[Originally appeared in Sink Approach vol. 1, self-published in 2005]
Interview by Adam Harmless and Darlene Vile
In August of 2003, the long wait was finally over for fans of the legendary New York punk band the Ramones with the theatrical release of “End of the Century: The Story of The Ramones”. The critically acclaimed documentary delves deep into the pink and fleshy psyche of the now-defunct band, and exposed a highly dysfunctional but brilliantly prolific group of musicians. Jim Fields, who co-directed EOTC with Michael Gramaglia, gave us at Sink Approach insight into the exciting world of the Ramones, and the documentary filmmaking process in this in-depth interview.
SINK APPROACH: Most of the folks in the Ramones camp are life-long New Yorkers. Where did you grow up? Did you go to college?
JIM FIELDS: Michael Gramaglia and I are friends from early on in high school. We grew up in southern Westechester, about 30 minutes from mid-town Manhattan. I moved to New York City permanently in 1986, so we grew up in a similar type of area as Forest Hills except maybe it had more rich people….not really sure.
As for college: I went to a place called Vasser College in upstate New York. I was a biology and English co-major. Totally useless that degree. Michael went the original and unconventional route. Instead of going directly to college, he moved to Rome for about 5 years. He returned to NYC and worked his way through college then. That’s how he met the Ramones…it was his day job to get him through school. He worked as their book keeper.
SA: End of The Century was pretty much your directorial debut. What kind of prior experience did you have working in film, if any?
JF: Michael and I had very little directing experience. Michael had made it into the film union IATSE as a sound man…mostly for feature film before he left it all for Italy. After college, I worked as production assistant for a while and serendipitously found my way into editing TV commercials. That’s what I was doing before we started the film. I owned a Bolex and we used that for our first shoot. It was really Michael’s contact with the band and his initial idea to try to make something about them.
SA: You’re obviously a big fan of the Ramones. How did you get involved with them?
JF: Well, as I said, it was just luck. Michael was working for them for a few years. This was the early 90’s. He would call me at work and tell me crazy stories about them. Things he’d witness or just heard about. He kind of struck of friendships with them. We were huge fans of theirs having really been into them and many other bands in their heyday like Cars, Blondie, Devo, Elvis Costello, Squeeze, Jam, Dead Boys, Sex Pistols, etc. When Michael got to know them and I got to hear about their crazy lives it was really thrilling. These guys were legends to us. But after a while they sort of seemed like fascinating, complex people. Our fandom kind of waned as we got to know them. Not that we ever stopped being fans of their music but getting to know them was a very strange experience.
SA: Which Ramones album is your favorite? Why did you name the film after their 5th album?
JF: My fave has to be Rocket To Russia. That’s the first one I ever heard back in ’78 or ’79, I really don’t recall exactly. My sister brought it home one day and I used to steal her records. I thought the cover was hilarious…with John Holstrom’s cartoons. I was a real MAD Magazine and National Lampoon fan at the time so…it just sort of seemed like a logical progression looking back on it now.
We named the film after the filth record because it symbolized the story of the film of their lives. The band was a part of American cultural/rock’n’roll history totally rooted in the end of the 20th century. Their passing/breaking up was the end of an era. Plus that record was sort of the event that most challenged all their optimism and dreams and their relationships. After that record, their lives as a band and as individuals changed. Joey lost the love of his life to his partner/bandmate and Phil Spector changed the trajectory of them creatively that they never really recovered from.
SA: What other bands, kinds of music do you like?
JF: I’m pretty eclectic in my tastes. I’ve always loved other stuff than just punk. As long as it’s good I like it. I like some jazz, some classical…whatever the hell it is. Right now I’m listening to the Gourds, The Kills, Wheatus, Libertines, the Monks, New Pornographers, Queens of the Stone Age, Sondre Lerche…a lot of others.
SA: Marky Ramone recently announced his departure from the Misfits, for whom he played drums for the past 4 years. Would you ever consider doing a documentary about them? Their story is just dying to be told!
JF: I don’t know a thing about them. Is it interesting? I saw Marky play with them. He was amazing as always. He’s one of those rare people who just keeps his chops. I don’t know much about them but they sounded great with Marky.
SA: You produced and directed EOTC with Michael Gramaglia. How did you end up working with him? Do you think the film benefited from having two directors?
JF: I already answered the first part…I hope. AS for the second part… I think the film really benefited from both our points of view and we had a third one which was crucial: our co-editor John Gramaglia, Michael’s brother (also an old friend of mine from High School). We were able to bring 3 slightly different points of view with one single aesthetic It’s much better, much more thorough and deeper than if any one of us had been solely in charge. AT least, I thinks o and I think the other guys would agree.
SA: The 1997 documentary We’re Outta Here told the story of the Ramones' final days before calling it quits. Many fans felt that it sheepishly glossed over the band’s personal conflicts and turmoil. Did you feel intimidated bring the untold elements of the Ramones to the screen?
JF: We thought that the film was a lost opportunity and we said so to Johnny. He wasn’t exactly keen on us nobodies making the film but after they hired a known directory and had Gar Kurfirst put together that film we just told him it was boring and sloppy and they deserved better. He agreed. Really, Michael hounded him about it...which is not easy to do with Johnny. He’s pretty intimidating. I mean, at some point when Johnny and Joey weren’t into our idea I felt…fuck it, let’s just walk away. And I have to say Michael kept on them both. He got me fired up after a short time and then we both went full-throttle trying to convince them. Johnny came on board but Joey was always suspicious of us.
SA: Lead singer Joey Ramone suffered from lymphoma for years until his death in 2001. Since you couldn’t talk to him directly, was it difficult to represent Joey’s side of the story?
JF: Well we did talk to him directly a few times. Just never on camera. During those years he was sick and we were trying to make the film and he was also making his solo album. At first he didn’t want to do the film because he wanted nothing to do with the Ramones and was pre-occupied with the album. Totally understandable. Then he saw a 5 minute sample of what our film would be like, he really loved it and wanted to do it. But he kept postponing the interviews because he wouldn’t feel up to it. Finally, we made a date to meet and he was really enthusiastic about it and was going to push himself to do it but he died only a few days later.
Finding Joey footage then became a big problem. He did a lot of press but he never spoke honestly about his personal experiences and feelings. He believed in “the band” and so never revealed to the public what was really going on. So we couldn’t find anything from Joey that was substantial in that aspect. Luckily, Mickey Leigh, who really wanted more Joey…and we agreed…hooked us up with George Seminara who became one of our producers. He was a close friend of Joey’s for years and he’s a filmmaker so he had some pretty good footage of Joey he shot and he brought that to the edit. We cut in 13 more minutes of Joey from that footage and some BBC footage. It wasn’t ideal but it helped build Joey’s presence in the film.
SA: EOTC has a lot of great interviews, not only with the Ramones, but with other renowned musicians like Debbie Harry and Glen Matlock. Who did you enjoy talking to the most in your research for this movie?
JF: So many interviews were great to do. Legs McNeil was great fun. Mickey Leigh was fun. John Holstrom, Danny Fields, Joe strummer, Johnny, Marky, Tommy…We really enjoyed these people. The great thing about this scene was that the CB’s scene was populated with such colorful and intelligent people. Even Dee Dee is very bright, though he can be mistaken for a zoned out junkie. He wasn’t at all. He’s smart and canny and funny and interesting. Danny was probably someone we interviewed the most, I think. He was so interesting and hilarious and insightful. I’m a big fan of his. I mean he's a major figure in American Rock history and he's just incredibly bright and a great storyteller. I don't know...so many great ones. Joe Strummer was enthusiastic and bright and fascinating and honest. I couldn't single out just one...but all these people gave up their time for us without pay and performed great and just made our film what it is. I can't thank them enough.
SA: The Clash's legendary vocalist Joe Strummer died of a heart attack in 2002, and your film contains his last interview. What impressed you the most about him?
JF: He was very gracious to do the interview. I wasn't there. We tried to get him in America and couldn't. So Michael and our editor John flew to London just for him, really. We hired a DP (it usually was me) and they hooked up with him there. I had a 6 month old at home and was in the throes of child-care at the time so I couldn't make it.
But what I hear and saw through Michael and John and in the footage was a guy was the real deal. He was like a Johnny Cash kind of figure. Hugely famous but very real. He wasn't at all a primadonna in any way. He sang about real stuff and his life and the life he observed. Plus he took a 3 hour train ride to meet them in London. Michael had secured a shoot location which fell through at the last moment and they ended up in a woman's bathroom in a dank club somewhere. Joe didn't care. He thought is was "street" and "punk". It was, I guess. We were totally DIY.
Oh...he also had a cold. And when his 45 minute interview was up, he gladly got back on the train for a 3 hour ride back. My parents would put it succinctly: "he's a mensch". (a Yiddish word which literally means "man" but...shit...you probably know already).
SA: What was your impression of Johnny's wife (now widow), Linda Cummings? What's she like?
JF: I met Linda a few times but never got to know her real well so it's hard for me to comment. She actually did an interview for us and it was really good. But politics of the band being what they were, it just didn't make the cut. She was always cool with us so I have nothing really interesting to report.
SA: As you know, Dee Dee struggled with heroin addiction his entire adult life. Do you feel that he was clean during his interviews for EOTC?
JF: We assumed he was clean. He certainly seemed completely alert and unaffected by anything while we spoke to him. We were totally surprised by what happened. But he was living in a junkie area of L.A. I only know that because my sister lives in L.A. and I stayed with her when we filmed there. She asked where Dee Dee lived. I told her and her response was "that's the worst place arecovering junkie could live!" So maybe he just indulged that one time...I don't know.
SA: In 1981, the Ramones starred in the low-budget musical comedy Rock 'N' Roll High School. Why was the making of Rock 'N' Roll High School ignored in your film?
JF: The truth is...when you have a time limit in making a film....in the length you have to make hard choices. We ultimately chose to tell the story of a dysfunctional family rather than catalogue the Ramones' experiences. We focused on character rather than that catalogue kind of stuff. So...none of the Ramones had any real feelings about the film. It didn't have much of an impact on their relationships or their career. The movie wasn't such a hit when it came out. It's a classic now. But it just wasn't significantly impactful on their lives. So all we'd really say about it is...that it happened and we acknowledge it or imply it with a very expensive clip from the movie. But there were so many important things going on then that were so significant that the hard choice was made to sort of move on. I wish we could include everything but...you'd just have to write a book.
SA: Richie Ramone ended up leaving the band in 1987 after a dispute over compensation. The Ramones and their entourage often attempted to pretend he never existed. Do you think that Richie Ramone got a raw deal in the Ramones legacy? Do you think Richie feels that way?
JF: I knew Richie felt that way. I knew some people in the Ramones organization felt that way...that he should be wiped from Ramones history like those who ran afoul of Stalin. Do I think he got a raw deal? It's not for me to judge. I'm not trying to dodge the question but it's kind of a "he said, she said" kind of argument. I don't really know whose behavior was worse or better. It's hard to take sides in inner-Ramones conflicts...in fact...we definitely refused to do so. We experienced a lot of pressure to take sides but we flatly refused. We needed EVERYONE's trust so...we just kept impartial.
SA: In EOTC, Dee Dee makes references to his old pal Ritchie Stern. Is he the infamous first Ritchie Ramone? Any clue what became of that guy?
JF: We tried sooo hard to find Ritchie. He sounded like such a character. Everybody talked about him but...we couldn't find him. We located his sister but even she didn't...or claimed she didn't...know of his whereabouts.
SA: What do you think of the various members' post-Ramones work? Like Marky's numerous other punk bands, Dee Dee King's "Standing In the Spotlight" album, and Joey's solo career?
JF: Dee Dee's album is partly ridiculous and partly really quite good. It's not so much rap but mostly Ramones type music. "The Crusher" is on it...which was redoneas a track onthe Ramones' final album with CJ singing on it. It's an endearing album too because it's so Dee Dee and so innocent in some ways. Joey's album is quite good, I thought. Marky...if you saw him play in one of these bands you'd know what I mean but...he's fucking good. I don't Know what it is about him but when he's on stage he just gets it right. We filmed him giving a sort of lecture of his life story to a large audience of college kids and he was really funny and entertaining. He's a showman and good at it. I would do a doc just about him.
SA: We've heard about your disappointment over not being able to use the Sex Pistols classic tune "Anarchy in the U.K." in your film. Why couldn't you secure the rights, and was this a problem with any other songs?
JF: Sex Pistols management informed us that if we were saying anything negative about the Pistols they would nix it. Well, we were saying that they didn't "start punk rock". Big fucking deal but they sell records based on this premise. We don't eve care whether they did or didn't...in our investigating it, though, it seemed, and this was confirmed by Strummer, that the Sex Pistols weren't really cohesive until the Ramones came along. This was the catalyst that jump started England's scene. They said no. Jerk-offs
Other songs...We had a really great "Baby I Love You" scene with the London Philharmonic backing up the Ramones on a British TV show. But Specter wouldn't give us the rights so we had to pull that. Then we were going to use a cheesy hit form the 70's called "Hot Buttered Popcorn" to illustrate the shitty top 40 in the 70's but the rights owner wanted $7500. We said...ok. Bye. Then we replaced that with a cool clip of Donny and Marie on the Mike Douglas Show. They said no. Nobody likes to be defamed. What can you say?
SA: Was there anyone interviewed who didn't make the final cut? What was the hardest thing to lose in the final cut overall?
JF: We lost a lot of stuff. Our first cut was 3 hours long! And it was all good stuff. We had a really thorough and interesting CBGB's section which was 15 minutes long and ended up being about 1 minute and 30 seconds. We interviewed a lot of non-rock star characters fromthe time who were great but...just didn't have time.
We lost some priceless but libelous stories by Danny Fields. The list is just too long. But that's filmmaking.
SA: EOTC made its debut at the Slamdance Film Festival in January 2003, and made it's theatrical debut more than a year later in August 2004. What was it like to finally put your film out there for the world to see?
JF: To tell you the truth, we had shown it so many times before the theatrical release it was a bit anti-climactic. We were thrilled it was done and out there and the critical response was amazing. But...we already endured about 15 to 25 big audience screening in L.A. at the Egyptian Theater, in NYC, in Toronto, and Berlin. we always got good reviews but it was a relief to get good ones not ina festival or special screening setting.
But by this time...we had seen the film thousands of times and we just couldn't even sit through it anymore so we really lost the freshness of the audience reaction by that time.
SA: It seems EOTC was extremely well-received by film critics, as well as the music community. Was there anyone who was upset with the way they or their loved one was portrayed in the film?
JF: Oh yeah, some fan are naturally going to think we fucked up. One French guy at the Toronto film festival almost ripped me a new asshole because he hated our film. He thought it was way too negative and depressing and I thought, at one point, he was going to kick my ass. Then once in L.A. at the Egyptian Theater, during the Q&A, a woman screamed from the balcony that we glossed over L.A. and its role as the Ramones' second home. She was distraught and so completely disruptive. I actually enjoyed it. I mean, she was really really passionate about the band and the film. I mean, you know you're doing something right to get those kinds of reactions.
As for Ramones members...well during the filming we had problems. Johnny was agonized over our revealing about the Linda thing. I have to hand it to him...he was dead set against it. None of his friends knew about this so this was a big deal to him. But we showed him a cut with it in and he understood why we did it. We offered to cut it out but he knew it gave weight to the film and so he went with it. He might be a son of a bitch in some ways, as some fans have commented, but I thought it was really ballsy of him to go ahead with it and I really admire him for it.
SA: EOTC was released on DVD in February of 2005. What do you think of the DVD packaging, features, and how involved were you with it?
JF: I think it was March 15, actually (SA: yep you're right). As for the DVD...well we weren't really that involved. I'm in to graphic design so I would have liked to have seen more design of the packaging and the menus but...that costs more money and that's something in very short supply. I'm just glad that it's widely available and the extras are pretty good. Too bad we didn't have the money to do a making-of doc. We have amazing footage of us following them around in their lives but because it contains some live performances we'd have to pay music fees we can't afford. Maybe on reissue.
I think the British packaging by Tartan Pictures looks cool. We had ZERO involvement in that. They just paid for the rights and closed the door. Never had another bit of contact with them.
SA: Do you think you and Michael Gramaglia will ever do audio commentary for the DVD?
JF: I told Warner Brothers we should because we have amazing stories to tell about the Ramones but they said, "nobody cares about you, you're nobodies". And that was the end of that. I mean I tried to explain our commentary wouldn't be about us it would be about us and the Ramones...really about the Ramones. But they really thought we would just devalue the DVD. Maybe they're right.
SA: How has the success and critical acclaim of EOTC changed your everyday life?
JF: Not in any way shape or form, much to our disappointment.
SA: Now that you've made one of the greatest music documentaries of all time, what do you plan to do next? Any future projects you'd like to tell us about?
JF: Can't comment. Nothing is real until it's purchased by a distributor so all our efforts could be for naught right now. But we are trying to do some interesting stuff both doc and narrative.
SA: Do you have any words of wisdom for budding documentary filmmakers?
JF: Nah. If they're serious they don't need any advice.
SA: Thanks Jim!