A film ten years in the making, filmmaker Stephen Kijak was steadfast in taking this small-town urban myth and adding his love of music and cinematic flair and making the indie film, Shoplifters of the World. This movie is the emotional peeling of an onion - with The Smiths seemingly abruptly breaking up, friendships coming to a close, dashed with estranged familial relationships – it’s nice to have a fitting soundtrack to match the innocence and obscurity that is adolescence.
Written and directed by Stephen Kijak (We Are X, Stones in Exile, Backstreet Boys: Show 'Em What You're Made Of), Shoplifters of the World stars Helena Howard (Amazon’s "The Wilds," Madeline's Madeline), Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood, Showtime's "The Good Lord Bird"), Elena Kampouris (Children of the Corn, “Sacred Lies”), Nick Krause (Boyhood, The Descendants), James Bloor (Nat Geo’s “Barkskins”), with Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911!,” Night at the Museum) and Joe Manganiello (HBO’s “True Blood," Magic Mike, Archenemy).
In the Summer of 1987, four friends, reeling from the sudden break-up of the iconic British band The Smiths, embark on a night out of partying to mourn their musical loss. At the same time, an impassioned Smiths fan takes a local radio DJ hostage at gunpoint and forces him to play nothing but Smiths tracks. With the radio station playing as the soundtrack to their night, the friends go on a wild journey of self-discovery that will transform them forever. Featuring an incredible soundtrack – including 20 songs from The Smiths – Shoplifters of the World is a glorious ode to the craziness of the ‘80s and the power of music to change people’s lives.
Kijak has been directing fiction and non-fiction films for over 20 years, mostly working with music and musicians as his subject. His credits include the critically acclaimed BAFTA-nominated feature doc SCOTT WALKER – 30 CENTURY MAN (executive produced by David Bowie), the celebrated cult documentary CINEMANIA, and the platinum-selling STONES IN EXILE, a documentary commissioned by The Rolling Stones, and produced by two-time Oscar-winning producer John Battsek/Passion Pictures which premiered as a Special Screening in the 2010 Directors Fortnight in Cannes. In 2012, he teamed with Passion Pictures again and Rob Trujillo from Metallica (making his debut as a film producer) on a feature doc about the late, great legend of the electric bass, Jaco Pastorius.
January 2015 saw the release of a feature documentary Stephen directed for PULSE Films about the biggest-selling boy band of all time, called BACKSTREET BOYS: SHOW ‘EM WHAT YOU’RE MADE OF. The film broke iTunes pre-sale records and was a massive fan-favorite the world over.
Kijak’s other collaborations with Passion Pictures include WE ARE X, a documentary about the rock band X Japan, the most successful band in Japanese history making a play for American success with a show at Madison Square Garden. That film had its world premiere in the World Documentary Competition of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival where it was awarded a Special Jury Award for Editing.
That was followed by IF I LEAVE HERE TOMORROW: A FILM ABOUT LYNYRD SKYNYRD which premiered at SXSW 2018 and won the Music Movies Competition at the 42nd Cleveland International Film Festival prior to its debut on Showtime. SID & JUDY, another Passion Pictures production tells the intimate story of Judy Garland’s relationship with her 3rd husband Sid Luft and debuted on Showtime in October 2019.
Recently Kijak acted as director and showrunner of EQUAL, a 4-part documentary series for HBO Max which debuted in October 2020. Produced by Scout Productions, Jim Parsons and Greg Berlanti, EQUAL tells the stories of the LGBTQ rights movement in the years leading up to the 1969 Stonewall Uprising and the very first pride marches.
Having seen many of Stephen Kijak’s documentaries on legendary musicians like Jaco Pastorious and The Rolling Stones, it was nice to see how he was able to combine both a narrative storyline with documentary qualities, without ever wavering from the heart of the story. Stephen shares incredible insight on how to be an effective communicator on set, using music as a basis for character development and his writing process of literally putting pen to paper.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Your primary background is as a documentary filmmaker, on the music side. How did that world of storytelling inform how you approach narrative storytelling, especially with this story, which also revolves around the music of The Smiths?
Stephen Kijak : Well, honestly, in a way, my background and my education was more in narrative. So, I've found that the narrative impulse really influenced the documentaries, more than anything. And combined with a love and a focus on music kind of became like the driving aesthetic for the music films. It wasn't necessarily about being documentary, it was more, I probably sound like a broken record, but they're like, to me, they’re like cinematic mixtapes. It's about curation. To know the feel and the rhythm and like how music tells the story. The music and the creative process of whatever artist I happen to be dealing with, I try to find the tools and the keys for the filmmaking. In that process, you know, the artist and the music inform the making of the film, as opposed to like, imposing something on it. I always wanted it to come from the music and have that be an emotional and narrative driver, kind of just a natural progression really. And you know we slip a little Smith's documentary into the cut, which is a nice nod to my other work. But also I think helps ground the world that we're creating, which is so specific to a band and a time.
Sadie: How you interweave those two, where you bring in the archival footage into the film and storyline, but it doesn't take away from it, it actually helps progress the story development and your characters, which I thought was very well done.
I read an article that this event may or may not be true, about a man holding a radio jockey hostage in a Colorado radio station. What initially drew you to this event or idea and how that story unfolded?
Stephen: Well, it was more about the event. It just created the perfect structure and perfect shape, really, for film. I kind of developed a bunch of characters I was going to try to write an AIDS movie with my friends - we worked in a supermarket over one summer in my old town and, you know this girl came to town from Boston, like the big city, and had like cool clothes and a bisexual best friend and all these awesome new wave records had just turned our lives upside down, and I was just spinning my wheels [to] crack the story.
And then, Lorianne Hall, who's got the story credit on his film who grew up in Denver, talked to me about this urban myth, which as a big Smith's fan I was amazed I had not heard about it. That was the lightbulb moment right, “Aha,” I moved my kids from Cape Cod to Denver, and there we have it, we have a film. And then we went about just breaking the story from there.
Sadie: Yeah. Music defines a generation, I think, and definitely, certain bands can have such a big effect on your life, when you're going through your adolescence, in a way it helps carve your identity.
While creating these characters, did you use any specific songs from that album that the single “Shoplifters of the World Unite” is on for character development or did you have other songs that were unique to a character? Like, this song belongs to Dee? And this song belongs to Cleo?
Stephen: Sometimes, absolutely yeah. Sometimes there was stuff already hinted at in the treatment and then it just kind of naturally sort of happened during the writing process, because they weren't like my band, so you have access to the lyrics and the songs. It’s really like at the tip of your mind as you're writing so they easily, like, “Oh that's perfect for this.” “That's perfect that,” or just, you know, I want this kind of a feeling and a tempo. Like, the “The Queen Is Dead” being the first thing that comes out of the radio, I needed to have that thing or you know like that absolutely had to be that moment, like when Cleo falls down at the booth and is kind of posing like the character on the album cover. Trying to create all these threads and connections. But, yeah, sometimes it was really just for the feel of the scene and the tempo and the tone of it, but they speak to each other, the songs speak to the scenes and vice versa, there's lots of careful planning.
Sadie: While writing the script, did you have a very specific playlist that you played in the background while setting the mood and tone for the story?
Stephen: I didn't. I need total peace and quiet to write. It would be more like testing the scene against the song after the fact. You know, I mean, like kind of playing it and reading along and seeing if it's like it's too long. Is it too short? Does it feel right? Does this give it the right atmosphere? You know, like, “I Know It’s Over” I love how that sits in that scene with Cleo and Billy. It's melancholy, it's melodramatic, it kind of speaks to her inner life at the time. It just so happened that Helena wasn’t feeling great that day, [she] was kind of struggling through some of the scenes and was so fragile at that moment. And, you know, the tears are real, I think maybe she managed maybe two or three times that it was really raw, and it was, it was so beautiful. And you think, this is a perfect song for this, it's just kismet, some of it just worked really beautifully.
Sadie: Being a documentary filmmaker you can get those moments that are raw. Now working as a narrative director, with actors, is there any difference or similarities capturing those moments?
Stephen: Well yeah, I mean, ironically, I don't do a huge amount of verité kind of stuff. We are actually following musicians and rehearsals and I think where it comes to me, the skill set with this, I really love conducting interviews. You have to be really attentive to your subject, and it's a dialogue and there's manipulation involved, and you're trying to lead people and get reactions and surprise them, create naturalism in it. Especially when dealing with rock stars and you know, I interview a lot of musicians who will have the same answers prepared, the same stories over and over and over and over and over and over again. [laughs] Because they get interviewed so much. They have a calcified myth and how they describe things. And you try to get under that and break it, and crack it and find new ways in, so it was more like that, I think, having had that experience.
And this was a lot more freeing, and in a lot of ways, kind of easier because you've got these really talented people who have brought something to it themselves, they're bringing [to] their characters. They've done their work. And so, it really was about just doing what I do on the doc, creating that atmosphere of comfort and trust, and then just being a guide.
We actually developed a really basic music-based direction system. I would tell them either more treble or more bass, and like that was our shorthand. [laughs] “You’re too trebly, I needed to be more bass.” “OK, got it.” So, it was like toning their emotional resonance or something. It just became really simple, and they were all like, “No one's ever been so simple and clear with this. This is brilliant.” So, whoever wants to take that and use it, be my guest.
Sadie: There's a line of dialogue that really stood out, “I wonder what's worth living for these days?” And the response is, “How about good music?” There’s something about that line that is just it's so innocent. But also it speaks to the theme of music and the story through songs and lyrics, and how it changes people's lives. It's a very small town, with a small moment that's such a big moment for this group of young people. Especially during that time of music, people are discovering new wave and punk rock and we’re about to discover grunge music, and it shows those parallels of the music and its message and what the characters are about to encounter branching off into the real world. I thought that was very well handled.
Stephen: Thank you. I would say it's like, you know, the lesson you learn from a film like Dazed and Confused, it's small story windows. It's not huge melodramatic art. There isn't like massive change and you know clashes of protagonists and antagonists, they're just small story windows, they’re character revelations, on a certain scale, but it's really personal and unique and the music gives it the bigness right? It creates the bigger canvas because that's what it did to us. It was cinematic. It let us enter a whole new world that was very different than, you know, the popular music that was very much the 80s. Like, you know, if something was really popular, top 40, yuck, didn't want it. You wanted something unique and different and something that was unique to you and your tribe, and that's kind of what this music was like, I mean, not just The Smiths, but, you know, all of that stuff. I mean we were just steeped in the alternative underground, which of course, eventually becomes overcrowded with things like The Cure, New Order, and all that but like you know Siouxsie [and the Banshees] was a big influence on us and stuff like that but, yeah, thanks.
That line you're speaking of it's from Dean talking to Mickey. And shortly thereafter, they're listening to the song “Rubber Ring,” which is one of my favorites Smith tunes, which has a lyric “And the songs that saved your life.” It's really about the power that music had and still has.
Sadie: Was there any pushback from The Smiths or from Morrissey about using their music for your film?
Stephen: It wasn't simple. It took a Herculean heavy lift, and that’s why it took us almost 10 years. [laughs]
But again, it's a very fast first draft, and before we developed it, I wanted to make sure that we had some level of approval from Morrissey and [Johnny] Marr. They are the songwriters, they both had to approve. So, we had a very quick kind of first approval with an enormous price tag attached to it. [laughs] And that was our task to do the work of like raising the money to bring the deal. Liz Gallacher, [our] music supervisor, should get ten Oscars for this. [laughs] And, yeah, they were in the most part, supportive and onboard, very early. It was just it was up to the producers to make it work on a financial level. That was the hard part.
Sadie: What is your creative process as a writer first and then going into directing in your prep work?
Stephen: Yeah, it's funny as a writer, it's, you know, I'm kind of in a bubble - I've been doing documentaries for so long - and the writing, I studied it way back when, and I did a lot more of it a long time ago, but I just keep it going in the background. It's like a muscle, I want to keep it tuned up. It’s research, it's outlining. With the docs, I do a lot of research. I like writing on a blank pad, with no lines. I get sketchbooks and a nice Pilot Pen. I just like writing. I think writing by hand is very good for the brain. It's scientifically proven. [laughs] It kind of helps create different things with the chemistry of your brain when you're actually writing with a pen. So, I do a lot of work on the page, to just like loosen up ideas and I do a lot of outlining.
And then each one is different. Some scripts I found that I actually have to put cards up on the wall. I did one recently where I sort of sketched out in a pad and like a bullet point list in a way like a map. And then I've just attacked day by day, top to bottom and I’d write very fast first drafts. I like to just have it done. I studied a lot of Frank Daniel, a great screenwriter. There was some fantastic lessons of screenwriting that I had from school that I've lost. But I remember a lot of it. [laughs] A lot of it was like write really fast and then revise, you know. So that's kind of the process, partly. You know, and directing, I don't know, I think it's instinct. I've been very lucky and get really talented people to work with not just actors but, you know, genius production designer and a great DP. It's just preparation, you know, I do a lot of preparation, in terms of like style and the look. I make big look books and mood boards and everything and just get everything on the same page and create a good bible. It all starts with a script! [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] That's right! This has been great, Stephen. Best of luck with the movie and your future projects.
Stephen: Really great talking to you, thanks.
Shoplifters of the World is now available in Theaters, On Demand and Digital.