Girls It Ain't Easy: An Interview with Allison Anders

The filmmaker of GAS FOOD LODGING fondly remembers her landmark American indie

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Honey Cone’s “Girls It Ain’t Easy” pings off the streets of Echo Park, CA throughout Allison Anders’ Mi Vida Loca (1993), an underappreciated gem of 1990s American cinema. The heartache emanating from that song helps explain why the film’s strong young women feel especially determined to transcend bad decisions made by their male counterparts.

Men are never the focus of Anders’ films, but the burdens they place on women are another story. Lasting impacts of infidelity, parental failure, sexual abuse, and misguided masculinity can be found in nearly all of the filmmaker’s feature work. Instead of painting these conflicts as definitive or tragically all-consuming, Anders weaves them into empathetic portraits of female relationships and friendships in transition. As a result, her best films become spaces for complex women to come of age, no matter their age, and not on anyone else’s terms but their own.

In Border Radio (1987), the no-budget punk rock road movie Anders co-directed with fellow UCLA classmates Kurt Voss and Dean Lent, a rock journalist named Luanna (Luanna Anders) is consumed with frustration by the tantrums and lies of the self-indulgent men in her life. Only the possibility of complete emotional freedom keeps her from going insane.

Things get even more entangled in Mi Vida Loca, a perspective-shifting fable about the tumultuous lifelong friendship between two “Locas”, Sad Girl (Angel Aviles) and Mousie (Seidy Lopez), whose bond is tested because of their shared affection for local drug dealer Ernesto (Jacob Vargas). It is one of the most singular depictions of pragmatic emotional compromise I can remember seeing onscreen.

At its very core, the musical Grace of My Heart (1996) discovers just how much sacrifice women will endure not to disrupt patriarchal norms. And that silent suffering comes full circle in Things Behind The Sun (2001), an early DV film about an alcoholic musician named Shery (Kim Dickens) who finally begins to grapple with the trauma of being raped as a child.

Still, no other film personifies the mixture of free-spirited joy and deep melancholy that defines Anders’ work quite like Gas Food Lodging (1992), which not only made her industry bona fide but helped launch a new movement of personal American independent filmmaking. This dusty, windswept character study tells the story of Shade (Fairuza Balk), a movie-obsessed wayward teen who lives with her older sister Trudie (Ione Skye) and waitress mother Nora (Brooke Adams) in a dead-end New Mexico desert town.

They are a family at a crossroads, each woman being pulled into multiple directions by men who are dreamers but not necessarily the most stable companions. Shade thinks her family troubles will be squashed if she can only get Nora a new husband, but happy endings like that don’t even happen in the Mexican melodramas she watches in the town’s empty movie palace. So why would they in real life?

All three lead characters meet love interests that complicate their lives, but Gas Food Lodging is more concerned with their interpersonal connections and disappointments; how stubborn resistance to change is met with an equally powerful appreciation for magical new experiences; and why people enter and exit your life with such alarming speed. Within that context, Nora, Shade, and Trudi flounder and flourish together and separately, but so it goes. Nevertheless, Anders always instills a sense of hope that no single conclusion, epiphany, or romantic interlude will completely define who they are as people. There’s always another daydream to chase, and the pursuit itself is everything.

Allison Anders spoke with me via Zoom in May at the height of the national lockdown to discuss Gas Food Lodging, personal filmmaking, and some exciting career plans for life after COVID-19.

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GLENN HEATH JR.: What are your fondest memories of making Gas Food Lodging?

ALLISON ANDERS: I’ll never forget arriving in New Mexico and waking up in the morning a few days away from the beginning of production. I walked out on my motel balcony, which was nothing fancy, and looking out and seeing all these trucks, and realizing, this was my production. This was a real movie, something massive. Since then, having worked on big-budget TV shows, that size shoot is not such a big deal. But coming from working on Paris, Texas with Wim Wenders and making Border Radio, where we were our own guerilla filmmaking team, seeing all the equipment and people in one place was staggering.

I also remember how much support and guidance I received from the crew even though I was a relatively new filmmaker. They were so respectful. I was working with supportive producers who had no doubt in their mind that it was my movie and that I was going to make the creative choices. That happened every step of the way. They really took care of me in a way that’s very difficult to imagine nowadays, and I feel sad for young filmmakers that have never experienced that kind of creative situation.  

We were trained at UCLA to work independently, and the idea of anybody else controlling anything creative was preposterous. Luckily, my producers at Cineville were like that as well. They wanted something personal, and low and behold, none of us knew that there was going to be this movement of films that would require a personal vision. When I look back on that now I feel completely blessed.

I remember how there were critics at that time anticipating this film movement that we didn’t even know we were apart of yet. They were singling out these films and telling readers to pay attention. We also had theaters that would let these films screen for weeks and months to build word of mouth, so it was a really special environment from which Gas Food Lodging was born. Without that, I don’t know how it would be made now.  

GHJ: What is it about small-town life that feels so cinematic?

AA: It’s funny because the source novel and first draft of the script were both set in Chicago, which would have made it a totally different movie. When I first came on board, the producers kept telling me they wanted to change the setting to New Mexico. They actually tasked me with finding a small town to film it in. I liked that idea, but one day I asked them why we were making the change. And they said, “because we just want to go there.” I couldn’t believe that was their main reason!

New Mexico is many, many things. A lot of the terrain is otherworldly and beautiful, which I knew wasn’t going to work for this project. It needed to have a feeling of being stuck, like my hometown, Ashland, Kentucky. I needed it to be small, a place you don’t even notice from the interstate. As a massive road tripper, I’m constantly thinking about these towns, the people who live there, their stories.

When we found Demming, I knew it was going to be perfect. It had the small-town feel, the desert vibe, and landscapes, but it also had the mysterious hidden beauty which was required. It couldn’t be obviously beautiful. It had to be someplace where you could make the discovery. What continuously compels me about small towns is this idea of home, this feeling that we want to get out of here, but are also aching to return. That’s the dilemma I went through personally, and it’s what Shade experiences as well. When you do return, that version of home is no longer there. But you find other types of magic in those spaces. That’s what was most compelling to me.

GHJ: How did your own experiences growing up in Kentucky influence the experiences Shade goes through at this point in her life.

AA: To know everybody and to be known in a small town is kind of incredible. To be able to walk into a movie theater and sit there all day, that was really how I experienced my hometown. I could walk to the movie theater at seven-years-old and stay there all day and watch double features repeat. We could walk to the roller rink. It was that sense of independence that defined the experience, and I brought that certain kind of background to Shade. Small town life also traps you though. I never even thought about what Shade would become in the future, because at that point it didn’t matter. I just knew she had to open herself up to true love, but it’s not really about finding a man. Just finding that sense of self.

GHJ: Very rarely do we see role models for women on screen. Why was this an important motif for you?

AA: I always had really strong female role models, whether they were in the movies or in real life. When I was young, I didn’t even know female directors existed, or even what a director did. But I had women who I was compelled by. When I was a little girl I was really into Bette Davis movies. I would watch them with my grandmother. I liked her because she was tough but also vulnerable. Sometimes she’d have to split in two, like in A Stolen Life (1946).

As a teenager, I had a lot of female role models in the arts. Isadora Duncan, the actress Hilary Thompson, and Grace Slick just to name a few. So I had these role models for myself, women who personified a spirit of what I wanted to be. Isadora Duncan specifically was a complete road map for what a woman could become. She had a rough life but carved her own path. It was important for me to explore Shade’s relationships through this lens. I felt that each of the characters needed a spiritual guide.

GHJ: What about Elvia Rivero, the fictional cinematic icon Shade adores in Gas Food Lodging? Who was she based on?

AA: This is the funny thing, that character wasn’t in the book or first script. Virtually nothing from those source materials is in the film. I knew that in a small desert town in New Mexico, there could be Latino films playing, people going to see old Mexican films in this old town. That could work. So I created this goddess, Elvia Rivero, for Shade. But Elvia Rivero in real life was the woman who owned the apartment where I lived in Echo Park. For 10 months I couldn’t pay the rent. And finally, I got my first writing job and paid her all at once. So I asked her, Elvia, why didn’t you throw my ass out on the street? And she said, “Oh no Allison, I couldn’t do that because I knew someday you’d get a job and pay me back.”

At that point, I knew I had to pay tribute to her in some way. But there’s certainly a lot of exquisite Mexican actresses that I adore, and Elvia became a mix of all of them. Some American actresses too. Ingrid Bergman to a certain extent. This kind of longing and passion. I often wanted to make my own Elvia Rivero movie [laughs].

GHJ: Music plays such an important role in your films. What were you trying to convey with the music in Gas Food Lodging?

AA: It was tricky. I knew I needed a dusty, deserty soundtrack, and probably working on the set of Paris, Texas, influenced my choices. But I ended up with a very different rock score than Ry Cooder’s. But I also needed those Elvia Rivero movies to have that classic movie feel. So J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr. did the main score. My daughter Tiffany, who was 16 at the time, recommended I listen to his music. And Barry Adamson did the score for the Elvia Rivero movies. So they have a different feel to them both. And then it was just fun to find other music outside of that to put in the film, source cues like with “Magic” by Olivia Newton-John. When I listened to that song, it really is about romantic love, so I thought it could work. Although the Olivia Newton-John version is not the one in the movie. We did a sound alike.

GHJ: Gas Food Lodging premiere at the 1992 Sundance Film Festival and helped launch its release. How do you see the role of film festivals helping young filmmakers nowadays?

AA: I think film festivals are more fun when they aren’t markets. But in terms of Sundance, the week before I went to the festival with Gas Food Lodging, I was at the Sundance Insititute workshopping Mi Vida Loca. Sundance for me has always been a tremendous support system, and supporting filmmakers has always been their goal. That’s never changed.  But they always needed celebrities at that festival. Hell, they need them at every festival, now more than ever. You need some way to put asses in seats. Some kind of draw, a star or the director.

So I had been in this wonderful environment at the Institute, and then I went to the festival itself. One of my advisors warned me, it’s going to blow your mind putting your movie out there. And he was right. It was really intense. But very important things happened to me at that festival. I met the love of my life, we sold the movie. We didn’t win anything, unfortunately, but I congratulated all the winners. I met Quentin Tarantino. It was lifechanging, mind-blowing stuff. But it was a market already.

I went back time and time again. I sold Sugar Town there. Being there on the jury was an amazing experience. The last time I went I was there as a guest to my daughter who was going for a film she worked on. So I offered myself up to Sundance if they needed me to do anything while I was there.  

But while watching my daughter’s film, I began to realize it was probably the last time the filmmakers and audiences see it on the big screen. It made me think about my situation back in the day. I was of the last generation that shot on film, cut on film, and fully expected to have their work seen in a movie theater on film. That is long gone for young filmmakers. Interference is so much easier nowadays for people to meddle in your stuff. I still love regional film festivals because you can watch other people’s movies and enjoy them without the business side getting in the way. When there’s not the industry pressure you can focus on watching these other films and having that experience. It’s also so fun for filmmakers.

GHJ: At one point in Gas Food Lodging, Shade says, “I’m afraid of not having any daydreams left.” It really struck me. The power of movies is imagining the possibility of your future. So how are your daydreams these days? Any future feature film projects on the horizon?

AA: It’s so funny you should ask me that at this time. My biggest daydream right now is to be with my grandchildren again, but the pandemic has made that impossible for the moment. Career-wise, I’m back working with my Cineville partners again. We’re hoping to finally make our film Paul is Dead, which I wrote right after Mi Vida Loca. We tried to make it back then. We had the financing and then it fell apart. So now we’re going to try and make that one. But what that means in terms of the future I have no idea. We don’t know how far out of production we are, but I’m excited about getting back into personal storytelling after directing television for so long. It’s not nearly as rewarding as personal filmmaking. But that’s whole other interview altogether [laughs].

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Where to Watch

Gas Food Lodging can be rented on Amazon VOD.

Border Radio and Things Behind The Sun can be viewed via The Criterion Channel.

Mi Vida Loca can be viewed for free on YouTube.

Grace of My Heart can be rented on Amazon VOD.

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Until next time,

GHJ