The end of the 1970s saw California’s punk scene explode, spawning such bands as Black Flag, X, the Dead Kennedys and the Germs. The latter was fronted by a daredevil with a death wish, Darby Crash, who committed suicide (via drug overdose) the day before John Lennon was murdered in 1980. Now, his story will be told in the forthcoming biopic “What We Do Is Secret.”
While the Germs didn’t enjoy as lengthy a career as some of their contemporaries — they only released a single full-length album during their lifespan, the Joan Jett-produced “(GI)” in 1979 — they have been mentioned as a favorite over the years by the likes of Nirvana and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, among others.
“The idea came to me after film school,” director Rodger Grossman tells Billboard.com. “I was thinking, ‘What would be the most personal film I could possibly make?’ And I thought something about punk rock would be not just a movie that speaks to what I’m about, but also really territory that hadn’t been accurately depicted. And [it] needed [to be] a movie that was true and real and let people see what an amazing and exciting world punk is.”
With the aid of ex-Germs guitarist Pat Smear, Crash’s family and others close to the late ’70s/early ’80s Hollywood punk scene, Grossman first began assembling what would become “What We Do Is Secret” nearly 10 years ago. But the director admits the extended process was a blessing in disguise, as he conducted “thousands of hours of original interviews,” and was able to find an actor he feels did a masterful job capturing Crash on film — Shane West, who is best known as Dr. Ray Barnett on “E.R.”
“[West] got so close to being Darby that it actually freaked out a lot of the scenesters that came by the set,” Grossman says. “He committed to doing this role in a way that I’ve never seen an actor commit to do anything. He read all the books that Darby read. He got blue contacts and prosthetic teeth permanently affixed to his, which had to be ‘chipped out’ so his teeth were more like Darby’s.”
“We actually formed a band for this movie, so the band practiced every day for months, to get to the point where they could play like the Germs,” he continues. “So Shane was in the band rehearsal space every day. He’s a singer and a guitarist, he has his own punk band, so for him, it was pretty easy to get the music end of things. Pat Smear was in the band room with them, and taught them how to play.”
In addition to West’s role as Crash, the rest of the Germs were portrayed by Rick Gonzalez (as Smear), Bijou Phillips (bassist Lorna Doom) and Noah Segan (drummer Don Bolles). Also appearing in the film is “Wildboyz” co-star Chris Pontius as singer Black Randy and Tina Majorino (“Napoleon Dynamite”) as Crash’s best friend, Michelle.
The movie will be a mixture of music from the “movie Germs” and “real Germs,” all under the watchful eye of Smear. “He did an extraordinary job. He rehearsed the band, he produced all the pre-records that we used in the movie, utilizing the band we put together as well as the remaining members of the Germs — Don and Lorna. He produced the recordings of the other bands that perform in the movie — the Mae Shi performed as the Screamers and the Bronx perform as Black Flag.”
However, the movie does not cover Crash’s entire life. “Darby had a ‘five-year plan’ — to become a legend,” Grossman says. “And after that, he committed suicide. We start the movie in high school with Darby, who was then ‘Paul,’ and Pat Smear, who was than ‘George,’ with Darby telling Pat about his ‘five-year plan.’ And the movie traces [those] five years.”
With filming complete, Grossman’s goal is to premiere “What We Do Is Secret” at next year’s Sundance Film Festival. The film does not yet have a distributor in the United States, although there are some partners lined up internationally.