First, the facts: ^ I hated the hyper-sentimental “Terms of Endearment”. ^ I loathed the painfully weepy “Kramer Vs. Kramer”. ^ I recently shunned the tearful excesses of “This is My Life”. ^ That’s right, I don’t generally like “family dramas.”
However, writer/director Allison Anders’ debut feature “Gas, Food, Lodging” is something different. Bleached by the Southwestern sun, this blunt and biting look at a shattered family’s struggle to survive everyday life in Nowheresville, New Mexico, is not only inspired and entertaining, but accessible to thick-headed louts like myself.
While single mom Nora (Brooke Adams) hoofs tables at the Pull-Off Plaza diner and yearns for someone special, her daughters Trudi (Ione Skye) and Shade (Fairuza Balk) investigate their growing independence and sexuality – culminating in the kind of edgy realism that eluded the aforementioned films. With the three coping in their claustrophobic, trailer park/small town world, little problems mount (such as running out of tampons an all woman household), the larger ones (like a psyche-scarring gang rape) linger under the surface, alternately erupting in the funniest, saddest and best truck stop drama since Martin Scorsese’s “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”.
Anders (self-described as “completely available”) hails from the hills of Kentucky and breathlessly admits that that’s her own life up there on the screen. But unlike the film’s characters, she managed to escapes her rural confines. As a frustrated juvenile delinquent, Anders hitchhiked her way toward dreams that she never quite reached, ending up in foster homes, jail and, finally, England, where she had the first of her two children.
Returning stateside, Anders gravitated toward Los Angeles, where she defied the single mother stereotype by entering both the over-hyped UCLA film program and the local post-punk music subculture – scraping her way financially by waiting tables. One result of this cross media pollination was the 1989 indie feature “Border Radio,” a bent look at fringe music co-written/directed by Dean Lent and Film Threat contributor Kurt Voss and starring L.A. rockers John Doe of X and Dave Alvin of The Blasters.
The recipient of several prestigious (and lucrative) screenwriting awards, Anders was approached to direct a film based on the obscure late-1960s novel “Don’t Look Back and it Won’t Hurt”. She immediately recognized the story as the chance to come to terms with her own life as a single mom, injecting pieces of her personal history and reworking it into “Gas, Food, Lodging”.
Very open and funny, Anders is instantly approachable. After an impromptu chat about her numerous tattoos, each of which she happily displayed and explained, we sprawled out on the floor of her funky office for a quick interview.
[ What’s the problem with men? ] ^ All the good ones are taken, which is a real problem when you get older. I’m past thirty-five, so now I figure anyone is . . .(laughs loudly) It’s funny, when I see someone ‘age appropriate,’ you know, probably has a job and can drink (laughs), I inevitably have to watch him get into his car to make sure there isn’t a baby seat back there or some Pampers – always a dead give away. Sure enough, he’s a new father or wants to have kids. Well, I’ve already done that, I did that when I was a teenager. I also think there’s a lot of sexual repression going on right now in our culture, and, quite frankly, I think AIDS is only a small part of it. People are just looking for an excuse because they’re afraid of making their own rules. I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage lately, which I’ve never done, and wondered, why do people do that? I’m always asking people, why did you decide on marriage? What did you promise each other? These people are taking the same vows they used six hundred years ago, and it’s not like it worked then! Men were bring syphilis home to their wives, so it’s not like this ever worked. I amazes me how many of my friends are shocked by the idea of raising a child alone. It’s like, ‘Oh, no way!’ But I know most of them won’t be in that family unit for long. I give them six or seven years, max, for most families or marriages these days. I mean, if a women wants to have kids, why shouldn’t she just do it and not bring on all that other baggage? The legal and social baggage?
[ The film’s three main characters, Nora, Trudi and Shade are essentially the same woman at different points in her life. How are they like you at those different ages? ] ^ Well, I’m still like every single one of those characters, including the men in the film. I think Nora has a kind of bitterness that I don’t have so much of.
[ Because you found a way out of that situation? ] ^ That’s really true, I kind of avoided her fate, but I think I also still have a sort of adolescent hopefulness that she’s lost. I haven’t quite grown up yet. There were points when I acted out the way Trudi does, in a “bad girl” kind of way, but the Shade character is how I still feel. More introspective and optimistic. So I guess I’ve gone through it all backwards.
[ All three of then are sexually ambitious, but not on a sleazy way, which is pretty unusual in a movie these days. ] ^ I wanted them to have a good time. In the book, Nora wasn’t sexual at all, but that was written a while ago, in the late 60’s, so that was one of the first things to go when I wrote the script. I wanted her to get laid! (Laughs) I thought that was important, I always wanted to show women as aggressive, but not in some male kind of a way. Not in a “stalking” “Sea of Love” way. I also wanted to show, in the sex scenes, that women don’t always “get off.” I mean, the guy can be a nice guy, it’s not a sign that he’s an a*****e or something because he didn’t give her thirty orgasms. Women in films always seem so orgasmic to me and I find it pretty ridiculous. I suppose it might be because most directors are men and in some ways they’re that guy in bed. So I really wanted to show a scene in which a women has a good time and enjoys herself sexually without flailing around. It’s just not that way the first time you’re with a guy.
[ Shade was alternately an innocent and a sort of seductress. She was caught in between being a little girl and a woman. Was there a fine line you had to follow so far as her budding sexuality was concerned? ] ^ You know, Fairuza (Balk) and I did that together. I thought the Shade character was capable of putting on the sexy clothes and doing whatever it takes to get her man, she was able to be somebody else and act out that role. But Fairuza was the one who thought Shade should take on this Marilyn Monroe attitude and get really sultry when she had to. So we just tried to keep it within the boundaries by having her retain that sort of ‘Oh, am I hurting your leg?’ awkwardness and tension. Fairuza kept it innocent.
[ Trudi is a victim of sexual abuse who reacts by becoming selflessly promiscuous. She even apologizes to one guy for not having sex on the first date because she was too tired. How did you develop that character with Ione Skye? ] ^ We talked a lot about sexual abuse and what that kind of violation did to Trudi, what she expects from men, what her hopes are and how everything inevitably backfires on her. Ione was really excited to play an angry “bad girl,” and I think we finally did a twist on it by giving some reason for her acting out instead of just saying there are “good girls” and there are “bad girls.” The fact is, there are girls who have had a safe environment to explore their sexuality and there are those who haven’t, and as a result they don’t have any boundaries. But Ione went all out, she got the hair, the porcelain nails and really went for it. Actually, the hardest scene for her was when she had to call Javier (Trudi’s boyfriend, excellently played by Jacob Vargas.) a “wetback.” After each take she just apologized all over herself. But that was Trudi’s character; she’s been violated so she’s going to violate everyone else.
[ Not to blow the films for everyone, but what about the fact that Trudi decides to give her baby for adoption? ] ^ I really wanted to explore the three choices for women: you keep the baby, you have an abortion or you give the baby up. What Trudi does is the one thing I have never done, because I always thought that would be the hardest choice, to adopt the baby out. Now, Brooke (Adams) has a child that she adopted herself, so I have seen the other side of that experience is a really good one. Her daughter is amazing and they have an amazing relationship. But also, Trudi wanted out of that town, she didn’t belong there, and the baby was one way for her to get out. She was hoping that someone would come along and help her escape, but it turned out that it was this pregnancy that did it. People think that’s such an easy solution, especially in this climate right now with all the pro-lifers and such, but I don’t see that it’s easy at all.
[ What about the male characters in the film? ] ^ They are all my own invention, especially Dank (played by Rob Knepper), the English character who comes into Trudi’s life. I have a thing for English guys I guess, I’ve had a few in my past. (Laughs) In the book he was supposed to be this draft dodger, remember this was written in ’68, so I had to change that. I had to give him reason him to be this transitory guy, but I didn’t want him to be your typical writer or musician. It was really driving me crazy trying to come up with something unique for him to be, so I went to this club to sort the whole thing out. I get there, and of course I run into every man who had rejected me in my life – all my old boyfriends just happened to be there at once. Of course they were really happy to see me, but all I could think was, ‘Am I in Hell or what?’ I couldn’t have gotten a worse kick in the face, but there was one guy who was there, who I think I had dated when I was seventeen, who started telling me what he had been up to lately – collecting these day-glo rocks. He started describing the colors and the desert and it just clicked into place that Dank should be this strange guy who searches for these rocks. It was also a very visual thing that could be used cinematically. So through all the misery, I found that character. The other male characters are more like archetypes, representing different choices that the three women could make. This is a really hard time for men, because now they are expected to nurturing and sensitive as well as everything else. That must feel very weird for a large part of the time.
[ What do you think will be the biggest misconception over this film, will it be seen exclusively as a “women’s film.” ] ^ That doesn’t bother me because I figure chicks will bring their guys to see it. And once most men have seen it, they’re happy because they aren’t portrayed as “bad guys,” they aren’t attacked or maligned. It’s just that women were the center of this film, as they will be in my next, but I just want to make films about people, so we’ll just see where that takes me.
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