Adversity has been a prevailing theme in Allison Anders’ life, making her especially sensitive to the plights of her characters, who suffer from various degrees of alienation and often teeter on the edge of defeat. That coupled with her interest in women’s issues and the L.A. punk scene have made her one of the screen’s most original and uncompromising directors.
She was born in Ashland, KY, in 1954, and dealt with a series of traumas before she was old enough to vote — her father deserted the family when she was four, she was raped at 15 and abused by a stepfather, and suffered a mental breakdown at 15. After running from foster care, she hitchhiked across the country, frequently landing in jail. At 17, Anders dropped out of high school in Los Angeles, then moved back to Kentucky and from there to London with a boyfriend who fathered her first child. After returning to Los Angeles, she attended junior college, then fell in love with film after seeing the work of German director Wim Wenders. That led her to UCLA Film School. She also began exchanging letters with Wenders, who attended the screening of her first student film and took her on as a production assistant on Paris, Texas (1984).
In school she became involved with fellow student Kurt Voss, who also worked with her on the Wenders film. The two were huge fans of the early L.A. punk scene. One of their favorite bands, The Blasters, had released “Border Radio,” a song about Mexican radio stations broadcasting into the Southwest U.S., in 1982. That inspired them, with fellow film student Dean Lent, to write Border Radio (1987), a film noir set in the punk scene. Vic Tayback, who played Mel in Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More (1974) and its television adaptation, Alice, provided $2,000 in seed money. From there, they threw in Voss’ graduation gifts, a loan from Lent’s parents and whatever else they could lay their hands on, including investments from Wenders and actress Daryl Hannah. They picked up odds and ends of film stock, “borrowed” 16mm camera equipment from UCLA and edited in UCLA’s facilities, even though it was against the rules. They shot on the streets without permits, used Dent’s apartment and Anders and Voss’ trailer as sets and even smuggled their equipment into Mexico. In all, they spent four years making the film, postponing filming whenever they needed to raise more money.
During that period, the film evolved from a straight on film noir to a rock movie. After considering a fellow student for the leading role of a punk rocker who takes off for Mexico with money stolen from an unscrupulous club owner, they had the idea to cast Chris D. (actually Chris Desjardins), lead singer for The Flesh Eaters. Through him, they recruited other punk musicians – John Doe, bassist and lead singer for X, who took on a major role, and Dave Alvin, guitarist and songwriter for The Blasters. Alvin had a smaller role, but he also took over the soundtrack, recruiting other groups like Los Lobos, The Lazy Cowgirls, Divine Horsemen, Billy Wisdom & the Hee Shees and Green on Red to perform on the soundtrack or on screen. Other rockers playing small roles include Texacala Jones of Tex & the Horseheads, Iris Barry, Tony Kinman, Robyn Jameson and Texas Terri. For other roles, Anders enlisted family members. Her sister Luanna played Desjardins’ wife, while her daughter Devon played their daughter.
Even with the extensive use of punk music, Border Radio maintains its ties to film noir. The leading character’s name, Jeff Bailey, was copied from Robert Mitchum’s character in Jacques Tourneur’s classic noir Out of the Past (1947) as was his escape to Mexico (though Anders, Lent and Voss actually shot there). Though their cameras captured the seediness of L.A. life, a frequent visual motif in the genre, many of the scenes were set in the blazing sunlight, which Lent captured beautifully in his searing black and white images. Those images capture a punk culture that would eventually fade, with scenes shot at the Hully Gully Studios, the Hong Kong Café, Rockaway Records and Disgraceland.
International Film Marketing, a distributor whose eclectic releases included imported action films and horror flicks, gave the film a limited theatrical release in 1987, where it began attracting a devoted cult following. Its marketing campaign captured the film’s ironic sense of alienation with the tag line “Jeff Bailey. His wife wants him back. His band wants him on stage. Some thugs want his head….He wants another beer.” After a year in release, the picture received a nomination for Best First Feature in the Independent Spirit Awards. Border Radio had only limited release on home video until Criterion issued a deluxe package in 2007.
It took Anders five years to release her second feature, but the film helped establish her as a filmmaker to be reckoned with. Gas Food Lodging (1992) starred Brooke Adams, Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk and James Brolin in a semi-autobiographical tale of a waitress at a Southwest truck stop raising her daughters in a trailer park. After a successful screening at Sundance, the film brought Anders glowing reviews, along with the New York Film Critics Award for Best New Director. She followed with Mi Vida Loca (1993), which won more raves for its depiction of Latino girl gangs in the Echo Park neighborhood where Anders lived at the time. She then moved into more mainstream filmmaking with Grace of My Heart (1996), a rock drama produced by Martin Scorsese and starring Illeana Douglas as a songwriter turned singer loosely modeled on Carole King. Anders then re-teamed with Voss to write and direct Sugar Town (1999), a warts and all look at the L.A. music scene. They would reunite for another music film, Strutter (2012).
Anders moved into television with four episodes of HBO’s Sex and the City, followed by episodes of such series as The L Word, Men in Trees, Southland and Orange is the New Black. Her television features include the Peabody Award-winning Things Behind the Sun (2001), about a rock journalist and singer confronting memories of rape, and Ring of Fire (2013), a biography of Johnny Carter and June Carter Cash. She teaches once a year as a distinguished professor at the University of California Santa Barbara and, with her daughter Tiffany, co-founded the Don’t Knock the Rock Film and Music Festival in Los Angeles.