Simple Twist of Fate: Director Justin Kreutzmann on His Jerry Garcia Documentary

Dean Budnick on August 15, 2022
Simple Twist of Fate: Director Justin Kreutzmann on His Jerry Garcia Documentary

Shooting the “Hell in a Bucket” music video, 1987


“I thought Justin would be perfect for this,” Jerry Garcia said in 1987, while describing Justin Kreutzmann’s role as the director of Dead Ringers: The Making of Touch of Grey. Garcia characterized Kreutzmann as a “film whiz” for his work on the project, which looked behind the scenes at the creation of the Grateful Dead’s first music video.

Thirty-five years later, Kreutzmann is once again an ideal selection to occupy the director’s chair, in this instance to helm a documentary about Garcia, which is slated for release in 2023. The filmmaker received a Super-8 camera at age eight from his father, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, and has been exploring the medium ever since. In 1991 he directed Jerry Garcia and David Grisman’s “The Thrill Is Gone” video and he has gone on to work with The Who, U2, Emmylou Harris, Dr. John and many others. He was executive producer of the Bob Weir documentary The Other One and a producer of Long Strange Trip: The Untold Story of the Grateful Dead.

Kreutzmann’s film, Let There Be Drums! which will be released in the fall “examines the personal struggles that so many musicians and their families have faced, the nature of how music passes from generation to generation, and the essential role that drumming plays in human life.”

How would you describe your approach to the Jerry Garcia story?

What I said from the very start is I want it to be as much as possible from his point of view about everything, not just his career, but also current events and culture because he was interviewed so extensively throughout the decades. He talked so much about lots of different subjects and I always thought it was really interesting.

Obviously you need perspective and you need to set the scene and get the mood of what was going on, but all the other voices are going to be intimate—family members, band members, people that knew Jerry from Palo Alto in the early ‘60s, all the way through a handful of people who were his real friends and coworkers.

I want to make this movie from the inside out. That’s not to say that everything’s going be through rose-colored glasses. There’s going to be the good, the bad and all that kind of stuff, but told with love from the family. Jerry’s family is as honest as he was. So it’s not like any punches are going to be pulled.

My tagline has always been that a successful film to me is that you’ll feel like you’d just hung out with Jerry Garcia for two hours while he told you stories, played you music and drew you some pictures.

To me, it’s all personality-based, offering a good insight into him. For instance, if he’s talking about Ben and Jerry’s, which we have and it’s really funny, those kind of moments will tell you more about who he is than, “Hey, let me tell you about Woodstock in the rain and the stage is collapsing.” That’s not to say we won’t have a Woodstock story if we find a great version or a new perspective from Jerry. For instance, I just found something where he’s talking about Altamont and it’s a take I’d never heard about that day. I feel like everybody sort of tells the same version but this is pretty soon after the event and Jerry is talking about being there and it’s a way that I’ve never heard anybody look at it. That, to me is worth investigating.

It’s also not 20 years later when everyone is answering the same question, this is fresh, so it’s not just looking back. Obviously you have to take interviews from everywhere but I love having those moments where it’s like, “Hey, we’re about to record this new song called ‘Truckin’.” I love it when you’re in the studio with them while they’re doing something that hasn’t become iconic yet.

I’ve heard that you had a special connection with Jerry. How would you describe it?

It was based around film. I started showing an interest in film and I could pick his brain. This was the middle ‘70s. There weren’t private planes. Everybody was traveling commercial, killing time in airports, waiting for the van. We would hang out and it’d be talking about Star Wars or Jaws and the difference between Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola. He’d make sure you understood him, but he wouldn’t kid it down to you. He was just talking to you like a person. So I gleaned a lot of knowledge because I was experiencing that first flash when you’re into something and fired up about it and filmmaking was something he was passionate about, so we connected on that level.

When you’re walking through the airport with three hours to kill before your flight to Portland, you shoot the shit about a lot of stuff. I wasn’t a musician and I’m still not a musician. I would talk to him about music stuff, but that wasn’t our connection. It would be the latest film or what we’d seen on TV or some new director who had come along. It also was a way that I could join the conversation and not just feel like the kid, but feel like I had something contribute while also speaking with somebody I could learn a lot from. In a very Jerry way he would tell me what he thought about things and what he learned over the years.

I watched more movies that I never would have turned onto at that point in my life just because he said, “Yeah, you’ve got to get through that first part.” Or he’d explain things like how Star Wars was influenced by Flash Gordon. He had a way of making it sound so cool and it was so enriching.

He would get you to read books that you never thought you would, just by making them seem cool. So he sort of snuck knowledge in on you without you catching it.

One of my fondest memories is from when we were doing In the Dark. I was like the 64,000th engineer on the record. After the sessions one day, Jerry asked me, “Hey, you want to go see this movie Blue Velvet? I heard it’s really good.” I think he’d been talking to Jorma about it and for Jorma it wasn’t weird enough. I was like “OK, that’s a good barometer. If it’s not quite weird enough for Jorma, we’ll probably be able to understand it.” [Laughs.]

So dad and I get in the big car and we go pick up the Garcias. Jerry and dad were in the front and it’s me, Sunshine and Annabelle in the back. We drove down to San Francisco, Jerry buys the tickets and we go see Blue Velvet. It was only playing in one theater because David Lynch was newish back then. On the ride back Jerry dissected everything like, “The ear in the field, did you get what they were saying with that?” He loved Blue Velvet.

Jerry liked all those things that you would assume a cool guy who was into movies would like. However, he also freely admitted he would watch as much mind crap you could possibly put in front of him on the TV. It was kind of like wallpaper to him. It was always on every time I’d ever seen him in his personal life.

In proper “Justin” garb, backstage at Oakland Stadium on 10/9/76 (Snooky Flowers/ © Retro Photo Archive)

After directing The Grateful Dead Movie, Jerry wanted to move into narrative film with an adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan. Did you ever discuss this with him?

I have the script and a full storyboard. One night I took Sofia Coppola and her friends to a Dead show and then we went back to Jerry’s and he gave us the new draft of Sirens of Titan to give to her dad. We brought it up to Francis and I was just thinking, “I’m gonna be in the middle of this. I’m going to be the conduit to make this film happen.” But Francis was like, “Yeah, I don’t really see it.”

Jerry remained excited about it, though. There were a lot of incarnations. At one point I think Bill Murray was in talks to play one of the characters.

Jerry and Tom spent a lot of time up at the house in San Rafael, working on the Sirens of Titan scripts. I think that was happening before the coma in ‘86, but definitely afterwards. As he was kind of ramping up the speed it was a great thing for him to sink his teeth into, get his mind working and just be able to work creatively with Tom, who was a great guy.

Again, with that love of film, I think he probably would have loved to direct it, but I think he wanted to see it made more than anything.

My understanding is that Jerry helped you land the Dead Ringers gig. Had you played any role in encouraging the band to make the “Touch of Grey” video in the first place?

This was 1987 and the band had no idea about music videos. That wasn’t in their mindset. I remember we were on the road somewhere and Arista said, “We want to do a ‘making of’ video,” and Jerry’s like, ‘You want to do a making of music video video from a band that doesn’t do music videos? That idea sucks. Who the hell wants to do that?”

Then he looked over and just because I happened to be sitting there, he said, “All right, we’ll do it but Justin has to direct it.” Everyone from Arista turned to look at me. I was 17 and I probably looked like I was 12. [Laughs.] But out of the blue Jerry said, “We’ll do it if he directs it,” and so that’s why it happened.

The video itself, that was part of the record business currency at the time and because of Jerry’s friendship with Gary Gutierrez, they all knew that there would be a really good director that could bring something to it who wouldn’t require too much out of them, but it would still be funny and cool.

So I don’t think I had anything to do with it. I mean I had to twist his arm to do the “Thrill Is Gone” video. That was a really fun experience but spending a day on set lip syncing to the same song over and over was not his idea of a really good time.

What are your memories of directing Jerry and David Grisman in “The Thrill Is Gone” video?

This was on David Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label, so it’s not like there was a music video budget. But I had heard the song so many times and my friend Gio Coppola had done the Cotton Club montages—there are these two sequences in The Cotton Club that are really visually striking. So I thought that if I did a video to this kind of 40s-sounding kind of song they could really complement each other.

I knew a lot of successful Deadheads, so I figured we could independently finance it. Since I wasn’t dealing with Arista or one of the big record labels, I just went to David Grisman’s company and was like, “Hey, if I pay for it, can I do the video?” They were like, “Sure, go ahead, whatever.”

So we did it. One of the funny things I remember about that day is that we shot at a place called On Broadway, which was right across the street from where The Stone had been. It was two in the morning, we had been there for like 12 hours and for one of the sequences he and David were out on the street corner. I can remember Jerry looking around and he was like, “I’ve spent my whole life on this street. I’ve played music on this street, I’ve gotten sick on this street. I’ve done nefarious things on this street and I’m still on this fucking street.” That was when I said to myself, “Oh God, let’s get this guy out of here.” [Laughs.]

We were right on that corner where he’d played so many shows. I had a sense of the history at that time but now doing this film, I’m learning so much about the history of San Francisco through his eyes—the different eras and his love and understanding of the city.

But that was a really fun, fond time because it was such a low pressure thing. It’s not like the record company was calling and demanding to know, “Where’s the music video?”

The funny thing then was trying to get that out without a big record company. Everyone was like, “Whatever.” Nobody wanted to show it. Then MTV called Bill Graham, so I got this call from Bill’s office, and he told me, “If you can get Jerry to give out an award at the MTV Music Awards, they’ll show your video.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s never gonna happen.” [Laughs.]

But I can remember making two VHS tapes, going down to BGP and giving it to Bill. I was like, “Wow, the only way they’ll show this video is if Jerry gives away an award.” So that wasn’t in the cards, but Bill tried. It was funny.

As you continue work on the Jerry documentary, is there a quote of his that comes to mind?

There’s one he used to say a lot that I use mostly in my head if things don’t go right. He was a big fan of “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” It worked for so many situations and so many people, places and things. I remember something would happen, some situation and Jerry would give you one of those looks over his glasses, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.” And it was all good.

He said so many poignant things but that one always reminds me of him and his outlook on life.