Nickolas Rossi, the director of the Kickstarter-backed documentary Heaven Adores You, which debuted in early May at the San Francisco International Film Festival, had a big job: offer something to diehard fans of the singer songwriter, and introduce his short but prolific life to those who know him best for Good Will Hunting’s “Miss Misery,” for which Smith was nominated for an Oscar. Oh, and one other major task: throw in the words of Smith himself (he died in 2003) into the mix alongside those of his sister Ashley Welch, Smith’s former girlfriend Joanna Bolme, producer Jon Brion, Kill Rock Stars founder Slim Moon, and musicians such as Sean Croghan, Pete Krebs, and Tony Lash, who was in Heatmiser with Smith and others who knew him well. Rossi pulls off the feat while paying homage to three cities that had a major impact on Smith—Portland, Oregon, New York and Los Angeles—while exploring his rise to fame and the evolution of his songwriting.
For me, the film took me back to listening to his music for the first time and falling in love with his wordplay, to going to see him play at clubs like Brownies and wishing the show could go on forever. Yet the film wasn’t as sad or dark as I’d expected; along with hearing about, say, the genesis of the cover of Figure 8, Smith’s teenage bands and how and where he wrote some of his songs, there was plenty of humor, especially on hearing songs from Smith’s teen years such as “I Love My Room.” Heaven Adores You, which gets its title from an Earlimart song of the same name, screens June 20 and 21 as part of AFI DOCS in the Washington, DC area. Follow @heavenadoresyou and their Facebook page for updates on future screenings. I spoke to Rossi in San Francisco about the filmmaking process.
Thought Catalog: How did this movie come out?
Nickolas Rossi: It came about from a memorial video that we shot when Elliott passed away.
TC: And that you just did spontaneously?
NR: Yes. I was living very close to where the Solutions Wall is in Silverlake [where the cover of Figure 8 was shot]. I remember reading that Elliott had passed away and that there was some sort of makeshift memorial going on there. I thought that I should go down there just for prosperity’s sake to shoot some of this stuff, so I did. I was learning how to edit at the time so I just put together a nice little tribute video.
I stayed an Elliott Smith fan for years and even though at some point I left Portland and his music sort of fell off my radar, there was always a connection to the time I lived in Portland. The film came up organically. It started with a conversation of wouldn’t it be cool to make a film about Elliott Smith. [We thought] it’d be awesome to use his music in a film; Gus van Sant had done it and we were all really amazed when we saw Good Will Hunting; you have a response to his music in a big theater like that. There’s so much conversation about the end of Elliott’s life that sometimes people forget there’s all this music he made that should be shared and remembered.
TC: You said you didn’t want to dwell on the darker side of his life. Did the humor that many people in the film brought up surprise you?
NR:I’d read Autumn de Wilde’s book [Elliott Smith] and everybody she interviews makes a point to say he had a great sense of humor. What was interesting is going through the photos, there’s a lot of him smiling. He was actually wicked funny. That didn’t really surprise me. He was very well educated. I don’t think he was constantly living this doom and gloom that everybody thinks because they listen to the music and it’s somber. I think he was just very smart about what he was doing.
TC:I was surprised that there was as much of Elliott in the film. I think I thought that there’d be concert footage and people talking about him, but you started with him talking and kept going back to his voice. Why was that important for you?
NR: I wanted Elliott to be able to tell as much of his story as possible, because this isn’t my film about Elliott Smith. This is a film for Elliott Smith in a way. It’s a chance for Elliott Smith to tell his story. He talks about when he was growing up in Texas, about leaving to go to Portland, about going to New York, about being on the Academy Awards. That was important because you want to include him and give him his say as much as you can. So as we were going through interviews, I just thought, he’s really great to listen to. He doesn’t say very much; he doesn’t pontificate and philosophize about things but he tells the story and his friends are there to support it. I thought that would be an interesting way to tell an Elliott Smith story, that he’s in charge of his own narrative.
TC: You said that you had to start with the Oscars, which is clearly the moment his life changed. What is your sense of the impact of that moment on him?
NR: We see this all the time that fame is not necessarily a great thing for people who don’t want to be in the spotlight. We start the film by Elliott saying I’m the wrong kind of guy to be really big and famous. He knew that. I think that the Oscars was an amazing opportunity for him, it put him on the map, it put Portland on the map, it put his music in the mainstream, but it’s not for everybody. With that sort of attention comes pressure and responsibility and some people deal with it in ways that maybe aren’t the best for them.
TC: Can you discuss how you tried to balance appealing to diehard fans and those who didn’t know Elliott’s music? Who do you see as the main audience?
NR: One of the challenges early on was there was a lot of fan specific stuff. We would sit down and talk to people about how he would record things, what kind of guitar he played, how he would tune his guitar…
I think it’s important that we don’t forget about his music. There are plenty of people now who are just discovering it, and ten years from now hopefully there’s going to be a whole new crop of kids who are going to discover his music. To make something that was just very fan specific, well, we knew we could maybe do DVD extras of that stuff, but to tell a comprehensive Elliott Smith story makes it available to a wider audience so that more people discover his music, not just the fans.
There’s little songs in there that only the fans are really going to get. There was a version of “King’s Crossing” that was a very early version, but if you know that song you know that this is a different version, but the person who’s never heard Elliott Smith won’t know that. There’s “Don’t Call Me Billy” which turned into “Fear City.”
TC: How did hearing the early songs shape your sense of his musical trajectory?
NR: When you listen to some of the things he did when he was 13 and 14, you know he had this incredible gift for music in a sort of prodigy way. I had piano lessons when I was a kid and played in a rock band in high school and it all sounded like garbage compared to [him]. The way he was composing some of this music and finding his voice through playing guitar and singing in different styles—he’s a musical genius. You really see that at a very early age that he had that—I don’t know if you’d call it a calling—but that was what he was going to do very well.
TC: You were a fan from fairly early on; what’s the biggest thing you learned about him?
NR: When Autumn de Wilde and Sean Croghan and Larry Crane all talk about how he wasn’t always writing about himself. That was that moment [I realized] he’s a lot better at what he does than I ever thought. I thought he was just a guy who could write really haunting beautiful melodies and put together some words that were hard and personal, but he was actually an amazing storyteller. He was an incredible poet, and he had a real gift for writing. When I started talking to people who knew him, who watched him evolve as a musician, I started listening to Elliott’s music differently.
TC: What do you mean by that?
NR: When I would listen to Elliott’s music, I would think he was talking about experiences that he had and I was able to relate to them. He talks about universal themes of love and sadness and despair and rejection. And I always thought, oh he was having those experiences and I’m having those experiences, so I related to it. But I realized that he could’ve been writing those about watching me in a bar, or watching you in a bar. He could’ve just been silently sitting there watching you break up with your significant other and overhearing that and then going and writing a song.
TC: Did that change how you interacted with the music or felt about it?
NR: I still really enjoyed it, I think I just enjoyed it more knowing it was a more creative act of I’m going to come up with an amazing story and be very clever about the words that I use as opposed to just writing down my own personal drama and then singing it.