After 15 years, his 'Secret' is out

Director kept pushing to tell story of Germs

Shane West Shane West plays Darby Crash of the Germs in ''What We Do Is Secret.'' The film is the result of the single-minded determination of director Rodger Grossman to tell the story of the seminal LA punk band. (Kevin Estrada/Vitagraph Films)
By Laura Yao
The Washington Post / August 29, 2008
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NEW YORK - It's minutes before the theatrical premiere of his movie and director Rodger Grossman is standing outside the Landmark Sunshine Cinema. At his side is actor Noah Segan, a cigarette dangling from his lips.

A waxy August evening, minutes before nightfall: This, here, is the culmination of Grossman's epic journey - one that has lasted nearly 15 years and led to his first feature film, its happy ending always in doubt.

A woman approaches and asks for a photograph with Segan. "That's the director," Segan says, pointing at Grossman. "Want a picture with him?" The woman shakes her head no and hands her camera to Grossman.

"Dissed," says Grossman with an ironic grin. But he takes the picture all the same, because he's good-natured like that.

Rodger Grossman, after all, is used to relative obscurity.

The 41-year-old director has been working on his one project since he graduated from the American Film Institute in 1993: a fervent little biopic about the Germs, a seminal punk rock band formed in Los Angeles in the '70s.

Grossman wasn't a Germs fan, he never saw them play, and it wasn't even the suicide of Germs singer Darby Crash in 1980 that brought the band to his attention. (Crash's demise was overshadowed by the assassination of John Lennon the next day.) It was hearing Germs songs on the radio soon after, spun by Rodney Bingenheimer, the fabled Hollywood DJ with a penchant for punk. Grossman was 13. And he was stunned by the darkness and intensity of their music. Talented? Maybe. But they were "raw" and they were "real," and the tragic story behind the sound fascinated him.

He bought his first Germs album, released after Crash's death, and listened to it nonstop. That album became the movie title: "What We Do Is Secret."

When you meet Grossman, he doesn't exactly scream "punk rock." He's puckish but professorial; a nice Jewish guy from a wealthy West Coast family.

"I wasn't ever a punk," he says. "When I was in high school, we were the third generation of punk, which was a very anti-punk punk phase. It was a very cerebral, objective approach to punk. . . . That was the kind of show I went to, the music I listened to. Does that make you a punk? I don't know. I don't think so."

That very anti-punk attitude is manifested in his very anti-punk patience, which has gotten him through the past 15 years. Fifteen years. The Germs rose to and fell from fame in a third of that time. Crash devised a five-year plan for success, made Germs T-shirts before he made a single song, and overdosed on heroin, as planned, at the end. They learned to play their instruments along the way.

The three surviving Germs are appropriately puzzled by Grossman's devotion. They never took themselves as seriously as Grossman does. "It's kind of mind-boggling that he wasted so much time doing this movie about us," says drummer Don Bolles, played by Segan. "I can't for the life of me figure out why he did it."

There were countless false starts, dashed hopes. First, Grossman wrote a first draft that the Germs hated. Then it took about 11 years before Rhino Films, one of the producers, found an independent financier, a rich woman in Texas who agreed to contribute $3 million. She started writing checks, about $500,000 worth, and Grossman and his crew went into preproduction.

Then she disappeared, the night before principal photography.

"That was the lowest point," Grossman recalls. "I remember cleaning out my director's office without having shot a frame of footage."

Grossman and the producers kept searching for money. About 1 1/2 years later, a Japanese company, King Records, offered them an undisclosed sum that lasted through 15 days of filming, not enough to finish. Many of the producers wanted to just cobble together what they had and be done with it. Grossman refused. He vowed not to cut his hair until the film was finished and set out again in search of funds.

Shane West, known for his roles on "ER" and the film "A Walk to Remember," and who plays Crash in the film, cut a check; Grossman persuaded other independent financiers to chip in. They shot six more days of footage. They entered the movie in the Los Angeles Film Festival and finished a digital cut - they still couldn't afford a film print - the night before the festival. Grossman didn't even have time to watch the final product before sending it off.

Fifteen years of work and worry. Twenty-one days of filming. Ninety-two minutes of movie.

But in 2007, watching it for the first time, seeing the standing ovation of 650 people in the Mann Festival Theatre, it was worth it, it was exhilarating, it was surreal.

Reviews of the movie have run the gamut (Ty Burr in the Globe called it "one for the fans" even though the creators "labor mightily to spin it into something larger"). But it's the Germs' reactions that are most telling.

Bolles says the script got better with each rewrite, but the movie is still an "after-school special, a dumbed-down version of things."

Still, he loves it for bringing the Germs back together - Bolles, bassist Lorna Doom, and guitarist Pat Smear, who went on to play for Nirvana and the Foo Fighters. They even got a new lead singer out of it:

They thought West did such a great job as Crash that he's now their frontman. Bolles christened him Shane Wreck.

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