“Smithereens”: Susan Seidelman’s first film was set in a toxic world of punk, pimps & broken dreams

By on June 23, 2017

In the early ’80s, Susan Seidelman’s Smithereens was a huge hit with late-night TV viewers of “Night Flight” who weren’t likely to see the film being aired on any other cable channel at the time.

A lengthy excerpt from the low-budget dingy NYC-centered story — which chronicles a Jersey girl’s attempt to grab her fifteen minutes of fame in a toxic world of punk, pimps and broken dreams, meeting up with punk icon Richard Hell along the way  — was also featured in our “Take Off to Rock and Cult,” which originally aired on March 25, 1985. It’s now streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

SMITHEREENS27

Seidelman shot the punk-infused dark comedy Smithereens guerilla-style, without bothering to get film location permits (she says she didn’t know she needed them) all around NYC, with a cast and crew who were mostly former NYU classmates of hers.

SMITHEREENS21

She found Susan Berman in the theater crowd in an off-Broadway play and selected her to play Wren, the 19-year old girl from New Jersey who runs away to Big Apple to join the punk rock music scene, even though she doesn’t appear to have much actual talent.

Berman had no previous acting experience and had never worked on a film.

She once told an interviewer, “The only ones in the crowd were friends of the actors, or someone who knew someone who was involved. After the performance, these two people walked up to me and offered me a role in a feature length movie.”

SMITHEREENS11

Giulietta Massina in Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria

Seidelman had her watch Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria — a film set in post-war Italy that she’d seen as a student at NYC — in order to research her role, later telling an interviewer: “It’s about a woman who is trying to reinvent herself. She makes mistakes, she has some bad judgment in men, but she always bounces back.”

SMITHEREENS22

Another film she’d probably seen as a student, 1950’s All About Eve, inspired the screenplay to Smithereens, which was co-written first-timer Ron Nyswaner (who would later pen the Oscar-nominated screenplay to Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia) and Peter Askin from a story by Seidelman.

Here’s the film’s trailer for the Blue Underground DVD release:

Seidelman — born in Philadelphia — had already graduated from Philly-based Drexel University’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1973.

SMITHEREENS3

Susan Seidelman

She had originally sought a career as a fashion-designer, telling the Filmmaker blog:

“I thought I wanted to be a fashion designer. I had an interest in fashion and graphic design, then realized that I wanted the fashions and graphics to move, and I loved music. A combination of those things led me into wanting to go to film school and become a filmmaker.”

She was really drawn into NYU’s filmmaking program after taking a film appreciation class for fun, which ended up exposing her to the films of European directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, and Ingmar Bergman, and independent filmmakers, like John Cassavetes. She was just nineteen at the time.

She’d worked at Philadelphia’s UHF-TV station, but decided New York was where she needed to be, so she’d enrolled at NYU’s graduate film program, which was, at the time, located on East 7th Street and Second Avenue in an East Village tenement building where the Fillmore East rock venue was also located.

SMITHEREENS9

She admits she was a little out of her depth, at first, later telling People magazine in 1985 (the same year of our “Take Off to Rock and Cult” episode aired) that it seemed everyone else “had seen fifty billion German Expressionist movies, so I started going to five or six movies a week to catch up.”

Seidelmen made her first student film, And You Look Like One Too, in 1976, which was given an award in the Chicago International Film Festical, and graduated from the film program in 1979, setting her sights on making her first feature.

At the time, NYC’s burgeoning punk rock music movement seemed like a good setting for her story, and she hoped that Smithereens could capture the vibe of the dwindling Lower East side punk milieu in all its gritty, graffiti-tagged glory.

SMITHEREENS26

The film follows Wren, a young, self-involved self-promoter — often seen wearing brightly colored fishnet stockings, a checkerboard-patterned plastic miniskirt, and sneakers or glittery silver ankle boots — who travels from New Jersey to the bohemian underworld of New York City with big-eyed dreams of becoming a star, which may or may not involve music in some way.

It doesn’t really matter that she can’t really sing, has never really written any songs, and hasn’t bothered to learn how to play any instruments. Wren doesn’t feel like she needs any of those particular skill sets, she simply just wants to be herself.

SMITHEREENS6

Seidelman has said that she called her character Wren because she saw her as “just this little birdlike character who keeps trying to land somewhere.”

She gets a job in a Kinkos-style photocopy store, where she makes Xerox copies of a photo of herself — with the caption “Who Is This?” printed ransom-note-style — and, hoping to create a little mystery about herself, she hangs them up in NYC’s gritty subway system, only to realize later that no one seems to care.

SMITHEREENS19

Wren was originally planned out to be a kind of punk rock Holly Golightly character, which was inspired by Seidelman’s vision of what she expected New York City to be like after repeated viewings of yet another favorite movie of hers, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, telling one interviewer:

“I remember watching that many, many times and thinking that’s a movie about a girl who comes from someplace else who gets to live in this magic place. There’s a darker side in the Truman Capote novella, but I found that fascinating, too. The idea that a young woman could go somewhere and re-create herself, that she could live the life she imagined she wanted to live. Tiffany’s is the uptown version of Wren’s story.”

SMITHEREENS12

She maneuvers her way through the late 70s/early 80s punk scene, charming her pissed-off landlady and cutting lines and ditching doormen to get into clubs like the Peppermint Lounge, NYC’s remaining punk hot spot, only to find out the vibrant music scene she craves to be a part of has mostly moved out to L.A.

Along the way, she gets involved with a handful of young men, one of which is too-nice guy Paul (Brad Rinn), who hails from Montana but he’s in the middle of a road trip and has briefly taken up residence in the city before heading on to New England.

SMITHEREENS25

The other and more likely potential boyfriend is the more stable Eric (Richard Hell), an arrogant, narcissistic punk rock musician and hurtful ladies man who fronts a band called Smithereens who we’re led to believe are on the cusp of greatness, possibly.

If Wren were around today, she’d probably be taking selfies with her iPhone 8 (or whatever number Apple are up to now), but since this is 1982, we see her snapping Polaroids of herself with Richard Hell’s photo, postered on the wall of his loft apartment.

SMITHEREENS13

Wren plays the two men off eachother, using them just as they both use her, and after she is evicted from her apartment, she ping-pongs between ladies man Eric’s loft and Paul’s van, which is parked in the middle of a heap of abandoned rubble by the West Side Highway, a diurnal and dingy locale notable for its prostitutes and pimps (the film features great art director by Franz Harland).

Eventually she thinks the best move is to hook up with Eric, because he seems like her best ticket out of New York, trading the Lower East Side for Los Angeles.

SMITHEREENS4

Wren — and by the way, the original tagline for the film was: “She was a legend in her own mind…” — would later be described by film critic Dave Kehr of the Chicago Reader this way:

“Wren, in her self-delusion, manipulativeness, and superficiality, easily ranks as one of the most obnoxious characters in film history, and she exerts a strange fascination.”

SMITHEREENS30

Speaking of characters, some of the smaller roles in the film are incredibly entertaining, including Hell’s character’s bizarre roommate Billy (Roger Jett) and Wren’s friend Cecile (Nada Despotovich).

Be sure to also keep an eye out for Cookie Mueller (of many great John Waters movies) who shows up as an actress being attacked by a parasitic monster in the black & white horror movie that Wren and Paul go to see on their date at the St. Marks Theatre.

SMITHEREENS18

Also, be sure to keep a lookout for actor Chris Noth (“Mr. Big” from HBO’s “Sex and the City”), who plays a hooker in drag.

Speaking of hookers, one of our favorite scenes is where a hooker comes into Paul’s van to eat her egg salad sandwich and ends up sharing it with him.

Katherine Riley (credited as “1st Hooker”) appears in just the one scene (two if you count a brief shot of her near the end), but we loved how she kept offering to turn tricks with a very disinterested Paul, even offering to show him her special scar for five bucks.

SMITHEREENS20

Seidelman began working as a freelance editor and production assistant — editing TV commercials for Jordache Jeans along the way — and began setting aside money to fund her film project.

When her grandmother passed away, leaving her money which was meant to help pay for Seidelman’s future wedding, she put that money towards the film’s limited budget. She also sold some limited shares of stocks she owned.

All total, she ended up having about $20,000 for the film’s budget to start with, which mainly went to renting camera equipment (she shot Smithereens on 16mm, which was later blown up to 35mm for theatrical prints), film stock and film lab expenses.

SMITHEREENS23

Since she’d kept in touch with her friends from NYU’s film community, she convinced some of her classmates, local musicians, and starving artists to work on the film, donating their time and talents to work as crew and cast.

Principal photography began in the spring of ’79, and right from the start, production on the film was troubled with problems of one type or another, including Susan Berman falling from a fire escape and breaking her leg during rehearsals, which caused a break in the filming until she was healthy again.

The production stretched out over a period of a year and a half, and Seidelman’s relatively small budget quadrupled during that time (reportedly ending up around $80,000), causing lots of delays, and there were even more delays when Seidelman decided to replace her leading man with Richard Hell.

SMITHEREENS29

(You can read Seidelman’s own account of the mishaps in her excellent piece, “Sets and the City: On the History of Smithereens” on the Filmmaker blog site).

Hell’s role of Eric was originally meant to be a downtown artist type (indeed, the first actor who had the role was told he was an artist), but having Hell aboard — he was a founding member of the NY band Television before leaving to front his own band, Richard Hell and the Voidoids — meant that the character needed to be a musician, and Hell obviously knew that world well.

SMITHEREENS16

Richard Hell

Hell lended a lot of credibility to selling the film as an accurate depiction of the Lower East Side early ’80s punk scene, and provides some of the movie’s most offbeat movies, like nonchalantly pouring beer in his hand and rubbing it through his spiky hair as a hair product.

SMITHEREENS17

During the film’s production, Hell actually moved into a room in the back of Seidelman’s apartment, where she could keep an eye on him and make sure he showed up to work on the film. He would later write that Smithereens, was, quote, “the best film I’ve ever been involved in.”

Hell’s songs “Another World” and “The Kid with the Replaceable Head” were both featured in the film, which also features music from New Jersey’s the Feelies, whose song “The Boy with the Perpetual Nervousness is featured in the film’s opening scene, where see see Wren stealing a pair of checkerboard-patterned sunglasses straight out of the hands of an unsuspecting passenger and bolting through the train station (its pretty obvious that she needs the sunglasses to complete her New Wave-y ensemble).

Those sunglasses, by the way, were the original inspiration for the film, and were purchased by Seidelman’s aspiring costume designer, Alison Lances, at a punk clothing store on East 8th Street that was owned by Patricia Field, who went on to become a big costume designer, especially for HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

Seidelman: “When I saw the glasses, we decided that it might be a very interesting way to start the movie, especially if Wren was wearing something that, when you saw the two of them together, you instantly knew why she had to steal those glasses. You didn’t have to explain it in dialogue, you didn’t have to tell much in words about who this character was.”

SMITHEREENS31

Seidelman was able to get the Feelies’ Bill Million and Glenn Mercer interested in being involved in composing Smithereens‘s incidental score through her casual friendship with the late, great Jonathan Demme, who put her in touch with the band (the Feelies, of course, are featured in Demme’s later film, 1986’s Something Wild (where they’re credited as “the Willies”).

SMITHEREENS24

The soundtrack also features songs by the Raybeats, Dave Weckerman, and ESG’s awesome track “Moody.”

SMITHEREENS14

Over the film’s long production and post-production, Seidelman (who edited most of the film herself, on a Steenbeck editor in her apartment) kept her sights focused on trying to capture the spirit and vibe of the scene, and she didn’t concern herself with how the film would get distributed, or how it would be marketed, and so you can image her surprise when it was invited to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 1982 Cannes Film Festival, becoming the very first American independent film to do so.

That festival screening landed a distribution deal from New Line Cinema, who gave the film its U.S. premiere on September 11, 1982, before rolling it out in a limited release.

SMITHEREENS5

On November 19, 1982, Smithereens was faintly praised in the pages of The New York Times by film critic Janel Maslin, who compared Berman’s performance of Wren (writing that her name was “the only delicate thing about her”) with “”the French movie waifs of yesteryear,” which we’re pretty sure made Seidelman feel validated as a filmmaker, even though her review was “so-so.”

SMITHEREENS15

Maslin also writes: Smithereens gets off to a fast start, thanks to Susan Berman’s feisty performance and the vitality with which her story is told” before adding,

“Although willful inactivity seems a crucial part of the characters’ way of life, it’s carried too far; everyone here stays put a little longer than is believable, particularly Paul, who remains parked by the highway for what feels like weeks, with nothing to do but wait for Wren to appear. He keeps offering to take her away from all this, to bring her to New Hampshire, but this seems a particularly farfetched possiblity. Here’s one girl who could scare the bears.”

SMITHEREENS8

Smithereens was Seidelman’s calling card to Hollywood meeting invites, and she ended up rejecting a lot of screenplays about troubled teenaged girls until she read Desperately Seeking Susan, which she agreed to direct for her first major Hollywood feature.

It was produced by first-time producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford, who we mentioned in our blog about River’s Edge.

SMITHEREENS2

The 1985 film, financed by ’80s giant Orion Pictures — which shares similar themes of female identity and self-reinvention — is also a Night Flight favorite, and would go on to make a movie star of singer Madonna (it was her first film role) while leading to other director jobs for Seidelman, including a few more female-driven dramedies like Making Mr. Right, She-Devil, and 1989’s Cookie, which was co-written by Nora Ephron.

Susan Seidelman also directed the pilot episode of HBO’s “Sex and the City.”

SMITHEREENS10

Watch Night Flight’s “Take Off to Rock and Cult,” which originally aired on March 25, 1985, and other “Take Off” episodes — and also check out Blank Generation (starring Richard Hell) — they’re all streaming over on Night Flight Plus.

SMITHEREENS1

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, 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.