Interview: Director Jared Cohn Talks STREET SURVIVORS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE LYNYRD SKYNYRD PLANE CRASH
Lynyrd Skynyrd is arguably one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands ever, responsible for several indispensable tracks when you talk about genuine classics: just think “Free Bird”, “Sweet Home Alabama” or “Simple Man” for starters. In retrospect, it’s unbelievable that the main run of a band with such enduring impact only lasted little more than four years, considering that they released their first album in 1973 after being originally formed in 1964.
The story of Lynyrd Skynyrd is a tragic one: after starting at the bottom as a working-class band from the American South (Jacksonville, Florida), and working hard towards success (by 1976 they were playing massive shows, including the legendary one in Knebworth, England alongside The Rolling Stones), they suffered a plane accident on October 20, 1977, while they were traveling for a concert in support of their fifth record “Street Survivors”, which had been released just three days before. The band’s aircraft malfunctioned, ran out of fuel and ultimately crashed in a wooded area in Mississippi; six persons were killed in consequence, including frontman Ronnie Van Zant (who was just 29 at the time), backing singer Cassie Gaines and her brother, guitarist Steve Gaines.
Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash depicts the fatal accident that put an end to the first incarnation of Lynyrd Skynyrd (they eventually reformed in 1987 with Ronnie Van Zant’s younger brother Johnny as the lead vocalist). The film’s main particularity is that it’s told from the perspective of drummer Artimus Pyle (portrayed by Ian Shultis), who is one of the plane crash survivors.
After a long legal battle with other members of the band and their representatives, including Ronnie’s widow Judy Van Zant (who argued that they had a blood oath not to exploit the band’s name after the tragedy), Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash will finally be released today (June 30) on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital. Writer/director Jared Cohn gave ScreenAnarchy a lengthy interview, which you can read in full below.
ScreenAnarchy: As a film about a rock band, STREET SURVIVORS: THE TRUE STORY OF THE LYNYRD SKYNYRD PLANE CRASH is very peculiar because it’s told from the perspective of the drummer, in this case Artimus Pyle. How did you become involved with the project? Did you write it working together with Pyle or how was the process in the early stages?
Jared Cohn: The producer Brian Perera, he’s the CEO of Cleopatra Records, which they actually have Artimus Pyle in his current band signed to his record label. Brian and Cleopatra Records, they also make movies so I got to know Brian through them and then Brian connected Artimus and myself; we worked together on the script of his story but there’s also a lot of other books and documentaries about the same, so I did additional research reading and watching those, listening to interviews and reading interviews, of course listening to the music and that was really for me one of the creative influences: the music sort of helping guide the story and the characters. We shot it, I directed the film with great actors and that’s how that happened.
Like any film dealing with a true story it takes some liberties, but it’s pretty much close to what really happened, especially during the day of the crash. In that sense, how important was for you to put together all the facts for the movie?
Oh yeah, definitely very, very important to be historically accurate out of respect to what happened. That said, there were some things sort of consolidated that we took creative liberties but we didn’t change anything that happened, we sort of just combined a few things, not in what happens with the plane crash but in terms of building up the story and the characters, otherwise the movie would be too long, so we did that.
But in terms of what actually happened, it was interesting because there were different accounts from different people and that’s also a part of the history. I believe Artimus’ account, it’s true, because I know Artimus, he was a Marine, a very stand-up man with a lot of integrity and character.
At the same time, there were some other members, especially the widow [Judy Van Zant] of the lead singer, they have a bad relationship, a lot of bad blood, so she was saying that when the plane crashed that he [Pyle] ran away, that he was scared, but Artimus and most people agree that he was a hero in pulling people out of the crashed plane, saving lives.
There’s that interesting contradiction but I believe Artimus because he’s trained, he was the only one with any real survival training. Why would he run away scared? Doesn’t make sense anyway, where is he running to? He went to get help.
That’s the part when the film becomes a mini survival movie with Artimus. I read a piece on Rolling Stone in which they say there were other people with him trying to get help and so forth. You believe Artimus’ story but also you are taking some creative liberties, so how was the process to mix everything?
There were so many accounts, this one guy was saying that this guy was there, one guy was saying that this guy did that and this thing happened, and she died in his arms and then there were medical reports... so there was a lot of information, multiple accounts. But at the end of the day, Eric, this is Artimus’ story, you know? At the end of the day it’s important for me to tell the Artimus Pyle story, what he said.
I took everything else into consideration and I put pieces of that to fill out the story, when I was creating the world. But in terms of how things went down when that plane started to crash, it’s Artimus’ point of view. I sat with him, he was crying, thought it was emotional and there were tears; it’s impossible not to believe him, so I 100% believe everything that he said.
Like you said, it’s his story and it’s so personal, for example there’s the memory about his father, his relationship and last moment with the vocalist Ronnie, his pain as a survivor, and of course there’s also the actual presence of the real Artimus in those documentary-like scenes. How did that decision come to be?
It’s funny, that was really not meant to be originally, him appearing in the way we edited in there was actually not really intended to be like that from the beginning. I scripted just the intro, very quick intro of him addressing that there have been many accounts, and it was very important to me as a filmmaker to address that there are other accounts of the story so I wanted him on camera just to say “look, there has been many accounts of this story but I was there, this is my version.”
We set it up, with the shot set up there were a few things in the conversation that sort of went on and it became so interesting and then everyone was fascinated because a lot of people hasn’t seen him. So we decided to spend some extra time just talking and we got such great footage.
There was a whole behind the scenes feature-length making of the movie and we decided to intercut some of this footage into the movie; that kind of came together in the edit and I like that, personally I think it adds a lot of authenticity, but I would actually be interested to hear you as a film critic because it was sort of unorthodox.
In general, I felt it was a very peculiar rock biopic, for a way to say it, because we don’t usually see not only a particular point of view but the point of view of a drummer who came to the band later, he wasn’t the original drummer. That was peculiar for me right from the start; and seeing him, I thought it was cool.
Oh, cool man, yeah. It’s interesting because usually the biopic is about Freddie Mercury, you don’t get the story from the drummer. But they were all living there, along for the ride, and you can’t get a story from the frontman Ronnie Van Zant for obvious reasons.
I like also how the film starts at a very unconventional point: when the potential new drummer [Pyle] is auditioning for an already established, well-known band. That’s something I haven’t seen before.
Yeah, that was true, that’s a true story. The sequence, the editing is definitely unconventional storytelling but I think that like most true stories, there’s like structure in terms of writing, how to write a screenplay in books and blah blah blah, but I don’t buy into that, I mean I went to film school of course and read many screenwriting books and have written many scripts but I guess the point is: it would be silly to try and force the standard screenplay structure into something that doesn’t necessarily need it.
It was also interesting to see a little bit of the aftermath of the crash, those references to the involvement of the DEA and also when we get to understand that the record label didn’t help Artimus to pay his hospital bills. Where did this come from?
The record label... Artimus never signed any paperwork, he did a handshake deal with Ronnie Van Zant and that was it. Artimus is very independent, anti-authority, he didn’t want to sign on so everything was based on that handshake and Ronnie kept his word, they were best friends and all that Artimus needed was that handshake.
So when everything happened and Ronnie unfortunately passed, the record label didn’t come forward and provide any medical billing, any financial help, they just left them high and dry. That basically started a lot of the bad blood between Artimus and the label, still to this day some of the same people are involved, and that’s also part of the reason why they forced him to sign this blood oath; they forced him to sign it because they sort of said, “if you don’t sign this you won’t get any residuals or any money from any songs ever.” They held that out on him. They used the law against him.
With the DEA, that was pretty simple: he just had ginseng on him, this was before people really knew what ginseng was, so the DEA, they just flagged it, they thought it was heroin or whatever illegal drug, they just basically called him out. That was in bad taste on the part of the DEA, I mean they were doing their job, I’m not saying the DEA was in the wrong or right, but that’s just what happened.
But the record label, that was really kind of a not very good way to handle matters from a band that’s making millions of dollars, for your record label to not pay medical bills.
I have seen that documentary about the band [IF I LEAVE HERE TOMORROW: A FILM ABOUT LYNYRD SKYNYRD] and in your film pretty much just with one sequence, that of the show when they play “Call Me the Breeze” and then they party, you capture part of the essence that is known: they partied hard, used drugs, the classic stuff with women, Ronnie used to get into fights and trouble with the law and so forth. Considering how much of your movie is based on the day of the plane crash, how important was for you to use these few scenes to really capture that part of the rock star success and attitude of Ronnie and the band?
Yeah, I think is important. I wanted to show who these guys were in their own element and less of a talking head, I wanted it to just kind of feel really real and raw. All those moments were from my interviews with Artimus and what I read about.
Some things I put in there that people didn’t necessarily want to hear, like for instance the Confederate flag, I wanted to address that especially now, they’re banning them but it was important for me because a lot of people can say “there was a Confederate flag, they’re racists and anyone who listens to Lynryd Skynyrd is possibly racist because they have the Confederate flag.”
But that was a marketing tool that the record label was like “hey, do this and you’ll really win over your fans more.” I wanted to address that Ronnie said himself “it’s not racism, it’s Southern pride”, and perhaps I should have explained more about it being more about the record label having them do it.
You have to care for the characters, I wanted the audience to get to know them and care for them, which hopefully happens a little bit.
This part with the Confederate flag and also the Aerosmith thing or the fact that Ronnie said that he was going to die before 30. What is the challenge when incorporating these real facts, these little nods and references, to the actual script through dialog or a scene like the one with the party?
I guess the challenge was: where should you say this, how should you say this, because you don’t want to put all in one scene but you also want to make it feel organic. It was part of the screenwriting process and part of working with the actors and kind of filling it out, trying different takes and different moments. But I worked on that screenplay really long, a lot of time, table reads with the actors, talking with Artimus.
And also there’s a guy named Dean Goodman who wrote Artimus’ book [Street Survivor: Keeping the Beat in Lynryd Skynyrd], he’s a very prestigious rock ‘n’ roll historian and I worked with him as a consultant because he wrote books on many, many bands, that’s what he does for a living. He helped me, I went over to his place, he lives in Hollywood, he’s English, and we sat together and he gave me really good insight, very smart man. He knew, like, which band member drank what kind of drink, little nuances that I started to sprinkle in the film.
The first cut of the movie was almost three-hours long. It really came down to, at the end of it, letting it go. We brought in another editor because I did my cut but it was too long. The decision was made and I agreed with it, you got to let some fresh eyes come up on it and shape it up, to cut some things out. Nobody really wanted a movie that was over two hours long. You can make a great movie that’s over two hours long but that wasn’t the direction.
The dialog constantly makes reference to what’s about to happen, the tragedy. I felt there was some dark humor, for instance when the co-pilot says that he can die in peace because he will fly with rock stars...
He actually said that! He actually said “my dream is to fly around rock stars and then I can die, die a happy man.”
OK! I didn’t know that.
Yeah, when I heard that I said “that’s got to be in there.”
There are a few dark moments, maybe one or two of them, maybe too much, I don’t know. I didn’t intend a view like that until I really saw it with an audience. It’s interesting you said humor, yeah, I guess it is in the dark humor, I like that, I like how you put that.
The actual plane crash scene, it’s chaotic, we have the co-pilot acting in a very bad way, some of the band members who didn’t really want to fly but Ronnie thought the opposite, there’s tension and drama. I think it’s ultimately a pretty effective sequence. What were the difficulties when shooting what I think is the key sequence of the film?
Yeah, I agree, that sequence I think is definitely the key. Ultimately it’s a movie about a plane crash; yes, it’s a rock band and this and that, but that really sets the cinematic experience of the audience.
I wanted to make it scary and violent and truthful, I mean, a plane crash where a lot of people died and especially hearing it from Artimus, “this thing happened and then that and then that”, is not a quick thing, is not like the plane just blew up, it ran out of gas so you’re up there really high and this is slowly, slowly... things just breaking down, it’s not a bullet to the head, it’s a slow descent into the ground and every minute feels like an hour.
I’m glad you said it’s effective, that’s good, that’s ultimately the goal, right? It’s to tell an effective story, I like that word.
Talking about the music, this is certainly a so-called unofficial, unauthorized by the band film so we don’t get to hear the classics. Still there’s this cover of “Call Me the Breeze”, for example. How did you approach the musical part of the movie?
Yes, I mean, I really wish we could’ve gotten the hits, “Free Bird”, “Sweet Home Alabama”, so many hits. The honest answer is I wish we could’ve had them. Due to the legal battle and the bad blood from Judy Van Zant, she made it impossible for us to get the songs.
But “Call Me the Breeze” is written by J.J. Cale, that’s the only cover that they really ever did and that became known as a Lynyrd Skynyrd song to some extent; they made the song popular, even though J.J. Cale’s version is excellent. We were very lucky to be able to get “Calle Me the Breeze”, but yeah, I know a lot of fans, a lot of people are gonna say “oh, it’s not official” and kind of frown on it. The only thing I would say is: watch the movie, if you don’t wanna watch it don’t watch it. We couldn’t get it.
Major studios have tried to work out a deal with Judy Van Zant to do a Lynyrd Skynyrd movie and she couldn’t come to terms with them because she wanted more money or this or that. So if major studios were trying to make a big film and couldn’t work out a deal with her, at that point is basically impossible to work out a deal with this person who, unfortunately, owns the ability to whether or not we can use the songs.
Honestly, I would’ve like to have had the support of the Estate but as independent filmmakers, especially with Artimus being really the only person still alive other than Gary [Rossington] who’s from the original lineup... you have to sort of make the movie soon otherwise it’s not going to be much time left possibly. Brian from Cleopatra was brave enough to produce the movie knowing that there could potentially be a strike back from the Estate and there was.
That legal battle is well documented, but now that the film is going to be released, what do you expect to be the reactions of both the fans and the members of the band that didn’t support this project?
In terms of reactions from the fans or the audience, whether or not they’re big fans or heard a song or two, at the end of the day I wanted it to be a good film for everybody, for someone who maybe never even heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd. But obviously people are going to want to see the movie because they know the band to some extent. How are they going to respond? I have no idea, they could say it’s the worst film ever or they could say they really liked it.
I think the people that didn’t like us making the film, no matter what they’re not going to like the film, because “they don’t have the music, Artimus is a liar”, they’ll say whatever they got to say. I know there’s going to be some negative feedback, there already has been, but there’s also a lot of people that are supportive of Artimus; he’s been the most vocal about it, he was on Howard Stern and this and that. I guess time will tell what people will say.
Since I was a teenager I’ve always really liked Lynyrd Skynyrd but now I feel closer to their music, it’s amazing. Yet for me is impossible not to think in the tragedy, it’s obviously very sad. How do you feel about the band now that you’ve worked with their story? And also, do you have some favorite songs or albums that you want to share?
Yeah, when you listen to “Simple Man”, the lyrics are just so beautiful. Then you hear “On the Hunt” or "Saturday Night Special”, man, the lyricism of them... they say a lot in such few words, it’s poetry, Ronnie wrote like in an easy to understand way, there are nuances and subtext that comes out. And you’re right, when I was much younger and I heard them, I heard the beat and you kind of rock out to it, but when you get older same thing happened to me: I appreciated the lyrics more, especially the more I listen to it.
The music played a part because I was writing and listening to this nonstop. They have a lot of songs, there’s a lot of them and some of these like deep cuts, “Swamp Music”... you become more appreciative of the music. I think that’s why the music holds up, because it’s classic, it really is classic rock, timeless, what they’re saying is timeless, the message is universally true and for the human experience.