OCFF Q&A: Brendan Toller On His Documentary ‘DANNY SAYS’ About The Godfather of Punk-Rock

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dannysaysPreston Barta // Features Editor

In the late ’60s and early ’70s, no one came close to being hailed as the creator of the punk rock explosion than the legendary Danny Fields. He is known as one of the most influential figures in the history of punk. He managed Iggy and the Stooges and The Ramones, and worked in various roles with The Doors, the MC5, the Velvet Underground and the Modern Lovers.

Filmmaker Brendan Toller, who directed a spectacular documentary in 2008 that examined why so many independent record stores closed down (I NEED THAT RECORD! THE DEATH (OR POSSIBLE SURVIVAL) OF THE INDEPENDENT RECORD STORE), put together a often hilarious and fascinating portrait of Fields and his incredible journey on the music scene titled DANNY SAYS.

We sat down with Toller recently to discuss the stamp that Fields made in punk-rock. The documentary screens this afternoon at 2:45 p.m. at the historic Texas Theatre as part of the Oak Cliff Film Festival. Be sure to see it and read out interview below.

Subject Danny Fields and DANNY SAYS director Brendan Toller.

Subject Danny Fields and DANNY SAYS director Brendan Toller.

From your filmography it’s apparent that music plays a big part in your life. I mean, your first film was about the closing of record stores. How do you feel about movies? We saw what the digital age did to music, but movies are still hanging in there, even with VOD. Do you think movie theaters will always be around?

Brendan Toller: “That was sort of the point I tried to prove with I NEED THAT RECORD! All these doomsday stories and stores closing, you know? We might not have CDs or vinyls anymore. If something is great it’s always going to be around, but we don’t know what format it will be in. It might be in the air at some point, which a lot of it is.

I mean, I don’t really see documentaries writing for the 21st century– that’s the role film sort of plays in my life. Most of the things I’m interested in happened in the latter half of the 20th century. There’s usually sound or visual, or at least written archives.

Yeah, I’ve always been a rock ‘n’ roll fan. I’ve always wanted to support the culture. I’m kind of a hack as a musician, so this is a great way for me to get right into it and get my hands dirty.”

What band introduced you to rock ‘n’ roll?

Toller: “I remember driving with my dad and he might have had Pearl Jam’s ‘Vs’ playing really loud. So that was it. I really experienced it. Usually as a young kid, when you’re five or six, you gravitate towards what your dad likes. However, I didn’t know what to make of rock ‘n’ roll. It wasn’t like baseball. It’s not one thing, you know? It was like, ‘Wow. This kind of makes me feel kind of excited and free. I like this.’ I was really into grunge: Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Stone Temple Pilots. So, I just went on from there.

The time that I really knew was when I was in second grade. My second grade teacher got us signed permission slips to go to the grocery store with them to price shop. It was after school and he played The Replacements full blast in the car, and man, that was me discovering a band on my own that my dad didn’t know about for the first time. I always remembered that– I met Paul Westerberg (vocalist/guitarist of The Replacements) while he was on tour. Last year, I got to see them live.”

They played in Austin not too long ago at Austin City Limits in October.

Toller: “Oh, yeah! That’s right. I saw Peter Jesperson in the lobby of this hotel not too long ago. He discovered them and was their Danny Fields in a way.”

How did you come to know the story of Danny Fields? Why him of all people?

Toller: “He ended up on the cutting room floor of I NEED THAT RECORD!, actually. He was way too fabulous and awe-inspiring. I had no idea that he broke the John Lennon ‘I’m more popular than Jesus’ quote in America. I had no idea he got started in 1966. I read about him in NO ONE HERE GETS OUT ALIVE, PLEASE KILL ME and EDIE. No one really knew his whole trajectory, unless you were a great friend of his, so I just kept asking him and he finally said yes.”

So it took a while for him to say yes?

Toller: “It did.”

How long did it take for him to trust you with it?

Toller: “We were friends for two years, and it was always kind of in the back of my mind. I moved to Brooklyn and he said let’s get started. He graciously said yes and I couldn’t believe it. I mean, Andy Warhol wanted to do this. He wrote about him in his diaries and he wanted to tape Danny’s life story. There’s such a great cross section of great alternative culture and great stories of self-invention as well.”

A picture a Andy Warhol (left) taking a picture of Danny Fields (right) with Lou Reed (middle).

A picture a Andy Warhol (left) taking a picture of Danny Fields (right) with Lou Reed (middle).

So, after you guys kind of shook hands to get started, what was the starting point?

Toller: “Well, I don’t know if we shook hands [Laughs]. It was maybe a bow or something like that. I would come over on every Sunday and interview him for about two hours. We had him do commentary over his bar mitzvah film, which is in the beginning of DANNY SAYS. It took a while. We had about a 100 hours of interviews. And then I went through archival interviews, etc., because you want to get the best takes– sometimes the freshest tale was in 1968 on cassette tape.”

How long did you actually interview him? I noticed you were in different areas throughout the film and the footage looked a little different.

Toller: “[Laughs] It wasn’t always my footage either, too. It was November of 2009 and we did the last interview probably January of this year or so.”

Oh, wow!

Toller: “[Laughs] That’s in the movie.”

So you were pretty much editing as you went along?

Toller: “Yeah. And then towards the end Danny was cooperative with what I needed to kind of finish the film– the little fill-ins and stuff like that.”

What was the process like– because I’ve talked to a few filmmakers that have different approaches to how they put it all together. How did you go about getting the archival footage, rights to the music that you use in the film– things like that?

Toller: “Just swimming in a sea of Danny Fields. I feel like I’ve seen every frame of The Doors that exists. The Stooges, there’s only about 20 minutes that exists on film. 70% of the film is Danny’s archives: photographs and taped phone conversations from 1968. It really gives viewers a sense of a time and place. And it also, it’s stuff no one has ever seen or heard before. I’m really not tooting my own horn when I say that. You may think you know The Ramones, you may think you know the doors– but you should take a look.”

Look at it through the lens of Danny.

Toller: “[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah. Look at his brilliance. He’s a wordsmith. He just got the history of human civilization rolling around his head and he’s just been able to connect. There were no bidding wars for Iggy Pop or MC5. He was the one who could create the context where they could be a cultural phenomenon.”

I really like how you begin the documentary. It really sets the tone for the rest of the doc. Throws you in the middle and introduces you to Danny’s character.

Toller: “Yeah. Yeah. Sure.”

Danny Fields and Brendan Toller.

Danny Fields and Brendan Toller.

After spending so much time with him– I mean, you gather right away that he’s such an interesting guy, but was there anything that kind of surprised you about him? After all the stories he shared and things you learned about him, or because he is the way he is, there were no surprises with him?

Toller: “[Laughs] I mean, the jaw drops a lot of the time, but after a while it’s like, ‘Yep. There he is, living in the same building as The Ramones and the guy in MAN ON WIRE, practicing his wire routine.’ Yeah, there’s so much that ended up on the cutting room floor, but I think the most surprising thing for me was– a lot of people think punk dumbed down and is simplistic rock ‘n’ roll. Then, there’s this guy who’s helping invent it. It’s really his brilliance that pushes it forward. New York Times said punk rock wouldn’t have sounded the same without Danny Fields, and it’s true.”

How do you feel about modern music?

Toller: ” I love it. I mean, it’s totally different that it probably was. I wish there was more people like Danny in the industry, kind of connecting the dots and being brilliant. I mean, my God, why did it take 10 years or 15 years for Spotify to exist when we had Napster? I wish there were more visionaries out there that would drop out of Harvard and go into the music biz, but now, I guess they’re app developers or something like that [Laughs].

There’s still great music. A lot of my favorite bands – Natural Child and Moth Eggs – I feel like there’s been a sort of return to that Ramones-like catchy riffs and simple, angular short songs.”

Very cool. And lastly, if you could teach a college course of your creation, what would you teach?

Toller: “Oh [Laughs]. I have a very specific shooting style. I don’t like to work with a big crew. I maybe like to have one other person with me. Another production, I might try to do it with an assembled crew, because this film obviously has a gritty feel to it. I was going into these tiny New York spaces with limited equipment. I literally borrowed a camera for four years.

Man, I would really teach on how to give a good interview, because I think a lot of interviewers – and you’re doing a great job – but a lot of interviewers ask way too many questions within one question and they try to make it more about themselves. And I think you just have to shut the hell up and let the person talk. Just be a good listener.”

Tickets for DANNY SAYS can be found on prekindle.com. All future screening and release information can be found on DannySaysFilm.com.

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.