Inevitably, somebody was going to make a documentary about the late great Texas songwriter Guy Clark. It was far less likely that it would place a strong, fascinating and lesser-known woman at the heart of the story. Viewers will be grateful that writer/director Tamara Saviano emphasizes Guy’s creative, vivacious wife Susanna. For she makes Guy’s flinty, lone-wolf persona more complex and believable.
Without Getting Killed Or Caught, co-directed by Saviano and her husband Paul Whitfield, premiered online through South By Southwest earlier this month and came away with the Louis Black “Lone Star” Award for films made chiefly in Texas for its “graceful, densely layered, and immersive” storytelling. It can now be seen via five upcoming pay-per-view screening events between April 8 and April 25.
Guy Clark, who lived from 1941 to 2016, became a mythical figure for many, lionized as the epitome of the Texas songwriting tradition, a storyteller and a poet who labored over every word. His output was stately and deliberate, not profuse, though he wrote more songs in later years once he began to collaborate with other writers. For any lover of American roots and country music, Guy Clark songs are canonical, including “Desperados Waiting For A Train,” “The Randall Knife,” “Old Friends,” and “L.A. Freeway,” the song from which Without Getting Killed Or Caught takes its title.
That title was first a definitive biography of Clark, also by Saviano, published in 2016 by Texas A&M University Press. There, in a more conventionally chronological framework, we come to appreciate the story. Clark’s youth is split between Monahans in arid west Texas and the more relaxed and clement Gulf Coast town of Rockport. He gets serious about writing and performing in Houston, where he becomes lifelong friends with the troubled genius Townes Van Zandt. In the early 70s, Guy, Susanna and Townes move to Nashville and live together while they launch their professional careers. Here’s where the documentary starts and where it holds much of its focus.
While Guy struggles to be understood by Nashville’s music business, Susanna seems to be effortlessly successful. Her paintings are sought out, including for album covers by Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson. One of her own songs gets cut and goes number one in 1975, and not for the last time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Van Zandt grows into a deep and spiritual bond, with which Guy has to make an uneasy peace. And here is where the film truly distinguishes itself from the standard chronological bio-doc. The creativity, humor and life force swirling out of the Guy/Susanna/Townes dynamic makes for vibrant storytelling, aided by period film and photography, drawings and animations by contemporary Mel Chin and remarkable contemporaneous audio diaries made by Susanna and heard here for the first time. Those cassette tapes were the lynchpin Saviano needed to foreground Susanna’s story and depict Guy Clark as the multi-dimensional man he was. She told me more when we connected on March 15.
How did you shift emphasis when you transitioned from the book to the movie? What did the medium allow you to do?
Well, the book was 450 pages, and we needed to do a 90-minute film. So I knew that most of the book was not going to make it into the movie. But the most compelling story for me was the relationship between Guy and Susanna and Townes. And so that was the track that we decided to go on. And the tapes of Susanna that you hear in the film, her audio diaries, I didn't listen to those until after the book was out. I had them, but they were so daunting while I was writing the book that I just went through her written journals. But we did not listen to those tapes. So Paul and I listened to them every night after supper for an entire summer. And we found that gold, and then that was the driver. Susanna’s tape recorder, which she called T.R., became our device to move the story forward.
You had the good fortune of casting Sissy Spacek as the narrator voice of Susanna, which is especially challenging for her, because the audience hears Susanna’s real voice throughout, yet Spacek matches her voice almost perfectly. It’s uncanny.
Yes, and Susanna and Sissy grew up 100 miles apart in northeast Texas, and as Rodney Crowell says, they both have that northeast Texas piney woods timbre to their voice. So yeah, I mean, Sissy came in the studio, and she just became Susanna before our very eyes. It was a magical day.
In emphasizing the love triangle, you perhaps challenge what the music-loving Guy Clark fan might expect from the first-ever documentary about his life. Was that a risk in your mind?
Well, I didn't think there was any risk at all, because Guy was a flawed human being. And he embraced that. And we're all flawed human beings. So, I wasn't trying to hide anything, and Guy wouldn't want that. This was truth. The love between the three of them was really unique and influenced their art on every level. And to me, that's one of the most compelling parts of the Guy Clark story.
I knew about Susanna only after she retreated from the world in her last 15 years, so this was all new story for me and a very welcome and exciting revelation of her brilliance. Townes complicates and even compliments Guy and Susanna’s marriage, but doesn’t diminish it. They stayed together. He looked after her.
Oh, as Guy said, it was a mythical love story, and they loved each other deeply. I think Townes and Susanna were much more vulnerable than Guy, and they had this mystical side. And so Susanna’s relationship with Townes took some of the pressure off of Guy. He didn't have to be the charming husband all the time, because he was so stoic and pragmatic, and they weren't. So you know, it worked for the three of them. And they really loved each other, and they created this art that has outlived them and will continue to outlive them. And I think that is the most important thing and that's what I hope people come away with - a bigger appreciation for who they were as artists, especially Guy. I think Townes’s myth has grown since his death. But, in my opinion, Guy’s the better songwriter. I know that there will be people out there that disagree with me. But, you know, I love Guy Clark. That's why I did this movie.
And indeed, you lived immersed in his story and his world and his friends and colleagues for more than a decade. Are you surprised by that?
Well, I met guy in 1998. But we started working on the book in 2008. And then I did a tribute album, and then the film. [Editor: The album, This One's for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, was released in 2011 and won the Americana Album of the Year in 2012.] So really, it's been 13 years full time in Guy Clark world, which if someone would have said that to me at the beginning of the 13 years, I probably would have said no way! But here we are, and I don't regret it. I'm happy I did it. And I think Guy would be proud of me, which means a lot.