Behind the Scenes of 'The Runaways'

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Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie, Kristen Stewart as Joan Jett
Phoebe Reilly WRITTEN BY
Phoebe Reilly

"Kristen, you are so hot!"

In the appropriately rank alley behind a small Los Angeles club called the Smell, Cherie Currie, former lead singer of the '70s all-girl band the Runaways, yells out to ingénue-of-the-moment Kristen Stewart, standing a few feet away.

Currie could easily be referring to the actress' body temperature: The midday July weather is sweltering, and Stewart, dressed head-to-toe in black leather for the role of Currie's onetime bandmate Joan Jett in The Runaways, is wiping sweat from her forehead. Stewart is on a smoke break; beside her, Dakota Fanning, who plays Currie in the movie, munches on a veggie doodle. While two Twilight fans linger near a Dumpster down the block, hoping to glimpse the franchise's stars, the paparazzi -- who have hounded the production all month, much to writer-director Floria Sigismondi's frustration -- are absent on this, the second-to-last day of the shoot.

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Currie is actually talking about how good Stewart looks as Jett, and indeed she does. Minutes before, Jett, also an executive producer, chatted privately with Stewart, their heads bowed, each with a raised hand grasping a chainlink fence, looking almost identical in all but age. (Also, the 51-year-old Jett's 'do is shorter than her 19-year-old doppelgänger's era-accurate shag.) As Stewart gets ready to go back inside, she smiles awkwardly and says simply, "So was Joan."

Millions of people probably know that Stewart cut and dyed her hair black last year, which is far more than can name a single Runaways song. (Neither Stewart nor Fanning had even heard of the band before being cast.) The Runaways were five teenage girls writing and performing aggressive, sexually defiant rock music during a time when all of their peers were older and few were female.

Yet the band's importance remains canonical rather than commercial. Though the self-proclaimed "queens of noise" could "actually play," as reviews at the time noted with surprise and more than a trace of skepticism, the Runaways never sold the records here (their biggest album, their self-titled debut, moved 25,000 copies) that they did in Japan. They recorded four albums in four years and yielded only one enduring single, the teasing, debutante-debasing "Cherry Bomb," on which a 15-year-old Currie promises, "I'll give ya something to live for / Have ya, grab ya, till you're sore."

Figuring the Runaways were ripe for rediscovery, seven years ago Jett's manager, Kenny Laguna, began shopping around an idea for a script based on a revised, more explicit edition of Currie's 1989 autobiography, Neon Angel (out this month to coincide with the film), at one point tapping an as-yet-unmasked JT LeRoy to write it. "I thought it was important to define history," says Laguna. "If they did a movie about the Go-Go's or the Bangles, then they would be remembered as the band that broke down the barriers."

Yet, despite the title, everyone involved in The Runaways takes umbrage with the term "biopic." "I'm dancing between reality and poetic license," says Sigismondi, who previously helmed music videos for Marilyn Manson and the White Stripes. "I wanted to make a coming-of-age story about girls whose rock'n'roll world was extremely free compared to the ones who lived on the suburban street." Which explains why the story dwells on the friendship, and occasional intimacy, between Jett and Currie. At the request of the actresses, the two musicians came to the set almost every day.

"I'm comfortable with it," Jett admits cautiously, in her tough, vaguely East Coast accent, shortly after the film's debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. "It's accurate enough about what went down. But if it was a Runaways movie, then it would focus on the rest of the band." Guitarist Lita Ford, whom Currie claims "wasn't an easy person to get along with," and the unanimously adored but troubled Sandy West, the late drummer who co-founded the band with Jett in 1975, get less screen time; bassist turned lawyer Jackie Fox is depicted as a composite character for fear that she might otherwise sue. "I wouldn't want either of them to hate it, but obviously I have no control over that," Jett adds. (Ford declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Initially, both Jett and Currie were apprehensive about the prospect of the Runaways getting the Hollywood treatment. Neither of them cared for onetime bassist Vicki Blue's 2004 documentary Edgeplay, which revealed the girls' intense squabbling (apparently, Ford and Currie still disagree about which one of them was two hours late to the 1977 photo shoot that led to Currie quitting the band).

But Stewart's casting brought Jett, in her words, "solace." "I didn't know enough about Twilight for it to color my opinion," she says. The two met for the first time on New Year's Eve in 2008, when Jett spent an hour regaling the then-18-yearold actress with Runaways stories while sitting on the bathroom floor of Jett's hotel suite. "I could feel that she really wanted to embody me."

Says Stewart, "I was terrified. I was going, 'Oh my God, why the fuck am I here?' Not like I shouldn't be, but just, 'How is this happening?' This was the coolest job I'd had -- it was something different during a long stint of something very much the same. I knew I needed to cut off [Twilight character] Bella's long hair. I needed to be able to throw my head around and feel the sweat dripping."

Back inside the dark and dilapidated Smell, doubling for DJ Rodney Bingenheimer's English Disco, the famous glam nightclub frequented by a 17-year-old Jett, Sigismondi prepares for what seems like the 20th take of a scene in which record producer Kim Fowley (played with charismatic sleaziness by Michael Shannon) introduces Currie to Jett. Extras in patriotically colored hot pants and painfully high platform shoes limp around looking for Band-Aids.

"Dakota watched my [1980] movie Foxes. She sounds just like me," Currie proudly tells her identical twin sister, Marie, who has dropped by for a visit. Jett paces back and forth, wearing headphones and holding a portable monitor. "I don't want to be in Kristen's eyeline and freak her out," she says.

Two weeks earlier, gossip blogs reported that Jett made Stewart cry on set, but Stewart insists, "That is totally bogus." Jett elaborates: "Whatever pressure Kristen felt, she put on herself. She knew that she had a lot to live up to, and she wanted to please me."

Finally, cameras roll on another take. The Stooges' "Gimme Danger" blares from the sound system, and the extras start swaying like blissed-out clubgoers, their arms in the air. After the music stops, they continue dancing in silence as Shannon sizes up Fanning, referring to her Bowie-loving character as "jail-fucking-bait" and offering her a chance to sing in a band. Stewart saunters over on cue.

When Sigismondi yells "Cut!" Currie flashes Fanning a thumbs-up. Fanning's mom, who has watched from the sidelines while Shannon's Fowley called her 15-year-old daughter a "bitch" and ordered her to sing "like [she] wants an orgasm," sweetly tells the actor he did a good job.

It's a fun scene -- and one that's fairly faithful to what actually happened, except the setting was a teen disco called the Sugar Shack. But later moments, like the band's successful perseverance after Currie's departure, are ignored in favor of a more dramatic depiction of the fallout between the two girls.

"The things that were wrong drove me crazy, and I annoyed the shit out of Floria," Stewart confesses. "She was always telling me, 'Kristen, we're not doing that movie.' Even Joan was like, 'Yeah, it's fine, dude. Relax.' "

But Stewart's objection is valid. There has been a demand for vintage-punk biopics of late -- 2007's What We Do Is Secret was based on the Germs, a band that Jett produced, and long-gestating Ramones and Iggy Pop flicks could be next. Sigismondi speculates that the '70s acts are popular because "there were so many iconic figures coming out of that time. There's only one Iggy. There's only one Joan. It's harder to be an original these days." So why make a movie about real individuals and fictionalize their lives?

Often, as is the case with the Runaways, there is just too much story to pack into 90 minutes. "Most of the crazy shit Cherie told us, we couldn't include -- it would be a completely different movie," says Stewart. "I don't wanna, like, out them, but they were pretty nuts." Likewise, there's no universally agreed-upon narrative. Jett calls Fowley, who cowrote many of their original songs, "a close friend," while Currie maintains he was "verbally abusive" and stole from the band. According to Shannon, Fowley told him over dinner, "It wasn't just me screaming at them. Don't make me look like a bad guy. When I'm dead, this is how people are going to remember me." Fowley's concern hints at the broader significance of films like these: They are simply more likely to be seen than a documentary. Add the hottest starlet on the planet, and the number of eyeballs increases exponentially.

Regardless, there's a vicarious pleasure in watching teen girls establish their own identity in such a profound way (see review on page 94), especially when they can do so without having to treat things like menstruation, masturbation, and sexual experimentation as totally taboo. Inhabiting such liberated -- if Quaalude-abusing -- characters clearly had an effect on its stars. As the filming winds down, Stewart retreats to her trailer to read lines with Jett and practice the guitar ("Put your pussy to the wood" was Jett's advice). In two days, the cast will travel to the outskirts of L.A. to reenact a 1977 Japanese gig, during which Currie rocked a white corset for "Cherry Bomb."

Even the straitlaced Fanning, whose casting seemed fated when she returned home after getting a fake cherry tattoo at school and found the script waiting for her, was thrilled by the metamorphosis. "Man, when I walked on that stage, I was a completely different person," she says a few months after donning the corset. "I could have done that scene all day, every day."

It was this chance for the Runaways to be appreciated by another generation -- Twilight diehards surely among them -- that ultimately convinced Jett the film was a good idea. "The best result for me would be to see the music get back out there," she says, adding with a laugh, "You watch -- by summertime all the girls are going to have shaggy haircuts and play in bands."

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