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When Punks Go Hollywood

Vandals Member Joe Escalante Thinks the Future of the Genre Is Fast, Cheap, No-Frills Film


Everybody knows about punk-rock music, but how about punk-rock movies?

Not just films about punk rock, but also made the way punk music is: fast, cheap and no frills.

That's what Vandals founding member Joe Escalante is focusing on nowadays, when he's not on tour or recording with the veteran O.C.-Long Beach punk group.

Veteran is the operative word regarding his nascent interest in movie-making. Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols used to scowl about "no future," but Escalante has seen punk rock's future and for him it's spelled c-i-n-e-m-a.

"I'm 37 now--how long can you keep playing in a punk-rock band?" said Escalante in his spartan office at Kung Fu Records, the Hollywood-based label he and Vandals guitarist Warren Fitzgerald started five years ago. "This movie thing is something I've learned to do and it's something I could see doing for a while."

The office provides a study in ironic contrast. In one small bookshelf sits his timeworn three-volume edition of 18th century British historian Edward Gibbon's seminal work "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," right above a collection of videos containing vintage animated TV series--mostly Jay Ward shows--including "Hoppity Hooper," "King Leonardo" and "George of the Jungle." The videos, he says, were a gift from a friend who specializes in bootlegging classic animation.

"Our motto is, 'No festivals, no theatrical screenings,' " Escalante said. "For what it would cost to make one print of a movie to show in a theater, we could make another entire film."

Case in point: Their first movie, due next year, is the whimsically titled "Darn That Punk," which cost $21,000 in toto--about enough to cover the shoelace budget in a $100-million major studio production like "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas."

The plan is to put "That Darn Punk" on video and market it directly to Vandals fans through their Web site (

Just as most punk-rock albums are targeted at the core punk crowd rather than at the pop mainstream--The Offspring and Green Day being the notable exceptions to that rule--Escalante sees a ready-made audience that's been grossly overlooked, a view that was only strengthened during the Vandals' recent three-week tour of Europe.

"Everywhere we go we have kids come up and say 'I saw you in 'Suburbia' [the 1983 Penelope Spheeris punk drama]. I have it on tape and I watch it every night . . . We want to give them something else so they aren't stuck with 'Suburbia' every night."

And here's the ultimate punk kicker: Escalante's making the movie as an adjunct to the real focal point: the soundtrack album, which will feature music by the Vandals and several other Kung Fu acts, which keeps licensing costs and hassles to a bare minimum.

"We can do this because we own a lot of music, and we know the soundtracks will do well," he said. "I don't think anybody else could do it like this because no one else owns that much music and has the movie equipment too."

Although "That Darn Punk," an action-comedy about a bass player for a punk band who is kidnapped, drugged and left in the desert and tries to find his way back, was shot on video, future movies will be done on film now that Escalante recently bought a 16mm camera.

The 5,400-square-foot Kung Fu Records building also has facilities for film and TV production, as well as a permanent rehearsal room that's been used lately to prepare for their sold-out holiday show Friday at the Sun Theatre.

If there is an overriding motto for most of the punk rock of the past 25 years, it's "do it yourself."

They tapped a friend with directing experience to oversee "That Darn Punk," but Escalante plans to pare the operation even further and will handle that job himself on future films.

Odd Jobs

Most of the money that built Kung Fu came from Vandals royalties and Escalante's earnings from five years as a business-affairs lawyer (he's a Loyola Law School graduate) for CBS-TV in the early '90s. He's also done legal consulting work for UPN.

Those jobs also gave him much of the experience he draws on in putting together deals, for the Vandals and other Kung Fu acts. He's seen firsthand how the entertainment business usually works, and like a good punk rocker, handles his affairs pretty much the opposite way.

"I've been part of that mainstream TV and movie industry and just watched what happens to things in that world," he said. "It's kind of like the major-label [music] world.

"The most impressive thing about punk rock is you make something, put it out and you go on tour," he said. "In the major-label world, you make something, then they tell you to make it again. Or it might never come out. Or lawyers get involved and everyone starts fighting.

"I'm kind of taking that [make it and put it out quickly] approach to movies."

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