Allison Anders by Bette Gordon

“I never give them archetypes. I’m totally anti-Jungian, symbols are intellectual. Emotions are universal, not symbolic. So that’s where I try and keep it, with the emotions.”

BOMB 48 Summer 1994
048 Summer 1994

Allison Anders’ films are primarily concerned with how women see the world. In Gas Food Lodging , a waitress and her two daughters (Brooke Adams, Ione Skye and Fairuza Balk) come to terms with sexual, emotional and familial lives. The film sensitively examines the struggle between rebellion and accommodation. Mi Vida Loca, Anders’ latest film, continues to look at women in a three story drama about girl gangs who cruise the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles where Anders and her daughter lived for ten years. Anders recruited several gang members to star alongside actors in Mi Vida Loca developing a documentary style well suited to the narration of daily life.

Bette Gordon What are you doing here in New York? Is it for Mi Vida Loca?

Allison Anders I’m here researching a script I’ll be writing and directing for Universal produced by Martin Scorcese, which has been great so far. It was a hilarious first meeting with Martin, a real kick. The night before I was sitting in my bathtub going, “He made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Oh my God, how am I going to talk to this man?” Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore was the only film I could turn to for Gas Food Lodging, because there was nothing else about single moms. It’s one of those bankrupt genres. Anyway, he knew I was nervous and tried to make me comfortable, and I was completely speechless. I never am usually. He’d say, “So what are you doing right now—are you editing?” I’d think, okay, I’m a filmmaker and I can answer this question, and I’d tell him some anecdote of the day, and he’d say, “Yeah, I know … on Raging Bull blah blah.” And I’d be thinking, no, no, no, I can’t bear it, I’m talking to Martin Scorcese! But he’s so humble and sweet.

BG Not taken by his own fame.

AA And such a mentor. He really takes it seriously. I thank God for people who do. A lot of my peers don’t believe in mentors, they want to feel like they know it all …

BG … Or that they’re carving new territory.

AA Women are more open to being taught than men. There are no girl-wonders, especially in this business. But men all think they’re the next boy-wonder, and the industry treats them as if they are. It’s embarrassing. I’ve watched editors who have been editing films for thirty years kiss some young upstart’s ass, and I think, “Why are you kissing his ass? He should be kissing your ass. You’re the one with the experience, he’s brand new. Let’s see him sustain the career you’ve sustained.” They all coddle these boys, and it’s to the detriment of the work.

BG I am so sick and tired of these movies about boys who can say fuck. If I have to see one more I think I’m going to strangle somebody.

AA The night before my daughter had her 16th birthday party she was with all of her Chicano girlfriends from the neighborhood, working class girls who she has grown up with. I said, “You’ve known these girls since you were eight years old, think about the things you all went through. Where is that on the screen?” I thought, that’s it man, I’m gonna write a “girl” movie. I want to see millions of movies about little girls. There are movies that deal with teenage girls sexually, but they can’t stand to think of women as pre-sexual. Because what value do they have?

BG Where as there’s Stand By Me and Diner.

AA That’s what my daughter said, “Why is there not a Stand By Me with little girls?” I thought about me and my girlfriends when I was small, living in Cocoa Beach, Florida near the Space Center. All the crazy shit we went through and crazy stuff that we did. I know the male experience. I’m overloaded with it. It’s not that complicated. (laughter)

BG So, the inspiration for Mi Vida Loca was the neighborhood that you live in, the girls around your daughter. Did she help you?

AA Yes. Definitely. She even talks like she’s a Chola. People say, “I called your house and some Mexican girl answered the phone.” And I say, “Oh, that’s my daughter.” She just moved right in. That was her neighborhood …

BG Is she the dark-haired one who’s in Border Radio?

AA She’s the little one. When she turned 15 these Chola boys were going, “Devan, are you white or what?” And she’d be like, “Well, I’m white, but … ”

BG How long have you lived in that neighborhood?

AA I moved to Echo Park in 1986. Now I live in Silver Lake, but it’s still very close.

BG Did you propose the idea for Mi Vida Loca to HBO?

AA I wrote the script awhile ago but ended up making Gas Food Lodging first. So the kids had been waiting for years to do this movie. When I was doing Gas Food Lodging they thought, “Oh, Allison’s bullshitting us. She’s not really going to make our movie.” And even now, it’s hilarious—they still say, “What’s up with the movie? When’s the movie coming out? God, it takes so long.” Actually, even before I met the Gang Girls, the real Gang Girls, I had seen these two 14-year-old girls with babies on their hips, yelling at each other. So finally I said, “Devan, what’s up with these girls?” And Devan, who was nine years old at the time said, “Well, Christine and Marty were best friends since elementary school. Then Christine had a baby by Ernesto. But then Marty had a baby by Ernesto. And now they don’t get along.”

BG I can see why.

AA And that was the basis for the “Sad Girl and Mousey” story in Mi Vida Loca. I couldn’t wait to see Ernesto the stud, you know.

BG Say that again …

AA Sad Girl and Mousey are the two characters in the first narrative of Mi Vida Loca, the two girls with babies. Mi Vida Loca is three separate stories. The second story is about Whisper and her friend Giggles, who’s coming out of prison. And the last story wraps all these up around love letters exchanged between a young girl and a guy in jail.

BG Are they related, these stories?

AA It’s pretty linear. There are flashbacks.

BG Why choose three narrators rather than one character with a singular point of view?

AA I chose to use multiple narrators to tell the story because basically that’s how it was told to me. I heard the kids’ stories from various points of view and it felt somehow more honest to me to tell it that way. One thing I’ve tried desperately to avoid in all my work—liberal folks are used to seeing their own point-of-view prevail in every film they see, especially about working class people. They want to hear the speech about ‘stay in school,’ when the reality is there are no schools for these kids. They want to see ‘their’ choices available to working class people, but in reality they are not, and very few people in this country are doing anything about it. Usually these very well-meaning liberals would never think of themselves as ‘imperialists,’ but when they go to the movies, in fact they often are—because they demand their choices to be accepted by working class people, i.e. wait until you’re financially set to have children (in the case of yuppies—wait until you’ve got everything else you want before ‘investing’ in the perpetuation of your fucking gene pool!). But this is absurd for working class people. It may seem like they have the same choices and resources but believe me they don’t. They don’t know about it ’cause no one provides them with that information.

So—back to the narration—by having multiple voice-overs telling the stories, I felt I was avoiding “colonizing” this sub-culture with my own point-of-view, sorta.

BG The voice-over is a literary device and yet, it’s almost a character in this film. What does it represent?

AA Again—for me the voice-over became a political tool. I set out to humanize, not colonize a subculture of working class people, and the voice-over became my tool for imagining the inner life of these feared and stigmatized kids.

BG Gas Food Lodging has a surreal and ordinary everyday, tough-little-town feel. Your first film, Border Radio, has a quasi-documentary feel. It reminded me of Wender’s The State of Things, life unfolding in front of you. So does Mi Vida Loca.

AA I probably get that a lot from Wenders. When I was meeting with the guys from Sony Pictures, they asked if anyone compared Mi Vida Loca to a documentary, and I said, “Well sometimes, but then all my work is really.” Even with Gas Food Lodging, people got the sense that they were voyeurs looking in, that they were inside the room. And I always got that sense when I was watching Wender’s films, the feeling that you’re seeing really private moments. J Mascis, who composed the music for Gas Food Lodging, hates the scene when Trudy packs her things to leave.

BG Because it was too incidental to him?

AA He said that scene was too personal, that it was embarrassing for him. You were really seeing people being vulnerable with each other, and he didn’t dig it.

BG That’s the exact quality that makes the film so great. Trudy is tough on the one hand, and so vulnerable on the other. And the younger sister … was the very last to audition out of 200 girls. I thought I was never going to find what I was looking for. I needed someone who could be innocent, but wise at the same time. And either I get a 24 year-old who was totally wise and not very innocent, or I’d get a kind of Beverly Hills little girl who has no struggle going on inside at all.

BG Gas Food Lodging is based on a book, isn’t it?

AA Don’t Look and It Wont Hurt by Richard Peck. The film is very different from his book. Very different. But I tried to keep the purity of the narration. I’m reading this great book now, Bastard Out of Carolina. It’s so heavy, ‘cause it’s exactly how I grew up.

BG Where did you grow up?

AA All over, but mostly Kentucky. And then we moved to Cocoa Beach, Florida during the whole space center thing, and then back to Kentucky, then to Arizona, then we fled my crazy stepfather and went to L.A.

BG Your mother was a single mom?

AA Pretty much, yeah. And a crazy stepfather. Who now has amnesia. And doesn’t remember.

BG How convenient.

AA Isn’t it? My friend Chris Connelly interviewed me for Premiere, and he says, “Well, I don’t know if I can get the stuff in on your father holding a gun on you, but anyway, this fact-checker’s going to call you.” So the fact-checker called me, and said, “I’m going to have to speak to your stepfather.” And I said, “That should be very interesting.” Then he called my mother who said, “This isn’t going to be one of those Mommie Dearest articles, is it?” But, then she called my stepfather, and he said exactly what I knew he’d say: “If they publish that I’ll sue them, ‘cause I never did that. And if I did I don’t remember.” But my mom verified the story.

BG So did they print it?

AA Sure did.

BG Oh good.

AA When people victimize children, they don’t stop to think that someday the child will grow up and have some power.

break in tape

AA In the ‘50s, there were so many different looks women could have, so many different ages they could be, so many situations that were truly woman-centered. What’s really a drag now is that even when women characters are at the forefront—you know, they put the woman on top in a love scene and think they’re being feminist. Most women I know can’t even come like that. They should have his head between her legs, that would be feminist. (laughter)

BG Very good idea for a love scene.

AA Today films are about “strong” women taking action. I resent it so much that you can’t just show a woman in need of something, maybe she doesn’t even know what. Why can’t the needs dictate the action? These action films are truly not exploring our interior at all. It’s putting machoism onto women.

BG In Gas Food and Lodging, you gave all of the female characters a kind of strength but you also saw them in their real sense, going through their daily routines and their struggles with themselves. They were small struggles; they weren’t trying to become the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic …

AA I realized recently that I learned to write female characters from Paul McCartney. He wrote the best female characters, so varied, I made a whole tape for myself, “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Another Day,” and “For No One.” Especially McCartney’s “Another Day,” that woman going through the drudgery of her day and being lonely and that guy fucking her and then leaving. Incredible that he got into a woman’s head. I don’t know how he did that. He wasn’t even raised with his mother very long. She died when he was 14.

BG How do you work with your actors in rehearsals? Do you spend a lot of time?

AA On Mi Vida Loca I did, because I was working with a lot of non-actors. But with Gas Food, we didn’t have a whole lot of rehearsal time. I pretty much talked with them about the characters and tried to keep it simple, about feelings. If you keep it about feelings, everybody understands. When we’re in rehearsal, if I stay out of my head, then I’m always in good shape. Tell a simple story because the simpler you tell it …

BG The situation is going to create believability. (Exactly.) Do you spend time talking with each actor about the emotional stuff going on inside the character?

AA I never give them archetypes. I’m totally anti-Jungian, symbols are intellectual. Emotions are universal, not symbolic. So that’s where I try and keep it, with the emotions.

BG Interesting mix of actors and non-actors, why mix the two?

AA I mixed the actors and non-actors because it gave the film the kick and authenticity I felt it needed.

BG As you said earlier, your daughter grew up with these kids so you’ve known them for a long time. It wasn’t as if you had to come as an outsider into a group of people, they trusted you already.

AA It took a while to earn that trust. But now it’s wild.

Whit Stillman by Betsy Sussler
Whit Stillman. Photo by Susan Shacter © 1990.
Jennie Livingston by Reena Jana
Article 1416 Livingtson01

“I know the ball walkers aren’t “feminists” in the politically correct sense of the term, but what they are doing is innately feminist. A boy becomes a girl—gender is a learned thing, and these people chose to be women despite the American social convention that to be a man would be the preferable choice.”

Women Looking at Other Women by Karyn Kay & Bette Gordon
Kay 01

In conversation, filmmakers Bette Gordon and Karyn Kay pinpoint women’s desire and experience in and out of film.

Salomé Lamas by Matt Turner
Salome Lamas Bomb 1

“Questions that once belonged to the cinematic institution have been set upon the world of spectacle we live in today. These questions belong to all of us now.”

Originally published in

BOMB 48, Summer 1994

Featuring interviews with Eric Bogosian, Rick Moody, bell hooks, Dennis Cooper, Jack Whitten, Michel Auder, Hanif Kureishi, Joel Thome, Keith Antar Mason, and Allison Anders.

Read the issue
048 Summer 1994