After years of half-hearted and ill-informed attempts to tell the story of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Stephen Kijak’s new documentary If I Leave Here Tomorrow finally gets it right. The film premiered on Tuesday of SXSW in Austin, Texas, when the film side starts to die down and the music side starts to amp up. Earlier that day, I met with Kijack, who’d directed the documentary We Are X, lead singer Johnny Van Zant, and guitarist Gary Rossington to talk about how the film was put together, and how it was past time to get their story told.
Let’s start from the beginning with what drove the inspiration for If I Leave Here Tomorrow.
Johnny Van Zant: Brian Philips brought it to us, [when] he was with CMT.
Stephen Kijak: He was the president of CMT. Brian Philips and the head of Docs over there. He’s an old friend of mine that’d been chasin’ us down to do a film. And Skynyrd was his passion project. He’d been wanting to make a film about Skynyrd forever. He’s known the guys since he was a kid, and it’s kind of his lifelong dream to finally do a film and it just, the stars aligned and we were able to get it goin’.
Van Zant: Our whole thing with Brian was we wanted to make sure that it was told right. You know and ’cause there’s other ones out there, of course. And we just wanted to make sure that it was done right, and I think Steve has done a great job.
Kijak: It’s all right.
Van Zant: I mean if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be sittin’ here with us. But there’s some really cool stuff in it. I mean really, really cool stuff. He brought up a bunch of stuff that I’ve never seen on the band, which was really neat. To be able to see and Gary got to tell his story and his side. And a lot of the other documentaries I didn’t feel like Gary got his just due in.
Gary Rossington: Never.
Van Zant: So this one that was important to us.
What was that like, finally getting your voice heard?
Rossington: Oh, it was cool. The other ones were a little too negative and it was about bad things, none of the good things that happened to the band. And how we were as buddies and friends and a family. All that was left out. It was just the business part after the plane crash kinda dirtied the waters and that’s what any documentary that was made featured. That was their story and the real fun stuff and the real stuff, wasn’t ever out there.
Van Zant: There’s still some juicy stuff in here.
Rossington: There’s some, yeah.
Van Zant: It’s not really that boring. I mean it’s really good.
Kijak: You know, maybe ten years ago, after I made my first music doc about Scott Walker, a buddy of mine that helped me make that, he’s from Georgia and he was on me for all these years going, “Dude, you gotta do Skynyrd next.”
And he grew up loving the band, and he would tell me the stories of Hell House and all this stuff and the songs. And it was like “I’m a damn Yankee. I didn’t grow up with this music.”
Van Zant: Where’re you from?
Kijak: I’m from Massachusetts.
Van Zant: Are ya? There’re a lot of damn Mass-holes.
Rossington: There’re a lot Yankees up there that love Skynyrd.
Kijak: But he kind of planted this image of it all in my mind that became like a real myth to me.
Van Zant: Right.
Kijak: It was unbelievable that this all kind of clicked together. And the one thing that they wanted me to do was Skynyrd. It was perfect timing and we just fell into it. We wanted to give that sense of myth and place to the story.
I think a lot of people are stuck on the Behind The Music-type stuff that’s come out over the last 20-some years. The family aspect of the band isn’t as prominent these days.
Van Zant: Now we went back to his childhood home, mine, and went around to Robert E. Lee and where the Hell House is. So it’s really, really cool. Really, really neat.
Rossington: Yep. You got a lot of people in, but other documentaries, they were people or friends of people that knew us and what they thought.
Van Zant: I forget the one, the one that was on Access TV or whatever? Yeah. It was like, “God damn, I didn’t know any of these damn people.” I’m like “God, I grew up around Skynyrd moles. I don’t know any of these people.”
Rossington: Me too.
Van Zant: It’s good to get it out. I think it’s great and there’s so much footage left [out] that who knows maybe there’ll be the deluxe box set. If I Leave Here Tomorrow 2. Who knows, you know?
Kijak: If I Leave Here the Day After Tomorrow
Rossington: If I Leave Here Next Week.
Knowing so much of that was uncovered for this doc, what went into digging up all that footage?
Kijak: Well, the interviews were great. I mean we just rolled into Jacksonville with these guys, got in the biggest goddamned SUV I’ve ever seen in my life and just drove around and talked. It was like the whole idea to me was to imagine we were just kind of kicking on a back porch. I wanted it to be storytelling. I wanted these guys to just be able to relax and just tell tales about how it all went down.
You know, once you get all those interviews, what was really the hard work and the real sweat and toil was finding all the archive. We just researched and dug stuff out from every corner, ’cause there’s stuff that’s available, but you want all the stuff that everyone’s been holding on to and haven’t seen. So we really went to great lengths to find stuff that had really never been seen before.
Like their old friend, Kevin Elson, who was there from day one, sound man, survived the crash, went on to produce bands like Journey. Lives in Pasadena and was sitting on two photo albums full of stuff. He went, “That’s just goofy stuff, you’re not gonna want that.” And it was all pictures of them before they had really become famous. It was all there, this visual history that we uncovered. Tthat was the most fun part of doing this.
Van Zant: I seen some pictures too that’re from Hemming Park or whatever that…
Rossington: Oh, yeah.
Van Zant: I’m like, “Oh my God! That’s Hemming Park.” So it was really neat for me to see stuff that I never seen.
How was it going down memory lane in that way?
Rossington: There’s stuff I’ve never seen or remember. There’s one where we’re really young and I can’t even believe anybody still had it.
Van Zant: Who had the Hell House pictures? Was that Kevin?
Kijak: There was like the snapshots and like he’s on a horse and like you know the field. That was Kevin.
Van Zant: That was Kevin?
Kijak: That was Kevin.
Rossington: He and Kevin kept two horses out there. We’d ride all the time.
Kijak: I couldn’t believe we found that stuff.
Van Zant: I’ll be danged.
Kijak: And then all the photos that they took, when they did all the sessions for Nothing Fancy were also off the albums, those were hidden, and we were looking for those forever. And it came through just at the last minute. It really just gives you a sense of the place and helps you really live through the memories with them. You know that was really important. I wanted to feel like the times and be influenced by the kind of the funk and the murk of the swamp.I want to like feel the heat and just you know, live through it. You know, make it really tangible. Like an experience.
The mission statement of what you’re trying to do comes right out in the opening seconds. That the story isn’t really known at all.
Kijak: Which is weird. The songs become bigger than all of it. It’s like ‘Wait. There’s real people and there’s still the living history behind this music, and there’s a lot more than just those two songs that you know are still part of our culture.’ Some people I’ve played it to and they went, “Oh. That’s Skynyrd?” Like some of these songs are just in there and you don’t even know it.
Van Zant: Well, you know when Skynyrd first started we had an FM radio, and they played a whole record. I mean, a lot of these songs like “Tuesdays Gone,” “Simple Man,” they were never really singles.
Kijak: But they were on the radio.
Rossington: There’s even songs that are first ones we wrote that have never been out, and [that’s] just crazy. That’s where the other documentaries I was sayin’ didn’t go to that trouble. They just wanted to hear what some other guy wanted. “Now what’d you think about that guy?” And half of it was true and half of it, who knows, you know?
Kijak: Like right before we started this, I discovered there was like a three hour long documentary some British company made called… what was it called?
Van Zant: That good?
Kijak: Gone with the Wind. No, seriously, Gone with the Wind: The Rise and Fall.
Van Zant: This is the one I’m talkin’ about. I don’t know the hell the people are in it.
Kijak: I put that thing on. It took me a week to get through it. I mean the information was there, but it was, again, it was like who’s that and “Oh, it’s Gene Odom again” or it’s this guy or it’s that guy. They never talked to Gary.
Rossington: I don’t think I was even in it.
Kijak: No, you weren’t.
Rossington: No one called to ask me.
Kijak: Nobody called to ask. There’s not that much music and I was like, “No, no, no.” If you make a film about a band, it needs to feel like the band. You need to vibe off the music, and the original intent that went behind the making the music should inform how you make the film. That’s how I approach stuff.
Digging through all these archives and photos, was there anything y’all learned that surprised you?
Kijak: How goddamn funny this motherfuckers were. I mean we found some funny stuff in the archives. All the Super 8, all the stories. I think the best thing we found was an interview with Bob Burns, the late drummer. Some guy had been filming interviews, ’cause he’s superfan.
[And] Rick Broils, big shout-out to Rick for capturing all this stuff. And he had interviews with a lot of the members that were no longer with us, Bob Burns, especially. He must have had four or five tapes worth of Bob. And he is so funny, and I mean he almost runs away with the whole movie. You know, and he passed away a few years ago. So to have him in there to join these guys in telling the story was a real blessing. And he’s hilarious.
Rossington: Yeah. He was the original and the dream started with him. And you know the first four albums, I think. Anyways, and he never really got to tell his story either.
Kijak: It was good. It was really good.
Did it ever feel like a little bit of a reunion, getting together all these voices from today and yesterday together here?
Rossington: Well, it’s very emotional for me. It makes me sad, but then it makes happy. All the emotions in one, you know. It’s crazy. But it means different things to me, you know. ‘Cause I remember when we played the Beach Coliseum or Good Shepherd, these are just teenagers. If you’d made it that good to play those, you’d made it. It’s a whole, “God, we can play in another town. They like us.” And then when you get big, you know, it just keeps happening. It’s unbelievable.
Van Zant: What I gather from it is, “Okay. He told it exactly how it is. These guys could fight, kick ass, get drunk, do whatever the hell, but there still the music came together.” And that’s what it was about. It was a family. I don’t think people realize, like Gary said, just how funny and how much fun they had. I don’t know if you get the fun, but with Bob it was funny. Some of Bob’s stuff that’s in here, I laughed my ass off. You know, but you know just that it was, it still is, it’s a big family.
Somebody a while ago, a girl, said, “I think you guys, some people say you got the mark of X on you or whatever you know, bad luck or whatever?” And I think that Lynyrd Skynyrd. I mean, when you think about it had to happen this way and it’s God’s plan you know. And I’ve been here 31 years. I never thought I’d be Lynyrd Skynyrd [for] one second growin’ up. But lookin’ back on it and seein’ this particular film and stuff, I get a kick out of it, because I like hearing different stuff. I didn’t know about the Ed King thing, exactly how he left the band.
Kijak: Oh, really?
Van Zant: Yeah. I didn’t know exactly how he left the band. And it’s pretty damn funny, all that.
Just packing up overnight and leaving?
Kijak: But again, that’s his version of it. I mean maybe you remember it differently. Or someone else remembered differently.
Rossington: I remember a little bit from it. There’s two times. The one time he told is true, but there was another time he did it. It was just because of somethin’ silly that you should never do you know. I don’t even know how to say it.
Van Zant: But I can hear Ronnie sayin’ that to him, and I can hear that. I was like, “Oh my God.” You know what I mean, because he could raise hell and do just as much as any of these guys, believe me. You know, seemed like he would’ve fit in pretty good. I know he’s from California…
Rossington: He’s Californian.
Van Zant: Yeah, you know, but still. You know he fit, the way he played, and the way he matched and the way he complemented it.
Kijak: He really looked the part, but then what I love is being able to see him in his crazy-ass paisleys at the Strawberry Alarm Clock and then he turns it in for a cowboy hat.
Van Zant: And you know what I’m surprised at this, too. ‘Cause he never liked mentioning that he was in the Strawberry Alarm Clock. I remember when we played together in early days, when I’d be out with the band, he’d say, “Don’t say that.” And I’d be like, “Why? I thought Incense and Peppermint was a pretty good song?”
Kijak: He’s got the pictures on his wall. He has to be a little proud of it.
Van Zant: I know.
Rossington: [That song] was number one. What happened was after a while, when they broke up and they were gone that kind of music was a joke. That was like bubble gum. It’s all bubblegum.
Van Zant: Yeah. And I think probably him trying to fit into Skynyrd, he didn’t want people to know that.
Rossington: He didn’t want to hear about it.
Well, before I head out, this doc premieres here at SXSW the day that the film side kinda winds down and the music amps up. This seems like a pretty good way to bridge those two worlds.
Kijak: Well, I’ve had five films here. This is the first time I’ve world premiered at Southby, and I couldn’t have asked for a better spot. I mean. the timing’s just perfect. I really wanted to bring it here. I think the place an the people and everything is the right spot to do it. And yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing what happens tonight.
See our review of If I Leave Here Tomorrow here.