By Kory Grow
“Have you been here before?” David Byrne asks, his eyes widening as he sits in a conference room inside the Criterion Collection’s New York office. It’s like Willy Wonka’s factory for film buffs. Behind him are posters for classic films like Milos Forman’s Black Peter and Federico Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits, printed in their original languages. To his right, there’s a bookshelf filled with multiple volumes of defunct cinephile magazines from England. “I love the film library and all the stuff they do,” he says. “They have an editing suite where they do their bonus features. I still kind of feel in awe of how much they do and how well they do it.”
He’s here, dressed in a lime-green, long-sleeved shirt and white pants and sipping from a Rolling Stone 50 mug — because as of this week True Stories, the movie he released in 1986, joins the ranks of Forman and Fellini with a souped-up Criterion edition being released on DVD and Blu-Ray on November 27th. It features remastered video and audio, several making-of docs, a soundtrack album, deleted scenes and reproductions of some of the tabloid stories that inspired the story and new essays about its importance. “It’s very nice,” he says, beaming.
True Stories was Byrne’s quirky take on small-town America, set in the folksy, fictional Texas town of Virgil as it ramped up to a sesquicentennial festival (the “Celebration of Specialness”). The director himself played the narrator; a pre-Roseanne John Goodman, monologist Spalding Gray and gospel singer Pops Staples, among others, portrayed eccentric, larger-than-life characters inspired by the stories from the Weekly World News. There’s the singing weekend cowboy, the bedridden millionaire, the voodoo faith healer, the conspiracy theorist and the over-the-top preacher.
They all sing whimsical songs that Byrne wrote especially for the film, with the soundtrack ultimately turning into the Talking Heads’ penultimate album. Highlights from the movie include the lip-sync contest to “Wild Wild Life” and the music video-cum-TV commercial “Love for Sale.” It all ends with a talent show with auctioneers, music, lassoing and other unique displays of Americana. “I sensed there was a lot of unappreciated creativity in flyover states,” he says, in regards to why he wanted to make the film. “It’s very vibrant and eccentric and a lot of fun there. I still feel that way now about that part of the country.”
What strikes you when you watch True Stories now?
[Laughs]. I can’t look at it with an objective eye. I see the mistakes, where I feel like, “Oh, that’s a little forced,” or, “That lyric could have been better.” I’m looking at it with a critical eye.
At the same time, I feel like it pretty much holds up. It’s funny how everything the movie talks about — the way the computer industry and landscapes of cities and towns are all changing — are still happening and have been going on since the movie was made. So it’s nice to see that it doesn’t seem that dated.
One thing that has changed though is that you can no longer say, “Shopping malls are the new town squares,” as you do in the movie.
I don’t know if that was my original idea. But yes, it seemed like the shopping malls were hollowing out the local town square and main streets. People were going to the malls and Walmarts and big-box stores instead of the main streets, and now the malls are being repurposed as homeless shelters, incubators and who knows what else.
Your big inspiration for the movie was reading headlines in tabloids. Were you mostly reading Weekly World News at the time?
Yeah, they were all from Weekly World News. They weren’t really in the [National] Enquirer. They seemed to be the kind of thing that Buzzfeed might do now, where they take a legitimate human-interest news story and give it a more interesting title and they would catch your eye. I just kept those.
How did you turn those into a script?
I didn’t start with stories; I started with images. I started with a big wall full of drawings and images, and I would order and reorder them until there would be a flow to them. It was pictures of people singing, drawings of their Texas landscape. As my wife and I were collecting the Weekly World News, I was grabbing articles and going, “Well, maybe one of the people could be this. Maybe one of the people in the drawings could be this person.” And it slowly evolved into having a through-line, even if it’s not a conventional narrative.
What made you want to go into filmmaking? Was it working with Jonathan Demme on the Talking Heads’ concert film, Stop Making Sense?
I’d directed some of the band’s videos and those did fairly well. It was at a time when MTV was fairly new and they were hungry for content. Unless it was incredibly bad or obscene, they would start playing it almost immediately. So that was exciting. And just like music, you got to throw your visual ideas in front of the public and see what worked [with film].
Working with Jonathan on Stop Making Sense was great because he was a director but he was very generous in that he invited us into the editing suite, I think, partly for practical reasons. We knew the show, so we would say, “Oh, [percussionist] Steve Scales comes in right here. That’s the shot you need to go to.” Or, “The girls, Lynn and Ednah, are whipping their hair dance right there. That’s what you want to see.” Maybe we helped make things go a little bit faster than him and the editor tediously looking at anything.
Working with Jonathan got me over my fear of playing in the big sandbox. A lot of my videos were shot on 16-millimeter, so 35 millimeters seemed like a grown-up medium at the time. I was fascinated by how movies were made, technically, and how editing worked. So after working with him, I thought, “Well, time to try it.” And of course I wanted to do something that was different than what was out there. I thought, “I don’t follow the rules of music, so I’m not gonna try and make a conventional movie. I’m gonna see if I can make something that, similar to the music I do, can reach a public on its own terms.”
You said you wanted to showcase creativity in the middle of the country and that you still feel that way now. Did you have a lot of time on the road in which you were take in the culture of the flyover states?
I’d get out a little bit. It was before I started biking around every town I went through. More often, friends would say, “Well, David, come on, there’s something really cool you should go see. We’ll take you.” So when there was time, we made a little field trip to see it.
Let’s talk about your cast. You got John Goodman, Pops Staples and Spalding Gray together in a film. What was it like working with them?
[Laughs]. They were all great, but what was interesting and sometimes challenging is that they all came from very different worlds. Some were non-actors and some were actors, like Spalding, who came from a theater culture that was very different from conventional movies. So it was interesting to put them all together and see how the different sensibilities would fit.
John Goodman was so good [laughs]. Every take was just perfect, but he was very self-critical. He, himself, felt that his performances were never quite as good as he wanted them to be. Now I wonder, “Did I not compliment him enough?” But no, I don’t think so.
What about Pops Staples?
Acting was a new thing for Pops Staples. Of course, I’m a fan of him and the Staples Singers, so that was an honor for me. He wanted to make sure that his character — which was a healer — was a positive force in the community and not some kind of satanic spell caster.
I also brought in a whole bunch of people from, I guess, the [New York City] downtown performing arts scene, whether it was Spalding or Meredith Monk to choreograph the opening and the melody the girl sings at the beginning. I’m still a big fan of a lot of fairly experimental theater, so I wanted to bring that into the mainstream a little bit more, too.
How did the movie tie in with the music?
The songs were all written for the movie. Once I had the characters and scene sketched out, visually, I knew what their points of view would be. So I would write a song for Talking Heads to provide the backing track for the characters to sing. While we were mixing Little Creatures in the control room, we rehearsed and recorded the backing tracks for the True Stories material, which would be mixed later. The overdubs would be done in Texas.
The songs were really written for the characters, for the scenes they appeared in. That was the first time I’d written songs from a character’s point of view before, but it was an attempt to jump in and make it not just a character, but a scene and a moment that the character is going through.
Was it easy to get the band interested in recording music for the movie, since it was more your thing?
[Laughs]. I think they indulged me. The fact that we had Little Creatures under our belts, I think they felt good about True Stories, so they would indulge me in doing the songs for the movie. They liked the songs, but I think they could see this was, you know, a “David project.” I think they might have sensed that I was going to be deep in the film world, on location and this stuff for a while, so the fact that these recordings were all lined up meant there would be stuff coming out to the public even while I was in Texas.
Was this project the start of you wanting to do your own thing without the band?
I haven’t kept track, but I’d already done things. I did a record the record with Eno and a dance score called Catherine Wheel. I might have done some other things, too, so I was already playing around with working with other people doing music for other outlets.
The band must have been happy you were able to use some of the film in the band’s music videos, like for “Wild Wild Life.”
Oh, yeah. “Wild Wild Life” and “Love for Sale” are basically just clipped out of the movie. That was intentional. I thought, “Oh, if there’s going to be a band record, we’re going to need some videos, and there they are.”
What inspired the “Wild Wild Life” sequence, which you set at a lip-sync contest? Had you gone to a club where people did that?
I can’t remember if karaoke clubs existed yet. I don’t know if there was such a thing as a lip-sync contest. I might have heard about it and imagined it.
Did Billy Idol or Prince ever comment on the lookalikes you used for them in that?
[Laughs] No, and I met Billy Idol recently. Prince never said anything. I think he said something about my guitar playing, but I don’t think he ever said anything about the funny stuff in the movie. Obviously he was doing movies at the same time, as well.
While we’re on the topic of music, there’s a line that John Goodman’s character, Lewis, says in the mall, “Like the song says, ‘It’s a scientific lifestyle.'”
“What’s that song?” He just made it up [laughs].
Was that an ad-lib?
No, no, no, no. That was written. It was a red herring. It’s a reference to a song that doesn’t exist.
The movie says a lot about advertising — such as the “Love for Sale” sequence — and you parodied ad placement.
We had to clear all that stuff. It was a lot.
Did Pepsi or any of the other brands pay you for that?
No, and we had to use the shots that didn’t have the brand visible in a lot of it, so you just see, like, chocolate pouring down or the bubbles — food-product shots. I think part of it was Talking Heads was fairly successful by that point, so I was thinking, “Are we becoming a brand?” and “How are we going to be packaged as a consumable item? Are we being marketed and all these things that seemed suspect? So what if we do a thing where the band is really a product and turned into chocolate bars?”
That had to be fun to film. I’m sure you didn’t get actual chocolate syrup poured on you.
No, it was an oil-drilling product. I don’t know. They said it wasn’t toxic. It was a big tub of this brown goo that we got dropped into. I don’t think fracking existed at the time, but it was used by the oil industry.
Have you ever considered making another film?
Oh, yeah. I did a documentary afterwards in Brazil [Îlé Aiyé]. It was a one-hour piece on Candomblé, which is a kind of Afro-Brazilian religion, so I spent a fair amount of time there immersing myself in that.
I tried a number of times to get another film made, but I think I got seduced by the idea that you can get other people [producers] to pay for the development — but then they have their own ideas about what it could be and you get turned a certain way. With True Stories, I did most of it myself until it got enough momentum to go to producers and production people and say, “This is what it wants to be.” It gave me added respect for the directors and people who manage to steer their concepts and ideas through all of that. But who knows, one day. It’s possible to make things for less money know than it was then. But with the Internet and everything, it’s harder to get attention.
Didn’t Talking Heads pay for Stop Making Sense yourselves?
We eventually got the money from Warner Records and then made a distribution deal and paid Warner Records back. At the time, Talking Heads was doing quite well and the record company thought a concert film was an OK investment; it didn’t seem crazy. Now it would be impossible to do, unless it’s Beyoncé or somebody. Nobody would put up that kind of money for a concert film.
When True Stories is done, and “The End,” shows up on screen, you included text at the bottom that said, “If you can think of it, it exists somewhere.” Was that your guiding idea with the film?
I think it was just one of the things I might have written down at some point. It might be something I said after seeing so much stuff in Texas and all the things people were doing.
Were you happy with the way the film was received?
The reaction and appreciation in Europe was closer to what I intended the film to be. You could point out things that are strange and wacky, but you can still love them. In the U.S., it was taken to be ironic and critical, a New Yorker looking down his nose at the simple wacky people in the heartland, which is not what I intended. To that extent, if that’s what came across, that would mean it would be a failure. But I would like to think that some of that interpretation was people projecting what they assumed was my intention on it. They looked at me and Talking Heads and my background and being in New York, all that stuff, and I think they assumed, “Oh, he can’t be really serious here. He can’t really like these people.” I think that’s changed now. Texans love it.