The Swarm

June 25, 2012

The Daily Swarm Interview: Gil Reyes, Director of 'Searching for Elliott Smith,' Talks About His Eight-Year Project...

Michael Mercer

Gil Reyes directed and funded the documentary Searching for Elliott Smith. The film has not been slated for commercial release yet, but the director has offered screenings in Los Angeles with another in Denver soon (info can be found on the film’s website). In the film, Reyes examines the artist’s life and work through various interviews and archival footage.

The story of Elliott Smith’s life and the morose, intricate beauty of his music – and certainly the circumstances surrounding his death – couldn’t be better fit for a documentary. His story may have ended tragically, but he left a legacy of timeless music to be enjoyed for generations to come. Sadly, the breadth of that great body of work can get overshadowed by the dark circumstances surrounding his death. Fans, close friends and Smith’s family have been beset by the unanswered questions surrounding the artist’s early demise.

At the core of these unanswered questions? Smith’s fiancée/manager at time of his death: Jennifer Chiba.

Chiba was the only person there when Smith stabbed himself in the heart – twice. Chiba claims she pulled the knife from his chest. Smith died two hours later after being rushed to a hospital in Los Angeles. Many people close to Smith immediately pointed the finger her way – they were living together at the time and Chiba claimed that he injured himself while she was in the bathroom (none of this has been proven). This is where Reyes’ direction of the film shines; perhaps it took a person who wasn’t a diehard fan of Smith’s to tell this story. I got a chance to ask Gil Reyes some questions about the film, and with so much controversy surrounding Smith’s death all these years later, I figured we’d get into some territory never before explored in public.

Michael Mercer: You told me you were not a big Elliott Smith fan before you made this film, but that you became a bigger fan after getting involved in the telling of the story. Why did you embark on this particular story in the first place?

Gil Reyes: It was a combination of things.

When I began the project I’d already been working in TV news for years already, mainly as a writer and reporter. Your job is to condense sometimes complex stories into 30— to 45-second scripts for the anchors – or minute and a half packages if I voiced the story myself. I loved my job, but for once I wanted to tell a story that was completely my own, independent from my supervisors at work.

So it was October 2003, another celebrity had died in Los Angeles, but he wasn’t a household name. An Oscar-nominated musician who, the press reported, took his own life in nearby Echo Park. I had seen Elliott Smith perform on TV at the Oscars a few years earlier, but aside from that I never really listened or knew who he was. From what I gathered, his death deeply impacted a lot of people in L.A., particularly the music and arts communities of Echo Park and Silverlake, not to mention fans worldwide. Elliott was not only a respected musician, he was beloved. He gave money to the homeless, helped out struggling musicians and even started a foundation for abused children.

Local print media mentioned his death, but L.A.‘s television press did not. Why would they? Wildfires raged in Southern California that week so TV had bigger breaking news to cover. Also, Elliott was obscure compared to other big name stars, and TV news usually didn’t cover suicides.

Two months later, the L.A. Weekly updated Elliott’s story. It reported that the L.A. County Coroner couldn’t determine for sure if his death was suicide or homicide. Based on that the L.A.P.D. decided to keep the case open. Though police are no longer actively investigating, the case remains technically “open” to this day.

In Los Angeles TV news, where celebrities and homicides often lead the newscast, Elliott’s story now seemed worthy of at least a 30-second script… at least that’s what I thought. But still, TV news wasn’t covering. So I decided to cover Elliott on my own.

Public radio station KCRW began playing songs from his upcoming Basement on the Hill album. I bought the CD and was hooked, eventually buying his other solo albums and his Heatmiser stuff. What began as listening for research became listening for pure enjoyment. His songs cut pretty deep emotionally. Listening to Elliott was like talking through problems with an old friend, even though I never met him. I got an intimate sense of his good natured but troubled soul through his songs. The complexity of his lyrics was also supported by the simplicity of lo-fi recording equipment, especially in his early work.

I wanted all that reflected in the tone of my documentary, but I did not want to voice the story. It would be told entirely by the people who knew him best without any reporter narration at all. In TV news it’s called a “nat sound” piece.

Before I started, three friends around my age also died tragically. The last one took his own life. So my project allowed me to talk to others who experienced what I experienced, the idea of young death. Or that time in your life when you start realizing friends around your age can die or have died, and people’s reactions to that. Looking back, it was really cathartic for me to pursue.

MM: You made the hard choice to include Jennifer Chiba, risking the blessing of Smith’s family for the film and the rights to use his music. I salute you for chasing the story, but do you regret making this move?

GR: I don’t regret including Jennifer Chiba.

I felt it was only fair that she be allowed to speak her mind about Elliott and the controversy surrounding his death. I also thought people can listen to Elliott’s amazing music anytime, but to get Chiba’s account about what happened was unprecedented. That’s when I realized making rock docs can be tricky, especially if the deceased artist’s family owns the music. To get their permission, they have to like or approve of your project. In my opinion, this can compromise a filmmaker’s need to stay impartial.

The executor of Elliott’s estate, a family member, was originally open to my project. This person requested a rough cut as soon as it was ready, and also said it was important to mention the L.A.P.D.‘s open investigation in the film. I totally agreed. But when I later told the executor I secured a Chiba interview, she said no music would be allowed if Chiba was included. I asked why. The executor stopped communicating with me after that.

I ended up applying fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted materials so long as the clips are commented on or critiqued. In the film critiques came from Elliott’s friends who collaborated with him on these works. I had an entertainment lawyer look through the edits. Where I needed longer music clips my brother Vinnie composed original music.

I could’ve excluded Chiba while mentioning the open investigation like the executor asked, but I don’t think that would’ve been fair to Chiba, especially since she wanted to respond. Or I could’ve totally swept Elliott’s death under the rug, which wouldn’t be right either. It happened. I wasn’t going to pretend it didn’t.

I also invited Elliott’s family, the L.A.P.D., and the L.A. County Coroner officials to appear on camera. And though I communicated with reps from each group either by phone or email, they all declined requests for on-camera interviews.

MM: You got a great deal of feedback from people in Smith’s life, from one of his high school teachers to Gus Van Sant. How did you choose who to include and who to leave out?

GR: I originally got a lot of rejections for interviews when I attempted to start in Los Angeles. Elliott had just passed away and everyone was still grieving. Then came all the buzz about possible homicide, and it seemed no one local wanted to speak up. I was ready to quit, until I got responses from some of Elliott’s crew in Portland, Oregon. So I started there.

The Portland people agreed to participate in waves, not all at once. Two years later I made a rough cut with mainly just them. I showed it to some of the L.A. people and they eventually agreed to help. I told everyone we’d only cover topics they’d feel comfortable sharing. And if questions became too tough to answer, we’d simply move on to another topic or stop the interview. So it really surprised me that people opened up like they did.

MM: How long did this film process take? Do you feel ready for an official release at this point?

GR: We began filming in August 2005. Before that, I’d spent six months to a year researching. This included tracking down contacts and requesting interviews. Also, reading and listening to everything I could find on Elliott.

Looking back, from a professional standpoint, that’s how research should be: when it doesn’t seem like work, because you truly enjoy being immersed in it. I think I also got into Elliott’s music because I was dealing with my own loss and it became a great diversion. I read one quote on his memorial wall on Sunset Boulevard once. Something like: “It’s more than just music. It’s like medicine.” I agree. His songs helped me cope with personal issues a little better.

The documentary became a work in progress. After one person agreed to be interviewed, then another person did, and so on. In 2009, we debuted a completed rough cut at the CMJ Film Festival in New York. Since then, we’ve tweaked the film a bit in between screenings across the U.S. and in South America. I think it’s finally finished.

As far as a DVD or online release date, I really don’t know. I’m not in any rush. There’s really no need to release it yet, especially since film festivals are still requesting. We’re also still benefitting from this sort of cool, underground buzz. I love the idea of screening in theaters/art houses in communities that support independent music and film. And then to be able to visit these neighborhoods, and meet like-minded people cool enough to buy a ticket – it’s really a great feeling.

Logan Crow, the director at Long Beach Cinematheque, originated the idea of having local musicians play Elliott covers before screenings. Not only do they gain some local exposure, they also contribute to an all around better program by showcasing their talents, all in honor of Elliott. The plan worked out really well in Minneapolis, and we plan to do it again in Denver this summer. We’re really excited about Denver. We’re screening at The Oriental Theater in July and our headlining musical guest will be Mary Lou Lord. She’s a respected indie folk singer who was very close to Elliott. She also appears in our film.

MM: If you could change anything about the film, what would it be?

GR: I wish Elliott was still around. Other than that, I wish authorities could’ve reached a definite conclusion about his case so we could include it. The only person alive who truly knows what happened the day Elliott died is Jennifer Chiba. At this point, I have no reason to doubt her story.

Here’s something interesting that’s not brought up in the film. I mentioned three friends of mine who died tragically before starting production, but since I met Chiba in 2007 three people I met through her have also died tragically. These were her friends. Two of them took their own lives. The last one died two months ago from a drug overdose. All of them were young, smart and good-looking. I don’t know. It’s just weird. And again, like Elliott, such a waste.

Do tragedies like this attract certain types of people? Is Chiba’s background as a mental health professional and former patient the reason? If I had explored this in the film, it would be less about Elliott, so I’m glad I didn’t. Still, I thought the coincidences were too weird not to mention. That’s a lot of grief to carry around, and that’s just from the few years I’ve known her.

I also wish Elliott’s family participated in the film. Also, authorities to speak on camera and on the record about the case. Beside that, I’m satisfied with the film.

MM: Have you guys thought about the commercial release yet? Are you looking for a Netflix/Hulu debut or shooting higher, like HBO?

GR: We don’t have plans for a commercial release yet. One really big company had approached us early, thought about us for months, but eventually rejected us. I’m not really concerned, though.

I could distribute the film myself. My co-producer Robert Manciero did that with his last film and recommends it, but that could also take take too much time and too many trips to the post office. Other distributors have requested I pay for their service. They seemed nice enough, but right now I think I want to avoid paying anyone. I could also wait until the L.A.P.D. officially rules on the case so we can update the story. But a conclusion may never happen according to one source.

I didn’t make this film for the money. I did it because I wanted to make something cool, independent and respectful.

It’s about about an artist I came to admire. Both as a musician and a person.

Click Here