Luanna Anders gives Night Flight an exclusive inside look the 1987 indie cult film “Border Radio”

By on October 5, 2015

In the wee small hours of FRIDAY morning, October 9, 2015 (3:45am ET/12:15am PT, check your local listings), Turner Classic Movies will be airing the rarely-seen-on-TV 1987 indie film Border Radio as the final film of the night honoring Independent Women Filmmakers.

The film is very special to us here at Night Flight because it features our contributor Chris D. in a starring role, and it was co-directed by our friend Allison Anders, who recently gave us this exclusive preview of the interview that will air this Thursday evening as part of this month’s “Trailblazing Women” schedule of films.

Today we have another exclusive for you from her sister, another one of the other stars of Border Radio, Luanna Anders, who wrote up a truly epic remembrance about the film, which you’ll find below.

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Another regular Night Flight contributor Chris Morris wrote a definitive essay about the film (“Border Radio: Where Punk Lived”) for the deluxe Criterion Collection DVD, which was released back in 2007, and he’s graciously allowed us to excerpt some of it here as an introduction:

“Border Radio (1987) was the first feature by three UCLA film students: Allison Anders, Kurt Voss, and Dean Lent. The subsequent work of both Anders and Voss would resonate with echoes from Border Radio and its musical milieu. Anders’s Gas Food Lodging (1992), Mi vida loca (1993), Grace of My Heart (1996), Sugar Town (1999), and Things Behind the Sun (2001) all draw to some degree from music and pop culture. (She quotes her mentor Wim Wenders’s remark about making The Scarlet Letter: “There were no jukeboxes. I lost interest.”)

Voss, who co-wrote and codirected Sugar Town, also wrote and directed Down & Out with the Dolls (2001), a fictional feature about an all-girl band; and in 2006, he was completing Ghost on the Highway, a documentary about Jeffrey Lee Pierce, the late vocalist for the key L.A. punk group the Gun Club.

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The three filmmakers met at UCLA in the early eighties, after Anders and Voss had worked as production assistants on Wenders’s Paris, Texas. By that time, Anders and Voss, then a couple, were habitués of the L.A. club milieu; they favored the hard sound of such punk acts as X, the Blasters, the Flesh Eaters, the Gun Club, and Tex & the Horseheads.

The neophyte writer-directors, who by 1983 had made a couple of short student films, formulated the idea of building an original script around a group of figures in the L.A. punk demimonde.

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Border Radio—which takes its title, and no little script inspiration, from a Blasters song (sung on the soundtrack by Rank & File’s Tony Kinman)—was conceived as a straight film noir. Vestiges of that origin can be seen in the finished film. Its lead character bears the name Jeff Bailey, also the name of Robert Mitchum’s doomed character in Jacques Tourneur’s 1947 noir Out of the Past; its Mexican locations also reflect a key setting in that bleak picture.

One sequence features a pedal-boat ride around the same Echo Park lagoon where Jack Nicholson’s J. J. Gittes does some surveillance in Roman Polanski’s 1974 neonoir Chinatown; Chinatown itself—a hotbed of L.A. punk action in the late seventies and early eighties—features prominently in another scene.

Certainly, Border Radio’s heist-based plot and the multiple betrayals its central foursome inflict upon each other are the stuff of purest noir. But the film diverges from its source in its largely sunlit cinematography and its explosions of punk humor; Anders, Voss, and Lent also abandoned plans to kill off the film’s lead female character.”

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Here’s our exclusive remembrance from our friend Luanna Anders:

Border Radio started out as a UCLA film project for three student co-director’s, my sister Allison Anders, her live-in boyfriend at the time Kurt Voss, and Dean Lent.

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Allison and Kurt met Dean at UCLA and they shared similar tastes and styles in filmmaking. I’m not sure why or how it came about that all three wanted to co-direct this project, but having previously worked for all three of them separately in their student films I knew how each of them directed and was quite comfortable working for them.

It was my second year at UCLA having transferred from Valley Community College as a History major, and although film studies was not my major, all of my friends were film majors so the Film Department at UCLA was where I spent most of my time. Having acted in many of their of previous student films, usually short films no longer than 10 minutes in length, when they approached me to act in this film project with the understanding that this film would be considerably longer (my thought was maybe 30-40 minutes in length) my answer was a natural yes.

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The original storyline I was given centered on a rather dark in plot noir-ish love triangle of obsession, betrayal and eventual murder, between myself and my sister, played by a UCLA student Tinka Menkes, (her sister Nina Menkes was a film student at UCLA and went on to make many brilliant films, usually with Tinka as her lead actress), and a theatre student who I had acted with a few times in other student projects, Chris Shearer. We all met and script pages co-written by Allison, Kurt and Dean were delivered and rehearsals began, and a few scenes shot.

One scene in particular that was memorable was a scene of the three of us sitting at the counter at Millie’s cafe in Silver Lake. The photography was stunningly beautiful in this scene, rich grainy black and white exterior images shot through the window of the three of us inside Millie’s. A very noir feel but sadly this scene and footage would eventually be cut with countless others as the storyline changed drastically.

Equipment from UCLA film dept. was checked out and used for all film student projects and the division of labor for this film went as follows: Dean Lent on camera, Kurt Voss on sound; Lighting, set decoration, clap board, script girl, etcetra was a collaborative effort, principally by the directors and any ‘crew’ who would be working with us for the day and at times the actors as well.

There were times that it just logistically made sense for one of the actors to clap the board for the scene and then perform it! Locations were whatever and wherever we could find or ask favors to use; streets, our houses, etc., in fact what would eventually become my house in the final Border Radio was Dean Lent’s apartment in Echo Park.

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Having three director’s and three different styles of directing really added such richness to the look and feel of Border Radio throughout the three years of production. The often ‘director huddle’ would become the dread of all actors however when scenes would need to go in another direction, and I and my co-actors would shudder in fear and wait and wait for the new plan decided when the huddle broke up. Sometimes an entire new scene would be written on the spot, sometimes a total ad lib and improv by the actors would happen just to get the film in the can.

Allison directed like a Goddess Mother, her direction was always supportive and gentle, and guiding, a hand-holding you to the information, emotion and content needed to be conveyed. She is without doubt the heartbeat of Border Radio, the reason why this film means something to the viewer.

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Kurt tended to direct more linearly, with very specific directions on movement etc., and there were times when that approach was very much needed. He brought the cast in line when we wanted to stray away from script. Dean was the artful director, his eye for construction was superb and the ‘look’ of Border Radio is Dean’s brilliant vision.

The three of them worked seamlessly together, each with their own gift breathing a rich life into the images and words from the script sheets. If one director had made Border Radio we wouldn’t be talking about this film today.

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They seemed to understand when one director needed to take control of a particular scene. For instance, there was a scene in Mexico between Chris D. and I that was really not going where it needed to go. In the scene we had had an argument earlier in the day about why he was choosing to stay in Mexico and me trying to urge him to come home to be with me and our daughter in Los Angeles. The evening scene we were to ‘make up’ with a slow dance with loving words exchanged.

Well, it wasn’t working. The ‘director huddle’ commenced and Allison pulled me aside and said, ‘okay just go with this, it’s a make up scene, you’re softening to him now, let go of the previous anger to get him to back to you, hear a soul song in your mind when you dance with him and let it take you.’

Kurt on sound, Dean behind the camera, Allison called action, the lights were dimmed and the scene went flawlessly, when she called ‘cut’ the room was silent and when I turned to her to see if we had succeeded, she was crying and applauded. She then said, ‘well that went well!’ Ha! A great relief, we all laughed, but unfortunately that wonderful scene would eventually be cut when the storyline changed. It was her direction that made the scene work so beautifully.

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Shortly after the initial script and first scenes were filmed a new character and actor was brought in through a meeting and friendship with Kurt Voss, Chris D. of the Los Angeles band The Flesheaters. Once Chris D. was on board the beginnings and major changes of what Border Radio was to become began to take shape. Having screened some footage of the scenes we had shot for UCLA professors, Allison, Kurt and Dean were advised (I believe) that what they had shot thus far was impressive enough to try to make a feature length film and they were basically given a green light to pursue a grander scale film and at this point the script was revised.

The new storyline took on a deeper noir flavor with Chris D. and I married with a daughter, he a musician, I a music critic, in the punk scene in Los Angles. He takes off to Mexico for reasons unclear, I try to find out why he has left me while his best friend, hero-worshipper, and roadie hanger on Chris Shearer becomes increasingly sinister and tries to take over Chris D.’s life by seducing me, starting a band of his own with Chris D.’s. bandmates, duplicating his tattoos, etc…(many of these plot lines remained in the final film). Chris Shearer’s obsession eventually takes the ultimate form of murder in Mexico when he comes face to face with me reuniting with Chris D. and kills me.

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The script now fully flushed out, we began shooting on a regular schedule. Because most of us were students, our shooting schedule was mostly regulated to weekends and evenings. Allison and I were both single parents at the time, her two daughters and my two sons all below the age of ten, babysitters were often hard to come by, and many times our kids were on set for entire shoots.

Oftentimes Allison’s daughters would camp in the UCLA editing room at night while Allison cut scenes! A labor of love indeed! Additionally budget concerns were hugely problematic! Although we had access to UCLA film equipment and a certain amount of film stock, once this became a full length feature project, the budget naturally exceeded what UCLA would provide to student projects.

Personal funds and loans were taken out and seed money was sought from anyone the director’s knew to buy more film stock and print what we had shot. It wasn’t unusual to watch dailies a month to two months after a scene was filmed.

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Likewise once we began filming in Mexico, a new set of issues arose. We had a location, a trailer home on the beach which was loaned to us through a friend of Allison’s, however, being students, no permits were sought for filming in Mexico, so crossing the border with film equipment smuggled in large travel bags was always fearsome!

We always had Dean drive the equipment car because out of all us, with his short hair and boyish good looks we assumed rightly that he would never be suspected as a guerrilla filmmaker! Kurt however was never allowed to drive any equipment, his long hair guaranteed a pullover every single trip! It became the Border Radio border joke not to follow Kurt’s car too closely but wait for him across the line!

At this point, my rough guess would put the timeline approximately 6-9 months into shooting, Chris D. enlisted fellow friends and bandmates John Doe and Dave Alvin — of the highly acclaimed L.A. band’s X and The Blasters respectively — to be actors in the project. The new talent brought new changes to the script and likewise many other L.A punk scene musician/actors, bands etc… Iris Berry, Texacala Jones from Tex and the Horseheads, Julie Christensen, Green On Red, and Los Lobos to name a few now were part of the Border Radio story. Principal character story lines were written for John Doe and Dave Alvin and the production value having them attached to this film began to soar.

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Additionally, the music contributions from all the brilliant musicians now involved gave Border Radio not only the title of the film, but a poignant superb soundtrack that puts it’s stamp on the flavor and meaning of what Border Radio the film would eventually become. What began as a dark noir murder/love story student film, would eventually become a representing story of the the music and independent film sub-cultures sweeping the country in the mid ’80s. The inclusion of L.A. punk icons bridged these two art genres and gave voice to the ending punk scene and rise of indie filmmaking all over the world.

Border Radio became the symbol of art change within it’s framework of storytelling, a defining moment in time of the changing guards in both art forms. The relevance, convergence, and collaboration of musicians, filmmakers, and actors sets Border Radio apart from other indie films in this respect.

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With quality preliminary scenes now shot and cut, and three major musicians from Los Angeles bands attached to the film as actors, the director’s pieced together a show reel to seek out seed money for the rest of the production. A screening was set up at UCLA and potential backers invited, it would also be the first time John Doe would meet us and see the film he was about to become a a part of.

At the time I was dating Steve Landsburg, the ‘manny’/caretaker of Ethan Browne, folk singer Jackson Browne’s little boy. Jackson Browne was dating Daryl Hannah during this period and my boyfriend Steve had mentioned our project to her several times. She was interested in finding an independent project to back and came to the screening.

Also and more importantly in attendance at this screening was German director Wim Wenders. My sister Allison had a long standing friendship with Wim and his input, encouragement and help would eventually prove immeasurable to the making of Border Radio.

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I remember feeling a tremendous rush with all of these people in that screening room, knowing that this little student film had just at that moment become something bigger, much much bigger than I ever would have imagined. The mix of pride and terror was all consuming! Could we pull this off? Could this be any bigger than this moment?

We had all been such fans of the people in this room and to have yourself and your work watched and judged, that extreme vulnerability of putting your work out there to be looked at is terrifying and utmost rewarding at the same time! Sitting next to me was Allison, next to her was John Doe, whom I had never met, but whom my sister and I had crushed and gushed over so many times when we had seen X play in the clubs we would eventually shoot scenes in.

I remember her introducing me to John, and then after the polite hellos, her turning to me, flashing a ‘OMG, it’s John Doe, isn’t he fucking gorgeous’ sister look with her eyes and me just cautiously under the radar, out of sight, answering her back with a hand fanning the heat off my brow gesture! Kurt Voss always referred to these nonverbal hand signals and eye movements between Allison and I as ‘sister spy talk’! Comes in handy at times such as these!

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The search for funding became a constant pursuit in the three years to complete Border Radio. Many contributor’s of small amounts to larger amounts would become the Patron Saints of Border Radio. We would have a week of cash, buy more film stock, and rush to Mexico to shoot. A trip to NY in search of funding was once made by Allison, Kurt and I in the early fall of 1985, I don’t think it was very fruitful, but we did see Tom Waits walking down the street early one morning and to me that was worth the hunt!

Another money beg adventure I was involved in was in the summer of 1986 when my boyfriend and I went to Europe during summer break at UCLA. By this time Wim Wenders had become a pivotal supporter to Border Radio and had once related a story to Allison about a time when he had been in the same situation of film funding woes and had signed one of his film posters and sold it on Hollywood Boulevard for 100 dollars! Knowing I was planning on being in Berlin, Allison arranged for me to meet Wim in his office to say hello and maybe ask if there was anything he could do for us in terms of funding.

I spent the afternoon with Wim in Berlin, and he graciously told me his views on film, gave me wonderful tips on acting, suggesting to always stay natural and true to myself and NEVER overact, and then as a wonderful gesture of the related story he had told Allison regarding his poster, he took me into his storage room, where he signed dozens and dozens of his posters from all of his films, loaded them in poster canisters for me to bring back and said although he didn’t know if the posters would be of any use, he was hoping they would at least get our film stock out of the lab!

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With new characters John Doe (Dean) and Dave Alvin (Dave) script changes were imperative once again. My character Lu still married to Chris D. (Jeff Bailey, a noir nod to the Out Of The Past‘s Robert Mitchum character) no longer must die in the end, a grateful relief to me! Now the plot includes a reason why Jeff high tails it to Mexico giving John Doe and Dave Alvin their principal roles as bandmates/co-conspirators (along with Chris Shearer) of a non-lucrative safe break-in of a club owner who owed them money.

It is now my character’s purpose to find the money, solve the case, clear names, pay back the money, clean up the mess, and get my man back home. Without intention Border Radio becomes a female heroine story mixed with music scene sub plots and really a story about the failings of a marriage mirroring the ending of the a subculture altogether. Once this story was finalized, shooting began (budget permitting) in all earnest and fluently. By this time Wim had secured seed money from German TV and I believe there were other backers as well and we were able to roll camera more frequently.

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Roughly 2+ years into production, the cast changes, the script revisions, the financial set backs etc one can imagine the continuity issues we faced filming Border Radio. Basics like aging actors, actors trying to remember what script we were working from, and for me personally beginning the film with very long hair to the bottom of my back, meant keeping it that length for the duration of the production. Each year my bangs would be a different length and there was no getting around the fact that the age of production matched my various bang lengths!

Additionally, as more locations were found, the main music clubs like The Hong Kong Cafe in Chinatown for instance, meant that wardrobe, which consisted of things found in our closets, had to be saved and remembered and still fit for 3 years for possible re-shoots.

A great example of this is a re-shoot of John Doe for a scene where he is hitchhiking out his desert hide away back to Los Angeles and the plaid flannel he wore in the original scene is not the same plaid at all in the re-shoot that occurred a year later. But both the original and re-shoot of the scene are used in the film so likewise he’s wearing two distinctly different flannels for the same scene!

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What I marvel at in the making of Border Radio was the level of commitment from everyone involved. Our tenacity and love to see this film through despite so many set backs and pitfalls speaks to the knowledge that everyone working on Border Radio knew the importance this film would have when completed. We sensed it was going to be something special and relevant. The level of talent on this production was very evident.

Everyone donated their time and expertise, their unrelenting faith in this film and what it would mean to be a part of a burgeoning new wave of American Independent filmmaking made this a penultimate experience when it was released theatrically. It launched directors, musicians to actors, and carved a space for more independent filmmakers to try and find their own voice and vision in the U.S.

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After Border Radio I personally sought out a career in acting, not having any formal training in acting, I began taking acting lessons and started the arduous process of interviewing for a potential agent. A sobering introduction to the real world of the film industry coming from the soft cocoon of independent filmmaking was a rough transition for me. Agents wanted to bleach my hair blonde, straighten my teeth, give me new size D boobs and within a year I could be making commercials to start out.

I had just been the lead actress in a film that was still running in theaters across the U.S., had won prizes in festivals, and was still getting glowing reviews, it was tough medicine to swallow.

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I remember the day I went to the last agent interview, months after Border Radio had been released. A wonderful man with snow white hair, who had been in the business for decades, had represented the best A-list stars, listened to my credits, read my wonderful reviews, profusely complimented my 8×10 glossy and then taking my fledgling hand in his and said the immortal words: ‘My dear is this what you really want to do’?, he continued, ‘you have a great beginning, you’ve had some success, but look over there’, he pointed to a table with stack upon stack of 8×10 glossies, cautiously he said with a sweet smile, ‘they all want to be actresses too, and I have 300 girls your age who look just like you and who have more experience, when you have decided that this work is for you, we will talk again’.

I left and understood the great gift he had given me, a way out of the mainstream film world, a world up until Border Radio I hadn’t even slightly been seduced by.

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In 2006, Border Radio was selected to become part of the esteemed Criterion Collection. A new DVD print was released and along with the beautiful print, bonus features were added including outtakes, and commentaries by the directors and actors. As Chris Shearer and I sat in the recording booth watching Border Radio on the screen,viewing this gorgeous new print, talking about our experience, re=telling the stories and anecdotes, I was struck by the timelessness of this film. It still plays well. It has not become a dated cult picture like so many others in this genre.

And I believe there are several reasons for this. You have to know how to tell a story. Our writers, Allison, Kurt and Dean are brilliant writers. They knew the importance of character development and content. They knew plot lines, when to push the story when to pull back. They also knew how get their actors to perform their story, how to pull the emotion from us, they helped us find the balance between our own reality and the reality we had to create in our character.

As a writer/director, you have to allow the actor the freedom to find this balance within him/herself and not dictate that the role must only be your way.

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You have to have a story to tell. All three of these writers knew the magic of letting the story tell them what is was meant to be. When you force a story in filmmaking, it will show as a stifled stiff movie and the audience will feel it. Filmmaking must allow the story to tell itself to be real.

Our writers knew this, they practice this and they collaborate with their actors on how to achieve this. It’s this natural flow that gives Border Radio its timeless heart. A story that is loose enough to be believed and bought, and actors who have invested their own reality into the story and their performance, is the recipe for all great memorable films. You can see it, feel it, touch it, and be touched by it.

I’m very proud of this film. I’m honored to have been a part of such a ground breaking film that has stood the test of time and is still regaled as a superb movie. Would I ever do this again? Oh well, if I could have the three directors back, a couple of years to shoot, a skinny, skinny budget and the promise of something spellbinding and important in the end, … yes, in a heartbeat!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Kevin Keane

    I had a pinkie finger in on this, post production, and I’ve always been proud and excited to be a part of it. Again, to see your rock star heroes in something you’re part of is a special thrill. I knew it was a little tortured and had heard a bit about it but getting your deep take on the making is fun to hear, a little movie in my head to solve the backstory noir.
    Crushes were had in post also and having pored over the film more than a few times you were mine. (Fans heat off brow.) Not sure how to describe my reaction when the agent mentioned straightening your teeth but I’m glad you took his other advice.
    Great storytelling then and great storytelling now. Thanks Luanna.

  • Luanna

    Kevin, Thank you very much for the kind words and sentiments! Lu