The Story Behind The Runaways

The Runaways

So, The Runaways? No, not the comic book created by Brian K. Vaughan and Adrian Alphona, for which geek genius Joss Whedon wrote an arc.

Alright, it’s the thing that models saunter down during Sex And The City -style fashion shows, then. Nah, not that either, dummies.

We’re shrieking about The Runaways as helmed by music video director Floria Sigismondi, and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning – a biopic of the ‘70s band who were the first all-chick rock group to storm the world.

“I think everybody has that inner part of themselves that wishes they could perform and be on stage,” muses Fanning, whose career comes of age as she plays infamous rocker Cherie Currie – very almost a musical Lindsay Lohan of her day.

“I’ve definitely had that. I think doing this movie and performing ‘Cherry Bomb’ and doing the performance scenes is the closest I’ll ever get to those dreams.”

Runaways (the band) founder Joan Jett, played here by Twilight lip-biter Stewart, is all for a biopic that transforms her life in music entertainment into a slice of filmic entertainment.

“Working with the actors was great,” she says. “They were brilliant. The whole process was brutal, but in general working with the actors was great.”

Brutal? Really? Let’s find out how…

Next: The Runaways [page-break]

The Runaways

“I didn’t know The Runaways when I first read the script,” reveals Dakota Fanning. “And I didn’t know who Cherie Currie was and what her story was. I think a lot of people obviously know Joan Jett, but they don’t know Cherie.”

Her co-star Kristen Stewart has admitted the same, for shame. So for those born after the 1970s, a little history lesson.

Not to be too reductive, but in the ‘70s rock music belonged to the boys. The kind of hardcore, operatic, explorative stage-thrashing that was popularised by Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Black Sabbath and David Bowie was - Bowie’s boundary-mocking androgyny aside – a man’s world.

Then, in 1975, all that changed. Pennsylvania-born 15-year-old Joan Jett had arrived in Los Angeles with her family, met her singing idol Suzi Quatro, and decided to form a band with drummer Sandy West.

“I asked my parents for a guitar for Christmas when I was 13,” Jett remembers. “I wanted to make the noises I was hearing on the radio from songs like ‘Bang a Gong’ by T-Rex or ‘All Right Now’ by Free, so I had to get a guitar.”

Along with Micki Steele, Jackie Fox, Lita Ford and fresh-faced lead singer Cheri Currie - and thanks in part to an initial boost by music producer/manager Kim Fowley - they became The Runaways.

Their calling card? Up-front sexual lyrics, heaps of style, and the kind of rocking melodies that stick in the mind like gum to the underside of a diner’s table.

But the course of rock history never did run smooth (that’s what makes it so awesome), and trouble was soon disrupting the band’s chi. Trouble that came mostly in the form of outlandish blonde bombshell Cherie Currie, whose naivety and enjoyment of narcotics was quickly tearing a rift in the band’s fabric.

Next: Grrl Power [page-break]

Grrl Power

When Fight Club producers John and Art Linson, along with Brokeback Mountain producer Bill Pihlad first considered creating a Runaways biopic a couple of years ago, they immediately went to Cherie Currie’s biography Neon Angel: A Memoir Of A Runaway .

A stark, revealing text, it laid bare Currie’s tumultuous upbringing, which included – along with her account of The Runaways – the story of a massively dysfunctional family, her own sexual abuse and subsequent dependency on drugs and alcohol.

While the producers shopped the movie idea around, without so much as a script adaptation to lure in talent, they happened upon music video director Floria Sigismondi.

A fashion photographer turned music vid maker, Sigismondi had created videos for Marilyn Manson, David Bowie, Björk, The Cure, Christina Aguilera and Sigur Rós. Now she was being offered a stab at a feature film – and the chance to craft her first screenplay.

According to Sigismondi, the producers felt they needed a female director for the project. “The producers really felt that that was important,” she says, “and I would think so. Because, you know, all that stuff was so sexualised – the girls were very sexualised, and sort of sold by Kim, in a way.

“And not saying that it would have been done wrong by any means, but maybe the subtleties are different. Maybe a male [ director ] wouldn't have started the film with Cherie getting her period!”

Next: Jett Propulsion [page-break]

Jett Propulsion

Luckily for Sigismondi and her producers, a talented young woman came to audition for them – and nailed the part of Joan Jett.

An intelligent, considered young woman, she had a film coming out the next day called Twilight . Apparently it was some vampire thing. But that didn’t matter, they had their leading woman. And then the Twi-hards arrived.

Did Sigismondi have any inkling that Stewart was going to become such an over-night sensation? “We locked Kristen before Twilight came out, so no, absolutely not,” she laughs. “ Twilight came out the day after we locked her in. It was like a new world, obviously. It was just a new equation.”

What did the director see in her leading lady? “I saw her in Into The Wild , and the short amount of time she was on screen, she was so captivating,” Sigismondi reveals.

“Her eyes, you know, just told a lot. When I think of teenagers, they really don’t sit there and express their feelings and talk. It’s all in the face. I really wanted someone who’d emote visually without talking that much and she’s got that kind of quality.”

Joan Jett, the real one, remembers meeting Kristen for the first time during New Year's Eve a handful of weeks before filming started.

“She came up to see a gig and I kind of just dumped on her about The Runaways for several hours and asked her if she was going to cut her hair,” Jett says.

“It was valuable for Kristen,” she nods. “I think it made her feel good because it gave her a comfort level that if she veered so wrong that somebody would say something or that she would. They had a close relationship. They started to build a nice friendship.”

Kristen, who landed the role despite competition from Rachel Evan Wood, considered the role a “huge responsibility”.

“I read a script and just was very pleased that they wanted me to be a part of it,” she says. “I met Joan after I got the part and it was so scary because it sort of felt like this is the meeting that either fires me or keeps me on.

“My hair was still long. I was about to do New Moon . I sort of felt like she was going to look at me and go, ‘What makes you think…?’”

Did she relate to the rebellious streak in her character? “I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot for me to rebel against,” says the actress. “Nobody’s telling me to be a certain way, so I don’t have to proactively rebel. I guess I have rebellious thoughts. Girls are supposed to be a certain way. That bothers me.”

Alright, so how about Cherie?

Next: Cherie Bomb [page-break]

Cherie Bomb

For a then-15-year-old Dakota Fanning, the role of Cherie Currie came with a magical whiff of fate.

“I came home from school one day and my mom [ said ] ‘There’s a script you need to read’. She never wants to tell me [ what they’re about ] because she doesn’t want to bias my opinion.

“But I had a cherry temporary tattoo that I had put on for fun that day, I was bored. And it was a cherry and so she was like, ‘Oh, but the character actually gets a tattoo like that movie.’ And so it was like a little thing that was meant to be.”

Sigismondi, meanwhile, was excited at the prospect of casting the young actress in a role that was a complete departure from anything she’d ever done before.

“ Dakota, she kind of became that age right at the time when we started to cast,” the director says. “When I was writing, I hadn’t thought of her.

“And when she was interested, I was really excited because of the fact that everybody’s grown up with her and that you would know how’d it feel for a 15-year-old to do the things she did, I think, hopefully.”

There were certainly no complaints from the real Cherie, who brands Fanning her “favourite actress of all time”.

“She nailed it and then some,” the ex-rocker effuses. “She’s just a prodigy. She came to my home. We’d sing the lines back and forth to get the inflections in my voice.

“I was in the studio with her sitting in the vocal booth when she did her vocals and, when she was shooting, she was constantly saying, ‘Was this the way it felt? They have this or was it that?’ She’s brilliant. She’s as brilliant as you think she is and then some.”

Cherie even coached Dakota herself in the famous microphone move that she wowed crowds with during performances of ‘Cherry Bomb’. “She taught that to me so I could do it,” laughs Dakota. “Yeah, she taught me how to do that.”

“That was crazy!” Stewart pitches in. “I’d never seen that before. I’ve always been super nostalgic for the ‘70s even though I’ve obviously never lived them, but there’s great stories and I like the music and stuff.”

Next: Groupies [page-break]


For the band’s greasy, money-motivated manager Kim Fowley, Sigismondi approached American character actor Michael Shannon.

Nominated for an Oscar for his role in Revolutionary Road , Shannon’s appeared in everything from World Trade Centre and The Woodsman to Bad Boys II .

Though concerned that his busy schedule would keep him from accepting the role, a clip of the music mogul appearing on The Tomorrow Show from the ‘70s was all it took for the actor to make sure it happened.

“He comes out on the screen, he’s in this orange suit, his hair’s all slicked back and he’s got make-up on, fingernail polish like a praying mantis,” he recalls. “He was just one of the most fascinating people I had ever seen, and you couldn’t take your eyes off him.”

So how was it surrounding himself with so many young starlets? “Kristen was constantly with Joan,” Shannon says, “trying to learn as much as she could and absorb as much as she could from her. Dakota was always practicing her moves and getting inside of Cherie’s frame of mind. It wasn’t a very social kind of thing.”

Next: Queens Of Noise [page-break]

Queens Of Noise

“I gave the girls CDs so they could listen to music that was happening at the time,” Sigismondi reveals of how she prepped her cast for their iconic roles.

“I also had a room where, from floor to ceiling, I put pictures up of things that were going around because they didn’t experience this time and now, you know, we’re a little bit jaded, we’ve seen it all. I sort of tried to get the girls into a place where this wasn’t happening, this was a first time thing.”

Not only that, but she signed the girls up for lessons in the instruments they would be playing. Kristen already knew her way around a guitar, but needed some polishing.

Dakota even got to perform with a live band, so that “she knew what it was to feel like to compete against drums and big amps and really loud music”.

“We put them together with all the rest of the girls and for two weeks they practiced as a band so I think they bonded,” says Sigismondi. “And we recorded them live, we recorded them for the movie.

“So they also had that experience in the studio, singing it over and over again until they got it right. I think by the time they got on set, they really felt like they knew that side of it, which would have been a new side for them.”

Next: Runaways Hit [page-break]

Runaways Hit

Over in the States, The Runaways hit the Sundance Film Festival in January. Fittingly, Joan Jett performed live in Part City the evening before the premiere night.

For her part, Jett is happy with the finished product, seeing it as a movie about “following your dreams”.

“That good old cliché of following your dreams, because I really feel that people beat down other people’s dreams constantly,” she says. “I see it a lot with writers, when I talk to them about this.

"To me, I just think it’s really important to try and follow your dream. And if for some reason life takes you a different way, then at least you made an attempt.”

Now that Kristen’s a firm friend of Jett’s, does she feel that the singer’s happy with the way she lived her life? “She’s incredibly proud to be everything that she is,” the actress says. “I’ve never seen anybody walk into a room so completely innocently confident.

“She doesn’t realise that other people might not be like that and that’s a different – it’s not like overcompensation. It’s not like she’s trying to be a certain way, she just is.”

Cherie Currie, though is another kettle of fish. While she praises Fanning’s and Stewart’s work in the film, she has expressed dissatisfaction with the way Sigismondi played around with historical accuracy.

“Floria Sigismondi, this was her very first script, which [ticked] me off,” the chain saw artist gripes, "because I thought, 'OK, why couldn't I have had a part in writing this?'

“I couldn't understand how someone who wasn't there could even touch what it was like or the pivotal moments in The Runaways. But she's a very artsy director, so it's all about the visual and the impact that she, who didn't live it, felt would be important.”

Still, it’s been 31 years since The Runaways crumbled, and everybody involved in that hell-for-leather time has moved on (in some cases literally – Sandy West sadly died in 2006). Is there a happy ending to the real-life Jett-Currie story?

"I always went to her shows and supported her," Currie says. "Thirteen years ago when Joan and [ her manager Kenny Laguna ] called me, Lita and Sandy to sue Polygram and Mercury and Kim Fowley for our royalties that we never saw, that's when we started talking together.

“But it wasn't until this movie started that we rekindled our friendship. The forward Joan wrote in the book was surprising. I thought she wanted me out [ of The Runaways ]. Thirty-five years later, I find out that wasn't the case. Joan and I talk all the time and it's great to have her back in my life.”

The Runaways opens in the UK on 10 September.

Josh Winning has worn a lot of hats over the years. Contributing Editor at Total Film, writer for SFX, and senior film writer at the Radio Times. Josh has also penned a novel about mysteries and monsters, is the co-host of a movie podcast, and has a library of pretty phenomenal stories from visiting some of the biggest TV and film sets in the world. He would also like you to know that he "lives for cat videos..." Don't we all, Josh. Don't we all.