When we think of what makes a music-inspired film, most may think of a biopic of their favorite band. RLJE Films' Shoplifters of the World takes it in another direction asking the viewer, "Where were you" when English rock band Smiths broke up? The story centers on four friends in Denver who cope with the news in 1987 when it broke and how one fan's (Ellar Coltraine) passion goes even further by hijacking a radio station forcing the DJ (Joe Manganiello) to give the band a proper send-off playing their songs. I spoke to director Stephen Kijak about how the film came together.
"The inspiration behind Shoplifters of the World is based around the front of a pack of characters that I had been toying with my friends and me in the new wave…kind of like a new wave summer in the 80s," Kijak said. "I kind of developed some ideas about a script based on that, but I didn't really have much of a story. Then [writer] Lorianne Hall and I were just trying to shoot one night of the Frolic Room in Hollywood. She grew up in Denver, and we're the same age. She asked me if I'd remembered this thing that happened on the Smiths breaking up. I had no idea what she was talking about. She then told me this fantastic urban myth about this famous hold-up of the [radio] station by this deranged Smiths fan. I thought, 'This is fantastic! I'll move my characters to Denver and Wham! Let's try a script.' We're both huge Smiths fans. I wanted to find a story that was like 'My music.' You know, I've done a lot of work for hire in the last number of years. The stories of the bands that, you know, weren't necessarily my passion project."
Shoplifters of the World is Kijak's second film he directed, given his predominant work in documentaries. He's worked with a diverse range of subjects concerning musicians, including the Backstreet Boys, Scott Walker, and Judy Garland. When looking at inspiration for the 80s-inspired film, he looked to the likes of George Lucas and Barry Levinson. "[The film] was it was kind it was a bit of a ground-up kind of attack from the inception," he said. "You always want to kind of look for your reference points as you start moving forward. I think maybe initially, it may have had a little bit more of the John Hughes-ian vibe. Lorianne kind of crafted treatment and then subsequent drafts, which I actually started looking at more films like American Graffiti (1973) and Diner (1982). I think those two were more the touchstones given the world of the Smiths itself, musically and stylistically, you find that a lot of their references are reaching back to the 50s and the 60s. So I thought, 'Let's do that, too.' The films present the 70s looking like the 50s. Is that kind of retro? It was a nostalgia game of like recreating an era, but then filtering it through a certain sensibility in music, obviously a big part. Both films are just teens and cars over the course of the night, you know, in American values. So I was really like, really? I look to look for those a lot."
Despite the film centers on the Smiths' breakup, Kijak didn't have to go to the band, but he had his own resources beyond his own research. "Yeah, [the film] had no real connection with the band with Morrissey or [Johnny] Marr. I mean, I would say [I am] Morrissey's guitar player's drinking buddy, who's a neighbor who lives right down the street," he said. "We're always, you know, when we could go out into the world, we would we're just friends for years that came at us independently of Mr. Morrissey or anything. It was nice to get kind of a little bit of an insight into what was going on creatively in that world. The film is so much about the 80s and about the band than it was more about just research. There are two great books written about the band. One was a phenomenal book called 'The Mozipedia,' which is literally the encyclopedia of Morrissey and the Smiths takes every song, every reference and anything you can possibly think of that is related to that band. It breaks it down in a really coated world. The quotes, lines, literature, movies, poetry, and novels make it a whole coated, referential world. So I grafted that onto the script. There's a grab bag of Smiths' lyrics. There is [something] way deeper and a lot more interconnected than that. As far as the meeting and the message, I mean, we've lived it. [It's] so commonplace in our DNA writing. It was really easy to access that kind of thing. So it was a real-life lived experience."
While filming did have its occasional bumps on the road, the real obstacle of the film came more from the timing of the pandemic than anything. "So this was done in the can in 2018," Kijak said. "I developed and released a four-part documentary series before [Shoplifters] even came out. I think [COVID] complicated the distribution of it in a way, but with video on demand and, you know, I think things are starting to open up. They're going to be taking it to a drive-in in Orange County. You know, like there are things happening that are pretty exciting. So luckily, we were all able to get out into the world and make a movie together in the flesh." Shoplifters of the World also stars Helena Howard, Elena Kampouris, Nick Krause, James Bloor, and Thomas Lennon. The film is available in theatres, on-demand, and digital.