Director Thom Zimny and producers John Carter Cash, Ryan Suffern, and Frank Marshall spoke with Solzy at the Movies about The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash during the 2019 SXSW Film Festival.
The interview took place on the Sunday that followed the world premiere of The Gift.
SXSW is known for both film and music. How thrilling is it to premiere the documentary at the festival?
Frank Marshall: It’s sort of meant to be. This is the perfect place for us to launch this movie because of the combination of music and film here that’s so celebrated at the festival.
Thom Zimny: This is an amazing music crowd and the energy of sharing just films here in this town with the history but also watching it last night with an audience was a great experience for me as a filmmaker because the goal was to share this amazing story of Johnny’s life and music. Sitting in a crowd that was taking in that (inaudible) makes it really special and it’s the perfect festival that way.
When did you decide to make a documentary about Johnny Cash?
Thom Zimny: I started a dialogue with Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy. We shared a love of music and history and that developed into a conversation about shared passion which is the story of Johnny Cash. The key to all this was sitting with John Carter and getting a sense that there was a story that wasn’t told.
John Carter Cash: Tom and I sat down years ago and talked about interest in a Johnny Cash film or documentary or whatever it may be in one of the old Sony buildings in New York that is no longer here so that was a while ago. Five years ago—something like that? There was a period of time where we didn’t talk for a long period of time but it came about.
The Oscar-nominated Walk the Line biopic was released in 2006. In what ways were you looking to make the documentary stand apart from that film?
John Carter Cash: It won Best Actress. It’s like apples and oranges. Walk the Line told the story of a great love affair in two hours. It brought the audience into the relationship and showed a certain part of my parents’ love. It showed a certain period of my father’s life. It also left off as if it was happily ever after but there was a lot missing as far as the depth of my father’s character—so much that was there. This is the story of a man—if you want to know the music, there places to look and understand who he was musically. If you want to know the man, this is the documentary.
Thom Zimny: In the experience of making the film, I left behind the ideas that were presented in Walk the Line because I had a sense that the audiotapes that we discovered of Johnny Cash would be a guiding force in telling the story but also the relationship I have with the family—with John Carter. I was able to explore relationships and ideas that the narrative film didn’t have the opportunity. That’s because it’s the story that Johnny was telling on these audiotapes was very complex. I knew that letting Johnny’s voice guide the movie would be the best way to get across the relationship to his family, to his father, to his children, to his journey as an artist. I really didn’t have to reference another book or a film. I let Johnny do the talking.
Frank Marshall: Johnny in his own words—you can’t beat that.
John Carter Cash: When you see the film, the majority of the spoken pieces in the film are my father telling his own story and recordings that no one has ever heard of that we actually found very late in the production of the film.
Can you talk about finding the recordings?
John Carter Cash: My father has second autobiography titled Cash. His co-writer was a man named Patrick Carr. Patrick Carr recorded everything on a cassette tape. We were sort of a little bit later in the production. As far as the layout of everything, we felt very comfortable. There were a lot of wonderful recordings of my father speaking. Patrick just happened to say, “Oh, I have this cassette tapes. Would you like them?” That was serendipitous. It was meant to be. He sent us those tapes. I suppose I knew that they were there—of course I did. They were something that was a part of my father’s estate but the same time I hadn’t heard these in years. I remember my father recording the tapes with Patrick in the mid-90s. Basically what happened was that most of the pieces that were already in the film were really replaced with my father telling those stories instead of somebody else. He said it a lot better (Laughs).
Frank Marshall: It was one of those magic moments where you hope happens in your documentary—you get a gold mine.
Thom Zimny: Early on in the process of making the film, you have this wish list of discovering something. Working with Ryan and Frank, the idea is—before you shoot a frame of film, you go out with the hope to find stills, to find music—to really uncover a story beats that get lost so the Cash audiotapes were in some ways a part of the landscape of trying to tell a film that’s not been seen before and more importantly, make sure that we’re combing and mining every possibility. I went through the estate’s photographs and found imagery and writings that just for me as a filmmaker make the visual language that is much rich and really, I’m working with a group of people who understand music and understand the importance of going deep into the vault. That brings out the story of Johnny. It all comes back to letting him guide the viewer to experience the work of art.
John Carter Cash: The voices that tell the story beyond that my father—Bruce Springsteen; Rick Rubin, who was a producer on my father’s latter life recordings; my sister Roseanne; Marty Stuart; Rodney Crowell; and so many of my father’s contemporaries that he worked with and were there in his life. It is not commentary—it’s remembrance of the man.
Thom Zimny: You have a sense when there is an artist whose life has changed because of the music of Johnny Cash. When you hear Bruce Springsteen talk about it or you hear Jackson Browne talk about it, you can just hear in their descriptions that this is a key source to their inspiration.
Frank Marshall: Amazing.
John Carter Cash: They cared about the man. Emmy Lou—she was on of my parents’ best friends.
At what point did you realize you had famous parents?
John Carter Cash: I never knew any different. I grew up on the stage. When I was three years old, they walked me out and my father was singing “A Boy Named Sue.” At the end of the song in the recording, he says “If I ever had a boy, I’d name him Bill or Frank or George” but he’d say “I did have a boy and here he is, John Carter Cash.” I’d come out and take a bow. My parents were down-to-earth regular people. I think I always knew that they were famous but at the same time, what made it so much easier was the fact that they were not built up. They were not puffed up in the business. They had egos just as every entertainer does but they never as my mother would say—my father never got too big for his its britches. But she would tell him not to get too big for his britches but in many ways, they did not grow out of the soil in which they were founded from their youth.
Frank Marshall: It was wonderful that they included you in the show so it just part of the family life.
John Carter Cash: They were kind, loving real people that treated the person behind the counter at the grocery store the same as the president. That’s rare in a world in which they were successful.
Is there a favorite song or album?
Ryan Suffern: “Were You There” was always a favorite Cash song but I never had a visual to it. I love that in the film Thom lets that just breathe and goes an extra. That performance with the Carter Family is so fantastic.
John Carter Cash: It highlights that my aunt, Anita’s, performance. A wonderful, wonderful singer.
Thom Zimny: One thing when building the narrative and working in the editing room and having his full catalogue of Johnny Cash’s music early on with Frank and John Carter—I remember hearing that this idea that everyone has a Johnny Cash that they can call on. I think to paraphrase what you were saying at the time was that your mom could have a religious song; your son can have a Rick Rubin song that feels good punk. That really stayed with me when I was building the soundtrack because I realized that this man’s journey can’t be captured in greatest hits. His music reflected all the chapters of his life. The biggest thing I wanted to get across is the idea that he was a song writer and that he worked with words in a really powerful and beautiful way throughout his life. I think part of that story gets lost. In picking out my favorite songs, I would have to say it’s impossible—it’s how I feel in the moment because I can go for the Sun Records or I can go to the 70s recordings and then I can go to Rick Rubin’s final sessions. All it fits in life so that to me shows a journey of a rich artist.
What do you want people to take away from watching the documentary?
John Carter Cash: I hope for one thing that they know my father better. The film is a spiritual journey. My father distinctly saw the difference between religion and spirituality. He was religious but the film itself is a spiritual journey. I hope that viewers will walk away being uplifted personally by the journey of my father’s life. It’s a very intimate portrayal and so the truth that is there is well played out. It’s got a lot of important depth. I believe that the person who walks away from watching the film can’t just walk away not being affected very, very strongly. It is quite a journey—my father’s life as child. And. The truth of it is in the film.