By Melissa Robbins
The hazy, bright chaos of Phoenix music culture has crashed its way on screen. “Teenage Badass,” originally set to premier at South by Southwest, spins a warning fable of how blindingly enticing fame can be.
Shot in Phoenix, the film takes every opportunity to weave the gritty snark of the desert rock scene into its story. The main message, according to its director: Get it all in writing.
Director Grant McCord, along with fellow screenwriter Matthew D. Dho, a number of the film’s producers and a handful of the film’s cast and crew, is a Phoenix native. He sought to make a movie that captured his and friends’ experiences in the music business around the time the film is set—in 2006.
“I think we made this for people who have ever been in a band or are in a band or want to be in a band,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of hard truth that the rest of us learned the hard way about the way that the hierarchy exists, and among who owns the songs and who gets what and who gets kicked out or who gets asked to stay, and all these things are just things we don’t talk about or think about.”
Because local developer and bassist Chuckie Duff co-produced the movie, the team had access to a number of Duff’s Phoenix properties, like The Rebel Lounge, for filming.
“It was interesting to watch us kind of (descend) on these small locations that expected maybe one or two, you know, five people to show up with a camera,” he says. “It’s not normal in Phoenix to have a movie be any bigger than a student film.”
McCord says filming was a homecoming for a number of those involved, as many had not only left Arizona but had formed meaningful relationships among each other long before then. This had a hand in the choice of cast.
“It was really important that all the actors actually played each instrument and that there was a rapport among them as friends,” he says.
In fact, McCord says every song in the film was recorded and written by cast and crew, including himself. One in particular, actor Evan Ultra, wrote 12 of the featured songs. Ultra plays Kirk Stylo, the fiery lead singer of the movie’s central characters, Stylo and the Murder Dogs.
Even Tempe alt-rockers The Maine got involved, allowing the cast to open their annual 8123 Fest at The Van Buren to capture the final performance of the film.
“I would say that experience of standing there, when the place was filling up and we’ve got multiple cameras going and the guys are just playing the same song over and over and the kids are really getting into it, was like, ‘Holy —-,’” he says. “I was like, ‘How is this all even like happening?’”
Also appearing in the film is the local band Fairy Bones, who are friends with Bob Hoag, who worked on the film’s soundtrack. The band’s singer, Chelsey Louise, says working on a professional set was new to her.
Particularly memorable were the moments she filmed with actor Kevin Corrigan, as they peeled back some of the “movie magic” of Hollywood for her. In the scene, she and her band are in a studio, recording with Corrigan’s character, who gets angry with the players.
“Everyone had headphones, and my headphones weren’t plugged in because they didn’t have enough plugs or whatever,” she says. “Everyone could hear him and what he was saying, and I have no freaking idea what he’s saying. So, they’re reacting to it and I have to look behind me at my band.”
For McCord, filming the opening scene stuck out the most. Based on an experience from his childhood, it shows the main character—and vicariously him—discovering the drums through a friend’s older sibling.
“So (the main character) goes around in the backyard and he sees this older, punk-looking, long-haired drummer kid and he watches him play drums in this shed,” he says. “And that was the exact same way that I saw and was inspired to play drums when I was 11. … I went home and I was like, ‘I have to do this.’”
“Teenage Badass” was set to debut at South by Southwest as one of 10 pictures competing in the film festival’s “Narrative Feature Competition.” However, as COVID-19 restrictions tightened, the festival eventually moved online. SXSW films were instead accessible for all Amazon Prime members, free, for 10 days.
McCord decided against that.
“As awesome as it would be to have our movie play on Amazon Prime for everybody to see it—because that’s eventually the goal—it kills our first look,” he says.
Instead, McCord said the team hopes to unveil it at the Phoenix Film Festival, whenever that’s rescheduled.
While losing the exclusivity of a SXSW film premiere was a hard hit, McCord says if blows like that were enough to stop him, he would’ve quit the industry long ago. His outlook in these uncertain times?
“Add it to the list,” he says. “You’ve got to keep making stuff and you’ve got to keep getting better and you’ve got to keep telling your stories or they’re not going to happen.”