Mark Hunter, a high school student in a sleepy suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, starts an FM pirate radio station that broadcasts from the basement of his parents’ house. Mark is a loner, an outsider, whose only outlet for his teenage angst and aggression is his unauthorized radio station. His pirate station’s theme song is “Everybody Knows” by Leonard Cohen and there are glimpses of cassettes by such alternative musicians as The Jesus and Mary Chain, Camper Van Beethoven, Primal Scream, Soundgarden, Ice-T, Bad Brains, Concrete Blonde, Henry Rollins, and Pixies. By day, Mark is seen as a loner, hardly talking to anyone around him; by night, he expresses his outsider views about what is wrong with American society. When he speaks his mind about what is going on at his school and in the community, more and more of his fellow students tune in to hear his show.
Nobody knows the true identity of “Hard Harry” or “Happy Harry Hard-on,” as Mark refers to himself, until Nora Diniro, a fellow student, tracks him down and confronts him the day after a student named Malcolm commits suicide after Harry attempts to reason with him. The radio show becomes increasingly popular and influential after Harry confronts the suicide head-on, exhorting his listeners to do something about their problems instead of surrendering to them through suicide—at the crescendo of his yelled speech, an overachieving student named Paige Woodward (who has been a constant listener) jams her various medals and accolades into a microwave and turns it on. She then sits, watching the awards cook until the microwave explodes, injuring her. While this is happening, other students act out in cathartic release.
Eventually, the radio show causes so much trouble in the community that the FCC is called in to investigate. During the fracas, it is revealed that the school’s principal has been expelling “problem students,” namely, students with below-average standardized test scores, in an effort to boost the district’s test scores while still keeping their names on the rolls (a criminal offense) in order to retain government funding.
Realizing he has started something huge, Mark decides it is up to him to end it. He dismantles his radio station and attaches it to his mother’s old jeep, creating a mobile transmitter so his position can’t be triangulated. Pursued by the police and the FCC, Nora drives the jeep around while Mark broadcasts. The harmonizer he uses to disguise his voice breaks, and with no time left to fix it, Mark decides to broadcast his final message as himself. They finally drive up to the crowd of protesting students, and Mark tells them that the world belongs to them and that they should make their own future. The police step in and arrest Mark and Nora. As they are taken away, Mark reminds the students to “talk hard.” As the film ends, the voices of other students (and even one of the teachers) speak as intros for their own independent stations, which can be heard broadcasting across the country.
After his film Times Square, a new wave comedy, was taken away from him and re-edited, Allan Moyle retired from directing and began working on screenplays. One of them, about a teenager who runs his own pirate radio station for other teenagers, came to the attention of SC Entertainment, a Toronto-based company, and put into development. He was persuaded to direct his own screenplay. Moyle wrote it without a specific actor in mind but his development deal specified that the project would be canceled if a suitable actor could not be found. The director needed an actor who had to have “glee, to be ineffably sweet and at the same time demonic.” Christian Slater met with Moyle and producer Sandy Stern and displayed all these qualities. Moyle has described the film’s protagonist as an amalgam of Holden Caulfield and Lenny Bruce and the “Hard Harry” persona as a guy who “has to get credibility as an outsider. As the last angry man on the planet, he has to use the foulest language he can think of. He even pretends to masturbate on the air. He’s obsessed with sex and death.” The school in the film, Hubert Humphrey High, was based on a Montreal high school where director Allan Moyle’s sister used to teach that, according to Moyle, had a principal “who had a pact with the staff to enhance the credibility of the school scholastically at the expense of the students who were immigrants or culturally disabled in some way or another.”
Slater disagreed with Moyle who wanted to bring in a tap dance instructor to help orchestrate a scene that begins with “Hard Harry” faking masturbation on the air and ends with him breaking into a manic dance by himself. Slater wanted to do something more spontaneous based on his instincts.
“I bet there are so many people who saw the film in college and literally reported to their campus station the next day,” said Rollins. “Its pretty easy to get a radio show, especially if you don’t mind working at 3 or 4 a.m. I did one semester at American University, and within two weeks me and Ian MacKaye walked into the station and I said to them, ‘I’m a student here, can I have a radio show?’ I was on the air two nights later, me and Ian MacKaye playing all our punk 45s with jocks calling the station threatening us.” – Henry Rollins
BEHIND THE SCENES/INTERVIEWS
So where did the idea for Pump Up The Volume come from?
Allan Moyle: Previous to this, there had been pirate radio stations on abandoned oil rigs off the coast of England. They were not subject to local laws controlling air content, like the FCC. So they were underground and I’d heard about them. And later there was a movie made about them where Philip Seymour Hoffman played the DJ [2009’s Pirate Radio]. I was kind of disappointed when I saw the movie… or maybe I was jealous. And before Pump Up The Volume was Good Morning Vietnam and Talk Radio, which was a play first. So it wasn’t the most original idea, but I wrote it about a suicidal young guy who was announcing his own suicide on the radio. And I ended up having too much fun playing with all of the different ways he could kill himself. He was a mordant, funny kid but he had no intention of killing himself, he just thought it would be cool to do it on air for his ten listeners. And it had a darker title too. And then Sandy Stern read it and said, “This movie is way too dark! You’ve got to make it friendlier.” So there is one kid that commits suicide in it, and we cleaned it up. I’m grateful to him because it probably wouldn’t have been made or had Christian Slater in it without him. So the idea of a depressed kid talking to the world, and having his own private outlet really appealed to me. I wrote this character in his parents’ basement. How many people are listening in the beginning of the movie? Probably 20, and then it snowballs. And that was the charm of the idea to me. Of course, we then dramatized it and put a helicopter chase in it. Who would have thought there would be a helicopter? In my first version he was shut down by the FCC because what he was saying was considered dangerous, encouraging kids to kill themselves. And I just built it from there with help from Sandy.
What made you go with Christian Slater for the lead role of Happy Harry Hard-On?
Allan Moyle: We needed a young guy and he was the hot young guy. I wanted John Cusack. And he read the script and liked it but said, “Allan, I’ve just played my last teenage role. Sorry. If you got me last year I’d have jumped at it.” Christian had been in Gleaming The Cube, and I wasn’t too impressed. But I later saw his fantastic style in Heathers, but by that time we’d already got him. There weren’t that many young cool guys back then. It was a small list of cool 16-year-olds. So we got him and we were thrilled. And then we worked with him and were even more thrilled. He was perfect for the part.
A couple years ago he said Pump Up The Volume is one of his favorite movies he’s worked on.
Allan Moyle: Oh, wow, well he was young and there were no impossibilities. He was a charming young man. Guess what he ate for breakfast every day? He made soup out of maple syrup and crunched up bacon! He was too young and natural to read his lines the night before, so I’d go and do it with him in the morning so he would know the lines. And I’d be rehearsing with him while he ate this scary concoction. But try it some day because it’s delicious.
Did Christian recommend any music or share opinions?
Allan Moyle: No, he was remarkable that way. He really didn’t care. He also didn’t care to improvise. There isn’t one improvised syllable in the movie. That’s not his style. He can say the same line over and over again and make it real, which is gold. But he’s not like Dustin Hoffman, bombarding us with ideas. He’s the opposite. I wish I could describe in words just how easy he was to work with. Strange kid. He had to dance a couple of times in the movie, and he didn’t want to dance. So he said, “Tell you what. I’ll bring my friend in and we’ll dance together and you can shoot my side of it.” It was a cool idea. It worked. It’s not that he couldn’t dance, he was just embarrassed. He was so young he didn’t want to do the crying scene! All adult actors would give their right arm to cry, because it shows how good you are. But he was like 15 or so.
How did youth culture inform your early work? What led you to begin making films about young people that were disassociated or rejected from the mainstream culture?
Allan Moyle: You don’t think of yourself as being part of youth culture while it happens, you’re just a person who happens to be young. So now that I’m old, that question makes sense. At the time, though, I was young, I didn’t consider myself an emissary of a culture and, in fact, that’s been a problem all my life and career: I never really knew what I represented, even after making and writing a few movies. So, now I’m 70, and I’m still trying to write about teenagers. So frankly, I don’t know what’s wrong with me. It seems like a very rich period of time where you’re confused and energized at the same time. It’s a glorious time when I meet 16-year-olds now. I think, “Hold on to that! Your youth is so precious.”
Do you spend a lot of time reflecting on your career now that you’re getting older?
Allan Moyle: No, not at all. I can’t even remember when I made [those films]. The other day somebody asked me to name something that happened in 1993, and I couldn’t think of anything! They said, “Well, you made this movie that year,” but it was all lost to me. Time is a very big abstract to me. It brings to mind that phrase “The future is yesterday.”
Now that you are seventy and still looking at youth culture, how do you stay connected with what is going on with younger generations?
Allan Moyle: I must have a 13-year-old inside me. At least my wife thinks so. That’s just my perspective coming through as a young person. I’m shocked that I’m 70. I feel like I’m in my thirties, or that secretly in my heart I’m still a teenager and I think I can relate and I can still write from the perspective well enough to be plausible. Although I have to, I have to avoid certain things in this digital age; I’m not gonna write anything in which everybody’s carrying an iPhone. I’ll skip that era.
There was a decade-long pause in your filmmaking career between making your first film Times Square (1980) and Pump Up the Volume. How did the industry expectations that were placed on you as a filmmaker change during that period?
Allan Moyle: Well, for three years, right after Times Square, I was living in Greece writing a novel. I just quit the film business completely because I was so disappointed by my experience making that film. I was kicked off the film, and it was completely re-edited. They cut out all the lesbian scenes and anything with the two main characters kissing and everything. I thought, “Fuck this, I’ll become a novelist.” And I went to Greece and lived there for two-and-a-half years without thinking of the film business. So any changes the industry went through, it did without me. I’ve been ambivalent all my life. I actually think I’m a terrible director. I’m very good at casting, I understand scripts and I love actors, but I’m very bad at fighting for all the bureaucratic stuff.
What inspired you to take the reigns back and make Pump Up The Volume? How does an artist like yourself recover from that rejection from the industry?
Allan Moyle: Well, when I came back [from Greece] and started over, I wrote the initial script. I was talking to the people at New Line Cinema who at the time were a very small company, and they were quite nurturing. Still though, after seeing a rough cut of the film, the owner of the company said it was unreleasable. I later found out from his wife that that was his way of trying to encourage me to work harder! I’m a Canadian though: If someone tells me my movie is unreleasable, I’m quick to believe it. It was a rough cut and he was cracking the whip and to let me know that It wasn’t altogether yet. He said “this is an emergency” and I needed to fix it in a week! At that point in editing a feature film, you don’t know what you’ve got really — there is no music for instance, and without the songs the movie isn’t alive yet. Still, the movie bombed in the end, compared to expectations and compared to reviews, but then, luckily, it developed a new life of its own by word-of-mouth.
Pump Up The Volume was considerably darker and more confrontational than the cartoon like humour in Empire Records. Following the negative reviews of Pump, was it a conscious decision to make your next film a lighter one? Did you feel like you had alienated audiences with a film that explored taboo themes such as teenage sexuality, bullying, and suicide?
Allan Moyle: Well, I made Empire Records because a good script came along, and that doesn’t happen often. Pump Up The Volume was originally much darker, It was about a guy announcing his own suicide over private radio: “Stay tuned folks, because tonight I might do it on the air!” In the final film, Christian Slater‘s character has more of a social conscience. I don’t know if my desire for a middle-of-the-road fame maybe played into that. I was thinking one movie at a time. Im not the type of director who has the opportunity to pick my next project based on it being lighter or darker.
Do you ever look at the way that themes like teen violence, suicide or even gun violence resonate now, now that conversations around those topics have expanded into our everyday lives?
Allan Moyle: Well… No, I don’t really. Take feminism, for instance. I often have actresses telling me that I write good female parts. I don’t know why but I can relate to women and I’m just having fun writing female characters.
“I was just out of high school when they had made the movie,” “It had a really big effect on me. I was really moved by how honest it was, and how it was really calling out the bullshit of high school society as well as the hypocrisy of adults. When I read it, I just knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I don’t mean to disparage any of the John Hughes movies; I grew up on them and I love them. But they were a bit softer around the edges. Then Allan Moyle came along and created something that was so punk rock, so in your face and raw and honest, it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.” – Samantha Mathis
The film predates the internet, and yet Harry and his radio is basically what we have now with blogs, podcasts and YouTube channels. How do you feel about the movie, looking back on it now?
Allan Moyle: I was shocked myself. You know how it ends with these voices announcing themselves? That is so internet! Blogs and podcasts! That scene still gives me the shivers because it’s such a powerful idea that kids in their rooms all over America can be expressed. And then wow, it happened! And then people kept asking me to do an updated version of it. But what would you do? How could you do it? So that’s why I haven’t done it. If you can phone me tomorrow with a good idea we could have the movie made. But we’d have to have a good idea.
What do you think would happen if you tried to make Pump Up The Volume now? How do you think the reaction would differ from when you made it in 1990?
Allan Moyle: It’s funny you ask that because just recently someone came to me and asked to do a TV version of Pump Up The Volume. I fully support it, but I’m glad I’m not doing it. I’m happy working on a new movie. Let them do it if they can. I wouldn’t. Why would you remake anything?
I doubt you can find an actor like Christian Slater to do it.
Allan Moyle: Moyle: Well how about Christian’s character has gone out and done all kinds of things and failed, all alone in a basement apartment somewhere. He’s had a tough 25 years. Because I’m sure Christian would do it again if we had a great story. Cam, that’s your mission there if you care to dream one up.
Underground music culture plays a huge part in your films Time’s Square, Pump Up The Volume, and Empire Records. Can you describe your personal connection to underground music culture?
Allan Moyle: I was very much into bands and live music back then, and I still am.
The movie is very driven by music…
Allan Moyle: There is a lot of music in the movie because that’s the style of the music. And I like songs. Even though Cliff had a great score, we started with a song. And I like telling stories with songs. If a song is good and it’s used right, it automatically grabs the audience by the throat with whatever emotion you want to get in there. I’m surprised people don’t use songs more often. I guess people prefer score. That’s my little prejudice. That’s why we needed songs, and that’s why there’s a soundtrack.
How did you choose which songs to use?
Allan Moyle: We were thinking about a lot of songs and we had a limited budget. A lot of people’s favourite temp tracks were either unaffordable or they’d been used in other movies. So you want to be four deep with choices. You go back and forth with the almost free ones to the ones where you hope the band will give you a break on the price. There wasn’t one magical moment where I decide on the music. In fact, I don’t decide. It’s teamwork. Some songs you hope you can afford. I was writing to some artists asking to use their music. For example, Leonard Cohen was a friend of my wife at that time. So he gave us a break on “Everybody Knows.” But the person that owned the song—because Leonard doesn’t own a song—was a total maniac, so we didn’t think we would get it. There was a kid in the editing room who kept wanting to play me songs. He knew the movie better than I did, and he had one great song after another.
Allan, you mentioned artists you couldn’t afford…
Allan Moyle: Kathy Nelson (Music Supervisor) controlled the budget, but it was very sponge-able. If I had my way I’d have put in the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It, Black.” But I didn’t have my way. Maybe the movie’s better because some of them were unknowns. But [producer] Sandy Stern and I had a lot of control of the movie. Luckily New Line was a happy partner, and Kathy was a happy partner. It all went very well. This was a low budget movie and some of the songs cost a lot, so I had to beg. That’s not unusual. I wish I could say we had a vision and followed it, but we just stumbled forward happily and had a great time. They let us do what we wanted, so we ended up with something special. There are songs where you play them against the footage, the hair on your arms stands up and you know it’s right. Like the song written by Charlie Manson.
Pixies’ “Wave of Mutilation”?
Allan Moyle: “Wave of Mutilation”! My favourite song in the movie. I could sing it to you but I couldn’t remember the name. A senior moment. The Pixies told me they used Charlie Manson’s lyrics.
With Pixies, Soundgarden, Bad Brains and Henry Rollins on the soundtrack, there seemed to be this strong push towards the underground.
Allan Moyle: Yeah, I liked those bands, so that’s where we started. I knew Leonard Cohen because I’m from Montreal. And I was married to his sound engineer, Leanne Unger, my first wife, so I knew him personally too.
I wanted to ask you about Leonard Cohen…
Allan Moyle: What about Leonard Cohen? Why we had Concrete Blonde cover his song? We had them do it. The head of New Line, Bob Shaye, thought Leonard Cohen’s version was too down head to be the opening song of the movie. He said, “God that’s dreary! So have it covered by a more pop artist.” So Concrete Blonde was a few degrees more pop than Leonard was. And they had authentic, indie cred. So we paid them to do it and they did a good job. But I couldn’t stop longing for Leonard’s version because we temped it in there, we wrote to that. And we used it in the end. Only at the last minute did Bob say we could use it. So then we had two versions of it, and Kathy had already paid Concrete Blonde. As you know though, there are two purposes: the sale of the album and the sale of the movie. So she wanted Concrete Blonde on the album, and I wanted Leonard Cohen in the movie. All’s well that ends well.
There are so many other great songs in the film that weren’t on the soundtrack, like Descendents, Beastie Boys, Ice-T, Was (Not Was). Why is that?
Allan Moyle: Those were all a little leftfield for the pop crowd. These people are in the business of selling records and I didn’t have control over their choices. I was just glad that we had the money to buy some of these songs because of the album. And as a result the movie was better. It could have been that my favourite song, “Wave of Mutilation,” didn’t get in because it’s pretty dark.
That Beastie Boys song “The Scenario” has never been released before, aside from bootlegs. Apparently it’s because they didn’t like that song.
Allan Moyle: Isn’t that interesting. I think the Beastie Boys may have said, “We like this movie so we’ll throw you this bone, a B-side or a C or F-side.” They weren’t gonna exploit it.
Pump Up The Volume really predated the trend of music and film executives attempting to commodify alternative youth culture. During that period, film soundtracks were packaged as an entirely separate product from the film itself, with each product promoting the other. Did you get the sense that movie executives were looking to commodify that scene through filmmakers like yourself, in a similar way that happened to musical movements like Riot Grrrl or “Grunge”?
Allan Moyle: Well producers are not as interested in music as a director and the writers are. With Empire Records, though, the studio also owned a record label, and they were quite aggressive about getting songs and I was thrilled about that because usually one of the problems when editing is not being able to afford songs that I want, and then have to go to the second and third best after having watched the song I wanted in that spot in the rough cut.
Do you feel that making these films had a hand in popularizing soundtrack-themed films?
Allan Moyle: Maybe I’ll take credit in my own mind, but no i never consciously thought that. It just makes sense to me to write with songs in mind, because it captures the mood within seconds. I think score is overused and for me is just not as much fun. The only problem is using songs costs money more and more every year, so it’s a two way street. When you are making independent films, you better have a huge song purchase budget, because when the producers walk up to you with the long faces, it’s the music budget that’s first to go. To them, when shooting, the music is invisible.
How did Cliff Martinez get the job to score the film?
Allan Moyle: We thought [Sex, Lies & Videotape] was great. Because of the association and his talent and because he was cheap and young! So, all of the vectors came together and we got lucky. Composers are difficult to work with because you need the material when you need it. If they’re not on the same schedule as you it’s a disaster. He was good, fast, easy to work with, and a nice guy. All of the above. I remember him with great pleasure. He was a bit dark too. And he intimidated me because he was dark. But all the better. I couldn’t afford him now though! I feel proud that I was part of his career.
Cliff Martinez (Film Music Composer)
Cliff, what do you remember about working with Allan?
Cliff Martinez: The initial meeting with Allan was colourful. He took a bunch of Polaroids of me while we were talking, which was unusual. He was flamboyant. But I don’t remember conversations about the film score, just that he had a striking presence. My first encounter with him was memorable.
This was only your second film score. How confident were you going into this project?
Cliff Martinez: Not confident at all. I just had Sex, Lies & Videotape under my belt, which I thought was a very one-of-a-kind type of film score and a one-of-a-kind type of film. So I didn’t feel confident at all. It was more of conventional film score. Allan Moyle came to me and suggested that he wanted something similar to Sex, Lies & Videotape, so I had a more than usual kind of apprehension. It was still very new to me. Nobody had previously heard of me, so doing Sex, Lies & Videotape definitely got my foot in the door. And perhaps the experience of doing one film made doing my second film easier.
Your background is in punk rock, and even though your scores are, it sounds like your approach was.
Cliff Martinez: As far as the music went, no, it wasn’t punk rock. But when you just go ahead and do something without the training or without the experience, that was punk rock. When you stick your neck out and call yourself a film composer without the credentials or résumé, that was punk rock.
How do you feel about it your score now?
Cliff Martinez: I kind of look back at it as my childhood, my formative years. I really didn’t know what I was doing. Sometimes that’s a good thing, but I didn’t feel able to do some things in a standard, conventional way, so I had to try doing them another way. So, I guess in some ways my earlier scores were a lot more interesting because I really didn’t know what I was doing.
Did it ever get a proper release?
Cliff Martinez: No, it didn’t. The closest thing is I have the tracks on my website. So far no one has come after me because I don’t own that music. As long as I’m not making any music off it I can put it on my website. But no, it was never officially released.
You’ve had remarkable success the past decade scoring Drive, Solaris, and The Knick. Pump Up The Volume isn’t exactly your most recognized work.
Cliff Martinez: It’s an older film, and my recollection of it was that it was an underground cult film. So a 25-year-old cult film from the 1990s might not stick in some people’s head. In fact, Sex, Lies & Videotape is often in that same category. I think maybe both of those films will come back in a few more years and be rediscovered. But Pump Up The Volume was never a big film in its time, so it might not outgrow its cult following.
Pump Up the Volume 1990 Cliff Martinez Score Suite
01 Buy an Antenna
02 Feedback 1/2
03 Big Toe Radar
04 Feelin Kinda Rude v1 v2 v3
05 Lets Get a Tan pt1
06 Lets Get a Tan pt2
07 Hello Serious_3-29a
08 Hello Serious_3-29b
09 Looking for Some Stamps
10 Hello Serious_4-1
11 Eat Me, Beat Me
12 School’s Closed
13 No More Mr Nice Guy
14 Turn the Damn Thing Off
15 We Started Something
16 You’re History
17 Test 2
18 The Big Speach #2
19 Harry’s Theme 4-16
20 Buy an Antenna 4-21
21 Jan Steals a File
22 I Just Arrived
23 How Big is It v1
24 How Big is It v2
Pump Up the Volume (1990) Soundtrack
01.Everybody Knows (performed by Concrete Blonde)
02.Why Can’t I Fall in Love? (performed by Ivan Neville)
03.Stand! (performed by Liquid Jesus)
04.Wave of Mutilation (UK Surf) (performed by Pixies)
05.I’ve Got a Miniature Secret Camera (performed by Peter Murphy)
06.Kick Out the Jams (performed by Bad Brains & Henry Rollins)
07.Freedom of Speech (performed by Above The Law)
08.Heretic (performed by Soundgarden)
09.Titanium Exposé (performed by Sonic Youth)
10.Me and the Devil Blues” (performed by Cowboy Junkies)
11.Tale O’ the Twister (performed by Chagall Guevara)
12.Everybody Knows Leonard Cohen
13.Talk Hard (performed by Stan Ridgway & MJ-12)
14.Love Comes in Spurts” (performed by Richard Hell)
15.If It Be Your Will” (performed by Leonard Cohen)
16.Girls L.G.B.N.A.F. (performed by Ice-T)
17.WeinerSchnitzel (performed by Descendents)
18.Scenario (performed by Beastie Boys)
19.Dad, I’m in Jail (performed by Was (Not Was))
20.Fast Lane (performed by Urban Dance Squad)
Christian Slater as Mark Hunter
Samantha Mathis as Nora Diniro
Mimi Kennedy as Marla Hunter
Scott Paulin as Brian Hunter
Cheryl Pollak as Paige Woodward
Annie Ross as Loretta Creswood
Ahmet Zappa as Jaime
Billy Morrissette as Mazz Mazzilli
Seth Green as Joey
Robert Schenkkan as David Deaver
Ellen Greene as Jan Emerson
Andy Romano as Mr. Murdock
Anthony Lucero as Malcolm Kaiser
Lala Sloatman as Janie
James Hampton as Arthur Watts
New Line Cinema