IN MEMORIAM: “Rowdy” Roddy Piper; Rebel, Rabble-Rouser, Raconteur

My heart was heavy when I heard the news that Roddy Piper, known to most of the world as “Rowdy” Roddy, or “Hot Rod,” died at the age of 61 from cardiac arrest. I just recently had the privilege of directing him in my film, Don’t Look Back.

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I only knew Roddy, personally, for a short period of time, but those of you who have made movies know just how close people become during the magical, and often relentless, process of filmmaking. Not to mention, I’ve actually known Roddy my entire life—a lot of us who watched professional wrestling have grown up knowing him—so I feel compelled to write something.

Roddy played Eddie Starks in Don’t Look Back. It was a dark role, the role of a child abuser. When my co-writer and casting director, Michael Testa, mentioned that Roddy might be available to play the part, I was ecstatic. Not only was Roddy an icon in the wrestling world, he solidified his pop culture status in John Carpenter’s They Live, which, if I’m not mistaken, still holds the record for the longest fight scene in cinema history. You might remember Roddy’s signature line from the film: “I’ve come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum.”

Roddy Piper They Live

When I first spoke to Roddy, he was hesitant about playing the part of such a despicable person, a person who victimizes the most innocent of our society. He was also aware of his status as a childhood hero, which such a role could potentially undermine. I told him that someone with his type of affable personality should play the role, because it’s always the person no one expects, or the person that everyone admires, who flies under the radar and gets away with such crimes. It’s more dramatic, more authentic, to play against type for this role. He liked that line of thinking; primarily because he thought it might benefit kids who watch the film by bringing awareness to these types of predatory individuals.

It was never about Roddy; it always about others, whether it was the viewers, his fans, or his collaborators.

I could write an endless amount of words on Roddy—whether they’re about working with him, or about the stories (legendary stories) that he shared with me during the process. I could write about his Method acting—he would isolate himself in a dark room, or closet, between takes to stay in character. He would want to know how tight the shot was—was it a wide, medium, or close-up—and subtly adjust his performance to every inch of the frame (likely a by-product of a life on camera, especially in a profession where a wrestling move must read the same to spectators in the first row as to those in the back. He knew how to perform to a lens, and for a director, that was most welcome). He would improvise lines here and there, but he would always warn me, “I’m gonna throw stuff at you, Will, but if it doesn’t work for you, you just tell me. I got thick skin!” He had improvised every episode of “Piper’s Pit”—each and every one off the top of his head—for the WWF back in the day; who was I to discourage such a generous bequest! Remember that famous “bubblegum” line? Yes, that was all him. If someone in the crew wanted a picture with him (I was one of those people), he obliged; he even obliged those who wanted a picture with him putting them in a headlock. I watched closely each time someone asked for that (and it was surprisingly often): Roddy was much shorter than you might think, so the picture-asker inevitably would have to crouch down for him, so he could reach his arms around—however, Roddy never let that happen. He would say: “Count to three.” Picture-asker counts to three, then Roddy proceeds to knee the picture-asker in the back, triggering the reflexes in the muscles to shrink the body like an accordion and bring the person’s head towards him, leaving plenty of room for Roddy and his arms to choke the individual as the picture’s being snapped.

Every time; brilliant. It never got old.

HotRod

I thought I’d relay one story, because it’s one of the most wonderful, and wonderfully terrifying, things that started as a story and became something else. Now it’s something wonderful and terrifying unto its own, which lives on inside Don’t Look Back. It all began when Roddy began humming, and then singing, the children’s song John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt during a particularly disturbing scene in the film. You know the song:

John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt,

His name is my name too.

Whenever we go out,

The people always shout,

There goes John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt!

He caught me by surprise when he began singing it in a take; what was meant to be a playful tune, was turned into something haunting. The subverted use of such a bright song in such a dark scene simmered with subtext—it heightened the drama of the scene to a level I had not anticipated. Roddy was on to something, and I filmed it (after I asked the powers-that-be if the song was in the public domain, which it was, and we carried on).

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While in post-production, my editor, Blake, and I realized how much of an impact Roddy’s seemingly little improvisation had on the entire film. We cut bits and pieces of the song up and peppered it throughout the film, using it to foreshadow more ominous elements of the story as it progressed. My composer, MJ, felt it to. He wanted to expand on that idea and bring the song, literally, into the score of the film. He wanted to take Roddy’s version and stretch it out, slow it down, speed it up, and merge it with his character’s musical theme. The problem was, we didn’t have much of it to spare. The production audio of the song wasn’t completely clean; there was dialogue from the other actor, and Roddy didn’t sing the song completely through to its end.

MJ asked me: “Can you get Roddy to come into the studio and sing the song for us?” Roddy spent a lot of his time in Oregon and was always shooting or touring, but I gave him a call. As I imagined, he was out of town and would be on the road for a while, and subsequently unable to come into the studio. Roddy asked me why I needed him. I explained how wonderful, and of course, terrifying, his use of the song was in the film, but that we didn’t have enough production audio of it. Yes, the song was eerie, but there was something genuine about it, something I couldn’t quite articulate, that just worked. And it worked because of him. He loved the idea of weaving the song through the score and began to tell me why he sang the song in the first place. When he was a kid, he lived in a rural area of Canada that was native to Timberwolves. Upon moving to this area, he had learnt of the deaths of several children who were killed by these wolves. That wasn’t the only problem. Roddy was a small kid and he told me that he was bullied a lot (hard to imagine, right?) before and after school. In an effort to avoid the bullies, he bypassed the roads and walked several miles through the heavily wooded outskirts of the town—heavily wooded outskirts that were home to these specific Timberwolves. But, he had learnt something else: Timberwolves were frightened of the human voice. As a result, he learned John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt and sang it at the top of his lungs during his walks to and from school. He told me, after that, he would never forget that song—and he brought that dark, gritty emotional reality to its performance in the film. And for that, I can’t thank him enough.

Roddy couldn’t make it to the studio to record the song in person, and getting him into a studio wherever he was proved difficult. So, I suggested to him, “You know what could work; give me a call, I’ll let it go to voicemail, and you can sing it into the phone.” He said, “Sure,” and he hung up. I expected him to call me right back, but he didn’t. After a few minutes of silence from my iPhone, I was sure I had rubbed him the wrong way; that the suggestion was too much to ask (you know how your self-consciousness gets the best of you sometimes; particularly in this business? Well, it was getting the best of me then).

One day passed, two days passed; should I email him? Third day: should I text him, give him a gentle nudge? Fourth, Fifth, Sixth day passed; okay, I should call and apologize to him. No, email; it should be an email.

Just over a week later, I was leaving a meeting and pulled out my phone to check it. The screen read: Missed Call: Roddy Piper. There was a voicemail. And, on that voicemail, was John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt:

This was the most terrifying voicemail anyone has ever left me—or will ever leave me—and we used it all throughout the film. The recording became an essential track in our score and sound design. The fact that Roddy left me in such suspense before leaving me this recording; well, he was still the same man who smashed that coconut over Jimmy Snuka’s head. I’m extremely grateful to have worked with the man, who in my eyes (and many others’) was, and will always be, a legend.

My deepest condolences and prayers go out to Roddy’s family. Thank you for letting him come play with us up in Idyllwild and shoot our little movie—it was, without question, one of the best experiences of my life.

“New York Movie”

The last picture taken of my sister, Briana, was snapped by her husband on the morning of her death. She was wearing a black and blue dress and standing in her living room in front of a framed print of Edward Hopper’s painting New York Movie. Edward Hopper was one of her favorite painters. She loved others, too, but she had more prints of Hopper’s paintings hanging in her home than anyone else’s.

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In the photograph, the painting is obscured by Briana’s head, which covers the lower half of the figure of the woman usher, who is Hopper’s primary subject in the painting. The painting happens to be one of my favorite paintings, too. It involves cinema, after all. Hopper’s canvas splits the viewer’s focus. In one respect, your focus is drawn down the left side, past the backs of mostly empty theater seats and onto the screen. On the right side of the painting, the usher stands—a tall blonde woman, pensive in her countenance, her chin resting on her right hand, and her other arm supporting her right elbow, which in turn supports the weight of her head. A wall obstructs her view of the screen, not that she wants to see it. She can no doubt hear the film playing, and has most likely seen this motion picture too many times for her to count. She appears to be too preoccupied with the movie unfolding inside her head.

And we are, too, as the spectators of this painting. Neither the portion of the movie screen we see, nor the backs of the heads of the audience members, are competing for our attention. We are drawn to the usher’s contemplation, her melancholy perhaps—her own disjointed imagination inside a ceremonial room that makes its bones on the imaginations of others with ticket stubs.

When this last picture of my sister was taken, something strange occurred in the painting behind her: a reflection of an overexposed flash of light appeared over the usher’s face—the portion of the figure that was not obscured by my sister’s head. The source of this light is unknown; no camera flash was used. Perhaps the light in the photo is emanating from a window, but the flood of light seems too immense, and its shape—relative to the shape of the face—too exact.

It wasn’t until the moment I saw this photograph, and subsequently studied the painting closer, that I realized just how much this woman looks like my sister—or, I should say, my sister looked like this woman. It was uncanny. She had the same face. In addition to that, the color of her hair, and her clothes, were the same. My sister wore bangs most of her life, just as this woman was wearing her hair (see below for a photo of my sister when she was a teenager).

Briana-AngelPhoto

The woman in New York Movie is based on Hopper’s wife, Jo, whom he often used as a reference model. The usher’s visage was sketched as Jo stood under an illuminated lamp in the hallway of his house. Like her husband, she was a painter, but she was never publically recognized as such—at least not to the extent that her husband was. However, she did name many of his paintings, including conceiving of the famous Nighthawks title.

What’s even stranger is that the woman in the painting, while based on Jo, looks less like her, and more like my sister. The shape of the nose, the cut of the cheekbones and the posture of the figure; it is Briana.

Briana-SelfPortrait-Edited

Perhaps, I’m projecting. But what I see is what I see. Has my perception been altered since her death? Am I seeing things differently than they are (or than they were)?

Things as they are…are now how they were.

In Marcel Proust’s rumination on time, Remembrance of Things Past, he ponders what happens to the souls of those who cross that ethereal bridge to death: “I feel that there is much to be said for the Celtic belief that the souls of those whom we have lost are held captive in some inferior being, in an animal, in a plant, in some inanimate object, and so effectively lost to us until the day (which to many never comes) when we happen to pass by the tree or to obtain possession of the object which forms their prison. Then they start and tremble, they call us by our name, and as soon as we have recognized their voice the spell is broken. We have delivered them: they have overcome death and return to share our life.”

What was once Jo Hopper before July 1st, 2014, is now my sister after July 1st, 2014, and in this new thread of time, in which I and the others around me occupy, it was always my sister in that painting, for Edward Hopper, her favorite painter, had painted her into it. Perhaps I have found that particular object that has captured her soul, and I have recognized her voice calling to me, and the spell has been broken. Perhaps she has overcome death and returned to share her life: her effect on me is eternal. Her effect on me is the light that replaces the faces of masterpieces. It is the gateway to a life of memories that will continue to unfold upon the movie theater screen in my head. For the time being, my head is weighed down by these memories—just as the usher in the painting is weighed down by her own—but my hope is they will lift my head with happiness once again.

It is on this one-year anniversary of Briana’s death that I ponder the distinction between grief and mourning. It is said that grief is what we think and feel internally, while mourning is the external expression of our grief. This seems simple, on the surface of it all. But it’s the externalization of something intrinsically personal and unique and devastating that feels impossible. It feels impossible for me, especially now; unless I think of art as that externalization. I know my sister felt that way about art—it was her way of channeling her riptide of emotions, emotions that threatened to drown her on a daily basis. Like Hopper, she was a painter, like Hopper’s wife, she went largely unrecognized. Maybe that’s why I seek to recognize her—as a means of honoring her while simultaneously expressing my grief.

Hopper’s New York Movie articulates feelings that are oft impossible to verbalize. Works of art can capture the spirit, the energy, the life of a person, in a way that words cannot. When we think of definitions, we think of words, but isn’t the spirit of a person what ultimately defines a person? And doesn’t that spirit live on after death? While it’s hard for me to define the word spirit, I can say that my sister’s spirit did not die with her body; it remains alive today. I say that in neither a religious, nor secular, sense. I can feel her presence, her spirit, alive inside the brushwork of one of her favorite paintings, emanating from the figure of the female usher, like the way an unknown light source reflects off a pane of glass.

I wonder if her spirit has been captured in this painting, and her essence distilled within the photograph that was taken the morning of her death. Marcel Proust might think so. I’m not sure what I think. But I know what I feel.

I will not post this picture, because this picture is mine.

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