Bloodsuckers and aging rockers

"Suck" director Rob Stefaniuk and Rush guitarist Alex Lifeson on their rock n roll vampire movie

Bloodsuckers and aging rockersSuck is a raunchy rock ‘n roll comedy about a bunch of quickly aging losers terrified of being forced into a life of sweater vests and day jobs. They’re in a laughably unsuccessful band, but things begin to change after their bass player returns from a one-night stand pale, afraid of light and thirsty for blood. One by one they each sell their souls for a one-way ticket to stardom. The cast includes a host of rock legends—Alice Cooper, Henry Rollins, Iggy Pop, Moby—and renowned actor Maclcolm McDowell. Rob Stefaniuk writes, directs and stars as Joey, the band’s dopey leader, who lets the world fall apart around him in order to keep living his rock dream. At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Maclean’s talked to Stefaniuk and Rush’s Alex Lifeson, who has a comedic turn as an irritable border guard.

Q: Why rock and roll and vampires?

Rob Stefaniuk: I wanted to do something different. The vampire thing was a way to talk about some of the things I wanted to talk about, getting older in a band, people on drugs.

Q: What was it that you were trying to do with the film? There are metaphors for very serious issues like addiction and integrity, but at the same time it’s a comedy, and possibly an excuse to hang out with your rock heroes.

RS: I always sort of write about my own life, or my own feelings, or what I’m going through. Art is therapy. You really get that stuff out of you and then you try and make it funny so you don’t have to go see a therapist (laughing). When I wrote it I didn’t think I was going to be with every rock legend in the world. I wrote it in order to move people.

Q: The movie had a unique look, with unusual lighting and stop motion scenes.

RS: This is not a Cinéma vérité, this is what it feels like to be in a band. In this world you can have a purple haze in the sky, when you go to the border the sky’s red white and blue. When they walk across the street it suddenly becomes Abbey Road. All that is just because we’re seeing the movie through Joey’s eyes and he’s looking at his life through a pop culture lens.

Q: It seemed like one of the big themes in the movie is the fear of losing relevance. Do you feel like there’s any parallel between that and rock music today?

Alex Lifeson: It has lost a lot of relevance. The whole industry has changed so much. I think the movie is a metaphor for the way the rock industry used to be, selling your soul to get ahead and to realize your dream.

Q: Did you find that there were many parallels in the movie between your experience as a musician and what this band was going through, being on the road, being the losers that they were at the start of the movie?

AL: Somewhat. You know, the starving, travelling in one vehicle, whole band kind of thing. We certainly did that for years when we were playing high schools and clubs, bars around southern Ontario. And really the first three or four years we toured in the U.S. we were in a car, a station wagon.

Q: And running into pain in the ass border guards?

AL: Yeah, well I’ve had a lot of experience with border guards.

Q: Rush never sold its soul like the band in this movie. How did you guys manage that?

AL: It was on our third album, Caress of Steel, that we tried to experiment a little bit more. We started working on concept pieces for a whole side of a record, and that record was not very commercially successful. We had a lot of pressure, we were heavily in debt. So we sort of sat down and said we can either do one of two things: go with what the record company’s saying and make more of a straight rock record, or we can just do what we want to do, go down in flames, but at least we did it on our own terms. That’s what a lot of this movie is about. What are they, and what kind of band are they? Do they need this sudden influence that’s coming from somewhere else?

Q: And in the end they decide it’s better to sell your soul for rock and roll.

AL: Yeah exactly.

Q: But that isn’t your experience.

AL: Well we didn’t have to. We didn’t break up after Caress of Steel and go home and wear our plaid jackets and cardigans like they did and always live in that thought, “did I blow it, did I have a chance?” That wasn’t the case for us.

Q: How was your experience with the music industry?

RS: I sold my soul and got nowhere (laughing).

Q: For the rock stars in this movie, you said it was getting Iggy Pop that led to the other stars.

RS: He was sort of the first of the people coming on board. I knew Alex through John Kastner (who co-wrote the film’s score) and I knew Dave Foley also through John. Iggy just took an email. And then Henry (Rollins) and then Moby, and my producer knew Malcolm (McDowell). Then at that point Alice (Cooper) knew everyone in the movie.

Q: How hard was it to get you interested in the project Alex?

AL: It was very simple. John (Kastner) told me about it when it was in infancy I think. They were writing some music and talking about it conceptually. He mentioned it and I said sure, keep me posted and let me know, I’d be happy to.

Q: What did Moby say when you told him he’d be playing a shock rocker who squeezes meat until it bleeds onto his head?

RS: Well, that was all fake meat and foam, fake leather and all that. And Moby’s self aware and he thinks it’s fun to do that.
I originally planned to get like a beefy buff guy for that part.

Q: The image vampires get in the mainstream media now is far from rock and roll. It’s been Disneyfied. So how to you keep vampires punk, off the mainstream?

RS: Well you don’t have teenagers play them. You have them actually kill somebody.

Q: Are you more rock ‘n’ roll vampire types, or are you more sweater vest wearing, suburb living, SUV driving types?

AL: I think I probably was more of a vampire type, but I’m maybe a vampire that wears one of those sweaters now.

RS: What I’m trying to make fun of there is when someone goes clean and goes totally the other way. Whenever I see that I always think, well he’ll be back in the devil’s playground in no time. You’ve got to find a middle ground between sweater people and vampires.

Q: And in the film they swung right back into it and went “what the hell let’s go for it again.”

RS: Once you’ve been to the dark side sometimes it can find you again.

Q: Like a drug addiction.

RS: I was thinking about a girl but okay.

Q: As an independent Canadian filmmaker and as a Canadian who’s a member of one of the world’s biggest bands, what does it mean to be part of industries that are so dominated by other people from other countries?

RS: If the movie’s Canadian it’s because I’m Canadian and this is about an experience in my life. I don’t see it necessary to hide where you’re from to assimilate, but also I don’t see anything wrong with using Americans too.

AL: I don’t deny that there’s a streak of patriotism when something’s all-Canadian. Rob said the crew all put a little bit extra in, because they felt this is a Canadian production, up against all the big budget American stuff. We’ve always been the underdogs.