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Heaven Adores You, Elliott Smith: An Interview with Filmmakers Nickolas Dylan Rossi and Kevin Moyer

Elliott Smith

A stunning new documentary, “Heaven Adores You“, about the life and music of Elliott Smith, has just started making the festival rounds. I had the pleasure of privately screening the film this past week in advance of upcoming public showings in Detroit and Portland, and I suggest you go see it the first opportunity you get.

The film is an intimate tribute to Elliott Smith’s greatness and light, told by his closest friends and collaborators, and woven through original music and stories from his time in Portland, New York City and Los Angeles. “Heaven Adores You” is a beautiful experience, start-to-finish — just as Elliott’s life was.

Watch the “Heaven Adores You” trailer, then read our conversation below.

Logan Lynn: I just finished the film, which I watched through a mix of tears and laughter – very appropriate for the man it is about, I’d say. The music is such a big piece of the story, and you used it expertly. How did you decide which songs to use?

Kevin Moyer: It was such an honor to be able to use Elliott’s own music, and of course it was also crucial for us because we have said all along we wanted the focus to be on his creative output rather than more sensational aspects of his life and death. But have to also show his life if you are intending to show Elliott progressing as an artist, so we did that again using the music as the anchor — as the tent poles for the journey. We take you through his life by using the music he created and the albums he released as the kind of life chapters or sections of the film, starting with music he made as a young kid in Texas all the way up to the album he was working on when he died. We you where he was at when creating each one and we used those physical and tangible artistic achievements as the musical check points to tell the story. We wanted to use stuff that would be new and interesting to the existing fans who can be very hardcore and already knowledgeable of almost everything he ever did, balanced with stuff that was already familiar to the casual fan who only slightly knew his music, and also include stuff that was accessible and representative for the people who had never heard his music at all. And we wanted to also show his progression as a song writer.

Moyer: You can feel his sound forming and his evolution as an artist as you move through the film. I got to look into the vaults of both labels (Universal and KRS) and spent a good amount of time with friend and Elliott archivist Larry Crane, too. Basically, I dug through lots and lots of music and then narrowed it down to just the stuff that that I thought would be interesting and most relevant for us to use — probably about 150 tracks or so — and then that’s what I brought to the team; stuff from both labels, as well as stuff from friends, his high school days, his childhood in Texas, tapes from rehearsals, live performances, alternate versions of studio recordings, etc. I slowly began sending them to Nickolas (Rossi) who was huddled up in New York editing the footage together to tell the story. Every morning for about two weeks I would send him a batch of tracks — usually stuff he had never heard before, two or three songs at a time — because I wanted to give them each space to breathe so they could each be considered on their own accord. With each one, I’d tell him how I felt it might fit with different things we were discussing, what energy or vibe it might bring, what the lyrics might help to showcase, and so on. On his end, Nickolas compiled all of what I was sending him and then he did the same and put them through his own creative filter…

Nickolas Dylan Rossi: The short answer of course, is that some of these tracks were chosen for personal reasons, some for utilitarian reasons, but more often than not, they were the melody and the words that paired best with the visuals for the feeling that I had experienced while listening to Elliott that I wanted to share with an audience. The music is one of the main characters in the film, as are the locations. Throughout the process making the film,

some songs of Elliott’s would stand out more than others—some were melodic and atmospheric in the ways that I wanted to pair with the visuals—others were there to really tell you what was happening (“Coast To Coast”, “Say Yes”, “True Love”) in his words. Some of these tracks are personal favorites, (“No Name #3”, “No Name #5”, “Waltz #1”) and some of them are more mainstream hits that folks might already know (“Coming Up Roses”, “Miss Misery”, “Waltz #2”). I wanted to make a mixtape of Elliott’s career, starting with his earliest works as a kid, through high school – which I was very unfamiliar with until I started to work with Kevin – and at least touch on one track from each of his records to help illustrate the musical journey that he took. What I also found in the process is that, as I continued to tell his story, the songs actually got happier and lighter, and I didn’t need to focus on his more melancholy tracks that I may have enjoyed for whatever reason outside of telling Elliott’s story. Elliott’s music is the perfect soundtrack to contemplate the three very distinct locations in the film too — Portland, New York City and Los Angeles — and while they’re not specific to these locations, the songs evolve over the course of the film as Elliott does.

0060_028_PHOTO CREDIT HEAVEN ADORES YOUMoyer: I love how Nickolas gave the songs lots of space in the edit. Most documentaries would just be talking heads with music behind them, but he gave them enough space and separation from anything else going on in order to really be felt and heard. There are moments in the film where it is just the song playing for a minute or so, almost like a music video, almost like you are looking out the window of a car on a long trip with the radio as your only companion, and I think this works really well to make the music the focus and its own character, and is also as another way of letting Elliott speak for himself through his own music and words. I was thrilled that the visuals turned out so beautifully and I think it is OK for me to say that, because I had nothing to do with it. It was all the work of Nickolas and our other producer JT Gurzi. Those two guys did all of the amazing camera work that helps make the film so great. It’s not a typical documentary with subpar cameras and shaky man-on-the-street shooting style. It is much more cinematic and theatrical and those guys did a great job of capturing the feeling visually at a very high level. It can be very hypnotic and dreamlike to watch.

Lynn: Agreed! Kevin, a few years back you produced a charity record called “Live From Nowhere Near You, Volume 2” which featured me and Elliott and a bunch of other bands from the days of the Old Portland music scene we all came out of, and it had a bunch of unreleased material on it. How much more unreleased Elliott Smith material is still floating around out there?

Moyer: Yeah, thanks again for being on that album! I reached out to Elliott to be on Volume One since I knew he was always a big supporter of the charity Outside In which was right down the street from our high school. This was during the time when he was kind of missing, either in his downward spiral or during his getting clean coming up out of it, and no one knew how to find him. Sadly he passed away before we could do anything, but when we released Volume Two we made good on that intention and included an unreleased Elliott song and also one from Neil Gust (also recorded with Elliott) who used to be in Heatmiser back in the day. The Neil song was recorded the last time they saw each other in Los Angeles after Elliott showed up at a gig Neil was playing and they reconnected the next day to record the basics, hanging around for 2 weeks trying to finish the song. Neil tells me that Elliott wasn’t doing very well, but that he was really trying. Sadly, it was the last time that Neil would see him. He left before Elliott finished mixing it. And the other Elliott song was one that no one knew even existed until Larry found it on a DAT tape much later, we discovered was a solo reworking of an old high school song. That was so typical of him too. It was a perfect example of Elliott always revisiting his old songs and continuously working on them, and them becoming different things and evolving. Sometimes they would change in a small way — maybe a lyric tweak here or there — and other times they would change drastically with all new words and maybe just the same music bed or guitar riff. We use a few examples of this in the film, too. The one that immediately comes to mind is the high school song “Don’t Call Me Billy” which would eventually become “Fear City”. As far as other songs that are out there, and if we have plans to ever release them, I can only say that I hope that it happens. But it is not our decision. That is the single most asked question that we get, though, and that’s great because it should be about the music, right?

Lynn: Right!

Moyer: We have some ideas and we plan to see what we can get permission to do…

Lynn: As someone who knew Elliott, I remember feeling so angry about the way the media covered his death, and still sometimes get a bit of that “You didn’t even know this man. Shut your fucking mouth.” feeling when I hear people talk about him or his songs or his life. Was this kind of rampant public misrepresentation part of the motivation for making this film?

Moyer: Exactly. It was hard to hear the media cover it in such a callous way. His death hurt already and the way it was talked about by people who didn’t know him made it hurt even more. There is a bit of a wall that gets put up by people and that’s what happened here, I think most of us tried to safe guard ourselves from being a part of that by not discussing it at all, especially to the media, so most of the stuff that was done about Elliott ended up being done by people who didn’t know him. But yeah, this project was definitely a reaction to that for me. I wanted to do something for Elliott by and with the people who knew him the best.

0061_030_PHOTO CREDIT HEAVEN ADORES YOULynn: I think that is what is so refreshing about the film, personally. Like…the truth is finally out there about this sweet, talented creature. My own career was shaped by local Portland bands like The Dandy Warhols and Dan Reed and Elliott, no doubt…mainly because we were all drinking at the same bars, getting slices of pizza from Sean Croghan at Escape From New York,doing the same drugs, hanging around the same people, back when Portland was small and undiscovered. I knew Elliott was magic back then, but I don’t think I realized that some of those late 90s Elliott Smith shows at La Luna with Sean opening were so groundbreaking or scene-forming at the time – it just felt like Portland dudes we loved playing songs we could relate to – but when I think back on them now, it was such a special time, the feeling of which has not been replicated here in the years since. Do you think that those were the last great days of the Old Portland music scene?

Moyer: I agree. I had no idea when we were going through it that it was so special. I remember sitting in the hallway of our high school listening to one of their high school band tapes and being more excited about the new Sony Walkman that I got for Christmas than the songs it was playing. I thought it was really cool that those guys were in a band and I am a fan of music and creativity and the expression of it and that’s why I was listening to their tapes, but I had no idea that it would become what it was. Lots of people were in bands at that time, and still. And I was really into the grunge and that whole thing that was going on, and Elliott was doing that with Heatmiser – but it wasn’t until Elliott played solo acoustic that my jaw dropped. I wasn’t really into that style of music at the time, but it was so stripped down and vulnerable and so brave — I mean, that’s punk right there; to do the opposite of what everyone else was doing, and to do it all alone by yourself on a stage on a single folding chair with just an acoustic guitar and nothing to hide behind. It’s kind of like the opposite of when Bob Dylan plugged in and went electric.

Lynn: What do you think Elliott would have to say about what’s happening here now?

Rossi: I haven’t lived in Portland since the late 90’s, so I’m not too sure what the music scene is like there now, but it’s always been a hotbed of amazing musicians, and there’s a lot about Portland that helps foster this creative buzz at any given time. If I ever compare it to what I hear now on the radio, I’m so thankful for that time. Maybe for us, they were the last great days. Sean Croghan talks about how every sound has its time and for a couple of years, that Portland scene was at the top of the heap. I love the sound that came out of the northwest in those years, and its forever soundtrack to days that are unfortunately fleeting fast. I’m not sure what Elliott would say about the music scene of Portland now, but I think he’d be very supportive and encouraging of anyone who was putting themselves out there playing music. The Dandys still make great music 20 years later.

Lynn: I know I’ve experienced this a great deal in my own career, but writing songs which people hear as “sad” tend to label you as depressed which, over time, can come to define a person beyond their art. People are often quick to put that label on Elliott, but I never thought of him as depressed. Introverted? Maybe. Wasted? For sure — but he was so funny, I just never would have placed that “depressed” projection onto him. The movie goes into great detail about how hard dealing with fame was for Elliott, but do you have a sense for how that was to become so well-known for being sad?

Rossi: (laughs) I bet if you asked anyone who knew me when I lived in Portland during my twenties, they might be able to say the same thing. I loved being known for being sad and sensitive and moody. Really, what twenty-something doesn’t? I don’t know first-hand what fame was like for Elliott, but I think he says it best in the first few minutes of the film. He obviously has the self-awareness to know that it’s not the best thing for a guy like him, and I think that speaks volumes about what he ends up going through for the rest of the film. Jon Brion makes a great comment in the film that it’s like being put under a microscope, and I’m sure that that’s difficult for anyone, famous or not…Except I don’t think that Elliott can be summed up as a “famous sad guy”— he was obviously so much more than that to so many people.

Lynn: For sure. That summation is flawed, at best – but it’s definitely out there.

Moyer: Yeah, it is kind of part of the Elliott myth too, you know, and I think it is one that he also might’ve furthered on his own accord. I mean, he was obviously uncomfortable with the attention, and when you got him in front of the media and cameras and interviewers, and they asked questions that were personal or hard to answer, then I think that it’s easy to get overwhelmed. The way that comes off can seem shy, which can seem sad, and that just adds to the myth. Certainly, the hushed tones of his vocal delivery and the seemingly confessional quality of many of his lyrics also furthered this perception too, but he really was a funny motherfucker, too. He had an infectious smile.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 15.40.43_PHOTO CREDIT JOANNA BOLME

Lynn: Definitely. That smile is still infectious now.

Moyer: Have you heard the unreleased song “Suicide Machine”?

Lynn: Yes.

Moyer: “Suicide Machine” was a song that was left off his posthumous release because of the abrasive feeling title so soon after his death, I would assume. And for the record I don’t think the song is anything about what people are afraid it is about; about his death or his intentions or anything like that. To me, it’s a song about him speaking to the whole “sad” label that had been put on him. He sings “baby got a place in the sun selling people shade…renting out a room in a remote little corner, a profits promenade… everybody’s trying to turn me into a suicide machine”. It seems like he is saying, here he is in Los Angeles, where everything around him is sunny and warm and people are still encouraging him to be this balladeer for the lonely, selling the shade to people in the sun. Or is it “prophet’s promenade”, which could still make sense and brings a double meaning too — which he often did. Either way, it seems to me like he is pointing out that people want him to be an artist churning out this product of sadness, fitting into this box that’s been made for him.

Lynn: Either way, that song should have totally been on that record. Sometimes confessional songwriting, when done by self-conscious people, can become something of an internalized feedback loop. While still coming off as confessional, much of Elliott’s work was not actually written about him, but when he did go there, those songs were brutally conscious of self, while not being overly self-involved, which is a difficult balance to strike.

Moyer: That is an important distinction; that even though his songs are styled in a way that makes you think he is talking about himself, and he is often delivering it in a whispering intimate manner — almost like he is telling you secrets from his own diary or something – most often he is not talking about himself. Rather, he was using archetypes to tell a story of what he saw happening around him or to build a world where he could present these ideas. Was he self-conscious and did he use these same lyrics to also express himself perhaps under a secret veil of a character presented as a way to say what he was thinking or how he was feeling? Of course he did. I would argue that most artists use their art to express themselves, but I think it would be a mistake to take the lyrics so literally and direct and make those assumptions.

Lynn: After Elliott’s death, which was caused by two stab wounds to the chest, the coroner was unable to determine if they were self-inflicted, and I know there are at least two schools of thought as to what actually happened. There was a really polarizing documentary about Elliott Smith released a few years back that I felt had very little to do with who he actually was, and very much took the side of his having killed himself – something which has never made sense to me, particularly in light of his being sober at the time of his passing. It’s also clear that, unlike said shitty documentary from a few years back, you chose to leave Jennifer Chiba, his girlfriend at the time, out of “Heaven Adores You” entirely. I know why I think this is the case, but do you care to speak to why she was not included in the film?

Moyer: Well, we didn‘t include her because she wasn’t someone he made music with, not anything that was released or that we look at in the film at least, and she wasn’t someone who was in his band or producing his albums either. I am sure that their shared experiences influenced at least some of his artistic output at that time, and I don’t mean to discount her potential role in any of that in any way at all, but since we were doing a movie about his music, it just didn’t feel necessary. Plus, like you said, there was that other documentary, which I have not seen, which I heard focused on her and so I would assume that she already said everything that she felt she needed to. Also like you said, there are two schools of thought as to what could have happened, and both sides are very passionate about what they believe. At the end of the day, how it went down is not going to bring him back, either. And that’s not to suggest that we have no interest in getting answers and closure, but we as a project had nothing to offer in that regard. We just don’t know what happened that horrible day. We only know the results of it. It’s like two cars in a head on crash in the middle of the night on a dark and empty road with no witnesses, all we know is that one person ended up dead and no one knows for sure who crossed the line. So we wanted to just state the facts.

Screen Shot 2014-03-10 at 18.09.13_PHOTO CREDIT JOANNA BOLME

Lynn: Unanswered questions make grief so complicated.

Rossi: Yeah, I never saw “Searching For Elliott Smith” either, but I was aware of it while we were talking about making Heaven Adores You. I felt it was probably best for me to not go out of my way to watch the other film, as I just wanted the process of making this one to be pure and from the heart, based on conversations that I would have personally with the contributors. I was aware of some feedback about the film, and generally knew that Jennifer was featured in it. I just felt like she probably said what she needed to say for the other film, and that this film wasn’t about “what happened at the end” as much as “what happened during the whole life of Elliott Smith”. The focus was really there to tell his story of the music he created– and not to shy away from the hard stuff (about his drug use, the intervention, suicidal ideology, his death), but also to not try and make a film that attempts to present a definitive answer of how he died. There simply was not an answer available, and it’s not the point of his life. He had an amazing career in music and songwriting up until that moment, and I found that part of his life infinitely more interesting to research.

Lynn: Absolutely. There is a great line in the movie where a Quasi song is quoted “You don’t hurt the ones you love, you hurt the ones who love you.” and it’s pretty clear that the experience of losing Elliott before he was actually gone is fairly universal amongst his collaborators and friends. That shared heartbreak is palpable amongst the interviewees, as with most people in his life who I know that are not in the film. I wish he could see “Heaven Adores You” and know how much we all loved him, how much he changed the world. Maybe he did know? I hope he did. How has the reaction been from his friends and the people in the film? It feels very respectful, almost like he was an advisor on the project…which, I’m guessing, in some ways, he was.

Moyer: Well, we tried to be as respectful as possible. To him and his legacy first and foremost, but also to all of the people around him who are still with us and who contributed, many of whom are still hurting. We wanted to be careful not to rub on any scars that might not yet be healed and we didn’t want to make any new wounds, either. We had a lot of very heartfelt conversations with his friends and also amongst ourselves as a team about how to do certain things and how to do them in the most respectful way, while still being completely accurate and balanced. Was he with us? I don’t know, but I do hope that he was. So many nice things were said that I wish that he was present to hear them. We did have lots of little odd things pop up during the process of production that felt a bit like maybe he was giving us the nod of approval, maybe letting us know he was cool with it…

Rossi: I got the feeling that there was a lot of heartbreak with Elliott even before he died. Falling outs, burned bridges, perhaps some bad choices, etc. Meeting with Elliott’s friends required an immense amount of trust on their part for us to do the right thing. We’ve been lucky enough to have a few folks involved in the film watch it so far, and it’s been well received. It comes across as a great tribute to a guy that they miss dearly in their lives. We are screening in Portland in October and that will be a big gauge of how we did with the film, but sold-out audiences of fans across the globe so far are thanking us for making something that was honest and true and pure and respectful, so I think we accomplished what we had all set out to do at the beginning. I agree with Kevin—there were a lot of moments throughout production that let us know that we were being well taken care of or looked after. By Elliott? Who knows? I like to think that he was allowing us to tell his story or create something for him to narrate his own story in some ways. It’s the least we could do for the guy.

Lynn: It is a beautiful tribute. While I know he would have liked the truthful portrayal, while I was watching the film it struck me that Elliott might have been embarrassed about a movie being made about him. Did you take that into consideration as you were creating the documentary?

Moyer: Oh, I am sure that he would be embarrassed to be the focus of attention, and also too humble to admit that it is very much deserved. At the same time, he recorded and released music, and anyone who does that has the intention of wanting their art to be out there and to be heard. I think just because someone is an introvert, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he didn’t want his music to be heard. He did. He worked hard at it. He made music videos. There is a big difference between feeling uncomfortable in the spotlight or as center of attention, and not wanting your music to be heard and shared. He isn’t around anymore to be able to tour and release more albums, so I guess that this is kind of another way of still trying to do that for him. But yeah, like Larry Crane mentions in the film, he would do the media and touring stuff so that he could do the writing and recording. The creative process and expression was his favorite thing, but I don’t think that he was against his art being seen, either. I think that he wanted his art out there, and that he personally would have preferred to stay on the side and let it be the focus. So that’s kind of what we tried to do, while also letting him speak for himself through old interviews and, of course, the music.

Elliott_SmithRossi: Yeah, I bet he’d embarrassed or incredibly modest about the whole thing. I often thought about what it would be like if he was still alive and how it would be to make a film about him now. I imagine having to call Elliott on the phone and ask him things and can always hear this quiet, hesitant modest guy. It’s very respectful of all of the folks who were honest and open enough to participate. They were really incredible to talk to, every one of them. It was a gift to be able to sit with the friends of Elliott Smith and hear them tell stories about him, and his evolution as a musician. And I think Elliott’s music is what drives the story of his life — and his music is incredible. There’s no need to do anything other than make something out of total respect. And also, he would be totally embarrassed by the song we used in the credit roll at the end, but it just shows what a genius he really was.

Lynn: How has the public reception of even the idea of this film been so far?

Moyer: The interest in this film has been HUGE which is really great to see. It’s a testament to how far-reaching Elliotts influence was; how relatable he is on such a global level. He writes about common themes and everyman scenarios that somehow just really connect all across the board. I wish he could see how big of a splash he made, We are getting interest from all over the world from fans, from distributors, from festivals — Korea, Israel, Australia, everywhere in Europe, every corner of the US and Canada — you name it. It’s amazing. Our producer Marc Smolowitz has been feeling the pain of that intense interest, too. He is fielding all of the festival stuff and partnering with JT on the distribution requests. Marc joined the project when we were in post-production, although he was a behind the scenes support for Nickolas from the very early stages, and he has lifted this project up and carried us. The demand for Elliott is huge, even still, and its keeping us very busy! That’s a really nice thing to realize, and it makes me happy.

Lynn: I love that you chose to make the focus of “Heaven Adores You” more about Elliott’s music, his gift of humanity, rather than the tabloid stuff, which was really just a few years of his beautiful life. My experience of Elliott Smith was that he was very funny, very nice, not particularly ego-driven – which is rare in this industry (and town, frankly) – and the film really captured that kindness. Thank you for that. It was nice to see that on screen. What do you hope people who didn’t know him will take away from watching the movie?

Rossi: I think what’s remarkable about the story of Elliott Smith was how much of a normal guy he was—who just happened to be a not-so-normal genius musician. John Chandler really sums it up at the end when he says that you should buy everything Elliott’s ever recorded, because it’s all good, and that everything he did was worth making room for in your life. I love that, and that’s what I hope people leave the theater with. If you had no idea who Elliott Smith was, I hope that by the end of the film you think to yourself, “I should go and check out that guy’s music a bit more.”

Moyer: Yes. I guess I just have always felt that the last few moments of his life, and the few years leading up to it, shouldn’t be the whole take-away for his entire life as a whole. The sum of his life was certainly far more than just those final moments or last few years. People struggle every day. People die every day. We wanted to tell you why it was so much more than that; why we all loved him so much. What do I hope people take away, if they aren’t already familiar with Elliott Smith or his music? My hope is that they become a fan and that they go and listen to his music and maybe buy all of his albums. If we can introduce others to his music, then that’s something that is important, and something that he would want. I think he’d want his legacy to be about his art and music rather than his personal life, and if we can help his music reach a broader audience, then I think that’s one way of keeping him alive and remembered too.

(Read an excerpt from this interview on Huffington Post Entertainment HERE)

Heaven Adores You Poster

Upcoming “Heaven Adores You” screenings:

Detroit, MI. – October 3rd, 2014 – CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS
Portland, OR. – October 10th, 2014 – CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS
Portland, OR. – October 12th, 2014 – CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS

Category: Addiction and Recovery, Arts & Culture, Celebrities, Interviews, life, Logan Lynn, Love, Movies and Film, Music, Music Videos, News, Oregon, Photos, Portland, Release Info, Reviews, Uncategorized, Unreleased Material, Video

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3 Responses

  1. […] Watch the Heaven Adores You trailer, then read a portion of our conversation below. The full transcript of our interview can be found at LoganLynnMusic.com […]

  2. […] Watch the Heaven Adores You trailer, then read a portion of our conversation below. The full transcript of our interview can be found at LoganLynnMusic.com […]

  3. […] Watch the Heaven Adores You trailer, then read a portion of our conversation below. The full transcript of our interview can be found at LoganLynnMusic.com […]

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