David Caffrey, the director of Grand Theft Parsons is a genial man. He’s the type of guy who will talk to anyone, anywhere, about anything. He sat comfortably in a deep leather chair, not waiting to be asked questions about his film, instead volunteering information in stream of consciousness thoughts and anecdotes. Caffrey was asked by screenwriter Jeremy Drysdale (they share the same agent) to make the movie about the pact that Phil Kaufman (Gram Parsons’ road manager) made with Gram Parsons. This bizarre pact is the core of the Grand Theft Parsons plot.
‘Two months before Parsons overdosed, he and Kaufman went to the funeral of a friend and fellow musician, Clarence White, who had been killed by a drunken driver," explains Caffrey. ‘His funeral was a Catholic High Mass, which both Kaufman and Parsons thought was not what their friend would have wanted. So they made a pact that if one of them died, the other would take his body to Joshua Tree, an area of high desert 150 miles east of LA, and burn it. Joshua Tree was Parson’s favourite place to hang out. Grand Theft Parsons is the story about Kaufman keeping his word to Gram Parsons.’ When Caffrey reveals the background to the film it is as if he is talking about something mythical. Not only that, but Gram Parsons seems very much alive to him. He is as enthusiastic about his movie as he is about the man.
‘Gram Parsons was only 27 when he died and although he did not have a commercial success of his own, he was a great influence on many other performers, such as The Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Emmylou Harris,’ Caffrey continues. ‘He initiated the fusion between country and rock music. Parsons has no doubt been largely forgotten because he died so young and because he was never commercially successful in his own right. This also made it difficult to interest investors in the movie.’ Apparently, when Caffrey talked about Parsons, people would either say ‘Oh yes. What a wonderful idea, I really like the Alan Parsons Project’, or ‘Who’s Gram Parsons?’
‘The actor Hugh Jackman had accepted the part of Gram Parsons in the movie. The financial backers of the film had been impressed by Jackman’s agreement to participate, rather than by the plot. As a result the movie initially had a
£15m budget. Unfortunately the production schedule was fraught with difficulties which resulted in Jackman pulling out due to other work commitments. Shortly afterwards the backers also pulled out. Now the film had no lead actor and no budget! It was at this point that Johnny Knoxville (of Jackass fame) expressed an interest in playing the part of Gram. As it happened, he was a massive Gram Parsons fan and was hugely enthusiastic about becoming involved. So keen in fact that he did everything within his power to get the project off the ground. This included agreeing to let the producers pay him only what they could afford and making himself available to them 24 hours a day by providing them with his mobile number. Mostly when we went out together or had to ‘entertain’ potential backers, it was Knoxville who paid. He is incredibly generous.’ Cynics might say that if you can afford it and it means you get the lead part, then anyone would do the same, but Caffrey spoke highly of Knoxville as being a genuine guy with his heart in the right place.
‘As a final attempt to get the movie made, Frank Mannion, the producer, was able to secure £50,000 credit from various sources, but even this amount did not seem to be able to help the production off the ground. Eventually, at the final hour, when little of the £50,000 was left, the remainder of the finance was secured from a group of Wall Street Traders.’ Caffrey and Knoxville were sent by Mannion to personally woo the traders, who eventually agreed to finance the film. ‘Partly this was because they sympathised with the theme of the movie, the strong bond of friendship between Gram Parsons and Phil Kaufman. Two of the traders had lost their best friends in the World Trade Center on September 11. This is why they named their production company Morty-Stevie G Productions, after their friends Morty Frank and Steven Genovese.’
‘Finally with financing and actors in place the shoot began on the November 5th 2002, Gram Parson’s birthday.’ Now a low budget production, Caffrey had 24 days to shoot the entire film. The cast shared rooms in a sleazy motel during the first two weeks of filming in Palmdale. They drove themselves to the set every day. Apparently nobody complained and a strong team spirit prevailed. Caffrey only had one day in which to shoot all the scenes for which he needed a crane and steadicam, as the budget didn’t stretch to hiring the equipment for longer.
‘The entire music budget only amounted to $20,000, which isn’t a lot, when you have to buy the rights for a whole soundtrack. Luckily Gram Parson’s family approved of the film and let us use Gram’s music for it. Most surprising however was Bruce Springsteen’s agreement to let us have his song Blood Brothers for free. Springsteen usually only gives permission for his music to be used on films that he is personally involved with.’ Since Blood Brothers sums up the relationship between Kaufman and Parsons, this was a real coup for Grand Theft Parsons.
Caffrey’s enthusiasm for this project is boundless. He seems to have a belief in everything happening for a reason. When Hugh Jackman dropped out Knoxville appeared as if out of nowhere to take his place. Financing was removed and reappeared from financiers who were far more sympathetic to the theme of the movie. The cast held and gelled together and together they have managed to make a bizarre buddy movie with a real heart.