It crept up on us, but Los Angeles Arts Society's June 7th screening of Shin Godzilla at The Frida Cinema is now barely a week away! As such, we've been busy with organizing and promoting it before that Friday comes rolling around, but I've still made time to reflect on True Stories, the subject of our last event.
The first and only feature-length film to be directed by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, it's about as different from Shin Godzilla as you can get. With quirky narration, gentle humor, and a rocking soundtrack, it was screaming for the LA Arts Society treatment, and as part of that treatment, we were able to get an amazing guest to talk about it. No less than Stephen Tobolowsky, the film's screenwriter and a veteran actor best known as Ned "Needle Nose" Ryerson from Groundhog Day, came on out to talk about the film as well as sign copies of his new book My Adventures with God and merchandise afterwards. It was exciting enough that we scored such a high-profile guest, but it was downright thrilling when it turned out that our excitement percolated over to our guests as well!
We ended up with around 70 people for the event, which, while maybe not exactly The Beatles playing Shea Stadium (or Talking Heads playing Pantages Theatre, to stay more on message), is pretty impressive for a Wednesday night. Going in, my partner Alex and I were a bit worried when Stephen first asked for that specific date, as we figured most people wouldn’t be inclined to come out on a weeknight for a film as unconventional as True Stories. But it turned out to be a risk well worth taking, as we brought in what had to be the biggest crowd at the Frida on a Wednesday in some time.
Given several guests’ comments that watching it was a staple of their childhood, it’s safe to say that we underestimated the cult appeal of True Stories. While roughly half the crowd was made up of veteran Talking Heads fans who were pretty familiar with both the movie and David Byrne, the other half was curious, younger people ready to learn about the film and the eccentric musician who directed it. This neat mix of the initiated and the uninitiated was perfectly illustrated by two of our guests, a son who heard about our event and invited his Talking Heads-loving dad to join him. One might say that it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to bring different kinds of people together!
In contrast to Godzilla, I actually got to see a decent chunk of what we were playing. I stepped in to see the intro and had to tear myself away before I ended up watching the whole film. I had already seen the movie twice, but there was simply no way that could prepare me for seeing and hearing the combination of Byrne’s voice, Meredith Monk’s “Road Song”, and the intro’s stock footage on the big screen. I was also lucky enough to catch the “Hey Now” scene, which remained just as enigmatically endearing as when I first saw it. The audience’s reaction - or lack thereof, rather - added to the beauty of the moment, with their rapt silence as the song and scene came and went underscoring the singular wonder it evoked.
As far as prints go, the DCP we used looked superb. The video had a very crisp appearance and the colors popped where they needed to. Lest anyone question my objectivity on the matter, I wasn’t the only one who was impressed by the quality of the print: when Stephen first entered the theater to check the movie out, he came out saying that it looked better than the print he saw at a recent screening in San Francisco. By remarkable coincidence, Ed Godziszewski (one of our guests at our Godzilla screening) made a similar remark about the print we used for that film, making this the second time a guest has favorably compared the quality of our movie prints to those they had seen at other events.
Speaking of Stephen, he and his wife Ann arrived a bit after the film started, but this turned out to be for the best. With our 70-strong crowd already inside the theater, it gave our guests time to set up and get situated in peace. Stephen was positively awe-struck by the Frida, taking off to admire the wall mural and explore. What surprised me most however was how much he enjoyed the movie, with him disappearing inside the theater to watch it throughout the night. I kind of just figured that he had watched and been asked about it so many times that he never wanted to see it again. Instead, he was completely captivated by it, explaining that watching it again took him back to all the places and memories he got to see and experience while working on it.
This enthusiasm carried right over into the Q&A, and thank goodness too! Even though I prepared my questions in advance, I was still nervous about the prospect of interviewing “Needle Nose” Ned himself before a live audience. Thankfully though, he went right into the story of how he met David Byrne when I asked him how he got involved with True Stories, which led into the story of how the song “Radiohead” was inspired by him telling Byrne of his past experiences hearing “tones” (that is, psychic vibrations that he claimed would reveal information about people he met.)
It was at this point that I realized it was going to be an easy Q&A session for me: Stephen was a seasoned storyteller and more than capable of keeping the show rolling. Like I did with Manny Pacheco at our Forgotten Hollywood event, I could simply throw a question out when Stephen (rarely, mind you) ran out of steam and it would send him chugging right along again. I even ended up ceding moderating duties for a good chunk of the program, allowing him to call on people since he seemed to be able to spot them faster than I could.
His other projects like Californication, Memento, and yes, Groundhog Day all came up, but people were especially interested in hearing about the tones. One guest asked if he ever read tones for David Byrne, Bill Murray, and Christopher Nolan, to which he replied no and added that he was afraid to imagine what Byrne’s tones would say. Interestingly, the band's bassist Tina Weymouth once claimed that psychic friends of hers used to say that they couldn’t read Byrne due to a “firewall” around him. Perhaps we can put them in touch with Stephen and then they can exchange notes about the mystery that is the mind of David Byrne.
The signing was a quick but happy affair. Although I was excited about getting the chance to have Stephen sign my copy of his first book, The Dangerous Animals Club, I found myself worrying again that the crowd might not share my excitement since his books and other merchandise weren’t directly related to True Stories. Yet, once again, these worries turned out to be unfounded since the crowd assembled themselves into a line as they exited the theater and eagerly awaited their turn with our guest of honor. People bought books, DVDs of his live performances, and even took selfies with him. What really stood out to me however was the sheer joy that our guests exuded as they met and chatted with Stephen, a sentiment that he reciprocated heartily and honestly.
I wouldn't call it an intimate event like Forgotten Hollywood (indeed, it would be hard to with as many people as we had), but there was an overall warmth that made it a very memorable night. The film's strangely sentimental weirdness, Stephen's frank but funny storytelling, and the crowd's enthusiastic appreciation for both made it feel like we were one big happy family enjoying an evening together.
On that note, I would like to thank the members of our True Stories family: everyone who came out for this event, all the volunteers who made it happen, and Alex for helping coordinate and direct it. Additionally, I would like to extend a very special thanks to Stephen and Ann for spending the night with us as well as the Frida for once again providing us with an excellent space for these kind of programs. With Shin Godzilla coming right up, LA Arts Society is sure to be in for another wild, wild night like this one!
Photos by Alex Martinez, Reggie Peralta, and Cecilia Peralta
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