Things have reached a point where just having to hear someone mention a new documentary about punk makes us want to put our head in a noose and then use that noose to swing-kick them in the chest. How many more times do we need to see Legs McNeil talking about how "visceral" Joey Ramone was? But
Debt Begins at 20
, Stephanie Beroes's 1980 film about a bunch of punk kids in Pittsburgh, is a whole other story. It's like finding a weird, punky Dead Sea Scroll. The film follows Bill Bored, drummer of Pittsburgh punk band the Cardboards, as he goes to parties, plays shows, goes to the record store, hangs out in his dingy apartment, and gets with one of the members of girl band the Dykes (who also perform an incredible proto-Riot Grrrl song with a chorus that goes, "You're only two fingers wide! I can't feel you inside!"). Some of it is staged, but at no point does it feel artificial. The whole thing has the feel of a student film but, like, a good one.
Another cool thing is that instead of interviewing the punks herself, Beroes makes it funner by having them quiz each other while hanging out at a noisy party, making them ask questions like "What natural gift would you like to have?" and receiving smart-alecky answers such as "Some organic granola." Sadly, the film never received wide distribution and is only screened every once in a while, mostly on college campuses. But unsadly, you can see the whole thing online, completely for free.
to give it a whirl.
After watching it a few dozen times, I finally talked to Beroes about how the punks had fun in Pittsburgh in the early 80s.
Vice: How did you get the idea to make Debt Begins at 20? Stephanie Beroes:
I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and then I went to film school at the San Francisco Art Institute. I went back to Pittsburgh to visit my family and discovered some old friends who were involved in the music scene. The drummer for the Cardboards, Bill von Hagen, aka Bill Bored, introduced me to the scene, and that's how it started.
How long did you film?
Oh, I think it was about six months. Not that long. It was several different shoots and several different parties.
Was it an easy time, or did you have a lot of roadblocks?
I think it was a pretty easy shoot. It was on 16mm black-and-white, mostly shot with a Bolex with a 400-foot magazine. I mean, compared with the digital age, shooting in 16mm was a little more challenging, but I really loved it.
Is Bill the star of the film just because he was the one who led you around the scene?
I just liked the way he looked on camera, and I liked his personality, and his apartment was crazy! He had a motorcycle in his staircase, all the graffiti was there, all these objects around the room, the disorganization and kind of chaos that he lived in. It was the setting for the narrative in the film—the guy and the girl getting together.
Why did you add in the story line and all the other fictional stuff?
Well, it started with the comics that I found. There was a Dick Tracy comic in the Sunday paper that I thought was funny because Dick Tracy says, "What's the difference between punk rock and new-wave music? Less 'suicidal rebellion'?" So I thought, maybe I can have Bill reading this newspaper and a girl would come to visit him. We more or less talked about certain scenes that could happen, and then we shot them. It was very spontaneous, unscripted. I was also thinking in terms of other films that were being made at that time; it seemed that people were experimenting with using nonactors and putting them in a quasi-documentary, scripted situation. So what was the nature of documentary? What was the nature of having real people act as characters who were like themselves?
How did you go about picking the bands? Were there a lot to choose from, or was that everyone in the scene?
They seemed to be the most interesting and the most talented bands, in my opinion. Especially with the Dykes, their lyrics, the feminist quality of them, I thought was a sign of the times.
At the beginning of the film, Bill says something about "what punk means," and he's talking about how anything new is intrinsically better than anything old simply because it's new. That's obviously a big part of the film. Were you thinking about that from the get-go or is it something that came up while you were filming and editing?
It came up while I was filming. Everybody was trying to make their own persona. That was part of the fun of the punk-rock scene. Being in a band not because you're a serious musician but because you just want to express something about the ennui of being alive. It's an expressive communication between friends. I felt like I was going back to the 1920s to the Dada movement. I see a lot of links between what the Pittsburgh punks were doing and what the Dada artists were doing—the irreverence, a kind of youthful, joyous irreverence. There was nothing mean-spirited about it. It was all positive, just poking fun.
What's with the phrase "Nuke the Whales" coming up on-screen at the very end?
That was another poke at the seriousness of the emerging environmental movement. It was just making fun of the self-righteousness of the environmentalists. That's all. It was in the spirit of the film, of the lyrics, of the bands, and the music.
Was there ever any interest in a soundtrack?
I don't know, I could still do that. It would be fun. You know, this was right before the days of MTV. And one thing that I was trying to do was to make a recording of a specific time and place in pop-music history and to let the music speak on its own. And I think that's the most important part of the film. If you like the music you're going to like the film. There's a kind of homegrown quality to it, which is really wonderful.
These bands sound way different from the New York bands who were getting big at the same time. How different do you think the scene in Pittsburgh was from elsewhere?
There was more access to publicity and clubs to play in the bigger cities. The publicity machine was more established, and people were cutting records and getting them distributed. The punk-rock scene in Pittsburgh was less commercial. And also drugs were not a part of the scene at all. It wasn't really "rock 'n' roll" in that New York way. It was more in the spirit of poetry and social criticism. There were feelings people felt for each other, friendships and alliances that were very important to people. It was spirited in terms of being a contributor to your community via self-expression.
You got a grant to make the movie, right? How hard was it to try and get a grant to make this film about a bunch of punk kids?
It was not easy. I got a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The organization Pittsburgh Filmmakers, which is still in existence, is a pretty darn good reason to move to Pittsburgh too, if you are young and you want to make films and you don't have access to NYU or whatever. It's an equipment-rental and educational facility. All the equipment that I used to make the film was loaned from this organization. And the membership was minimal, maybe like $50 a year. Without this group I never would have been able to make the film.
So how did things go when it was finally done?
The early successes I had were that it was shown on German television and it was shown at the Berlin Film Festival, and it was also purchased by Channel 4 in London. And then I did a small tour with the film for a couple of years, just at college film clubs and places like the San Francisco Art Institute. There were a few screenings at Anthology Film Archives, and in the past couple of years there have been a few random screenings.
Have you kept in touch with anyone from the movie?
Back in 2006 we had a reunion of Pittsburgh punk rockers, and it was interesting to see how everybody had turned out. The lead singer of the Cardboards, his name is Joe but he was then known as Max Haste, is now a medical doctor living in Florida. Bill is a computer scientist living in Pittsburgh. Every single person has become a productive, creative, "successful" member of their communities. Every single person. Tracy, the lead singer of the Shakes, lives in Brooklyn. She's a wonderful artist and computer graphic designer and web designer. Denise Dee, the lead singer of the Dykes, she's living in Albuquerque and she has continued as a creative artist and a writer and a poet. It was fun to see all those old friends.
What have you been up to?
I have made a couple of other films. I made a film called
The Dream Screen
and got other grants. I taught film production for five or six years at the University of Wisconsin. I also taught filmmaking at San Francisco State University and at Hunter College in New York. Around 1990, I started working as a production manager and assistant producer on low-budget feature films for years until my son was born. Then I worked as a programmer for film festivals. So, in one way or another I've been involved in film. Now I'm working on short documentary projects in digital video. Keeping busy.
Can you tell us anything about those?
They're still under wraps. [
] INTERVIEW BY GABI SIFRE