John R.E. Nelson is an L.A. writer whose assault on culture began the day Rod Stewart's "Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?" hit the airwaves in America. His work has taken him from the pages of Flipside Fanzine to the L.A. Weekly, Esquire, Details, and numerous web assets.
Bad Day: Origins of a Guerrilla WesternFeaturing: Dave Alvin, Michael Blake, Kevin Costner and John Doe
By John R.E. Nelson
Over dinner one night in the good ol’ days, Exene Cervenka, writer/singer for the celebrated Los Angeles band X, and independent filmmaker Modi Frank brainstormed a shoot-'em-up starring their talented and twisted circle of friends, of which every member was headed for a full-size future in music, movies, and more.
This was the mid-80s: a time when there were no prepackaged labels like “alternative” or “indie.” There was only punk rock, and you either were or you weren’t. For a very short time, punk music and its fans symbolized anything and everything that wasn’t buttoned down, bar-coded, or flag-waving. There were still some strings attached to our modern “do it yourself” attitude for women, though, so when two music scene chicks wrote, cast, produced, directed, and shot their own film, our being impressed didn’t come off as patronizing.
Exene and Modi wrote Bad Day together as a salute to the roots-rock and cow-punk scenes that were flourishing in Southern California at the time, and also because they were surrounded by artists and musicians who were eager to work together. They wrote the script to capture a moment, to protect an important picture with a frame.
“Exene was always running around back then with her Super 8 cameras, shooting X’s tour footage and more. She was a natural cinematographer: perfect to shoot our film,” remembers Modi, who served as the film’s director. As co-producers, Modi and Exene cobbled together a crew, costumes, funds where possible, and of course, the players.
Casting began with the role of “Tripped-out Cowboy Priest” being filled by X front man John Doe, inaugurating his enduring push into professional acting. Joining Doe is prominent Los Angeles writer-poet Doug Knott, as well as Chris Desjardins, author, producer, and creator of those L.A. punk pioneers, The Flesheaters. Also coming aboard was Chris D.’s then-wife, folk-jazz singer/songwriter Julie Christensen.
Grammy Award winning American roots-rock scholar and former Blasters lead guitarist Dave Alvin narrates the story and plays the film’s wandering, dusty troubadour. Fittingly, Bad Day’s acoustic soundtrack comes courtesy of Dave Alvin and X's D.J. Bonebrake and is infused with their love of all things California.
The role of “Little Mae” is played by Jenny Aust, daughter of rock critic Chris Morris, whereas “Town Sheriff” features author Michael Blake, who a few years after the making of Bad Day would be best known for his Academy Award-winning adaptation of his novel, Dances with Wolves. Blake’s buddy, Academy Award-winning director and actor Kevin Costner also signed on as a loveable guy whose sudden inheritance turns him into the nevertheless-still-charming town drunk.
The late and dearly missed Peter Haskell, an artist-photographer whom Bedlam Magazine described as a “generous, talented, larger-than-life guy who led a determinedly bohemian lifestyle,” approached his own role (as the villain) the only way he knew how – with passionate dedication to Modi & Exene’s vision of the story’s notorious gunslinger, Johnny R Walker.
Shot in 1986 at a secret location near Chatsworth, California, the short film features an inspired cast of irregulars playing the residents of a small town on a bad day. Call it what you will: a cow-punk time capsule, a mock-Western, a guerrilla film forerunner – or just plain proof of a time when everyone didn't take themselves so seriously.
“Everyone came through, it's a great cast,” observes Exene today. “I'm glad we captured our friends on film. We all just jumped off the cliff, artistically. We were fearless. While the torrential rain and mud helped make the story, it was crazy to shoot through such heavy weather. Modi and I had so much fun writing and making Bad Day. It was one of the best times I ever had.”
Photographed on black and white film by Exene Cervenka, directed by Modi Frank, and written by Modi and Exene in 1986, Bad Day is a wayward tribute to the early silent film days of one-reel Westerns. It’s a short film that throws a saddle over the back of mid-80s punk, yanks the reins of shoot ‘em up satire, and smacks this horse's ass with the anything-goes spirit of its two gifted creators. Not bad for a film only rumored to exist until now.