LOGAN CROW INTERVIEWS DIRECTOR OF ‘SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH’By Logan Crow
I only had one opportunity to see Elliott Smith play live, at Silver Lake’s Sunset Junction music festival in August 2001. For many who were there to see Smith’s strange, sad set of half-played songs, forgotten lyrics and indecipherable mumbled apologies—coupled with news of heavy drug use and deep depression—Smith’s suicide two years later struck a powerfully saddening blow, but came as little surprise. It almost seemed like a certain eventuality for an artist who was increasingly becoming known for sadness and angst. The Sunset Junction performance became a sort of legend after his death, that moment where we stood bemused and concerned as we saw firsthand what we had all been hearing: Elliott Smith needed help.
Director Gil Reyes presents footage from that performance and many others in his new documentary, Searching for Elliott Smith, which makes its Long Beach debut Friday at the Art Theatre at 8 p.m. lbcinema.org/elliott-smith.
Searching for Elliott Smith covers a lot of ground, tracing the musician’s life and career from Texas to Portland to Los Angeles, following his journey from the grunge-influenced band Heatmiser with Neil Gust, to his famed solo work as one of the most prolific singer-songwriters of his generation.
Along the way, Smith’s friends, sound engineers and band mates contribute stories that illustrate his experiences as a burgeoning performer, the complexity of his songwriting, his rarely seen sense of humor, his discomfort with fame and his trouble with drugs. Also, in a difficult and emotional interview with fiancée Jennifer Chiba, we feel the tragedy and controversy surrounding his last moments in a Los Angeles apartment.
But Friday night’s screening at the Art Theatre is more than a common night of moviegoing. A pre-show musical tribute to Smith will be presented by Alyssandra Nighswonger, david sinclair robison and Merrady And after the film, director Gil Reyes, animator Jennifer Cuellar, Smith’s close friend and Goldenboy-frontman Shon Sullivan, and Smith’s fiancée Jennifer Chiba will take to the Art Theatre stage to speak with the audience and take their questions.
I spoke with Reyes about his experiences making the film, and his personal feelings about the complex life and tragic end of the man he dubs the “Patron Saint of Indie Rock.”
Logan Crow: As you approached people for interviews for the film, what were some of the concerns expressed? Were there any concerns that you found were common or shared?
Gil Reyes: We began filming in Portland, Oregon in August 2005. Elliott had just passed away less than two years earlier, and everyone was still hurting. I had to respect that. So I told everyone they should share whatever they felt comfortable sharing. And if questions became too uncomfortable to answer, we’d simply move on to another topic or stop the interview. So it really surprised me that people opened up like they did—particularly to a stranger who never knew Elliott. Most, but not all, of the interviewees also told me they didn’t want to talk about the day of his death and their personal opinions on it, whether it was a suicide or murder. But they were more than willing to talk about their recollections of Elliott on a personal and professional level.
Crow: What inspired you to take on this documentary?
Reyes: Just before I began the project, three friends around my age died tragically. The first was Jennifer, a rookie TV reporter who I had interned with and also introduced to her fiancé. Jennifer died in a roll-over crash thousands of miles from home, on her way to one of her first assignments. My other friend was my college roommate, Rob. He was a clean-cut jock, who lived healthy, rarely drank, never partied, but died of stomach cancer in his early 30′s. He underwent chemo and fought the illness for 2 years before he died. His death seemed so unfair. My last friend was Ali, a seemingly happy, extremely funny guy, who complained sometimes of being picked on for being a thick-accented, Arab-American in a post 9/11 world. It turned out Ali was in debt after starting his own business. He took his own life. I think in the long run, I wanted to talk to people who experienced what I was going through: the idea of young death or that time in your life when you start realizing friends your age can die and have died. And it’s such a waste because they worked so hard to be successful, and had so much to live for, but died anyway.
I had also read numerous articles about Elliott Smith after his passing and realized how touched everybody was by this man. Even complete strangers thought of him as an old friend, because his music was so personal. So I wanted to know more about him—wanted to know about this other “friend” who passed away.
Crow: The piano footage of Smith playing Rachmaninoff was fantastic and surprising. I had no idea he was that accomplished a pianist. What were some elements about Smith’s life or history that surprised you?
Reyes: I think there’s this one-dimensional view of Elliott Smith as being constantly depressed. He did suffer from depression, but he was also extremely funny, gracious, intelligent and childlike at times. There was also a strong rebellious streak. In the long run, it worsened his health, but the rebelliousness also meant he was intent on sticking up for people—the underdog, or people who didn’t have a voice. One of the main things that stuck with me is that, for a “rock star,” he made being generous a cool thing to do.
For example, Smith gave money to the homeless. He allowed bands to record at low cost or no cost at his New Monkey Studio. He brought struggling musicians on tour with him. Filmmaker Steve Hanft, who made Strange Parallel, said it best off-camera one day: “The guy was a saint. People could learn a lot from Elliott.”
And then there was his musicianship, which when he was healthy seemed founded in a photographic memory. Engineer Larry Crane talks how Elliott could play a variety of songs on various instruments without practicing. Combine that with Elliott’s natural empathy for people and his work ethic and you have a very formidable artist.
Crow: There’s a great moment in the film where Elliott is being interviewed and he sort of deconstructs the inherent expression of anger and dissatisfaction behind the grunge movement, saying “If you want to be hostile, it’s a lot more effective to say it than to yell it… You don’t have to go around yelling.” Do you credit him with being that first voice that sort of quieted down the scream-into-the-mike sound of indie rock in the 90′s?
Reyes: I believe Elliott and fellow Portland musician Pete Krebs took the same quiet, acoustic route at around the same time. Krebs from the rock bands Thrillhammer, Hazel, and Gossamer Wings also toned it down after rocking out for years. In 1994, the year Elliott’s first solo album Roman Candle came out, I can’t recall mainstream grunge acts toning it down to the extent Elliott did. Then in 1997, Dave Grohl (of Nirvana and the Foo Fighters) did an acoustic version of his mainstream hit “Everlong” and everyone loved it. I wonder if Elliott had any influence on that.
Crow: I notice that the brunette woman who criticizes the misspelling of Elliott’s name, and also appears later in the film, is not credited. Was she a friend of Elliott’s? Or was she one of the many fans who came out to show their support on the Memorial Wall?
Reyes: That brunette woman was a fan I met at Elliott’s memorial wall on Sunset Blvd. and Fountain. I included her because, like many hardcore Elliott fans, she’s obviously very respectful to his memory and a stickler to details, right down to the L’s and T’s in his name. I wanted some fan reaction to show how deeply they’re affected by his music. However, I wanted the majority of the film to be from people who actually knew Elliott.
Crow: Where was the Gus Van Sant interview filmed?
Reyes: We shot the Gus Van Sant interview in his office/studio in Portland, Oregon. It’s an unassuming-looking building near the train tracks. You’d never know a big-time movie director and his crew worked there.
Crow: Was it easy to get him on board for the film?
Reyes: I was really surprised at how quickly Gus Van Sant responded. I had emailed Gus’ assistant, she relayed the message, and Gus responded almost immediately. The assistant told me he was sort of moved by the request. He was like, “oh… Elliott…” Like he remembered Elliott fondly and missed him. Gus, of course, is largely the reason for Elliott’s mainstream success. He chose Elliott’s music for Good Will Hunting, which led to Elliott’s Oscar nomination.
Crow: There are definitely a lot of moments in the film where we get to hear Elliott’s music, but I understand that you were not allowed to use his songs extensively through the film. Can you talk a little about that? Who didn’t provide that permission, and why do you feel that is?
Reyes: Elliott’s family, which is in charge of his music, was originally open to the possibility of allowing his songs in the film. I had been in contact by e-mail with the executor of Elliott’s estate (a family member). She requested a rough cut of the film as soon as it was ready. When I notified her that I secured an interview with Jennifer Chiba, she wrote that Elliott’s music would not be allowed if anyone involved in the open investigation into his death was included. I wrote back, saying I just wanted to get her side of the story. She never replied. (Elliott’s family, through the executor, also denied requests for interviews). I figured that fans could listen to Elliott’s amazing music anytime, but to get Jennifer Chiba’s story on camera had never been done before.
As journalists, we should strive to get both sides of the story. So the decision to interview Chiba and sacrifice music rights was a no-brainer. I ended up applying “fair use” to every short music clip in the film. Every piece is commented or critiqued by people who collaborated with Elliott on those works or by people who knew Elliott significantly. I had an entertainment lawyer check out the rough edit. Where longer music clips were needed, my brother Vinnie composed original music.
Since Elliott’s passing, there’s been a lot of bad blood between Elliott’s family/estate and Jennifer Chiba. The LAPD’s open investigation into possible homicide was just one part. It got worse during a lawsuit over Elliott’s earnings. From where I stand, the family doesn’t want Chiba mentioned in Elliott’s legacy at all.
Crow: It is brought up that doctors were prescribing medication to Elliott beyond the norm. Do you know if anyone ever investigated these doctors? In your own personal opinion, why do you think there is a bias in going after physicians who abuse their licenses only in the cases of accidental death, such as Michael Jackson’s and Anna Nicole Smith’s deaths, but not in the case of suicides, where addiction to these meds could have played a major role?
Reyes: I don’t believe Elliott’s doctors were formally investigated. Because Elliott died of two stab wounds to the chest and not an overdose, the issue over the dangers of medically prescribed drugs is largely swept under the rug. And it wasn’t just those drugs. According to friends, it was a combination of prescription drugs, illegal street drugs and alcohol over a period of years. There’s much talk about how Elliott’s doctors could have done a better job monitoring his condition. But in the end, at least in my opinion, it wasn’t the prescribed medication that killed him.
Crow: I was at that Sunset Junction show, where Elliott couldn’t get but a few bars out of most of his songs, and have often related how “messed up” he was that day, and never considered until seeing your film that these false starts were potentially deliberate. Is that one person’s opinion, or is that the shared consensus now? Was not being able to remember lyrics or get through songs really part of an act? That just doesn’t seem consistent with someone with a passion for his music and an appreciation for his fans, and in particular, the Silver Lake neighborhood where the performance took place. And in the video of the performance that you were able to find and include in the film he really does appear genuinely dissociated.
Reyes: I don’t think there’s a general consensus about that. I do believe he was intentionally sabotaging his life for years. And that he had to know, someday, at the rate he was going, this would eventually affect his performances. But I also feel when it actually did happen, he felt bad about it, because his music was so important to him. That’s part of the reason why he checked himself into rehab and made a real effort to change his ways after the Sunset Junction debacle.
Unfortunately, I believe it was too late for him to truly recover. But David McConnell agrees with you. The errors during the Sunset Junction performance were not on purpose.
Crow: There’s a moment in the film where Elliott is sitting next to Carson Daly—who then holds up a Spin issue with Madonna on the cover—that provides a pitch-perfect visual representation of his whirlwind rise into the pop-culture mainstream after his Oscar nomination. The whole experience must have been so surreal for this very low-key individual, but when do you think surreal becomes painful, or nightmarish, or depressing? Why do you think some low-key people are able to look at sudden fame as this strange and humorous twist of fate, while others like Elliott and Kurt Cobain find it so soul-crushing and overwhelming?
Reyes: I can’t say for sure why some people deal with fame better than others. I’m guessing a really strong support group or family helps a lot. Not everyone is cut out for fame. Even if you’re immensely talented, it requires really thick skin. At the same time, I believe guys like Elliott and Kurt Cobain couldn’t do anything else but express themselves through music. So it becomes a vicious cycle.
David McConnell, Elliott’s collaborator on the Basement album, said some people think too much for their own good. Off-camera, he said Elliott would dwell on traumatic events from his childhood. What’s interesting, at least in my opinion, is that these negative feelings helped to produce some of the most beautiful music ever.
SEARCHING FOR ELLIOTT SMITH ART THEATRE • 2025 E 4TH ST • LONG BEACH 90814 • 562.438.5435 • ARTTHEATRELONGBEACH.COM • FRI 8PM • $10
Logan Crow is the founder and executive director of the Long Beach Cinematheque, a non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating classic and independent cinema by programming film screenings and multimedia events throughout Long Beach. For more information, visit lbcinema.org. For tickets, visit readyticket.net