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‘CBGB’ Director Randy Miller Talks Researching Punk’s Mecca, Casting a Foo Fighter to Play Iggy Pop + More

Randy Miller
Robin Marchant, Getty Images

When Hilly Kristal open CBGB in New York City’s Bowery in 1973, he was hoping to bring country and bluegrass music to a part of Manhattan people generally avoided. Instead, it became the launching pad for legendary groups like Television, Blondie, Talking Heads and most notably, the Ramones. The club became a mecca for punk and underground rock, and even though it closed its doors in 2006, it’s inspired countless young bands and led director Randy Miller to take its story to the silver screen.

Known for such films as 1992′ ‘Class Act,’ 1997′s ‘The Sixth Man’ and 2008′s ‘Bottle Shock,’ Miller teamed up with his wife, Jody Savin, to tell the story of Kristal and his crazy venue with the epically disgusting bathroom. After reading loads of books about the artists who played there, as well as interviewing many of the key figures, Miller emerged with ‘CBGB,’ a 101-minute movie centering on Kristal and how his risky investment on 315 Bowery not only changed the neighborhood but also the way we look at music.

Diffuser.fm had a chance to talk to the Miller about why he wanted to make this movie, his personal connection to CBGB and how they convinced Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters to play Iggy Pop.

Why did you decide to a movie about CBGB?

When you do a historical movie, you try to figure out what that initial thing is that started a movement or started something. And Hilly [Kristal] had a dream to open this country [and] bluegrass place in the Bowery, hence the moniker “CBGB.” When he got going, he became the godfather of punk and underground rock. Right there, that sort of starting-off point was really interesting to us. He basically became a hero for so many of these disenfranchised musicians and struggling artists. And yet, it wasn’t his initial dream. ‘Bottle Shock’ was a similar movie, only it was about wine. But the same thing happened. They didn’t set out to do that but then became the heroes. It’s sort of something we always look at: How do you tell a story about something iconic but tell it differently?

How did you go about the research for the film?

There were so many moments. First of all there are many, many books like Cheetah [Chrome] has a book, and Debbie Harry and Johnny Ramone … and ‘Please Kill Me.’ There all these books, but they don’t tell you the whole story. They only tell you a part of the history. So we read all the material we could. And then Lisa [Kristal] and John Holmstrom introduced us to so many other people — probably 100 interviews we did. The band members who would talk to us like Tom Verlaine and Richard LLoyd of Television, Debbie Harry’s band, David Byrne, so many people. What’s interesting is they tell you the same story with a completely different spin, because obviously we’re seeing it from their point of view. But that’s what we did.

From there, we carefully put together the story of how we were going to tell this. We thought Hilly’s story was very interesting, and we didn’t want to project anything on top of him but that he was in the middle of the storm. We wanted to tell that story. In a weird way, he’s sort of like the straight man in a comedy, because he has all these things happen to him, and he’s in the middle. He’s also sort of god in a way because he’s always looking at everything. That’s what we thought would be interesting, and that’s how he did it.

Aside from the research and everything you learned, what’s your personal connection to CBGB?

I had gone there a couple of times. My wife has gone there more times than me. Jody, my writing partner and my wife, used to live in New York in the ’80s. She was a struggling poet and often went to CBGB because it was place she could go to listen to some music and didn’t cost very much. Beers were really cheap. So we had this connection to it. Over the years, we’re trying to be reasonably cool, so we try to follow new music trends and everything else. And I’ve done lots of movies and TV shows, and I always think about music. I’ve always followed many of these bands and look and say, “Where did that band come from?” It would turn out that many of them played CBGB or were from CBGB, and then I wondered how did that happen? How does one club have so many amazing bands come out of it? You just wonder about it, and that was part of the allure to it. And I’ve thought about it many times over the years.

Out of all the ones you covered in the movie, which one was your favorite?

Well, I have a personal soft spot for Television, because I think they were the beginning. And I really like what they stood for. And for me, the beginning of something is always very interesting to sort of go into. The movie ends with the Police, and I just thought it was fascinating that the Police started there. And so to see that journey from all of the bands that were there to all of the most famous bands who were there, that’s what I really wanted to see.

You have some big names in the cast, like Alan Rickman, Ashley Greene and Rupert Grint. But you also have some up-and-coming actors play some pretty big roles in the film. How did you go about casting the actors who portrayed musicians like Sting or David Byrne?

Jared Carter, who plays David Byrne, we did an open casting call. And this kid drove in from Tennessee, which is 14 hours away, and he was unbelievable. He sang and did the movement and all that stuff. He was phenomenal. It was one of those moments where it’s we just saw the guy! And as far as Keene McRae, who plays Sting, it was a similar thing but different. The kid’s from Birmingham, Ala., and he came in and had the full accent and fully into it and really was amazing how he pulled it off. So when we had him on set, I told him, “Alan Rickman is friendly with Sting, and you’re going to have to do me a favor. You’re going to have to stay in character the whole time and never lose the accent. And if he asks you where you’re from, you’re from Birmingham, England.” That’s because Alan will never understand, but we looked everywhere. But we couldn’t find anyone that fit who was English. And that was pretty great. So he did that all three days and pulled it off. Alan had no idea where he was from.

The film premiered in New York, not too far away from the actual CBGB location, earlier this month. What were your feelings during that event?

It was really cool back there. We had so many people who went to CBGB back in the day like band members of Television and Richard Lloyd. Even the ones you wouldn’t think would be positive, [Gillian McCain], the writer of ‘Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk,’ she liked the movie. Members of the Day, managers of the Day were there. That’s really great. That makes it really fun because you’re always going to have people who think they know or that they remember punk one way or another. So it’s great when people back in the day say they liked the movie or really support the movie. That’s just really rewarding for us, because we did so much research for this.

What do you hope audiences will get out of watching ‘CBGB?’

It’s a really fun movie. It was a really fun time. I think what would really be great for people to realize is that these punk artists were having fun with audience. They were saying “F— you” to the other musicians of the world, you know, but having fun with it. And I think that’s something to take away from the movie. And people wonder why we didn’t make it darker. We weren’t out there to make ‘Sid and Nancy.’ We made a fun movie, which is what I think is the reason people went to CBGB, because they wanted to enjoy themselves and see what these crazy bands were going to do. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll movie that I think people will enjoy and remember and hopefully understand that Hilly Kristal is a legend.

How did Taylor Hawkins come to play Iggy Pop?

Well, we had this movie that we were ready to do about Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, and he is a big Dennis Wilson fanatic. That’s how we got to know each other. He hadn’t really acted, but he was interested, and we were talking about him getting involved or maybe playing Dennis Wilson. And then I told him, “You know what’s really funny? You kind of look like Iggy Pop. Would you ever consider doing that?” And of course, being a ham and fun guy, he started playing some of the songs. So we were excited and said, “So you really want to do this?” And he agreed to do it, but he was a bit scared, because he hadn’t really acted before. But he lost 25 pounds and buffed himself up because he really wanted to look like Iggy. I think he’s pretty convincing and really went for it onstage.

Now that this is out. What are you working on now? Any other music films in the future?

Actually, we’re doing this right away. We’re starting pre-production on [a film about] Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers, which is really cool. It’s again the beginning, when Duane and Gregg started and their whole story. We have original music. We have T-Bone Burnett, who’s involved. And it’s going to be a great movie. It’s going to be a movie like ‘Ray’ or ‘Walk the Line.’ It’s a great story about another American iconic character.

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