Set in the summer of 1987, Shoplifters of the World (review HERE) follows four friends who are reeling from the sudden break-up of the iconic British band The Smiths. At the same time, an impassioned fan takes a local radio DJ hostage at gunpoint and forces him to play nothing but Smiths tracks. Shoplifters of the World is a coming-of-age story set to an incredible soundtrack.
We had the opportunity to speak with writer-director Stephen Kijak about how he brought together the many elements of the film—an ensemble cast, clips of The Smiths themselves, comedy, drama, and so much more.
Staci Layne Wilson: Hi, Stephen. I’ve been a fan of your work for a while. I love your music documentaries. But Shoplifters of the World is your first narrative feature in over a decade… why this story in particular?
Stephen Kijak: It was time for me to tell one of my stories. A lot of docs had kind of become work-for-hire jobs – not to degrade the experience in any way. I’m passionately involved in all of those films, but there just comes a time when you want to deal with your own music, your own stories, and yeah, this was a perfect bridge to get back to narrative through music. You know, it’s a personal story. It’s also based on an urban myth, which gives it kind of a little more of a universal appeal and something that really speaks to the fans. So, it was a great project. I was just itching to get back to narrative and do something in that space. It’s a ton of fun to dig into this one, despite the ten-plus years to get it on the screen.
Staci Layne Wilson: Wow, I didn’t realize it’s based on an urban myth. Do tell.
Stephen Kijak: Once upon a time, an angry young fan in Denver, Colorado, was meant to have held up a radio station when The Smiths broke up, with a bag of tapes and a rifle, to force his music on the airwaves, once a for all. It didn’t quite go down that way, and we discovered through some research that he turned himself in before anything really happened, and so his attempted siege made the news – a little tiny story in the newspaper – and over the years grew into this myth of the day The Smiths broke up, pandemonium reigned in this Denver station. To the point that Morrissey writes about it in his biography. It’s just a great story. So the woman who has the story credit on the film, Lorraine Hall, grew up in Denver and had remembered it and just thought it would make a great frame for a story. So, we dug in.
Staci Layne Wilson: You have 20 original songs by The Smiths here, plus some other very well-known songs from the late 80s. But Shoplifters of the World is an indie film… how handy did your music documentary connections come in when it was time to get those songs?
Stephen Kijak: With the music docs, you know, we’re usually doing it very much with [them]. The bands may come to us, or it’s already kind of packaged together, but we still have to work through the rights with the label and publishing and master use and all that. I’ve had the benefit of working with one of the best music supervisors in the business, Liz Gallagher, who herself is a huge Smiths fan and a really good friend and has been involved in this one for years. But ironically, on this one, we got a pretty early thumbs-up. I wrote a very quick first draft that would need a good thumbs up on the music before we went any further. So we put that first and got to work on that, and just through personal relationships and a music supervisor who we knew in London, who kind of kicked it off, we got a pretty early thumbs up from Morrissey and Marr, right, and they’re the 50/50 split on the publishing. Warner Music has the master use, so it was a general agreement with a six-figure price tag for the music. But it’s like, you’re using a massive chunk of their back catalog. So the real trick was then getting it financed. You know, a music budget that big, kind of tips the balance of your normal, independent financing. It’s a very small film, totally independently done, so the economics were a little tricky, but you end up finding financiers who have fandom in their blood too, so there’s a lot of people willing to take a bit of a risk and we made it work. Check it out, 20 Smiths songs. And Ozzy! Joe Manganiello knew Ozzy and Sharon and got us the “friend” discount on that one.
Staci Layne Wilson: Joe Manganiello is excellent as the DJ, Full-Metal Mickey. Tell us what he was like to work with and how he came to get the role in the first place.
Stephen Kijak: He was awesome. He kind of was there first. He and his brother had formed a production company, and the casting director we were working with at the time just slid them the script. It was Monica Nicholson who’s now at Paramount. She said Joe would be perfect for Full Metal Mickey, and she was right. He loved it, we met and was a kindred spirit, you know, he’s a little younger than me, but the same kind of musical foundations. He was a metalhead who had a sports injury that forced him into drama club, and everyone in drama club was listening to The Smiths. So he kind of got indoctrinated that way. He loves the band. Loves Ozzy; loves his Kiss. He was a very well-rounded musical foundation to take on Full Metal Micky. And he just dug in and found his character. And I think as soon as that Lemmy mustache grew in, it sealed the deal, you know. He fully became this character.
Staci Layne Wilson: My favorite parts of the movie involve the conversations between Mickey and Dean (Ellar Coltrane). They feel so real. What was it like to write those scenes, just you embodying two characters coming from two different mindsets?
Stephen Kijak: I must say that the first treatment and maybe the first draft didn’t have them talking in it. It was more like the music just running in the background. But the more I started writing, I was like, I wanna be in there, and I want to sit in that room with them. And so they sprung, fully-formed, out of my brain. I mean, to me, they’re both kind of the same person, just separated by a generation. It’s very much to me like a doppelganger relationship. The spirit animal for Mickey was Wolfman Jack in American Graffiti. It was weirdly the easiest part of this thing to write. He literally wrote himself, I can’t explain it; it was total magic. I just love the relationship. Because I feel like at various times, I’ve been one or other of those people, sitting at the other side of a generational conversation about music. You know, and then when you get older, you realize that everything you thought you had discovered that was cool and new sits on the shoulders of stuff from generations beyond that. There’s this whole, deep well of music that keeps feeding itself and pushing stuff forward, so, The Smiths might have felt new and revolutionary, but you know Johnny Marr is listening to old Stones records and R&B. Morrissey was listening to crazy ’60s girl pop, you know, Motown and it’s just these deep roots that go back and back and back. So, it kind of all came naturally.
Staci Layne Wilson: The fandom and devotion and how music really shaped lives back then in the 80s. Do you think it’s in any way similar now for young music lovers, given the immediacy they enjoy? They don’t have to hunt for records, buy bootlegs, wait a month for the next magazine to come out, and so on. It all seems handed to them, and as such, may not hold the same value. What do you think about that?
Stephen Kijak: I think there is something that ties it all together. I mean, the young actors in the cast were all really inspired by the characters and the friendships. But I will say you meet a lot of young people who are really into vinyl and exploring older music, and I do think it all means as much. It might be in a different shape or form. Maybe it’s more accessible. We don’t necessarily define subcultures like we used to, but they must exist in some other form, whether online or in another shape somehow, culturally. For instance, Helena Howard came to set with a Smiths tour program that her mom’s best friend (who was like her gay uncle and sadly has passed away) had given her. You know, that stuff really went deep for her. I believe the resonance is all there, despite the generational gap.
SHOPLIFTERS OF THE WORLD will be in Theaters, On Demand, and Digital on March 26, 2021.
My Review of the Film Can Be Found HERE.