Writer / director Stephen Kijak on the set of the drama / comedy film, SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Stephen Kijak is a musician.
After making his debut with the gay-themed romantic comedy Never Met Picasso, music dominated his career, as did documentaries. Scott Walker: 30 Century Boy explored the work of its titular singer; Stones in Exile profiled the Rolling Stones; If I Leave Here Tomorrow examined the career of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Sid & Judy followed the tumultuous love story between Judy Garland and her third husband, Sid Luft. Last year, Kijak also contributed his directing skills to the scripted / documentary hybrid series Equal, on this history of gay rights in America.
Now Kijak combines his passions in a 15 year project. Shoplifters of the World – arriving March 26 on VOD – pays homage to the Smiths’ rock New Wave. On the night the band broke up in 1987, longtime friends Cleo (Helena Howard), Patrick (James Bloor), Sheila (Elena Kampouris) and Billy (Nick Krause) reunite to mourn the loss of their favorite band. Meanwhile, across town, disgruntled record store clerk Dean (Ellar Coltrane) takes a radio DJ (Joe Manganiello) hostage, demanding that the station only play The Smiths all night. What follows is a night none of them will forget – one in which long-held ailments begin to surface and young Patrick confronts his burgeoning sexuality.
We caught up with Kijak to discuss the long road to making the film, the gay lives of children in the 1980s, and how The Smiths’ music inspired him to face his own quirk. Shoplifters of the World is available in theaters, On Demand, and digitally on March 26.
So when was the last time we spoke Sid and Judy, you mentioned the shoplifters of the world. And now, here we are. You also said that it was a very personal film for you. Tell me, what effect did the Smiths have on you that inspired a whole movie?
Well the first musical film I made, Scott Walker: 30 years old Man of the century at the time was a real passion project. Five years in the making, Scott is my hero, it was truly a life changing experience. Since then, almost all docs have been working for hire. Granted, I love The Stones and have come to love Lynyrd Skynyrd. Even Judy – I wasn’t a big fan at the time. They have all been someone else’s story. It really is my history and my group. I was that child.
Nick Krause as Billy and James Bloor as Patrick in the drama / comedy film, SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
[Shoplifters] is personal. The characters are me and my friends in high school. I am a Patrick, I am a dean. I worked in a record store and was sexually confused as a teenager. Was I gay or goth – I couldn’t tell. And this music just gave us a way of being. It was a style, a statement. It created a tribe among us to the left of the weirdos in the middle. They just became one of my favorite bands. I was trying to write a script about myself and my friends over a summer of all the music from the ’80s.
And my friend Lorianne [Hall], who gets story credit on the film, asked me if I remembered that heist in Denver when the Smiths broke up.
Wait – is this real? Someone really ran a radio station and demanded she play The Smiths all night long when they broke up?
Oh my God.
And I had no idea what she was talking about. She said, “This movie Airheads, it’s based on that thing, but it was really about the Smiths. So I thought, let me take my characters from Cape Cod and move them to Denver and make the movie overnight.
Joe Manganiello as Full Metal Mickey and Ellar Coltrane as Dean in the drama / comedy film, SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Yeah, this incident is not 100% true. Morrisey even talked about it in interviews as if it happened. In fact, this kid had staked out the radio station outside of Denver. He sat in the parking lot outside with a bag of The Smiths tapes and a gun, but chickened out. Instead of going home, he called the security guard and asked him to call the cops. He was at a point in his life when he needed help. And it was just a very small story The Denver Post and became this myth. So, I thought, let him take control of the station and see what happens.
Watching the movie, it’s hard not to think of other all-in-one musical movies. Dizzy and confused. To go. Empire Records. American graffiti. What were your major influences?
American graffiti appeared tall. It is the model, more than the films of John Hughes. Obviously, I grew up and I was influenced by them. But you come back, I watched Pretty in pink, which I loved. And I even told Cleo about it in the movie: “Is this really our life?” I carried the soundtrack, but now I rely on movies like American graffiti and Dinner. The two had a big influence on that, the way we shot it, the style and that kind of slightly rambling nature of a low-powered dramatic impulse. But it’s a night out – kids in cars are walking around, getting in trouble, and having little revelations about themselves.
Obviously, there are also references to other musical cults of the 80s: Siouxie and the Banshees. Madonna. Grace Jones. Janet Jackson. Metalheads. Something like this could easily pass for a caricature, but your characters shine through it. How do you balance nostalgic pop culture references with character?
This is a difficult question to answer. I think it’s a matter of tone. The thing is, it was genuine. He grew up authentically. Of the five children, Sheila was like Lorianne. She had the Madonna thing, but was in The Smiths. She loved The Cure. I remember seeing a sarcastic person online saying, “If you like the Smiths, you never liked Madonna.”
It’s just stupid. Are you kidding? I grew up back then, honey. I had Madonna’s first two records secretly hidden in my room. Its influence on dance culture was part of the world we lived in, so it must be there. Part of that is also the need to work in cameos from people you love. Kevin Aviance, who plays Amazing Grace [a Grace Jones look alike], the bouncer outside the club – Amazing Grace was a real person to whom we pay tribute. So it’s layer after level. And Siouxie Chu – aspiring Siouxie Su – she was awesome dragging a Robert Smith with her. And again, we all got dressed. It was like Halloween in the 80s all the time.
Elena Kampouris as Sheila in the drama / comedy film, SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
Obviously, we now know – or at least recognize – the homoeroticism of Smith’s music. It’s interesting to me in the movie that Patrick – who strongly implies being gay – is so hostile to homosexuals or the idea that he could be. We never really learn the root of it. What kind of story do you have in mind? And you’ve alluded to it before, but to what extent does it reflect your own experience?
It’s the 80’s. I didn’t get out until college. You were living in that really ambiguous time when Elton John was married to a woman and Boy George was on TV saying ‘I’m bisexual’. It’s like…what? The Smiths were homoerotic, but it was also coded that way. Even Morrisey himself, as fairy and dandy as he was, was like “I’m asexual.”
And of course, especially in the suburbs, it was dangerous to be gay. The New Wave has kind of got us covered – are we gay or are we goth? We could dress up, we could have crazy hair. You might look like Duran Duran. You might look like the Smiths. You might look like The Cure. You were part of a tribe – guys, girls, bi’s, gays. We were just different, and it gave us protection.
To the right.
I think about it a little. When you see something like Euphoria, which takes place in the here and now, where teens are so sexualized and radical. We weren’t like that. I tried to do something faithful to the time, which was going slowly. We had internalized homophobia. We were confused. We didn’t know who we were or how we could be. And everyone knew it before you did. Then again, the character of Billy – I had a crush on my straight best friend from high school, who I discovered years later had gender identity issues.
And you see a little bit of it in Billy. I can see him having these same issues. I wanted to explore this in a subtle way. It is the micro-changes in our identities that we have experienced.
Nick Krause as Billy in the drama / comedy film, SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD, an RLJE Films release. Photo courtesy of RLJE Films.
For the record, ’90s kids didn’t have crazy sex or dated very young either. And I speak from experience.
What kind of comfort did the music of the Smiths give you as a teenager?
It’s good music. It’s like every time you hear something you’ve never heard before and say to yourself “Where have you been all my life?” I grew up on Cape Cod and we had a great college station in our town that had the best music. Boston has a great music scene. This is how I heard New Order for the first time. The Muses – all that great stuff on this radio station. I will never forget hearing “How Soon Is Now” for the first time. It’s just like What is that? They call them formative years for a reason. You absorb everything that is part of your identity and you feel things more deeply. There is a discovery.
I remember hearing “How Soon Is Now”, not knowing what it was, and I went to the record store weeks later. I bought the 12 inch single because I liked the blanket, took it home, put it on and was like this is the f * cking song. Wow. The world was much smaller then. You discovered new things on the radio, at the record store. It was tactile, you got it back.
The film’s final scenes suggest that the characters changed over the course of the film, which is always good for a movie. In a way though, it really does seem like they …