If anyone’s life is interesting enough to be turned into a full-length film, Guy Clark would be at or near the top of the list. The only problem would be, where to start? There’s his 40-year career as an award-winning singer and songwriter and a craftsman-like approach to writing that stands almost in direct contract to the Nashville commercial music machine. There’s his circle of friends, which reads like a Who’s Who of Twentieth-Century Songwriters. There’s the complicated relationship dynamics between Clark, his longtime friend Townes Van Zandt and his wife Susanna, herself an artist and songwriter who never really got over Van Zandt’s death in 1997.
That’s certainly enough for a film. Or ten.
Fortunately, the person who’s taken on the task of telling Clark’s life in a documentary is the person who’s arguably the most qualified to do so. Tamara Saviano has known Clark for about 15 years, as a friend, journalist, publicist, producer of a stellar Guy Clark tribute album and biographer. While doing the research and interviews for the biography, she decided that a film needed to be made.
Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark is, or will be, the result of her work. Interviews with Clark and some of his closest friends have already been filmed, as well as a performance with many legendary singer/songwriters to celebrate Clark’s birthday last November. To help defray some of the production costs, as well as to pay for licensing songs for the documentary, Saviano launched a $75,000 campaign for the film on Kickstarter, hoping that enough of Clark’s fans would have interest in seeing the film made.
They blew past that $75,000 goal in just three days. At the most recent tally, the campaign has raised over $150,000, and people still have until May 21 to donate.
“I’m actually a little verklempt about the whole thing!” Saviano says of the overwhelming outpouring of support the film has received. “It’s a testament to how much people love Guy. I knew that, intellectually, that Guy’s fans are really passionate, but I don’t think I knew that emotionally before those three days.”
The documentary is the latest iteration of a friendship between Clark and Saviano that started when she was the editor of the now-defunct Country Music magazine. She and Lee Roy Parnell came up with the grand idea of writing the definitive book about the history of Texas music. While that book never got off the ground, Parnell took Saviano over to Clark’s Nashville house in 2000 for a visit.
“We were at Guy’s house for 9 hours, and it was just such an experience,” she recalls. “It was noon, and he broke out a bottle of wine. Then he broke out some weed and was rolling joints and cigarettes, and telling stories.”
The friendship blossomed when she wrote the publicity materials for one of Clark’s albums on Sugar Hill Records, The Dark. After the album was released, the record label invited her to attend a dinner to celebrate the album’s release, and she and Clark ended up going out afterwards, ending up at a Jim Lauderdale concert.
“It took me two weeks to recover from that,” she says, laughing. “I’m sure he was fine the next day.”
Saviano eventually became Clark’s publicist for his more recent albums. The idea for a biography came about after a conversation with her friend, Gary Hartman, who is the head of the Center for Texas Music History at Texas State University. He asked if she’d ever consider writing Clark’s biography. She brought up the idea to Clark’s manager, Keith Case, but didn’t think much about it. Clark is known for being a notoriously tough interview, so the idea that he would open up about his life story, warts and all, seemed impossible.
“I’m thinking, he’s not going to tell me anything,” she explains. “If you ever go to one of his shows, Guy always tells the same stories from the stage, and if you read anything about Guy, he always tells the same stories. I just thought, he’s not going to want to get intimate. Who wants to go down the road of writing a biography, which is a lot of work and no money, if you’re not going to get something?”
To her surprise, Case called back less than ten minutes later and said that Clark was in. In her disbelief, she drove to Clark’s house and talked with him about it. They agreed to one interview session, and if they didn’t like where it was headed, they would agree to stop the project.
“The very first thing we talked about, I just sat there and thought, ‘Oh my God, he really is going to do this!’ And it’s been that way ever since,” she says. “He has totally gone down the rabbit hole with me, so much so that his closest friends, Rodney [Crowell] and Keith, I’ll talk to them about something and they’ll say, ‘I didn’t know that. Guy told you that?’ No one can believe how much he’s given to this.”
Part of the reason for his openness could be his declining health. Clark, 73, has been battling lymphoma since 2006. Saviano surmises that the illness has made him more aware of his mortality and the need to get his story down while he can still tell it.
“I just happen to be the one in the chair capturing it,” she says.
As Saviano did her research for the book, the idea for a documentary came into being as well. Given Clark’s health, she quickly filmed several interviews with him. She also came up with the idea of an Old Friends Reunion Concert for Clark’s birthday in 2014, featuring Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Joe Ely, Robert Earl Keen and Jerry Jeff Walker. By the time she tallied up the costs for those events, she and her husband/co-producer/director of photography Paul Whitfield came to the conclusion that sinking their life savings into the film wouldn’t be productive. Which led to the Kickstarter campaign and the outpouring of love and donations.
Saviano’s biography on Clark is an all-encompassing look at his life and career. Though she’s not divulging any spoilers, she says there are plenty of details and revelations about Clark that even she didn’t know. The documentary will focus specifically on Clark’s songwriting and recording career, his struggle to fit into the Nashville model, and his relationships with Van Zandt and Susanna. Saviano interviewed her extensively before her death in 2012, and she’s in possession of many of Susanna’s notebooks.
Clark’s iconic status as a songwriter does not lie in the number of hits he’s had or the number of singers who have recorded his songs — though those numbers are significant. Clark considers his work to be poetry, and those songs tend to resonate with people differently than something written specifically to be a three-minute-long country radio hit.
“I think Guy’s songs connect with people on a deep emotional level that’s unlike any other songwriter,” Saviano says. “I’ve heard many, many Guy fans say that Guy’s songs have changed their lives. That’s a powerful statement, and I feel the same way. It’s that personal connection with people, the simple power of his lyrics and melodies, the stories he tells.”
The biography is scheduled to be released in November 2016, in celebration of Clark’s 75th birthday. Saviano hopes to have the film out for the 2017 festival season. Based on the feedback she’s received, as well as the success of the Kickstarter campaign, there are plenty of Guy Clark fans who are looking forward to both projects.
“He’s left such an amazing legacy, and there just aren’t that many Guy Clarks in the world,” she says. “It makes me happy that I’m not alone in my love for Guy and everything that he’s given us with his music.”
There is still time to make a contribution to the funding of the documentary. For more information, visit https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/244359559/without-getting-killed-or-caught-guy-clark-film.