Director Gil Reyes on what he found in Searching for Elliott Smith
What were you surprised to learn while making the film?
Regarding Elliott, I approached the film thinking that he was a sensitive singer-songwriter who was all around depressed most of the time. And he wasn't, that's one thing that I discovered. He was a very funny guy, he was a generous guy, and he was kind of a badass. He was intent on sticking up for the underdog, people who couldn't represent themselves. I found that kind of refreshing. He also made being generous a cool thing to do. He could lead by example by doing that. For a person who was a rock star he was very giving, you know, started a foundation for abused children, gave money to the homeless. There are a lot of stories out there about him putting $100 bills in the shoes of sleeping homeless people. There's more to him than just being a sad sack and then dying in the way that he did. In the short time that he was here, he took a lot of negative feelings that started in childhood and turned them into something beautiful with his music.
I would like to remember Elliott that way, instead of how he passed away. Unfortunately it is the truth. What happened at the end did happen, and I didn't want to sugarcoat a lot of the things about his personality that some of his friends said. Some of the stuff isn't flattering. I didn't want to leave it out because I didn't want to sugarcoat it. I wanted to make it as honest as Elliott's music was. Him being as generous and funny as he was surprised me. He also had this really strong rebellious streak. When you turn it into a positive it means that he's intent on sticking up for people.
Another thing about Elliott that's really kind of magical is that a lot of people can really relate to him on a really deep level, they feel like they've known him forever even though they haven't. I'm gonna guess you're a big Elliott fan. I'm gonna guess that when you hear his music that it feels like it's really personal to you, like he's a friend of yours, right? Like he knows what you're thinking. And for me that's what I felt like doing the research. And then to actually get to interview his friends that was an extra reinforcement of the kind of person that he was: generous, lighthearted, but at the same time really troubled.
Do you feel like the person that you thought you knew through the music was the same as the person you discovered from interviewing his friends?
Yeah, I do. That gentle soul that comes through his music is really Elliott. That's my conclusion. But he was also very troubled emotionally. That's another thing is that listening to it in an art form, his troubles, it translates really well into music. It sounds beautiful. The music, that really is him. He strikes me as being very, very honest with his work. When he's expressing himself in his work that's really the essence of him. And the negative stories that you hear about drug use and neediness that I think one other artist had described during that time, those were the drugs talking. That wasn't the essence of Elliott. The essence of Elliott was a really caring, generous, super-intelligent person.
What do you hope that people get out of coming to see the film?
Maybe a deeper respect for Elliott, not just as an artist but as a person. Someone who made the most of his talent and a lot of the negative feelings that he had to struggle with during the short time that he spent alive on this planet. That he did the best with what he had and made a lot of people happy with his music and still continues to do that even though he's no longer here. And just a closer understanding of him through his friends. I think that you learn a lot about people from talking to their friends and in this case you find out that he was very generous, that he was very funny, but he was also troubled. And I hope that the positive example of him doing the best with what he had comes forward the most. That he earns the respect of people despite what happened at the end.