Anvil! The Story of Anvil: Sacha Gervasi interview
British screenwriter Sacha Gervasi discusses his directorial debut, a documentary about an unheralded Canadian metal band.
Back in 2000 Sacha Gervasi featured in a BBC documentary tracking the progress of aspiring British screenwriters in Hollywood. Just four years later he finally got his big break writing The Terminal for Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. But as the well-known saying goes, what Gervasi really wanted to do is direct. Anvil! The Story of Anvil sees him go from documentary subject to documentary filmmaker, telling the story of two old pals, heavy metal stalwarts Steve 'Lips' Kudlow and Robb Reiner, who are still dreaming of chart success in their fifties.
Going from wannabe to working with Spielberg and Hanks must've been surreal...
Yeah, it was very surreal. Very surreal. Because when I went over to Hollywood to attend UCLA film school I didn't know anyone at all. I mean I did not know even a single person in Hollywood. I remember being in England being an occasional musician and wannabe writer and looking at movies like Schindler's List and loving all of the early Spielberg films particularly and, you know, Tom Hanks and all those people. Being in England and growing up with their films and having those dreams was one thing, but then to eventually find myself on a set working with Spielberg and Hanks was incredible. And I've worked with pretty much everyone from Al Pacino to Keanu Reeves to Nicole Kidman. I've worked with a lot of people. As an English wannabe screenwriter, from the outside, it seems like an impossible thing. So I feel like, 'Wow.' I wake up sometimes and go, 'Oh my God!'
So it's no longer a struggle for you making a living as a screenwriter?
Well, one of the things that I do is work as a script doctor so I work a lot, but you'll never see my name on the credits. I'm called in to do rewrites on things, and I might only have half an hour to work on a scene, but I'll be doing that with the director or I'm representing an actor sometimes. So for example, I remember getting a call at 8am one morning a few years ago - I was working on this film - and suddenly this voice goes, 'Hey, it's Al.' And I'm like, 'What do you mean? Al, who?' And he's like, 'It's Al!' and it took me a while to realise it was Al Pacino and he's like, 'I wanted to talk about this scene. What do you think of this?' It's really weird, I mean it's Michael Corleone calling me for advice! A lot of these films I work on people don't know that I've been working on them, deliberately. It's the Writers' Guild rules...
Steve 'Lips' Kudlow rocks the crowd in Anvil! The Story of Anvil.
You were a struggling rock drummer too. How does all this fit together?
I went to Westminster School, it was an artistic school. There were a lot of liberal families who sent their kids there so it was formal in one sense, but on the other hand it was Bohemian and rock 'n' roll. While I was there I saw Anvil at The Marquee Club and I became so inspired by Robb Reiner I thought 'Maybe, I'll play drums.' He taught me how to play so I went off and did that, but there was always this bizarre double life for me. On the one hand I'd be off playing with a heavy metal band and on the other, I'd be working for Ted Hughes.
What was the turning point that finally settled you on being a director?
It was really when I saw Withnail & I in 1986. It really blew my mind and I started thinking seriously about films. I realised films could be very powerful and very personal, but at the time I was living that exact lifestyle; I was doing tonnes of drugs, I never had any money, I was living with some mates in a house in Albert Street in Camden, which coincidentally was only four houses down from where Bruce Robinson [the director] had lived during the years that inspired the Withnail thing. I came out of that movie thinking, 'I'm going to become a director,' but at the same time I was genuinely struggling and wondering if it could ever happen for me. I was fortunate enough to meet Bruce Robinson later on. He read my first screenplay and told me it was crap. Which was the best thing that ever happened to me. He gave me a reality bath. He said , 'Why would you ever want to get into a business as stupid and as heartbreaking as the film business?' At the time that was difficult for me to understand, but now that I've been doing it for ten years, I know exactly what he was talking about. I'm glad he didn't put me off though; I think it was a strange kind of test. You know, it's like on the outside it might look glamorous, but when you're having to deal with studios and all these people worrying about their millions of dollars, stuff happens, things change and a script rarely comes out the way you imagined it. Then there's the other thing where you're doing all this work and people will never know because you don't get credited.
So making Anvil, an independent film, was a chance to have your voice heard...
Yeah, for me Anvil was a huge statement. It's like, 'Right, I'm going to start making my own films now.' But I'll continue to be at the service of 'the system' in Hollywood because I realise I am incredibly fortunate to have this day job that most people dream about having.
You must have had a special empathy with Lips and Robb's struggle for success?
Absolutely. Totally. I really felt it where I'd been in bands, bands signed to major labels and hadn't quite made it. I had videos on MTV and I went to Italy once where we were mobbed, but it never really happened in the way that I wanted it to. Part of me thinks it's because I was playing drums and I wasn't that good. I was okay, but you know... When I spoke to Lips and Robb about making the film it was really blind trust on their part. It was a huge favour to trust this kid who they hadn't seen in twenty years to make a film that he was saying was going to help them. But they took that leap of faith and it was absolutely because of trust.
People compare the film to This Is Spinal Tap, a mockumentary. Is that good?
I think it's fantastic. I love it. And we encouraged it in the making of the film. I mean in Spinal Tap they talk about the first song they wrote in a café, deliberately, I shot the scene where they talk about the first film they ever wrote, in a café. I wanted people to understand that we were aware of Spinal Tap and playing on it. In fact for us it was like a Trojan horse, it was our way into the story. The film ultimately has nothing to do with heavy metal and it has nothing to do with Spinal Tap. It's really much closer to Withnail & I. It's an enduring story about male friendship and what it takes to endure really tough circumstances. And maybe there's hope at the end. At the end of Withnail the two friends part, but in this film they never give up. They're still together forever. It's really quite magical.
Robb Reiner and Steve 'Lips' Kudlow reminisce about their heyday.
But you also have a few laughs at their expense...
Well, what I said to them at the beginning is, 'Guys, you've got to accept it: you are really funny. You're hilarious.' And their favourite film is Spinal Tap and yet they are Spinal Tap! You'd have to ask a psychologist about that kind of duality. I don't understand the dynamic, all I can tell you is that it is the case; They are it, they love it. That's what makes the film work is that degree of self-knowledge about Anvil. They're completely authentic and dedicated to what they do and yet they also have a sense of humour about themselves. That's evident in their songs which have titles like Five Knuckle Shuffle and Show Me Your Tits. Clearly they are aware of the funniness of heavy metal.
Did you know the story you wanted to tell before you started shooting?
I had an idea, but in any documentary you can never really control the story beats. The initial idea was that it would configure to Spinal Tap and people would think, 'Oh, this is just like Spinal Tap,' but by the end they'd have a very different impression. I knew we'd have a surprise because I knew who these guys were and that once people got to know them they'd figure, 'Oh, hold on. They're not just funny heavy metal guys, they have families as well, and jobs and dreams.' They are also just regular people struggling to get through the day. I knew that, but I didn't know quite how it would work, which I suppose is why we ended up shooting for two years; to allow the story to unfold. There's about 318 hours-worth of footage on the cutting room floor, so we're going to have some good DVD extras!
Has the film been enough to give Anvil their long-awaited big break?
That was my hope, part of my motivation for making the film, and it's happening! One of the biggest shows they did in their career was at Donnington, Monsters of Rock in 1982. Twenty-seven years later they've been invited back as a result of the film. They're now being managed by one of the biggest managers in the business, the same guy who manages Slayer, and they're now being booked by the same booking agent who handles Coldplay. For me that's the true satisfaction of the film, that the ending comes after the movie is finished.
Anvil! The Story of Anvil was released in UK cinemas on Friday 20th February 2009.
Stella Papamichael | Published 25th February 09