Irish director David Caffrey and writer Jeremy Drysdale, writer, have come up with an engaging black comedy in Grand Theft Parsons. They talk to Matt Arnoldi.
In GRAND THEFT PARSONS, Jackass star Johnny Knoxville plays Phil Kaufman, road manager to legendary Country Folk musician Gram Parsons. The film, based on a true story, begins as Parsons dies. Kaufman and Parsons, we learn, had made a pact. Kaufman agreed that if Parsons should die before he did, he would take his body and cremate it under the shadow of the Joshua Tree. To do that, Kaufman has to steal the musician's dead body from a mortuary and get it out to the Joshua Tree in the Southern California desert, a difficult task but promises are promises.
Johnny Knoxville has recently completed several films, including John Waters' A Dirty Shame, Kevin Bray's Walking Tall opposite The Rock, and Thomas Bezucha's Hating Her, with Donald Sutherland and Blythe Danner.
Christina Applegate (Wonderland and the forthcoming Surviving Xmas) plays Parsons' fictitious ex-girlfriend, while Marley Shelton (Pleasantville) plays Kaufman's love interest. Robert Forster (Jackie Brown, Charlie's Angels 2) and Michael Shannon (8 Mile, Bad Boys 2) also play significant roles.
The film gained the approval of Gram Parsons' estate and Kaufman agreed to act as an associate producer. Naturally the film has a memorable soundtrack including tracks by Gram Parsons & Emmylou Harris, Bruce Springsteen, Primal Scream and Starsailor.
Speaking first to director David Caffrey last November (when the film was being screened in the London Film Festival), I wondered what appealed to him first about a project like this? “I loved the fact that it was a true story,’ Caffrey explains, ‘I was really surprised it hadn’t been told before and I loved the character of Charlie Kaufman, he really appealed to me.”
Caffrey hit it off with writer Jeremy Drysdale and Drysdale then set off to try and persuade Kaufman to allow them the purchase the rights on the true story (no mean feat in itself), before tackling the script.
Kaufman was initially less than pleased with Drysdale’s telephone approach to try and buy the rights to the story for instance, and insisted Drysdale fly out to see him in Nashville (following in the footsteps of 60-70 producers who have tried unsuccessfully to do the same thing). 80% didn’t even make the journey to Nashville – Kaufman put them down as timewasters. The other 20% got rejected.
Drysdale flew out and booked a 3-day stay and relays the story. “I went over there for 3 days and so he had to put up with me for 3 days badgering him about it, so I gradually wore him down! I’m some bloke from Surrey, my record wasn’t that impressive at the time, so it was tricky, but I managed to persuade him in the end!”
Writer Jeremy Drysdale’s leading challenge in coming up with the script, was he admits, in his own words, ‘not to screw up what was a great story’. The father figure in the film played by Robert Forster didn’t carry out the things he did in the film (Gram Parsons’ real father died when he was very young) and Gram’s stepfather wanted him buried in New Orleans, but Drysdale went through the process of reinventing Parson’s father to provide the audience’s point of view. “He’s pivotal to our movie,’ explains Jeremy, ‘because he goes along with Kaufman’s desires and if he goes along with them, then audiences will too.”
When Caffrey’s first choice for the lead, Hugh Jackman, had to bow out due to pressures of other films he was contracted to, Johnny Knoxville became a sound choice in place of him, and Caffrey was pleased with his input. “He’s solid, muses David, ‘we found with him playing opposite Michael Shannon, they compliment each other really well.”
Luckily Caffrey and Drysdale have found the right line with Grand Theft Parsons, managing to extract humour out of the film but not turn it into some sort of black comedy farce.
“It was important that this didn’t become a chase movie,’ continues Jeremy, ‘you want it to be funny, but you don’t want it to come across merely as some sort of crazy coffin caper. There’s far more to it than that. Its about true friendship for a start.”
Caffrey was also aware of this and reveals that was something he too, was keen to veer away from.
“Yes we could have ended up with Wacky Races, jokes David, ‘but then the coffin would have ended up as a comic device, when the real significance is that it contains this legend, this great musician, Gram Parsons inside. I like the fact that we treated the story with respect and I’m pleased Kaufman approves of it. The one silly bit we did let in was letting Knoxville scratch his nuts at one point. I needed him to be doing something and I just thought he’s a regular guy, he’s got nothing else he could be doing at this point, so right now he’d probably scratch his nuts! Johnny was very flexible with all the problems we put him under and he certainly didn’t hesitate when I asked him to do it, but that was the only bit of slapstick we let slip through!”
Grand Theft Parsons opens on March 19th.
Grand Theft Parsons will be released by Redbus Film Distribution on March 19 2004.