The music that they constantly play, it says nothing to me about my life, sang Morrissey on The Smiths song Panic, released in 1986, a year before the band broke up. Lyrics that no doubt spoke to a teenaged Stephen Kijak growing up in small town Massachusetts and that certainly resonate with the dedicated fan portrayed by Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane, who holds up a Denver heavy metal radio station at the start of Kijak’s new 1987 set feature, Shoplifters of the World, demanding that the DJ, Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello), play only The Smiths for the rest of the night. It’s an incident, rooted in truth, that’s become an urban legend and partly inspired Kijak’s film, which centres on a group of recently graduated high school friends discovering themselves through their shared passion for The Smiths and reeling from the news of their breakup.
Kijak’s 1996 debut as writer-director, Never Met Picasso, won that year’s Outfest jury awards for screenwriting and acting for Alexis Arquette. He went on to make Cinemania a fascinating look at New York City’s movie obsessives, followed by a string of acclaimed music documentaries such as the BAFTA-nominated Scott Walker – 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile, commissioned by The Rolling Stones, Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of, and Sid & Judy examining Judy Garland’s relationship with her producer, manager and third husband, Sid Luft. Most recently, he was the showrunner on HBO Max’s compelling GLAAD-nominated LGBTQ+ rights docuseries Equal.
Ahead of the release of Shoplifters of the World in theaters, on demand and digital on Friday March 26th, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Stephen Kijak about his determination to get the film made, incorporating The Smiths lyrics and some of the references that had inspired them into the dialogue, his own connection to the band, and creating a distinctive The Smiths-influenced 80s look for the film.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: why was this a film that you were determined to see get made, because it’s been in the works for quite a few years now hasn’t it?
Stephen Kijak: “To say the least! That is the understatement of the year. Yeah, it actually took us over 10 years to make. I wrote it, so it was me pushing this thing uphill all this time, with some fantastic producing partners along the way. It’s a passion project. I think everyone has a few of those in them, any more than that will probably kill a person. People loved the script and there was such a good vibe around it for so long, so we had to see it through.”
Getting the rights to use so many songs by The Smiths is really impressive, how tricky was that process?
“I’ve got to shout out my music supervisor Liz Gallacher, who is truly the best in the business. We’ve worked on other films together and I think this one just burnt her to a crisp! I’m sorry forever and a day, Liz. We actually got the thumbs up relatively early on with a very hefty price tag. Then I thought, Oh my God we really have to do this now don’t we?! So it was almost more about paying for it. This was a very independent production. It looks expensive, but it was really shoestring to be perfectly frank and the music was almost a third of the whole budget and that’s really not normal. So it took a lot of heavy lifting and very clever and tenacious producing to make it work.”
The radio station hold up that partly inspired the screenplay, was that something that actually happened or is that more of an urban myth?
“It’s a little bit of both. The story itself is an urban myth, but the origin story is real. There was a young troubled fan in Denver, Colorado, who wanted to take the station hostage to make them play The Smiths. He was actually sitting in a parking lot in his car with a bag of Smith tapes, and a rifle, but before anything happened instead of just going home and not doing anything about it, he turned himself into the police and he got taken into custody. It made the papers, but it was a little time story. He wanted to hear The Smiths on the radio, because at that time unless you had a cool college radio station in your town you never heard great alternative music on the airwaves. That story has kind of blossomed into this myth of a big standoff, which I have heard is the inspiration for the movie Airheads, but we wanted to get right down into The Smith’s aspect of it, since it was really inspired by The Smiths. That became the inciting incident and I had been toying with a little 80s story of my own based on me and my friends growing up in a small town. I had really strong characters, but I didn’t really have much of a story for them. So I just moved them to Denver on that day and we had a movie.”
What’s your own history with The Smiths, can you can you remember first discovering them?
“When I was at high school in the 80s there was a great college station in our town, WKKL, and I heard a song being played on it that just blew me away, and I didn’t know who it was by. I even tried to call the station to ask them, but it was busy or no one was picking up. I found out later that it was How Soon Is Now by The Smiths, because by chance I ended up buying the 12 inch on an impulse at the record store in the mall, which had a tiny import section. It had a great record cover, but I didn’t know what it was. Then lo and behold, when I put the record on it was like, oh my God, it’s that song! It was like a message from another world or something. It really changed everything and I got so into them. I was just at that point in my teenage years where music was everything. People today might not understand how tribal music was back then. We didn’t have access to as much of it as we do today because you had to purchase it physically in a store and wait for the next release. The music you listened to really defined you and it defined your peer group. It was like a badge you wore.”
One thing that the film conveys really well is that sense of the power that music can have when we really connect to it, and it can make us feel seen and validated; the idea that someone else is going through exactly the same thing that we are and articulating those feelings for us.
“Yes, and it’s a total sense memory thing, it’s going to take you right back to that place when you hear it again, and despite what might have been going on in the world and in your life, that nostalgia feels like a safer place in some kind of way. With The Smiths specifically and just in general, for anybody who held a band close to them at a certain age, especially in those formative years, it really becomes such a unifying experience with you and your friends. It’s all about that shared experience and empathy, especially at that time for a group of kids who felt like outsiders. For a kid growing up queer in the 80s, when you didn’t have a lot of guidance and role models and there was a lot of confusion and fear about it, you could really find solace in this music; it was a comfort, it was protection, it was validation, and it celebrated otherness in a very mysterious and unique way. It sort of gave you a sense of pride and a sense of purpose and definition in the world. It was like armor, it protected you. Am I gay? Am I goth? What am I? It kind of gave you that alternative identity that was really inspired by and supported by the music you listened to.”
The film’s queer characters are interesting because they’re not ready to embrace their identities or they don’t quite know who they are yet. Why were you interested in exploring characters at that stage in their lives?
“The story is very personal, it was me and my friends, and I kind of fractured myself a little bit into all these characters. I was a kid that worked at a record store, but I was also that little Morrissey wannabe wearing thrift store clothes and trying to figure out my sexuality. I think it speaks to a specific time when the music you listened to gave you kind of a cover. If it was a little too dangerous to be out or to reveal yourself, you could be a freak and kind of cloak yourself in the music and the culture and the style of a band. That became a kind of tribal identity. I wanted to play with that character who is just at the very edge of figuring himself out. There’s that thing where everyone around you knows before you do.”
“I didn’t come out until college, so high school was still a kind of searching place where I started exploring myself, maybe from the outside in. It was like, I can start wearing a certain kind of clothing and I might start to hang out with different kinds of people. The music starts to give you a different idea about what you can be and how you can express yourself, so that was important. The Patrick character is very much that kid, whereas you have other characters like bi Brian who is somebody we all knew in high school, who I was in awe of thinking, oh my God, this guy is so much more advanced and lives in another world that I can never reach. It was like you were looking through a plate glass window at something shiny and amazing that you couldn’t quite access. The Billy character is kind of based on a friend of mine who years later started exploring his gender identity. It might not be fully obvious in the film, but that character is different to the Patrick character in that he’s not really questioning his sexuality so much just his actual being.”
I loved how the songs were used and the way the dialogue incorporates some of The Smiths’ lyrics. How did you go about striking the right balance of not overdoing it with the characters quoting the songs?
“Oh, we totally over did it! But that’s kind of what we did ourselves. I have a friend who still emails me with song lyrics, and we can go back and forth for 20 minutes, it’s kind of ridiculous! The lyrics themselves were all pilfered from other sources and that was how The Smiths built their songs. Almost the half of the first album is Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. Talent borrows, genius steals, and The Smiths’ songs are all stitched together from references and lines and lyrics from movies and music and plays and literature. So there’s one level where we’re just quoting The Smiths lyrics, but then I decided to go to the sources and steal from them as well, so Billy’s got some lines from Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, and there’s a little sprinkling of Oscar Wilde in there, and there’s definitely some Shelagh Delaney.”
“There are song lyrics from bands that The Smiths were friends with too. Morrissey’s best friend Linder Sterling had a band called Ludas, so look out for some Ludas lyrics in there. It’s kind of ridiculous. I mean there are so many Easter eggs, and it gets super nerdy super fast, but that was kind of the fun of it, assigning different literary modes to different characters. Morrissey stole a bunch of stuff from Middlemarch for example and so there’s some of that in there, it’s a total patchwork but it’s integrated so really the whole thing becomes this musical meta-fiction. It’s quotes-within-quotes, played straight sometimes but with a theatricality to it. Then of course the songs are very much written into the story. Each of the songs reflects the story and the story reflects the songs. Everything was really stitched together as if we were making a musical, I thought about it in those terms. I grew up with a real musical theatre mom so we had that kind of storytelling as a foundation for our lives in a lot of ways. It’s the musical jukebox method, but I wanted it to be really integrated.”
The scene set in the gay bar towards the end of the film must have been fun to shoot.
“Oh God, we had so much fun doing that! Such great extras in it. We have a vicar in a tutu in there, so there are even visual clues and references to The Smiths’ world. That was us in real life back then. Oh, it’s after hours, can we sneak into the gay bar on the wrong side of the tracks? Yes, and we did it! We’d dance our faces off and then somehow stumble into school the next day.”
As it is based on you and your group of friends growing up in the 80s, what kind of vibe did you want to create by putting this great cast together?
“The cast, I swear to God, came together and fell apart at least three times over the course of trying to make this film, but I am really psyched with this current cast, they’re all just fantastic. It took a long time to put them together, but the casting directors, Amber Horn and Danielle Aufiero, did a really brilliant job. Joe Manganiello was attached first, really early on, and stuck by it through thick and thin, then the kids all came together naturally. We thought, wouldn’t be cool if Ellar Coltrane wanted to do this, and lo and behold he wanted to do it. Then Helena Howard showed up at the last minute and she had just appeared in Madeline’s Madeline and reviewers were talking about her like she was the second coming of Gena Rowlands, which is always a good thing in my book. Some of the kids didn’t really know the band, but she was raised by a New Wave mom and her mom’s gay best friend essentially her queer uncle, had followed The Smiths around on tour in England. When he sadly passed away when she was younger he left her some stuff including his Smiths’ tour program for the Meat is Murder tour. She actually brought that to set one day and it was like a holy relic! So there was a deep emotional connection to the story and the music that really comes through, especially for her, but the whole cast is just genius I think; Elena Kampouris, James Bloor, Nick Krause, the whole bunch of them. We were so blessed.”
How did you go about capturing a sense of the 80s on screen?
“You see a lot of 80s things that seem inspired by the 80s, but I’m always like, wait in the 80s we weren’t inspired by the 80s, we were living the 80s which had remnants of the 70s all over the place and a little bit of the late 60s. The Smiths aesthetic itself is very much based on movies from the 50s and imagery from the 50s and 60s, so those were our cultural and stylistic references more than what the 80s looked like. The real vibe was something a lot older, which I think gave it a very specific and unique tone. We banned the colour pink. This is not the neon 80s. This isn’t a Nagel print, this is something totally different.”
By James Kleinmann
Stephen Kijak’s Shoplifters of the World will be in theaters, on demand and on digital Friday March 26th 2021.