There were a lot of truly great things about the 1990s (Grunge, Seinfeld, The Big Day Out, DVDs, second hand record stores, the term “slacker”), and one of the best was undoubtedly the American independent film movement, which grew out of The Sundance Film Festival and raged on to great success thanks to one-of-a-kind talents like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee, Richard Linklater, Kevin Smith and many, many more. It was also a good time for female directors, with the likes of Mary Harron, Katt Shea, Tamra Davis, Kimberly Peirce, Stacy Cochrane, Sofia Coppola and many more all making their mark during this wonderfully film-fertile decade.
One of the best – and subsequently most under-celebrated – filmmakers to emerge during the 1990s was Allison Anders. Now working primarily in episodic television (with credits on everything from Mayans MC and The Affair through to Riverdale and Orange Is The New Black), Anders displayed extraordinary promise in the 1990s with a series of deeply felt, richly personal films, and her current absence from feature filmmaking is a great source of sadness for loyal fans of the writer/director.
During a difficult childhood and adolescence defined by the split of her parents and the constant instability and physical and emotional abuse that would follow, Kentucky-born Allison Anders found escape through the world of cinema. “Like most filmmakers, I probably saw more films than a lot of people when I was a kid,” Anders told PBS Frontline. “But I watched them on TV as well. I was no purist about it. I spent lots of time in movie theatres, but I also watched a lot of films on TV.” In her early twenties and with a young daughter (which instantly set her apart from most other aspiring filmmakers), Anders studied at UCLA Film School, which is where she eventually put together her first film.
Taking inspiration from her filmmaking hero Wim Wenders (for whom she’d worked as a production assistant on the grainy 1984 masterwork Paris, Texas), Anders teamed with fellow UCLA students Kurt Voss and Dean Lent for a triple co-direct on 1988’s shambolic, energetic, music-filled micro-budget indie Border Radio. Starring Anders’ sister Luanna Anders in a lead role alongside musician Chris D, the film is a raucous tour through the LA punk scene of the late 1980s, hinged on a loose plot about stolen money, but essentially built on its characterisations and wonderful sense of rough-and-ragged style. “I was so satisfied with the product and with the process – more with the process,” Anders told PBS Frontline. “That’s the important part; even as difficult as it had gotten, and as stressful as it had gotten at a few points, I just really loved the process. And fortunately for me, people liked the movie.”
While now a minor indie film watershed, Border Radio was essentially a no-budget student film, and Anders made a massive jump upwards with her next film, which remains her most affecting and cogent work. Though loosely adapted from Richard Peck’s novel Don’t Look It Won’t Hurt, 1992’s Gas Food Lodging is a profoundly personal work from Anders, with the director touching upon her own horrific gang rape at the age of twelve for one of the film’s most moving and haunting scenes. Featuring stunning performances from the wonderful Brooke Adams (an unsung and underrated actress if ever there was one), Ione Skye, Fairuza Balk and James Brolin, and a transcendent musical score from Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, the film follows a waitress and her two daughters, who grind out a poetically bleak existence in a New Mexico trailer park. Evocative and beautifully made, Gas Food Lodging has now been largely lost amongst the cavalcade of 1990s classics, but it remains one of the decade’s best films.
Anders’ next film was equally confronting, though 1993’s Mi Vida Loca was even bolder in its subject matter, following the fractured lives of two Hispanic girls living in an impoverished, beaten down, crime-ridden corner of Los Angeles. While a white American director would likely never helm a culturally specific film like this today, Anders’ empathy for her characters is extraordinary, while her immersion into their world guarantees a rich sense of authenticity. It’s another fine work from Anders. “My goal was to get inside the characters’ heads and understand, just as I would any subculture,” Anders told Screen Slate. “But because of the criminal element and police harassment, I felt an extra responsibility to discover and convey their hopes and dreams, no matter what they were, and not through society’s expectations. If one person who connected to any of the characters and saw a chola on the street, maybe they’d not just dismiss them, they’d know a beating heart with dreams all their own.”
As one of a large group of filmmakers to find great success at The Sundance Film Festival, as well as being a friend, and later girlfriend, of Quentin Tarantino (a longtime fan of Anders as a filmmaker), Allison Anders was included in the great-on-paper-average-in-actuality 1995 portmanteau flick Four Rooms, which featured shorts from Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Alexandre Rockwell. Though a fascinating 1990s cinematic time capsule, the film was a major disappointment upon release, and has now been happily forgotten. Anders’ goofy, screwball episode (about a coven of witches played by the likes of Ione Skye and Madonna) is fascinating for how wildly different it is to most of her other films.
Anders was able to capitalise on the heat that had sizzled up around her and her other Sundance breakouts by setting up her most ambitious project to date with 1996’s Grace Of My Heart. By far Anders’ most formal film, this fictional biopic boasts fine period details with its tale of a 1960s singer-songwriter (a rare lead from the brilliant Illeana Douglas) who endures all manner of creative and romantic dilemmas while penning hits at the famous Brill Building. Featuring a great cast (Matt Dillon, John Turturro, Eric Stoltz, Bridget Fonda) playing approximations of various real life figures from the era, Grace Of My Heart was another deeply personal film from Anders while also working as a fascinating fictional depiction of a defining moment in music and pop culture.
A longtime music fan and collector, Anders returned to territory similar to that which she had so successfully explored with Border Radio for what would – at this stage at least – become her final three films. Co-directed with regular collaborator Kurt Voss, and starring a mix of cultish actors (Rosanna Arquette, Ally Sheedy, Bevery D’Angelo) and rock stars (Duran Duran’s John Taylor, Silverhead’s Michael Des Barres, Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and X’s John Doe, who had also featured in Border Radio), 1999’s Sugar Town is a multi-character comedy drama about a disparate group of characters trying to forge their path in LA’s music scene. Charming, funny and enjoyably ramshackle, the film received some favourable reviews, but disappeared from view, as did 2012’s Strutter. Another co-direct with Kurt Voss, this even smaller project once again traversed LA’s rock scene.
Wedged in between these two shaggy affairs was Anders’ most personal and bruising film. 2001’s Things Behind The Sun (a very early entry in the digital revolution co-written with Kurt Voss) stars Gabriel Mann as a young rock journalist preparing a major story on Kim Dickens’ gifted singer. As the film unspools, however, it is soon revealed that there is something much, much darker going on, with both characters revealed to be horribly damaged by a brutal gang rape that tore them asunder many years before. Wrenched from Anders’ own rape as a young girl, the film pulls no punches in its depiction of the battering effects of sexual violation, on both the victim and, occasionally, on the perpetrator as well. Things Behind The Sun is a tough, tough film which really sees Allison Anders truly sing as a filmmaker, with the power of its complex themes matched by its rich visuals and raw storytelling.
Despite the haunting brilliance of her best films, Allison Anders hasn’t made a feature since 2012’s Strutter, instead toiling on telemovies (including a small screen remake of the classic Beaches, starring Idina Menzel and Nia Long, and the June Carter Cash biopic Ring Of Fire, starring singer/actress Jewel) and episodes of shows like The L Word and Sex And The City. With her tough background (which she speaks about with absolute candour); love of tattoos; passion for rock music; cool AF vibe; and extraordinary facility for creating flawed, believable female characters, it’s not hard to class Anders as being way ahead of her time. If she was coming up in the film world today, this prodigiously gifted female voice would likely be celebrated as a true game-changer…hell, she’d probably even be on Marvel Studios’ interest list for future female superhero movies.
Though she emerged in the pre-digital, pre-streaming, pre-Spotify days of the 1990s, Allison Anders speaks on the human condition – and particularly that of her front-and-centre female characters – with a depth of feeling and emotional precision that is truly timeless. Hopefully, we will see another film from this amazing talent sooner rather than later…
If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Daniel Petrie Sr., Katt Shea, Frank Perry, Amy Holden Jones, Stuart Rosenberg, Penelope Spheeris, Charles B. Pierce, Tamra Davis, Norman Taurog, Jennifer Lee, Paul Wendkos, Marisa Silver, John Mackenzie, Ida Lupino, John V. Soto, Martha Coolidge, Peter Hyams, Tim Hunter, Stephanie Rothman, Betty Thomas, John Flynn, Lizzie Borden, Lionel Jeffries, Lexi Alexander, Alkinos Tsilimidos, Stewart Raffill, Lamont Johnson, Maggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.