35 Years Ago: David Byrne Celebrates Weirdness in ‘True Stories’
Any Talking Heads fan knew David Byrne had a fascination with every-day oddballs, weird twists of fate and quaint traditions. True Stories arrived on Oct. 10, 1986 as his first – and thus far, only – attempt to bring it all to the big screen.
The character-driven script was often inspired by tabloid headlines, but then Byrne let his prodigious imagination do the rest. "They're based on true stories," Byrne told the Dallas Morning News in 1985. "Sometimes they get embellished a little bit."
And sometimes, viewers quickly learned, a lot.
Byrne's directorial debut is set in small-town Texas, where its cast of the absurd is presented with an inviting sense of wide-eyed amazement. They could be anyone, or nobody. After all, True Stories ends with a telling title card that says, "If you can think of it, it exists somewhere."
Talking Heads' discography played a foundational role to some degree: Food, often a topic of conversation, also features prominently in a scene where a husband uses string beans (among other things) to make an economic point. Byrne's band appears throughout the film, and on every song from the original soundtrack.
But this was never meant to be about the Talking Heads so much as a project in service of Byrne's increasingly wandering muse. Director Jonathan Demme had brought Byrne into the final decision making on the band's recent concert film Stop Making Sense, encouraging him to make editing suggestions. Byrne began to have bigger thoughts, and soon the idea of a music-driven narrative film was born.
"I found it to be a wonderful experience; I was learning at the same time that I was doing stuff," Byrne told Billboard in 2018. "I had directed some of the music videos for the band, but this time I really jumped in the deep end – and I kind of managed to stay afloat. So that was really thrilling to be able to do that."
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He built the quirky screenplay from a foundation set by the writing partnership of playwright Beth Henley and actor Stephen Tobolowsky. They spent about 19 days working on the script, before handing it over for what became wholesale re-writes by Byrne.
Tobolowsky estimated that only a dozen or so lines made it into the final picture. Talking Heads albums were moving along the same creative through line, as Byrne began bringing much more developed demos to the sessions instead of collaborating in the studio. In the end, however, Tobolowsky argued that most of Byrne's cuts made their own thematic sense.
"I think a lot of it was removed for time, and 'who needs that?' and 'let's get to the next song,'" Tobolowsky told Texas Public Radio in 2019. "And the songs were better than our dialogue or jokes! That goes back to the original idea that the songs were going to be the stars."
The larger project was shepherded along by producer Karen Murphy, best known then for her work on the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. "I got lots of support from Karen and the other people around," Byrne told the Dallas Morning News. Meanwhile, Byrne immersed himself "just doing a lot of research and familiarizing myself with what I wanted to do, and what existed and the history of Texas and what not."
Byrne cast himself as the big-hat wearing, utterly fascinated narrator who stumbles across the fictional village of Virgil. Citizens there are busy preparing a "Celebration of Specialness" to commemorate Texas' sesquicentennial, while working out all sorts of eccentric interpersonal issues.
John Goodman plays Louis Fyne, a lonely figure who's advertising on TV for a wife. Swoosie Kurtz stars as a rich ne'er-do-well who never leaves her bed. Gospel-soul singer Pop Staples plays a local voodoo priest. All of it is presented with childlike acceptance, even when they suddenly begin singing. A couple of tracks seem to touch on issues central to the mid-'80s, like increasing cable-driven media saturation ("Puzzlin' Evidence") or greed-is-good commercialism ("Love For Sale"). But more often, it all just anecdotally rattles along, past a very odd fashion scene and the inevitable town parade toward a talent show that concludes the film.
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As with so much here, the talent show worked in miniature to drive home a larger point about celebrating the country's unique and amusing weirdness.
"It's a disappearing format," Byrne said before a re-screening of True Stories at New York City's IFC Center in 2018. "It's inclusive and entertaining and if you think, 'I don't care for this act,' it's only going to be another five minutes."
A significant amount of drama actually ended up surrounding the talent show – though none of it was reflected in the finished movie. Blame location filming in Texas.
"There was a tornado that came through," Byrne told Billboard. "Our one big set build was the stage that the talent show is held on at the end of the movie – and the tornado came through the day before the shoot and wrecked it."
The production had insurance, but there was an issue with their claim so the scene went unfilmed as paper got pushed around. "Meanwhile, the clock's ticking, and you've got all these local groups waiting and asking, 'When are we going to be asked to perform now? When is the senior line dance group going to be available?'" Byrne added. "That was pretty scary. I was protected from that quite a bit by the production and creative team – which, I'm glad I was."
Byrne ended up on the cover of Time, under a headline that read "Rock's Renaissance Man." But True Stories never won any industry awards, finishing at No. 144 for the year with a $2.5 million gross.
He didn't go away empty handed, however, as the Texas Accordion Association officially recognized his casting decisions in the film's parade sequence. That was, in its own way, perfect. "They were appreciative," an always wonder-filled Byrne told the IFC Center audience, "of the work I was doing on behalf of local accordion players."