Faithfully following your dream without letting anyone stand in your way, or tell you how to live your life, can be a difficult process, especially when you hit rock bottom. But when you have a deep determination to do what makes you happy, and not allow anyone to censor your opinions, often times leads to you finding success. This was certainly the case for legendary club owner, Hilly Kristal, who ran New York City’s successful club, CBGB, for over 30 years. His struggles in starting and running the club are chronicled in the new musical drama, ‘CBGB,’ which was co-written and directed by Randall Miller.
Set in the 1970s, ‘CBGB’ follows the lazy, once-divorced, twice-bankrupt club owner Hilly Kristal (Alan Rickman), who’s determined to find a way to start his life over after being arrested. Determined to find the right path to reinvent himself, he strolls leisurely through lower Manhattan, until stumbling upon the Palace Bar at 315 Bowery. Hilly begins to imagine what he could with the bar if he owned it, and quickly borrows money from his mother to bring country music to the Bowery.
However, not many people are eager to listen to country, bluegrass and blues in New York, so Hilly books Television instead. With a bad written review in the local newspaper, the club soon draws in such up-and-coming bands and musicians as The Ramones, Blondie, Patti Smith, Talking Heads, The Police and Iggy Pop. While searching for meaning in his slowly building new success with the club, Hilly must rebuild his relationships with not only his daughter, Lisa (Ashley Greene), but also the people who work for him.
Rickman generously took the time recently to talk about filming ‘CBGB’ over the phone. Among other things, the actor discussed how he liked the idea that even though Hilly originally intended for the bar to play country music, he quickly adapted to allow the punk musicians to have a venue to say what was important to them; how he watched multiple DVDs and documentaries on Hilly, and spoke with Lisa, to get a true insight into his mindset; and how when he plays a real person in a film, like Hilly, he doesn’t judge them, as he has an extra responsibility to accurately portray them in the way their loved ones remember them.
Question (Q): You play Hilly Kristal, the celebrated founder of the famed New York City venue, CBGB, in the new biopic. What was it about Hilly’s life, and the script overall, the convinced you to take on the role?
Alan Rickman (AK): I liked the story of a man who started a club to be one thing, including country, bluegrass and blues, and that music never ended up playing there. That was because punk came along, which he didn’t know anything about, and these guys had something to say, and he thought he should let them say it. At the same time, he encouraged them to only play original music. So I thought, this is sort of a heroic figure, I like this story. He was a bit chaotic, as well.
Q: What kind of research did you do on Hilly’s life before you began shooting the film? How did you get into his mindset?
AR: I did a lot of research, because fortunately there’s a ton of DVD material on him, and I could watch the real man. I could listen to him in interviews on one long tape that Lisa had made available to us, which featured him chatting with her and his mother. There has also been some documentary material on him, so I was able to watch Hilly walk and talk. So that was completely invaluable, of course.
Q: Speaking of Hilly’s daughter, Lisa Kristal Burgman, served as one of the producers on ‘CBGB,’ and was portrayed by Ashley Greene in the film. Were you able to speak with Lisa at all while you were filming about her relationship with her father?
AR: Absolutely. I think the important thing was that she loved him, no matter what kind of grievances there may have been on a practical level. She absolutely loved her father.
Q: Speaking of Ashley, how did you build your working relationship with her on the set?
AR: Hopefully it was one of mutual respect. I certainly have the upmost respect for Ashley. She’s very generous to work with, and she’s very prepared. She’s a hard worker, and ready, every day. It was a hard part for her to play, because in a way, she was the most antagonist force in the film.
Q: Did you have any rehearsal time with Ashley and your other co-stars before you began shooting?
AR: No, if only we did. I’m afraid that I just put the wig on, and I was thrown in.
Q: How does the process of playing a character based on a real person, like Hilly in ‘CBGB,’ compare and contrast to fictional characters you’ve portrayed in your career? Do you have a preference of starring in biopics and playing real people, or building a fictitious character?
AR: I think whenever I play real people, there’s an extra sense of responsibility on your shoulders. Whoever they are, they mean so much to so many people, which is why they’re well-known. So you’re carrying a lot of baggage around, so you have to do the homework and ask questions. Then you can’t judge them, which I think is the most important thing; you can’t be judging the character you’re playing.
Q: You reunited with your ‘Noble Son’ and ‘Bottle Shock’ director, Randall Miller, for ‘CBGB.’ How was it reuniting with Randall on the set for this film, and what is your working relationship with him like overall?
AR: I always have a good time with Randy. ‘CBGB’ is our third film together, and he’s always very receptive to what actors bring. He works with what he’s given. So it’s a marketplace of ideas between him and his actors, and that makes it really enjoyable.
Q: Besides helming the film, Randall also co-wrote the script for ‘CBGB.’ Do you prefer working with directors who also wrote the screenplay?
AR: Well, you can have an immediate conversation about a line, and he’s always open to changing things. But I don’t have any feelings about whether or not the director should also write the script.
In some ways, I think it can be a problem, because sometimes it’s hard for writers to let go of their lines. I know that, because I’m currently editing my own film, and I’m one of the screenwriters on it. I can feel it when a line gets cut, but you also have to let them go. A film has a way of letting you know what it wants to be. So a lot of egos have to be left at the front door.
Q: Did you offer Randall any suggestions on lines you think Hilly would say while you were shooting, or improvise at all on the set?
AR: I can’t really remember. That side of things is always very fluid, as you find yourself saying, do I need to say that sentence? I think I’ve already said this in the same way in the scene, and we only need to say it once. To make things organic and fluid, Randy would say, “Try the scene without the link.” Or he would say, “I’d rather have it in.” Scene by scene, it was very fluid.
Q: Like you mentioned earlier, while Hilly first intended CBGB to feature country, bluegrass and blues music, the venue became a forum for American punk and New Wave bands like the Ramones, the Misfits, The Patti Smith Group, The Dead Boys, The B-52’s, Blondie, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts and Talking Heads. Were you familiar with that type of music at all before you shot the film?
AR: Well, of course I knew The Police, coming from England myself. I had an affinity to The Talking Heads, as I was an art and drama student during that time. I wasn’t a heavy-duty fan of punk music, but I certainly enjoyed hearing it when we were filming.
Q: Did you watch any performances of the bands who played at CBGB, to get an understanding of their music?
AR: Yes, I watched tapes of their concerts, everything I could get my hands on.
Q: The film will be released theatrically to coincide with the fast-growing CBGB Music Festival, which took place October 9-13, 2013 in New York City. ‘CBGB’ will make its festival premiere during the film portion of the festival-will you be attending the premiere?
AR: I was in New York to go to the the screening (on Tuesday, October 8). But then I almost immediately had to get back to work in England.
Q: There were over 500 bands that performed on 175 stages across the city, including Times Square and Brooklyn’s Barkley Center. Why do you think the punk genre still resonates with fans, as seen with the festival?
AR: There’s a great freedom to the beat of the music. There’s also an intellectual freedom with a lot of the lyrics, too. As Hilly said, they have something to say, and we really should listen. It has a definite point-of-view, and there’s a focused anger.
Q: Do you think that if CBGB opened today, it would attract the same type of fans and popularity as it did when it first opened?
AR: It would be shut down immediately by Health and Safety, if you get my meaning. (laughs) Every club now has an A, B or C rating stuck on it. CBGB would be closed overnight for being too filthy.
Q: What do you hope audiences, particularly fans of the punk genre, will take away from the film, which is now playing in theaters?
AR: I think they’ll get what I got, which is that the music’s great and celebratory. It’s like feeling your blood moving around your body in an unfamiliar way. We live in tasteful times, and it’s good to have that shaken up.