Director Gil Reyes on what he found in Searching for Elliott Smith
When Gil Reyes realized that TV news was doing little to cover the passing of beloved musician Elliott Smith, he decided to go out searching on his own. What he discovered through interviews with the artist's friends, former bandmates and the girlfriend who many blame for his death, is a portrait of a bright, funny, creative man that comes through in his 2009 film Searching for Elliott Smith. The film has so far only shown in festivals and special screenings, and it will make its Denver premiere Saturday at the Oriental Theater with Reyes in person. We spoke to Reyes in advance of the screening about the man he discovered behind the melancholy music, Smith's mysterious death, and ex-girlfriend Jennifer Chiba's side of the story.
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Westword: What made you want to make this film?
Gil Reyes: When I first started the research for it I had already been working in news for years already, and most of the time the stories that I covered were assigned to me from an assignment editor or a news director. So for once I wanted to do a story that was completely my own, without anyone telling me or tipping me off about it. On my leisure time I would be reading the L.A. Weekly and other publications in L.A. and read about how Elliott Smith passed away and how it really affected a lot of people in the area and particularly the music and arts communities. At the same time, he wasn't, like, this A-list celebrity. He was sort of an obscure guy. And I thought that his story was interesting. But during the week when he passed away there was a number of fires in Southern California and there was a lot of breaking news, and TV news didn't cover his death, which I thought was kind of sad because he was an Oscar-nominated musician. Nobody mentioned it. About two months later the coroner's report came back saying that his death was inconclusive, they couldn't rule if it was suicide or homicide. So I decided to cover Elliott on my own.
How do you think the story is differently told through this sort of medium?
It's a version of Elliott's story from a different dimension, because most of the stuff you've read. And here you actually hear the tone of their voice, the inflection, body language, you can look in their eyes. It's just a different way of seeing things. It's one thing to read a story and get all the facts of that, that's great and all. It's just a different take. It's different than just reading it. A lot of the stories that are on Elliott you can probably read on the internet or in books. But this is the first account on Elliott since his passing that's visual, documentary style. I think it's a different way of telling the story.
How did you go about getting the interviews, especially the one with Smith's ex-girlfriend Jennifer Chiba, who some fans blame for his death?
I got a lot of rejections originally especially after news of the coroner's report came out, so I was ready to quit until some people up in Portland, Oregon agreed to help me out, to be interviewed. After the drummer in [Smith's old band] Heatmiser Tony Lash agreed to speak, a whole bunch of other people from Portland did and so that's what it was like. It was just one door opened and another door and another door and pretty soon I had enough for a rough cut.
And then I showed it to Jennifer Chiba and some other people in L.A. and they agreed to help me out with it. So that's how it came about. I wanted to do something a little bit more long form and a little more emotional. Just hearing from people, just their take from Elliott, and if I could get the circumstances surrounding his death from the only person alive who knew what happened and I got that. So I think that's part of the reason people want to see the film. Just to clarify, it's not just Elliott's death. The film's about an hour and a half, but I would say about fifteen minutes is dedicated to his death. Chiba's not in the entire film. Most of the film is about his life and his friend's reactions to his successes and his personality.