approached them, as you say, photographically.
Indy: Cherie, what did you think of Dakota's performance the first time you saw a screening?
Cherie Currie: Oh, my God! It's just indescribable. And also, Dakota Fanning is my favorite artist of all time, and she nailed it. She's incredible. And it's really to the point where it's so unbelievable, such a dream come true, that I still can't quite comprehend it. So I'm still in that gray area, where I can't wait for the lightning bolt to hit me and someone yells, "Wake up!"
Indy: You're on Facebook now. Have you reconnected with any old buddies from those days?
CC: Yeah. A lot of my old friends I grew up with are coming out of the woodwork now with the movie, so it's totally neat. But I just wish Corbin Bernsen would stop asking me to be a fan. He won't stop. He has to have sent me 30 requests, and I deny each one of 'em.
Indy: More interesting than the fact that you're now a chainsaw artist is this: There are actually chainsaw competitions?
CC: Yes! I competed in three of those competitions in the Pacific Northwest, and I placed in two of the big ones. We have three days to complete a main piece, and the logs are enormous. And there's a timed one, where we have to do a "quick carve" in an hour and 20 minutes. And then those are auctioned off for charity. It's like three to four days of this.
But the thing is, there are politics involved, and I didn't appreciate the judges they had. They had no idea what it was like, doing what we did. So I was watching some people win over others who didn't really deserve it, as far as their piece of art went. I carved a mermaid one night, and I took third place. And the person who took first had done a bird and a sand dollar, but I couldn't even figure out what kind of bird it was.
Indy: And you even have a chainsaw endorsement?
CC: Yeah. Echo Chainsaw has been working with me, but right now we're in negotiations, so I really can't say for sure at this moment what's going on.
Indy: You also worked with that long-forgotten rock supergroup Angel in the movie Foxes. And the only '70s musician who had prettier feathered hair than you was Angel's guitarist, Punky Meadows.
CC: Oh, man! Punky took the cake, for sure! He was probably one of the most strikingly good-looking rock gods out there — he just had that pretty-girl face.
Indy: We should start an online campaign to bring the word "fox" back into common parlance.
CC: Oh, let's do it! Yeah! And you know what? I used to use that term all the time, like "God, she's such a fox!" So you're absolutely right — it's time for a "fox" comeback. I better start using it again.
Indy: And it's about time for your recording-studio comeback, isn't it?
CC: Well, thank you. But Kenny [Laguna, a Jett associate] and I are talking about it, about doing a record. We were talking about it today for the very first time. So we'll just see what happens. ...
But isn't that funny? When you let go of something, it comes back to you, if it's meant to come back. So that's really kind of neat. But I really enjoy doing what I do. I love being a chainsaw artist. I love my life!
The Runaways is slated to open in area theaters later this month.