Director Gil Reyes on what he found in Searching for Elliott Smith
When Gil Reyes realized that TV news was doing little to cover the passing of beloved musician Elliott Smith, he decided to go out searching on his own. What he discovered through interviews with the artist's friends, former bandmates and the girlfriend who many blame for his death, is a portrait of a bright, funny, creative man that comes through in his 2009 film Searching for Elliott Smith. The film has so far only shown in festivals and special screenings, and it will make its Denver premiere Saturday at the Oriental Theater with Reyes in person. We spoke to Reyes in advance of the screening about the man he discovered behind the melancholy music, Smith's mysterious death, and ex-girlfriend Jennifer Chiba's side of the story.
Westword: What made you want to make this film?
Gil Reyes: When I first started the research for it I had already been working in news for years already, and most of the time the stories that I covered were assigned to me from an assignment editor or a news director. So for once I wanted to do a story that was completely my own, without anyone telling me or tipping me off about it. On my leisure time I would be reading the L.A. Weekly and other publications in L.A. and read about how Elliott Smith passed away and how it really affected a lot of people in the area and particularly the music and arts communities. At the same time, he wasn't, like, this A-list celebrity. He was sort of an obscure guy. And I thought that his story was interesting. But during the week when he passed away there was a number of fires in Southern California and there was a lot of breaking news, and TV news didn't cover his death, which I thought was kind of sad because he was an Oscar-nominated musician. Nobody mentioned it. About two months later the coroner's report came back saying that his death was inconclusive, they couldn't rule if it was suicide or homicide. So I decided to cover Elliott on my own.
How do you think the story is differently told through this sort of medium?
It's a version of Elliott's story from a different dimension, because most of the stuff you've read. And here you actually hear the tone of their voice, the inflection, body language, you can look in their eyes. It's just a different way of seeing things. It's one thing to read a story and get all the facts of that, that's great and all. It's just a different take. It's different than just reading it. A lot of the stories that are on Elliott you can probably read on the internet or in books. But this is the first account on Elliott since his passing that's visual, documentary style. I think it's a different way of telling the story.
How did you go about getting the interviews, especially the one with Smith's ex-girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, who some fans blame for his death?
I got a lot of rejections originally especially after news of the coroner's report came out, so I was ready to quit until some people up in Portland, Oregon agreed to help me out, to be interviewed. After the drummer in [Smith's old band] Heatmiser Tony Lash agreed to speak, a whole bunch of other people from Portland did and so that's what it was like. It was just one door opened and another door and another door and pretty soon I had enough for a rough cut.
And then I showed it to Jennifer Chiba and some other people in L.A. and they agreed to help me out with it. So that's how it came about. I wanted to do something a little bit more long form and a little more emotional. Just hearing from people, just their take from Elliott, and if I could get the circumstances surrounding his death from the only person alive who knew what happened and I got that. So I think that's part of the reason people want to see the film. Just to clarify, it's not just Elliott's death. The film's about an hour and a half, but I would say about fifteen minutes is dedicated to his death. Chiba's not in the entire film. Most of the film is about his life and his friend's reactions to his successes and his personality.
Do you think that it comes to any conclusions on his death, since the report was inconclusive?
The report's inconclusive, but what we were trying to do is just having people see and hear from Jennifer Chiba herself. Because there are a lot of stories out there in the internet, and she'll even tell you that a lot of the stuff are half-truths or not true at all. So what we wanted to do is just allow her to have her say. Period. I believe what she has to say, and I'm gonna have to believe that a lot of the people are gonna watch this and not believe what she has to say because it's still an open case. But I think what the film allows you to do is to listen to her and make up your own mind based on the information presented.
I think there are a lot of people who will forever dislike Jennifer Chiba, even if the police came out tomorrow and said "We closed the case, we're gonna rule it as a suicide. Period." I still think that a lot of people wouldn't like her, because, you know, she was the last person to see him alive and I think she feels guilty about not leaving the bathroom when Elliott told her to. I don't know if you know that part of the story, it's all in the film. She discusses about how they got into an argument, she locked herself in the bathroom, Elliott told her to come out, she refused, and then that's when Elliott took his own life. And that's a tough thing to live with for the rest of your life. I think some people already have their minds made up about what happened. I think it's just unfair for people to peg her as a killer when the police haven't named her a suspect. You know, you're innocent until proven guilty. They haven't arrested her. I talked to an LAPD source and this person basically told me that "We never thought she did it." That's what my source told me. But because it's an open investigation they cannot comment on it. That's what the source told me, that if we had evidence to arrest her we would have a long time ago.
Why do you think fans blame his death her? Do you think it's the same phenomenon as people who blame Kurt Cobain's death on Courtney Love?
I think that's part of it. Because obviously you can't blame the revered artist who's gone already. Elliott was so beloved just like Kurt Cobain was so beloved and you have to put the blame on somebody, right? And at the same time it still is an open investigation so the people who are claiming that Elliott was murdered, I mean, they have that to back them up that they haven't closed the case, yet. It's basically the coroner's report that says the death could have gone either way. If you argue hard enough you can make a case for either one, I think. What this film does, and like I said, it's not just about his death, but what it does is allow Jennifer to give her take on what happened. And you can believe her, or you can not believe her.
I think, I could be wrong, but a lot of people that didn't like her originally used the open investigation as a way of pegging her and saying, okay, she did it. And then the internet, we're in this era where you can just go online and post things anonymously without any responsibility and a lot of the stuff isn't true. I know that stuff they've posted about me in regards to the film isn't true.
Oh, just somebody said something like we were banging each other. Somebody wrote that, and that's definitely not true. They perpetuate stuff like that. I don't know. I think a lot of it could be just bored teenagers but I know there are one or two people who aren't teenagers that are perpetuating most of it that are, like, in their 50s that have nothing else better to do. This is what I say to them: I say that if they really have evidence linking Jennifer Chiba to murder, and they say they have sources, they should go to police, not post it on the internet. That's just so not fair. And LAPD even has an anonymous tip line. They don't have to give their names, they can just get on there and say what they have to say. Let's put it this way, during my years of knowing her if I read anything remotely close, or if she told me anything remotely close to "I did it," or if any of her friends said that, anything remotely close to that I would have snitched on her in an instant. But I didn't hear anything like that. I don't think that she killed him, but that's just me.
What were you surprised to learn while making the film?
Regarding Elliott, I approached the film thinking that he was a sensitive singer-songwriter who was all around depressed most of the time. And he wasn't, that's one thing that I discovered. He was a very funny guy, he was a generous guy, and he was kind of a badass. He was intent on sticking up for the underdog, people who couldn't represent themselves. I found that kind of refreshing. He also made being generous a cool thing to do. He could lead by example by doing that. For a person who was a rock star he was very giving, you know, started a foundation for abused children, gave money to the homeless. There are a lot of stories out there about him putting $100 bills in the shoes of sleeping homeless people. There's more to him than just being a sad sack and then dying in the way that he did. In the short time that he was here, he took a lot of negative feelings that started in childhood and turned them into something beautiful with his music.
I would like to remember Elliott that way, instead of how he passed away. Unfortunately it is the truth. What happened at the end did happen, and I didn't want to sugarcoat a lot of the things about his personality that some of his friends said. Some of the stuff isn't flattering. I didn't want to leave it out because I didn't want to sugarcoat it. I wanted to make it as honest as Elliott's music was. Him being as generous and funny as he was surprised me. He also had this really strong rebellious streak. When you turn it into a positive it means that he's intent on sticking up for people.
Another thing about Elliott that's really kind of magical is that a lot of people can really relate to him on a really deep level, they feel like they've known him forever even though they haven't. I'm gonna guess you're a big Elliott fan. I'm gonna guess that when you hear his music that it feels like it's really personal to you, like he's a friend of yours, right? Like he knows what you're thinking. And for me that's what I felt like doing the research. And then to actually get to interview his friends that was an extra reinforcement of the kind of person that he was: generous, lighthearted, but at the same time really troubled.
Do you feel like the person that you thought you knew through the music was the same as the person you discovered from interviewing his friends?
Yeah, I do. That gentle soul that comes through his music is really Elliott. That's my conclusion. But he was also very troubled emotionally. That's another thing is that listening to it in an art form, his troubles, it translates really well into music. It sounds beautiful. The music, that really is him. He strikes me as being very, very honest with his work. When he's expressing himself in his work that's really the essence of him. And the negative stories that you hear about drug use and neediness that I think one other artist had described during that time, those were the drugs talking. That wasn't the essence of Elliott. The essence of Elliott was a really caring, generous, super-intelligent person.
What do you hope that people get out of coming to see the film?
Maybe a deeper respect for Elliott, not just as an artist but as a person. Someone who made the most of his talent and a lot of the negative feelings that he had to struggle with during the short time that he spent alive on this planet. That he did the best with what he had and made a lot of people happy with his music and still continues to do that even though he's no longer here. And just a closer understanding of him through his friends. I think that you learn a lot about people from talking to their friends and in this case you find out that he was very generous, that he was very funny, but he was also troubled. And I hope that the positive example of him doing the best with what he had comes forward the most. That he earns the respect of people despite what happened at the end.
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