Tamara Saviano & the Square Peg of Guy Clark

Without Getting Killed Or Caught chronicles the dynamic lives of artists and songwriters Guy Clark, his wife Susanna, and their best friend Townes Van Zandt. Creating a mosaic of animation, music, and intimate conversations, filmmakers Tamara Saviano and Paul Whitfield maneuver through years of legend and tape to tell a story of emotion, decadence, heartbreak, and poetry. The film, adapted from Saviano’s epic 2016 biography of the same name, is delivered through the voice of Susanna (brought to life by Academy Award winner Sissy Spacek), a warrior muse who more than held her own while inspiring a generation of songwriters. Featuring interviews with many of the friends and artists who knew them best (Jo Harvey & Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Steve Earle, Verlon Thompson), WGKOC tells the at times unbelievably true story of two of the greatest songwriters to ever live, the woman who challenged and nurtured them, and the unique love that bound all three.

AI- You’ve had quite the adventure in getting the film to the masses. I guess it’s almost like tryin’ to make a Guy Clark album! Originally scheduled for SXSW in 2020– what’s it been like living with it for a year just waitin’ to release it?

TS- Well, you know, in retrospect, I think we were in the studio sound mixing a month before we were supposed to be at South By in early 2020, so the fact that it didn’t happen and we had all this time to just live with it was probably a good thing! I needed a break by then. We were exhausted, we were rushing to get it ready, and for the first six months of the pandemic, from March until November, we didn’t even look at it. We just let it sit there. Like the rest of the world, we were just kinda goin’, “Now what?”

And also, Aaron, the film business changed completely during the pandemic! We were also like, “Well, now what do we do? Because none of the old rules apply!” So it gave me the opportunity to really study distribution and figure out what we wanted to do with the film. I’m really happy that I had the time to do that because we decided to take a very different path than many filmmakers take.

That’s something that I’ve spoken [about] with musicians is the way that the pandemic changed music distribution, recording, really everything from the ground up. But you’re the first filmmaker that I’ve spoken to that’s had the experience with the way the world is now.

Yeah! I’m a big believer in studying and continuing to learn, so I really dug in and started learning everything I could about film distribution. I stumbled upon this podcast and this book called Rise of the Filmtrepreneur by a guy named Alex Ferrari. His podcast is amazing, it’s called Indie Film Hustle, and Alex talks about approaching your film, the releasing of your film as a business. I’ve worked in the music business for a long time and with independent artists, and it’s kinda the same thing where you don’t wait for a major label to pick you up, you just go release your music. We did the same thing with the film.

We then debuted at SXSW in 2021, which was virtual, and then right after that, we partnered with a company called SEER to do six virtual screenings shortly after South By where you had to buy a ticket and be there to see the film. I interviewed Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle and Sarah Jarosz, and we had some other people. And then we hired an independent theater booker and we did a theater run from July through October in independent theaters in 30 different cities. On November 6th, on Guy’s 80th birthday, we went on-demand worldwide with SEER, the same company that did our virtual screening, so people can just go to our website whenever they want, hit the watch button, buy a pass, and watch the film!

Now, from the book to the film, one of the images that stands out most to me is the tapes– Guy’s tapes, Susanna’s tapes, from the workshop, the audio diaries. There’s just something about that story in so many parts captured on tape. It’s tactile, it’s the sound of the recording button, the play button, and all of that. Did that loom large for you, all the hours that you had to spend with those tapes, reliving those moments in your own way?

Yes, it did! My husband, Paul, who I made the film with, we spent one entire summer– after supper every night– just listening to the tapes and digitizing them. Three months of every single night listening to as many tapes as we could stand and digitizing them! I would take notes to figure out what was on them and what we could use. It’s pretty wild that Guy and Susanna had so many tapes, that they documented so many conversations!

Telling that story from Susanna’s voice, is that where you came to that conclusion on how you wanted to set up the film?

Well, that’s certainly helped, but what really happened, that decision was made in the writing process which happened after we listened to the tapes. I was taking a writing workshop with my co-writer, Bart Knaggs, and we were trying to figure out how we were gonna tell this story. We knew we wanted to tell the story of Guy, Susanna, and Townes and how their relationship influenced Guy’s art, and Bart said, “You know, we should tell this from Susanna’s point of view.” And the minute he said that I was like, “You’re absolutely right! That’s brilliant!” From that moment on, we were able to get the screenplay written, figure out what we had with Susanna’s tapes, and just go from there. It was the exact right way to do this.

You enlisted Sissy Spacek in the role, if you will, of “Susanna”. I had no idea the connection between Sissy and Susanna as it stands!

I didn’t know either! Which is very odd looking back on it, but one morning, Paul and I were having breakfast, and all of a sudden, I just yelled out loud, “Sissy Spacek is Susanna!” And Paul was like, “What are you talkin’ about?” I said, “I don’t know, but I know it in my gut. I know that Sissy Spacek has to be our ‘Susanna’.” I bought Sissy’s autobiography that day, and in that book, I learned that she grew up a hundred miles away from Susanna in Texas, and she recorded one album after she won an Oscar for Coal Miner’s Daughter. She came to Nashville and recorded an album. Rodney Crowell produced that album! And then I called Rodney and he said, “Not only did I produce that album, there’s a Susanna Clark song on that album!”

What song was it?

“This Time I’m Gonna Beat You to the Truck”. I feel like it was Susanna who gave me that first, “Sissy Spacek needs to be ‘Suzanna’.” I think Susanna was telling me to go down that path. Yeah, Sissy came in the studio and just transformed into Susanna before our very eyes. It was wonderful!

I’m a fan of Guy Clark, I love Townes Van Zandt, but reading your book, I had no idea the depth of the relationship between the three of ’em! It really was an eye-opening read and then to see the story unfold throughout the film… That’s a big part of it, and Steve Earle, in the movie, he says nobody wanted to know exactly what was goin’ on there. Were you concerned about presenting that aspect of the story? In some ways, I feel like we still don’t know– and maybe I don’t want to either!

I was not concerned at all because Guy and I talked about it extensively. The fact of the matter is that they all loved each other and there are different layers to that love. That love is what I wanted to present in the film. It may not be traditional, but it worked for them.

That mythology that has grown up around them as songwriters– and it continues to grow– in the film, you tell the story of Guy writin’ “L.A. Freeway” on the back of that burger bag with Suzanna’s I eyeliner pencil. You hear stories like that, you’re like, “Oh, that doesn’t happen!” But his life was full of huge stories like that!

Oh yeah! Even from childhood, I mean, his life was meant to be written about, and he did that in song. From, “Desperados Waiting For A Train” to “Texas 1947” to the “South Coast of Texas”, all of these are songs that Guy wrote about his life. His life is pretty amazing from childhood on!

And every one of those songs that you just mentioned, despite how you want to look at the poetry of it, you could find what many might consider a certified hit on each one of those records. But Guy had a very complicated relationship with the music industry, I guess is one way I might put it. The notion that a record label didn’t know what to do with him. But he had that ability. Was it the struggle that he embraced more than success? Did he have to have the struggle as an independent artist in order to be Guy Clark?

I think so. I don’t think he wanted the struggle, but he wanted his songs the way he wrote them to be hits. He just wasn’t writing for country radio. And that’s okay! I mean, I love country music. I really love country music, but Guy is not a country music writer. Guy is a folk singer and he wrote folk songs or what we now call Americana songs. They weren’t meant to be played on country radio. I think the fact that he came to Nashville for the publishing business, they just automatically tried to put that square peg of Guy Clark into the round hole of country music– and it just wasn’t a fit! And that’s okay. It just took Guy a while to figure that out.

You talk about Americana. About the time that you first started interacting with him, he was enjoying a renaissance of sorts, and it was also the beginning of Americana as we know it. You explore that in your book, which I just thought was a great piece of history, particularly ’cause I work in the Americana music medium these days! Was he aware of his influence at that point in time and what was coming?

I don’t know if he was so much aware of his influence, but he was aware that Americana was a good place for him. Dublin Blues was his first album to go number one on a chart, and it was the Americana chart. Now there was radio stations and this Gavin chart and industry that grew up around it to support artists like Guy. He really appreciated the fact that now he had a place, and yes, it made him happy!

There’s a conversation between Guy and Townes on one of those tapes, and in the film, you play some of it. I don’t know how much of it was a joke and how much of it Townes was being serious, but he’s talkin’ to Guy and he’s askin’ him what to do. It sounds like in regards to his career, asking him advice about that. Guy thought that Townes was the measuring stick for songwriting, but here you see that the Townes really thought Guy had it more together and knew what it would take.

Yes, Guy was definitely serious. Now, I didn’t know Townes, so I can’t really speak to what he was thinking at all, but Guy was very serious about his work and that meant not only the writing, but the business around it, and he wanted Townes to take it seriously too.

Photo by Mary Keating Bruton

Steve Earle talks about how back then, in the ’70s, they were all writing to impress themselves as much as anything. Do you see that now? Do you see that kind of friendly challenge going on among songwriters in Nashville today?

I probably am not around the young songwriters enough to really know, but the songwriters that I do know, they do get together and have their own salons and talk about songwriting and play songs for each other. I think that’s a wonderful thing. It’s the same thing with any kind of writing– you want to surround yourself with other writers and get advice and talk about writing and read to each other. I think it’s important to interact with your group of peers in any art form that you’re exploring.

You’re able to really explore the reach and influence of Guy as a songwriter and a writing partner and mentor in Nashville with your book. I don’t know that the film covers that extent of his co-writing. Was that something that you had wanted to include in the film?

No. You know, my book is 450 pages, and the film, we knew would only be 90 minutes. So there was a lot that could not be in the film. We decided to focus on the relationship between Guy and Townes and Susanna. Anything that did not support that relationship, we just did not include in the film.

Including his ability as a luthier, which I think could make its own film– Guy Clark the guitar builder! I spoke to Noel McKay recently and he shared a little bit of his experience in doing that with Guy. It was a somber part of our conversation as I’m sure it was extremely emotional.

We do mention in the film that Guy built guitars but we don’t spend a lot of time on it. And it probably could be its own film!

I ’bout lost it when Verlon Thompson tells the story of Guy’s passing– and if I’d had a couple o’ beers, I probably would have cried! That was an extremely emotional part of that film. Verlon and Guy, I also did not know the depth of their relationship, how close they were both professionally and personally. So I was very interested to see how he was going to play out in the film.

When we recorded that interview with Verlon, we did it at the Saxon Pub in Austin. Terry Allen and Jo Harvey Allen were there and Joe and Sharon Ely were there and Barry Poss from Sugar Hill Records was there and Paul and me and the camera guys– and we were all crying! All of us were crying when Verlon did that interview!

You entered the orbit of Guy Clark as a professional and as a friend, and as his biographer in print and in film, we ask you the questions that we can’t ask him. You’ve been doin’ this for quite a while now. How are you dealing with that? How do you feel about being Guy’s proxy in the media?

Well, I’m grateful that Guy allowed me this opportunity. When we started working on the book, I really did not believe he was going to open up the way he did. And in fact, I had said to him, “Look, we’ll do one interview and if I don’t feel like you’re opening up, then we’ll just cut our losses and I won’t even do this.” He, of course, laughed at me! But the day I went over there to do the interview for the first time for the book, I asked him about the ring that he wore, and he told me the story of Bunny– who was Susanna’s sister and Guy’s girlfriend before he met Susanna– and how she committed suicide. And at that moment, I was like, “Oh my God, he’s goin’ there! He’s gonna do this!” And he did!

Do you think it’s because you challenged him that way? You told him straight up that, “If you’re not gonna do it, I’m not gonna do it either?”

It might be partially that, but I also think that at the time we started working on the book, I had already known Guy 10 years, so we were friends. And he had been diagnosed with lymphoma two years before we started working on the book, so I think he was feeling his mortality and he realized that this was going to be his opportunity to tell his story to the world. I certainly did not foresee everything that would happen! That December of 2008 is the first day that I officially interviewed him for the book, and I had no idea that it would go on this long and that it would include a film and tribute CD and everything else! So everything that has unfolded, to me, I feel really privileged to have been there.

What’s next for the film? You’ve got it streaming now on the website, and I’m hoping that’s enjoying the success that you wanted for it. What comes next for Without Getting Killed Or Caught the movie?

It will be available on our website to stream forever, I think (laughs) unless somebody comes and drops a lot of money in our laps! We have a lot of debt on this film and we’re just going to try to sell it one person at a time to watch it! We had offers from several distributors, some pretty mainstream distributors, and they just didn’t want to pay for it. We’re not willing to give it away. That’s just how I am. There’s just no way I’m giving it away. I don’t care. You know, a lot of filmmakers just want their film to be seen. But I’m not that filmmaker. I don’t believe that art is free, and I’m sorry that the world seems to think it’s free now, but it’s not. I’m not gonna give it away!

Will there be a physical release? DVD, Blu-ray?

Well, we’d have to raise another $100,000 for the music licensing for that! First, we have to pay off our $500,000 of debt, then we’d have to raise another $100,000 to do the music licensing and manufacturing and everything. So it’s going to be a while if there ever is one. A lot of music documentaries run into this problem where they never get wide distribution because they can’t afford the music licensing. That’s just a fact. And that’s okay. I think all the songwriters should be paid for their work. I want to pay for the music rights, but we paid already. For what we’re doing, we’ve already paid almost $200,000 for music licensing. It’s expensive!

What comes next for you? The film is up, it’s available, people can see it. You’ve been involved in Guy’s legacy for so long now. What other projects do you have coming up next?

I’m gonna take a little break and think about what I wanna do. I do have an Americana book that’s about 75% finished. I’ll probably go back and finish that at some point, but I’m gonna take a little break here for the rest of the year and through the holidays, and then we’ll see what 2022 brings.

Finally, I want to ask about Terry Allen’s sculpture, the crow. I believe that is either there or will be with the Wittliff Collection at Texas State University? I’ve seen it in the film. That was the first time I laid eyes on it. Tell me about Terry’s sculpture.

It’s gorgeous! And it is at the Wittliff Collection! I saw it there last week. When you walk in the door of the Wittliff Collection, there it is behind glass. It’s the first thing you see, and it brought me to tears! The sculpture is just breathtaking and the pictures in our film do not do it justice. You have to see it in person. Inside the body of the crow are Guy’s cremains, but then [Terry] also scattered some of them in the actual sculpture, so when you look at like the base of the crow and the feet and the body, it looks like there’s gold flecks, and those are actually Guy’s ashes. It’s really a breathtaking piece of sculpture. I know Guy would love it! He and Bill Wittliff were good friends, so being at the Wittliff Collection is exactly where it should be. The Wittliff Collection itself is an amazing museum and library, so if you’re in San Marcos, Texas, just go to Texas State University and go to the Wittliff Collection. It’s open every day!

Without Getting Killed Or Caught is available on-demand now! For more on the life of and music of Guy Clark, be sure to read Tamara Saviano’s book!