Twenty years ago, the must-see film at Sundance’s opening night was a movie about punks in the Mormon-heavy city of Salt Lake City: SLC Punk! The cult classic made its U.S. debut on Jan. 22, 1999 to a sold-out auditorium, crowded with Utah’s own punks celebrating a rare representation of the state’s capital onscreen.
Not many films about punk get the ethos of the culture right, and SLC Punk! writer-director James Merendino knew this. When he wrote the film, he faced the tremendous challenge of creating one that would both appeal to punks and educate baby boomers on the subculture. That risk paid off. Not only was the film embraced by iconic punk bands like Minor Threat and T.S.O.L., but it became a gateway into the genre for future generations, with an eclectic soundtrack that serves as the ultimate ‘intro to punk’ mixtape.
SLC Punk! is set in 1985, based on Merendino’s own teenage experiences in SLC, but its story still resonates today for fans who know what it’s like to yearn for an underground art scene where no rules apply. Still, the film acknowledges this fantasy – the youthful, drug-fueled, never-ending party – can’t last forever.
Two decades after its premiere, Merendino, Michael Goorjian (Heroin Bob), Annabeth Gish (Trish), and music supervisor Melanie Miller look back at what made the film a cult classic.
“There were awful lots of other things going on in that town. There were punk rockers!”
Merendino’s process of making SLC Punk! was quick. The writer-director wrote the film in 1997, finishing the first draft within three days. At the time, Merendino didn’t even know if the film was going to be successful. His goal was to make a film that captured those fond memories from his adolescence in Salt Lake City.
James Merendino, writer and director: Everywhere I went after living in Utah, they were like, “It must have been so boring living in Salt Lake City,” being a Catholic and a Mormon city, and I said, “Well, there were awful lots of other things going on in that town. There were punk rockers!” And no one ever believed me, so I felt like a story about that would be interesting.
[Stevo and Bob] are named after two people who were actually pretty big figures in the punk scene and I got their permission to use their names. One is Stephen Egerton from The Descendents. He grew up in Utah, and he was in a band called Massacre Guys. But the story’s not based on them in any way, I just liked the names. Heroin Bob’s stories are drawn from experiences I had with a guy named Chris Williams, who’s now an Episcopalian priest and a great guy. He didn’t actually overdose. He’s the one who came into school with a shaved head and he looked like Travis Bickle; he really looked good with a mohawk.
[Casting directors] Randi Hiller and Risa Bramon Garcia, they brought in a whole bunch of actors for these roles. Matthew Lillard came in and the first day, he said he didn’t get it [the movie], so I pitched it to him. And I was really angry that he made me pitch it to him, which made me more enthusiastic about him. He said, “Well, let me come back,” and he read it, and I thought, now this guy is the best actor for the role. So in the end I went with Matthew.
Michael Goorjian, “Heroin Bob”: I don’t think I auditioned for Stevo, but James had me read one of Stevo’s monologues in the audition. Or maybe I was auditioning for both, but I just remembered in the audition doing Stevo’s monologue.
Annabeth Gish, “Trish”: Trish was such a freaking gorgeous character to play because of the costumes, and you’re instantly transformed with furs, and wigs, and silver lace-up Doc Martens boots to your knees. It was just easy, so easy to get lost in the wardrobe. It was such a different role, and it was iconic, and who doesn’t want to play dress-up in a punk movie? I couldn’t say no, I thought there was something ethereal and really grounded about Trish, and sexy and daring, so I had no qualms about getting involved. I was very excited.
Filming SLC Punk!
Though Merendino had a small budget and a short production period, he embraced those challenges and helped the actors connect deeply with their characters and the story.
Gish: There was one shot in a party scene where James set up like twenty different cameras, like little cameras, and he tipped them all in kind of a domino effect. He had just really cool designed shots and you always felt like you were a part of something just too rad. The other thing that’s memorable was doing the shot out in the Salt Lake area on the lake, which was this beautiful desolate natural place in the background of this kind of punk colorization.
Goorjian: There’s a lot of stuff in that movie that’s improvised. There’s a scene we just made up on the day where I’m talking about taking Trish out and [Stevo] gets hella mad and grabs me by the back of the head. It was a scene that was needed in the story but wasn’t there and James just had us improvise and we built it on the spot. You’re shooting an independent movie, you don’t have a lot of time, so if you notice, it’s a single shot.
Merendino: Weeks before shooting [Bob’s death] scene, [Matthew] kept asking me, “Am I going to have to cry?” and I said, “No, of course not,” but I figured he would be emotional. So when we finally got down there, I set the camera down and let it run for ten minutes, and he slowly worked himself into this moment. It felt really authentic. When I came back up into the room, everybody – the grips, the cameras, the electricians, the DP – everyone was crying after watching that. One take. He never did a second take of that. All that stuff came out of him… He was kind of shouting at me a little bit at the end of the scene, it was really genuine. It was really honest.
Creating the Iconic Soundtrack
Initially, Merendino and Miller had no idea if the film would have an official soundtrack, but the music had to be important to the story. The challenge, however, was getting the rights to the songs. The film doesn’t have an original score, and instead features over 30 songs throughout it.
Melanie Miller, music supervisor: Part of the process is figuring out which ones they wanted on the soundtrack. And then the next step was which ones would allow. I’m pretty sure we had a list of probably closer to 20 songs that we were interested in having on the soundtrack. And then it was a matter of “Okay, now which ones could we get permission to put on the soundtrack?,” because it’s a separate license and working within the budget that we had. That’s why we started with a larger list, to see what was feasible. I mean, there’s a Van Halen song. We were like, “That’s not going to make the soundtrack.”
Merendino: As far as punks go, when I was picking the music, I went to Ian MacKaye from Minor Threat and Fugazi, because I wanted to use one of his songs, and apparently he never allowed any of his songs to be in any movies because he didn’t like the way people portrayed punks, so I had to show him the movie, I had to talk to him for days, and he read the script, and he felt that the movie was appropriately representing the scene, so he gave us songs for free.
Miller: I really think that [Merendino] knew going into making the film that he wanted to represent as many people as possible and that’s why you have people like the Dead Kennedys in there and then you have The Stooges in there, but then you have The Velvet Underground. And then obviously there’s Blondie on it. The soundtrack has a lot of really great punk on it, but then there was a new song [by] The Suicide Machines that Hollywood Records really wanted to try [to include], because that’s who wound up releasing the soundtrack for the film.
Besides the songs used throughout the film, there needed to be a band that’d play the scene of the show, which proved to be another challenge.
Miller: [When it came to casting a band for the movie] it became a question of are you trying to cast people to play somebody or are you just going to have a band perform something that’s their own and/or have it be like “Alright, now we’re going to play one of our own songs” versus doing a cover. That’s sometimes a creative way to get around that issue, where you might have a band perform one of their “originals” and then have them do [a cover].
Merendino: My brother had a bar called Burt’s Tiki Lounge, and I was trying to figure out how to make this movie […] and [the punk band Eight Bucks Experiment] would come down from Denver, and I just went up to them and said, “Hey you guys wanna be in a movie?” and they thought I was lying, but I wasn’t, and they came down, and I liked them. They’re from Denver, Colorado. They just pretend to be English. They were originally supposed to be a band called GBH, but they didn’t want to do it, so I made up the name ECP instead of GBH. One guy beat up the bouncer from GBH, and they said it was too violent for Salt Lake City. GBH is a pretty hardcore band. Somebody kicked around Green Day at one point, but that was not going to happen.
“One of the best days of my life”
Merendino had submitted some of his previous films to Sundance, but SLC Punk! became the first to be accepted, receiving an audience award nomination.
Merendino: At the Cannes Film Festival, Geoff Gilmore was at the screening, and he came out afterwards and said, “Okay, finally, James is gonna have a movie in Sundance.” I was like, “Oh, wow!” Because I had submitted other movies before… And it opened at the Friday night opening, and it was really packed. It was a very receptive audience. I think Variety said, “Of course it was, it was Salt Lake.”
Goorjian: [James and I] went to the Cannes Film Festival. Sundance, unfortunately, I was shooting another film at the time so I got there after the screening, which sucked, because I wanted to be there for that. I don’t have a mohawk anymore [at that time], so people would see the film and be like, “So, what did you do? You were the caterer? How were you involved?” Like, I was Bob! Come on!
Gish: I didn’t go to the premiere. I was working, so I was unable to attend, but I remember it was sort of this underground hit, and people were talking about it, and it was very exciting.
Merendino: That was one of the best days of my life. It wasn’t the opening so much as having the Violent Femmes play my party, and it was packed, and they pulled me on stage and had me sing “Add It Up.” That was crazy. It was a dream. I was pretty young, and the Violent Femmes are a part of my youth experience. That was the highlight for me. The screening, I was nervous, I had to give a speech, it was really crowded… The thing I remember most is after, and just being really gracious.
The SLC Punk! Fandom
Twenty years later, the film still has a huge cult following, with the cast regularly getting messages from fans from all over the world expressing their gratitude for their work.
Goorjian: Bob was sacrificed for all you punks out there! He died for your sins! And in a way, he’s the immortal one, because he’s always Bob. Stevo grows up. Everybody grows up. And forever Bob is just Bob. I’ve had a lot of people tell me how much Bob meant to them because of that. He is just kind of a symbol of that — especially people that were into punk and now are older, he’s the punk Jesus or the punk James Dean or whatever. Did you know there is a Church of Latter-Day Bob out there? I’m pretty sure I saw it on Facebook or somewhere. [It’s actually a meme page for fans of the film called The Church of Heroin Bob of Latter-Day Punk, not a real church.] And when anybody sends me a message on social media to Bob, I always answer as Bob the wise one, and give them blessings and things from beyond.
Merendino: There’s a lot of people that say the normal, “Oh, I’m a huge fan, you changed my life,” but then there’s… these kinds of [Facebook] messages where the movie is helping them mourn someone’s death. That’s really interesting to me.
Goorjian: I have a collection somewhere of all the Heroin Bob tattoos people have sent me, if you have any pass them on, I need to add them to my collection. … There’s one rather risque one. She tattooed me in her nether regions! I was like, “Wow Bob is a lucky guy!”
Miller: It’s funny because I always tell everyone [that before becoming a producer] I used to be a music supervisor. They’re like “Well, really?” And you know how everyone always asks that question, “Have you worked on anything I would know?” And I was like “Yeah, my claim to fame was SLC Punk!” And people are like “What?!” It was really difficult at the time, but it was so worth it in the end, because to be able to have a conversation now, 20 years later, about a film that still resonates and a soundtrack that still resonates with people is awesome.
Merendino: One of the guys from T.S.O.L. told me that he cried when Bob died. That was the first time I heard it, and that was maybe three months after I came out, and I was like, “Oh my god, you guys are T.S.O.L.! How are you even talking to me?”
“It was a very ahead-of-its-time film”
Two decades after its release, the film still resonates strongly with fans. And while it’s set in a very specific era, there are many aspects that make it a timeless story.
Goorjian: It wasn’t until maybe ten years ago, five years ago, something like that, that it started to become clear there were all these people that loved that movie. Originally it was people burning out their VHS tapes watching it over and over again. I wasn’t aware of the fact it was such a cult classic until recently. But it makes sense. It’s a good movie, and it’s unique. It has that flavor of authenticity and originality.
Gish: It was prescient, in a way, in predicting how powerful social movements of subcultures can be, and individual expression, and tribalism, really. What a great kind of message, an anthropological study of that with amazing music, killer editing, and it just makes you empowered and energized. Even 20 years later. It was a very ahead-of-its-time film.
(SLC) Punk’s Not Dead Yet
In 2016, Merendino made the sequel to SLC Punk!, titled Punk’s Dead, focusing on Heroin Bob’s son, Ross, with Goorjian reprising his role as Bob, becoming the narrator. The film brought back some of the original cast besides Goorjian, including Devon Sawa and James Duval, but doesn’t feature SLC Punk!’s protagonist, Stevo. Three years later, Merendino is ready to continue the story, and is working on the script for a third film.
Merendino: It’d cost a lot of money, and I doubt Matthew is up for it, so there’s two strikes against it. It’s going to follow Stevo’s life, what he did after all that, and it’s not becoming a lawyer. He drops out of Harvard and ends up in a nowhere life but then sort of regains it by saving Bob’s kid from legal trouble. But Mike’s in Africa, trying to educate kids and gets kidnapped by rebels and then negotiates his way out of it… It’s funny. It’s crazy. It’s more like SLC Punk!. And there’s a whole thing with Til Schweiger [who plays Mark]. He’s back. He wants to do it! He didn’t even care about the money!
[Mark’s] in a bar, and he’s talking to some guy about how the bank next door… It’s 2000whatever, and the market crashed, and all his money’s gone, and he’s telling the guy at the bar that he’s going to rob the place next door in his crazy fashion, and he goes in with his cellphone, and he goes into the bank because they stole all his money and says, “I’m robbing this bank with this cellphone, it’s a bomb,” and they don’t believe him, so they arrest him and later on, Stevo represents him, but he was not even a lawyer and he makes a mess of it.
And Mike’s in Africa, and he’s teaching in school these kids like the word “depression,” and of course they all know what that means, and these two vehicles of guerilla warriors come in and kidnap all the British and Mike and he’s really pissed off and the rest are really terrified, and the rest are going to kick their ass, and they bring them in front of the leader, and the leader takes off his sweater and has a Ramones shirt on. And Mike’s like, “Wait a minute, you like the Ramones?” and the guy’s like, “Yeah man, you like the Ramones?” and he’s like, “Are you kidding me?” and they become fast friends, you know? Only in Africa. So it’s all… It’s a much bigger, much more SLC Punk! style and scope kind of movie. It’s non-linear, it’s all over the place, heavily narrated by Stevo.