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Jesse James Miller: Calling the shots on ‘Punk’

Currently airing Monday nights on SBS VICELAND and streaming on SBS On Demand, Punk is a deep dive into the anarchic, rebellious and often violent history of punk music, from the proto-punk antics of series producer Iggy Pop in The Stooges to the current state of play. Almost everyone turns up to say their piece, from surviving Ramone, Marky, to riot grrl Kathleen Hanna, elder statesman Henry Rollins to the still-provocative John Lydon. We got on the phone to series director Jesse James Miller to learn what it was like to wrangle so many remarkable musicians.

We’ll start with the most obvious question: How did Punk the doco series come together as a project and how did you come on board?

I was brought on to direct after it got green lit, so I was sort of late in the process. A company called Network Entertainment hired me to come on board. So, I wasn’t part of the creative germination period. I came on once it was greenlit.

So with that being the case, what kind of input did you have in the creative process once you came on board?

From the writing standpoint, I created the writer’s room and wrote the four-episode arc. It’s a team effort, but there is a leader involved. That’s the hierarchy of the filmmaking process when you’re doing a television documentary.

What was the brief that you were given? What was the underlying thesis of the project, if you will?

Well, it was pretty generalized. It’s like, try and tell the history of punk in four episodes, which is almost an impossible feat, but from the American perspective, so that sort of solidified the route of storytelling that we needed to take. I mean, there’s a lot of different takes on who created punk. If you’re in Europe, it’s different than New York and different then again in LA, and so forth.

In Australia we have a band called The Saints, and we like to say they were the first punk band. So, everyone’s got their own.

Exactly. I knew about The Saints too, so yeah: everybody’s got their sort of germination point.

Iggy Pop was, of course, a producer on this. What was your working relationship like with him? How hands on was he? What kind of access did he give you? I’m sure his little black book must’ve come in handy in terms of tracking down interview subjects.

He gave us a four-hour interview to start things off, and just having them involved by name opened the doors for a lot of people to come on board, so it was sort of a no brainer for us. Creatively, he just gave us an interview and we showed him cuts and he loved them. And he’s a joy to work with.

Tell me your favourite interview subjects. I mean, you talked to so many luminaries of the punk scene, but who really stood out to you?

Well, it’s a tough one. I mean, Iggy for sure; he’s by far one of the most crazy people I’ve had to spend four hours with – in a good way. Wayne Kramer from MC5 was definitely was one of my favourites. The list goes on and on and on; Dave Vanian from The Damned. There wasn’t really a favourite moment because everybody was so mind blowing and so open with me. Kathleen Hanna was great; everybody who I sat down with was eye-opening for me.

Was there anything that hit the cutting room floor that you really wish you could have kept in? Any anecdotes that you really wanted to hold onto, but for whatever reasons couldn’t keep?

Oh, yeah. I think every interview had something in it that I wanted to keep. The biggest thing that hit the cutting room floor was some of the personal stories that had to be brushed aside for historical purposes. A lot of people shared some really personal moments with me. But you never know, maybe we’ll resurrect those in the next series or something. I mean, Johnny Rotten talking about Sid and stuff like that. There were so many areas that were that were jaw-dropping that we just couldn’t keep because, to be quite honest, it was a four part, one hour series, which is a limited amount of time to talk about this subject for sure. So, it’s very difficult.

Was there anyone you wanted to get to but couldn’t for whatever reason? Any great white whale interview subjects that maybe you want to tackle next season, if there’s the next season?

Um, no. To be quite honest, we hit all our marks that we wanted to hit. There’s nobody off the top of my head that I can’t say we, we didn’t get that we wanted, I mean, we did 61 interviews, so pretty much the people that we tried to get, we got.

Epix ‘Punk’ from Promax on Vimeo.