Director Brendan Toller on his Documentary Danny Says
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You might think that you don't know Danny Fields, but if you're interested in rock music history, and more specifically, New York rock music history, then you must. Fields was a key figure, helping guide The Ramones, Iggy Pop, and others as they rose in popularity. We spoke to Brendan Toller, the director of Danny Says, about documenting the life of a crucial figure in rock music's storied past.
How did you start making documentaries?
I got into documentary filmmaking because I see it as writing for the 21st century. I love music a lot, and I’m always super interested in the stories behind, and the stories in front of our faces. I just think documentary filmmaking is an emerging form that is really exciting in terms of narrative, in terms of archive, and approach.
Your newest film, Danny Says, strikes me as a perfect use of the form. You've got this guy who was heavily involved in the music scene, you've got lots of archival images, audio... It really does seem like the best way to introduce pivotal, but overlooked figures.
The language of cinema, and form of cinema certainly lends its abilities to having an audience member really engage and get within the music. In Danny Says we are using a lot of archival components, about 60% of the film is from Danny Fields’ archive, and what a lot of that is, is unseen pictures and documents. The revelation for viewers, I think, is the tape recorded phone conversations, like Lou Reed talking about listening to the Ramones for the first time, phone calls with Iggy Pop from 1968 on—you really get a sense of the time and place and cadence of how people talked and interacted with one another. We’re super lucky that Danny did that. It was a Warhol thing, sort of brought to the surface by Bridgid Berlin, who was really into forms of instantaneous—whether it be her polaroids or recorded phone conversations—she was a pioneer in that sense.
How did Danny record all these phone conversations?
Danny would take a makeshift phone tap that you could buy at Radioshack in the late ’60s. It was like a suction cup that would stick to the end of the receiver and it would get both ends of the conversation. Danny has probably two or three hundred of these, from 1968 to, I dunno, 1979. He just had them inventoried, sitting in boxes. I went through them and digitized them for three years while I was scanning pictures and negatives.
What was his plan for those?
Danny Fields never threw anything away, which is a gift and burden to any documentary filmmaker. I think it was just for him—he knew that these were priceless materials and that a lot of the people on them were important to culture in the latter half of the 20th century. That they should be preserved. Thankfully the cassettes survived, I did spend a good deal of time patching up certain ones with scotch tape, but I don’t think there was an overall grand scheme or plan when he was recording them in 1968. I think he just thought, oh maybe 20 years from now this will be a hoot to listen to, and a lot of them are.
I can’t imagine living in that era and thinking it would be good to save that stuff. It seems like something you have to consider the implications and reasons for. It positions Danny as a documentarian himself.
He certainly had the foresight to document others and to document his own life, you can see that combing through his archive: the thousands of pictures of The Ramones from day one, when he signed on as manager; to Iggy Pop performing live with The Stooges at Max’s Kansas City, or intimate pictures of Danny in Connecticut as a personal assistant to Steve Paul the manager of Johnny and Edgar Winter. He really had a keen sense that—I think the elements in his archives are sort of keepsakes, memories of people. He has the photos, he has the papers, he has all that.
It is documentation, and it does shore up who he is and his life, but I think it was more the memory of these people and preserving, "Oh what a beautiful person," "Oh what a beautiful time of day," more than it was, "Hey look at me!" Danny has always been motivated to be around crazy, fabulous people and also been motivated to have friends, so for him to snap a photo of somebody—that, for him, is about capturing that particular moment in reference to his life. But these elements as an archive certainly work both ways and help the visual narrative tableau of Danny Says in a huge way. I don’t expect people to come into the film knowing who Danny Fields is, and it seems that audience members who never knew who he was are like, how could I have not known about this guy?
In that sense he’s the dream subject for a documentary.
It’s the old cliche: good documentary subject is something that sort of grazes upon major points in civilization or culture, and also a subject that nobody knows about. It’s hard to find, and I lucked out. I met him early on, while I was making my first film, I Need That Record, and we became friends, and then I just plain asked if he would do a documentary and he graciously said yes.
Before you did that, did you know who he was?
If you’re a rock'n'roll fanatic like I am, there’s books that you would come across: Please Kill Me, Edie, No One Here Gets Out Alive—littered across all these books, there’s this guy Danny Fields, and I would always sort of think, like, this can’t be the same guy...stealing Tiffany crystal at Harvard with Edie [Sedgwick], the same guy who is publicist to The Doors, the same guy who discovered and managed The Ramones for the first five years...there was just no way. When you meet him it’s like, Oh actually it is the same guy. He was lead by his brilliance and instinct to be at the right place at the right time, so many times.
The meeting happened, and oddly enough, it’s a Kevin Bacon connection sort of. The girlfriend I was dating at the time, a great photographer, Ariel Rosenblum—her grandmother, who is related to Kevin Bacon, was like, "Oh, you should meet this guy Danny Fields, I go to the ballet and play Backgammon with him." I was like, "Oh, I don’t know much about this guy, and I don’t know much about The Ramones, and I love The Stooges." I was sort of nervous. We went went to interview him for I Need That Record, and he was so fascinating that we didn’t even get to talk record stores. I had no idea he was the one that broke John Lennon’s “we’re more popular than jesus” quote in America, which is a documentary unto itself. Never mind the guy that discovered Iggy Pop, chased Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers...like I said, he was always on the forefront.
What struck you about him as an ideal documentary subject?
I think it’s his ability to create context, whether that be for just a person in general, or an artist, or even in his own storytelling, he has a great way of shaping and framing a subject. The stories are there—in Danny Says they are really vivid, really descriptive. He’s really ironic and funny with words, and I think a lot of the storytelling, people are saying, is unpretentious, because it’s not about him and it’s not about sizing himself up. It’s really a behind the scenes look at how a context was created for these freak artists. In Danny’s oeuvre, if you look at them all, there were not bidding wars for these artists, there were not other rock'n'roll record executives going and chasing Iggy Pop when he was in the union student ballroom wearing a maternity dress with face paint playing a vacuum. or Joey Ramone, seven feet tall, wearing a leather jacket and doing these songs that were just unheard of at the time. Danny created the argument for these artists to exist, and why they’re important. The amazing thing about that is he turned out to have been right. These bands are the American alternative underground, and every modern band owes a great debt to their sound.
You once mentioned that music writer Greil Marcus said to you that he “only knows Danny Fields by myth.” What does that mean to you?
It makes total sense because Danny Fields has been behind the scenes for the past 50 to 60 years, and it’s not that he’s a puppet master. There’s no one real thing that defines him. He sort of went through his life and put his stamp on certain things and came in when it was absolutely vital to support the artist, whether it be Patty Smith or Iggy Pop or Joey Ramone or Nico. I think Greil also says that, because, like I was saying before, his story is littered all over rock'n'roll, and there is this guy that seems to be at all these seminal moments, and you just can’t believe that it’s one guy. Yet until this documentary there’s been no memoir, there’s been no resume, there’s been no ultimate summation of what he did for culture at large.
The artists that appear in this film seem to be participating out of genuine love and appreciation for Danny Fields.
I think he’s somebody who doesn’t want to come off as self important. I think he wants to be the meddling Puck character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sort of undefinable, behind the scenes, sprinkling fairy dust here and there to make magic happen. What we found interviewing all his friends and associates is that he was more pivotal than we could have ever known. Not just pivotal, but pivotal early on in inspiring confidence in people like Lenny Kaye or Jonathan Richman or Iggy Pop. That’s really important for artists, and I don’t know that that is something that artists get these days. I think a lot of people try and stray away from the fan talk, but fabulous people always need to be reminded of their fabulosity. I think Danny was a mirror for a lot of people, to show them, like, hey, you’re great. When you hear that, it makes you want to do even greater things. When it’s coming from a guy like Danny Fields, who is brilliant and can tell you why it’s important, that shores it all up and gives you faith in yourself. There were plenty of people that were tired of doing interviews about the glory days, and at the end of the interview they would say, "you know, I did the interview because Danny’s never really gotten his due." Not that that’s what a documentary is supposed to do at all, but I think this documentary is really important as a another perspective on some legendary times that we all think have been rehashed a thousand times.
It seems like being famous himself, or even being publicly in close proximity to fame wasn't what primarily interested Danny.
So many people, especially today, are defined by their roles. For him, there weren’t jobs, there were roles. He says this in the movie. Jobs, for him, were something that could be replaced by a machine, and a role is a little more undefined, a little bit more complicated. I think if people could walk away from this movie and step away from that title identification—like, "Oh I have this great job, that’s who I am." No, you are who you are, and your actions and your words and how you interact with people—I think that, for Danny was much more his life than being the editor of 16 Magazine, which comes with his day-to-day responsibilities, but because of who Danny Fields is, and his vision and his brilliance, his years from that magazine are pretty wild from what we know of it. Trying to shift the minds of young teen music fans, and shift the culture is super interesting to me.
I think the idea of the fan is underappreciated. Danny was always interested in what he liked and furthering that in the world. That’s what mattered to him. I think that’s missing from culture today. There’s more of a complaining attitude of how things are, and if people were champions of what they did like maybe things would change for the better.