When Elliott Smith died in Los Angeles in 2003, the 34-year-old songwriter left behind more than just a musical legacy: beyond his Oscar-nominated rise from a Portland indie lifer to a major label Silver Lake scene leader, the circumstances of his passing remain officially unresolved. “Searching for Elliott Smith,” the first documentary on Smith (and the first feature for director Gil Reyes, an L.A. TV news veteran) addresses the questions over his death without forgetting his life, collecting interviews from friends and colleagues as well as an emotional conversation with his then-girlfriend, Jennifer Chiba, who was present when he allegedly stabbed himself. (The coroner’s report left open the “possibility of homicide.”) With Chiba set to join the film’s L.A. debut at the L.A. New Wave International Film Festival for Q&A sessions and a pair of screenings on Saturday and Sunday, we sat down with Reyes to discuss first-time directing, remembering “the core Elliott” and who he hopes speaks out next.
–David GreenwaldBrand X: What made you want to make a documentary and why choose Elliott Smith as the subject?
Gil Reyes: First-time director, but I’ve been working in television news for 15 years. I wanted to do something that was solely my own. After Elliott passed away, I remember reading an LA Weekly article and being really surprised at how touched everybody was by this man. I’d listened to his stuff before and I liked it, but there was more to it than just his music. So I wanted to delve into it more, and right around the time when I started, I had three friends that passed away tragically, one was from cancer, one was in a car accident and, just before I started this documentary, one took his own life. So it was also a means of talking to other people who’d sort of been through what I’d been through.
BX: What was the process like, as far as tracking down the interview subjects?
GR: I started out trying to get an interview with the local people here in the L.A. and at the time, nobody wanted to talk… especially after the word came out that it might have been murder. So I started off up north, went up to Portland, Oregon. First interview I booked was Tony Lash from [Smith’s former band] Heatmiser. After he said yes, Sean Croghan said yes, [Smith archivist and producer] Larry Crane said yes and we eventually ended up going to Portland for a second batch of interviews and one of those was [“Good Will Hunting” director] Gus Van Sant.
BX: Jennifer Chiba is the interview people have been particularly interested in – how did you get her involved?
GR: What ended up happening was the L.A. people heard that [the Portland people] had spoken. I ran into her at Spaceland and said I’d interviewed these other people and she said, “Well, can I see the rough cut, whatever you have,” I said “Sure.” We watched it with a whole bunch of friends, I think [music video director] Steve Hanft was there, and they both agreed to help me out.
BX: It’s been almost eight years since Smith’s death. How long have you worked on the film for?
GR: Started the production, the actual filming in August 2005. Prior to that, I did six months to a year of research, just checking up on who this guy was, getting phone numbers and contact information of people who I should contact. Got a lot of rejections, too.
BX: Smith’s family doesn’t appear in the film, nor does a lot of his music. What happened there?
GR: Originally they were open to the possibility of having Elliott’s music in the film. There came a time when the person who was in charge of Elliott’s estate, the executor, said that the [family] won’t allow Elliott’s music in the film if the person involved in the open investigation, meaning Jennifer Chiba, is in it. I had to choose at that point, whether to do a documentary with Elliott’s [music] – which originally I thought would be essential, to have his music in it, or to totally sweep that part under the rug. I thought, especially if she wants to volunteer, I couldn’t deny that. So I went the route of interviewing Jennifer Chiba and I’m glad I did. These stories, they’re unique and I had to get hers.
[Editor’s note: Smith’s family had no comment on the film when reached by Brand X via Kill Rock Stars, one of his former labels.]
BX: Do you feel like what she says will put to rest some of the discussion over the circumstances of his death?
GR: I think people will always believe what they want to believe. I would think that some people won’t, I think most people will. I could be wrong. But what the film allows people to do is make up their own mind on a different dimension. More people have just read about it, read quotes, some of them are misquotes. Here you can actually look in her eyes and determine for yourself if she’s telling the truth or not.
BX: She’s scheduled to do Q&As at this weekend’s screenings. She may get some hurtful questions — does she feel ready to put herself in that position?
GR: It’s funny because before I went online to say that she was speaking, I asked her, and when she said yes, I immediately went online and said “Yes, she’s speaking,” and I emailed her again and said “Are you sure you want to do this? You could back out of this.” We, I understand that there are going to be some haters. And she’s like, “Bring it on, I have nothing to hide.” I think she’s ready for any questions. I think people feel a lot braver behind their computers.
BX: Sean Croghan has a lot of screen time in the film. What was it about what he had to say and his relationship with Smith that made you want to feature him so prominently?
GR: He’s just great on camera. I’m sure there are other friends who probably knew Elliott just as well as he did, but he’s a good storyteller… plus he’s one of those people who knew him the longest that I had spoken with. They were roommates. It seemed like they had a lot in common, too. The Portland, Oregon vibe of cloudy skies and depression. That wasn’t always Elliott. That’s pretty one-sided to say that he was always depressed because he wasn’t, there were two sides. I think Sean is a lot like that, too. When he’s laughing, he’s crying, when he’s crying, he’s laughing.
BX: As far as putting the film together, were you working with other people on the filming and editing process or was it a one-man operation?
GR: No, I had a photographer/editor for most of the film, he dropped out and then I ended up learning how to do Final Cut and editing it myself. I have a person who is a really experienced videographer and editor [who] cleaned it up. I had a sound guy clean it up too. And then an animator. So we’re talking maybe 5-6 people in the crew.
BX: There have been several albums out posthumously and now this film — what do you think Smith’s legacy is at this point, and how do you hope the film affects it?
GR: I want to make a point to say that some of the downward spiraling Elliott, the tales of that in the film, the demons that he struggled with, I thought that was important to show but I want people to really understand that that wasn’t the core Elliott. The core Elliott was this super-talented, and on top of that, super-nice guy, generous, good to his friends, good to strangers. He had a really good heart and was able to take negative feelings that started since childhood and turn [them] into something beautiful with his music. I would hope that on top of all that, people appreciate his musicianship.
BX: Is there a particular point from the film that you hope people will take away from it?
GR: I think the idea of intentionally sabotaging your work or intentionally digging down to a place where you probably shouldn’t go for the sake of your art, I thought that was interesting. As artists, I’d say people should do that, but they should be able to pull themselves out of that. And if you keep going down that road, as Sean says, you’re going to die. Showing Elliott’s downward spiral also is a lesson for people who look up to him to say, ‘O.K., he did this, but that’s not the way to go.’ You may idolize his music and that’s a good thing, but people should live.
BX: You’ve taken the film to CMJ and some other festivals now. Beyond these screenings, what’s the future of “Searching for Elliott Smith”?
GR: We have a lot of Facebook fans who are like, release the DVD already, we want to see it, we want to see it. And I really want people to see it, but there are a couple entities that are expressing interest that could take it to bigger and better things. I’m still waiting on them.
BX: Do you think your film will encourage more people to come forward to talk about Smith?
GR: I hope that there are going to be more documentaries on Elliott. You know who I would like to see featured in the next Elliott documentary, his sister, Ashley. I think that would be the next big documentary, if you can get the family to speak, get their side of the story on things.
BX: Finally, for someone who’s never listened to Smith before, where should they start?
GR: Hmmm. “Either/Or,” that’s probably his definitive album. I think all around, if you were to get a tally of Elliott fans, most people would say that that’s probably his best album.
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