We here at UCSB are extremely lucky. No not for our unnaturally close proximity to the great pacific Pacific or our numerous Nobel laureates but for something else. We have at our school a filmmaker who offers her unconventional brand of education to us once per quarter. Professor Allison Anders is the director of such films as “Mi vida loca” and “Four Rooms” and is recognized as one of the premiere female directors in the United States. In 2001 she directed an interesting quasi-biographical film entitled “Things Behind the Sun.” The Film Studies Dept., in collaboration with newly minted graduate students, is presenting a 35mm print of this film on Saturday in IV Theater. Allison Anders was kind enough to sit down with Artsweek one afternoon after her class entitled “Don’t Knock the Rock,” which covers rock music and its presence in cinema.
How did you come to work for UCSB?
Allison Anders: What happened was Janet Walker, now the Film Studies Dept. chair, was a teaching assistant down at UCLA. I just knew her from my very first quarter at UCLA and we kept in touch over the years. When the distinguished professors program came up throughout UCSB, she asked me if I would be interested. I was a working filmmaker and I had won the MacArthur Fellowship, so all those things helped. I am a little of an unconventional filmmaker. I guess I am a little out there but that’s what they expect from us crazy artists.
How did you prepare for all the actual performances in “Things Behind the Sun”?
AA: We actually recorded all the music before filming. We recorded it L.A., in a very live setting. The band you see in the film is the actual recording band. The lead character was just really great at lip synching, because it’s not her voice. The match up was perfect, it was so uncanny. She would work on it at night after shooting scenes. I am just so amazed by her sometimes, by her acting and her singing at the same time.
Did you intend for the numerous performances over the film to carry any symbolism?
AA: Pretty much. One thing with musical numbers – a lot like sex scenes – is that they have to be about something else. Otherwise it will stop the movie. You have to always be uncovering the story or the characters at all times. We had to take out one musical number, even though I really liked it. You can’t ever let the movie stop for the song.
The sex scenes are very graphic in the film, can you comment?
AA: We did get an NC-17 rating on the film. I actually had to cut some stuff out. I made some adjustments and it came back a second time and was still NC-17. A lot of it had to do with the male nudity.
That was actually kind of funny.
AA: (Laughing) Yeah, I agree. I actually took out one shot of male nakedness and replaced it with a close of the woman’s face. It made the scene way more intense. At that point the rating board could not do anything else because I did what they wanted. Censorship actually pushes you a little bit to make scenes better. (Laughing) I had to shorten one scene because the censors thought that the lead actor was going down on the lead actress just a little too long.
Many of the female characters are very sexually dominant, is this your expression of a feminist idea?
AA: The lead actress is very dominant in her sex scenes, she is definitely the one running the show. She is unconsciously running the show. In actuality she is trying to heal herself by using the sex. It’s funny because feminists took me to task very early on in my career. People have their thing were the fetish shots, where things become feminist and other things political. I think that that meaning isn’t there, I think people create a fetish in their head more so than the director. At the time I probably would have said the shot looks better this way. Those scenes were hers anyway. It’s always about the woman because they are my main characters.
How much of your own traumatic past influenced the trauma that the main character deals with?
AA: Well, first it’s from a personal story. I actually shot the film in the same house and the same room where I was raped as a child. When I made this movie, I first had to go back to this town and deal with my past. I tried all sorts of 12-step programs, and everyone was very concerned. I just wanted to be done with it. All my rape-survivor girl friends wanted to go with me. I said no because then I would have to deal with their rape. I only wanted to deal with my, you know. When I went back on my own. It was an amazing experience. All of that was personal in the film. Parts of the film actually happened to me. Rape and trauma are a shattering experience psychologically. The thing nobody tells you is that you need to go and pick up all those pieces and re-integrate them. When I made the movie I was able to see every side of the situation. I was pretty intense.
What kind of role does the music of your film play?
AA: I can answer this unequivocally. The band, The Left Banke is mentioned a lot in the movie. The characters connect for the first time over The Left Banke. I love them very much and they were really big in the 60s. Their second single they had was “Pretty Ballerina,” which was my favorite song at the time. When I was raped I heard that song playing in another room. People think that it must freak me out to hear that song. Actually, no, that’s not the case. What I did was disappear into the song, and wait the experience out. Psychologically it saved me in that moment from further soul-battering. What musicians can do in a couple of minutes with a song takes a good movie two hours if it gets it at all. Anybody can like great music. Watching great movies demands a little more out of you. A song can sweep over you and send you into all kinds of ecstasy.
How did you seduce Don Cheadle with this role?
AA: I met him at a friend’s wedding reception. We hung out. I didn’t see him again for a couple of years. I wrote the script and decided that he was who I wanted. I called him up and said “I am so sorry to call you personally” and he said, “Allison, that’s why I gave you the number.” I sent him the script and he liked it. I was in heaven. Don was in such a nurturing role. He was great because he asked questions about his character. Don wanted to know why his character would get involved with a character like the lead actress. He is definitely the man.