When Tamara Saviano approached the task of adapting her biography Without Getting Killed or Caught: The Life and Music of Guy Clark into a documentary, she already had all the details down. She had already worked intimately with the dean of Texas songwriters up until his passing in 2016 to paint a sentimental, robust picture of the iconic musician who helped to create the Americana music genre. Now, staring down the barrel of turning that manuscript into a screenplay, Saviano had to find a way to trim down a legacy into a 95-minute package. That focus came with the decision that the crux of the film would be built around the relationship between Guy Clark, his best friend and fellow musician Townes Van Zandt, and most especially his wife, Susanna Clark.
Paul Whitfield, co-creator of the film and Saviano's husband, initially disagreed with Saviano about the decision to lean on Susanna's voice so heavily. Saviano persisted in insisting, though, that Susanna's perspective was critical to telling Guy's story.
"When people look at Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt and then Susanna, they always look at her role as really minor," Saviano said, "because Guy and Townes always sucked all of the oxygen out of the room. Susanna's role is much more important than people have ever given her credit for ... and I wanted to change that."
Without Getting Killed or Caught is the first time in their 19-year history that Saviano and Whitfield have worked together as partners on a long-term project. "For six years our marriage was largely about the film," Saviano said. Their individual strengths and weaknesses combined together to create the documentary just as Susanna and Guy's did to create their music. For the couple, though, that's where they saw the similarities end. They consider their working and personal relationships to be calm and easy-going, whereas Saviano described Guy and Susanna as chaotic.
An integral aspect of the documentary is that it tells the story of one man in a way that makes every supporting character equal in their importance in his rise. "Guy loved to collaborate," Saviano said. "He said to me once that the thing about collaborating is that somebody might have the germ of an idea and if you have more than one person in the room, that idea becomes an important piece of work."
That theme runs throughout the film, through Susanna's narration (culled from audio diaries and entries from private journals narrated by Sissy Spacek) and talking heads of those closest to Guy who worked with him throughout his career. The documentary itself was impacted by the contributions of many. "There's no way that someone can make a film on their own," Saviano said, crediting the cast and crew, the interviewees, and co-writer Bart Knaggs.
As for what they hope audiences take away from the film, Whitfield said that he wants them to be encouraged to learn more about Guy by reading Saviano's biography and listening to the singer's discography. "His whole life is there in his songwriting," he said.
Saviano said that this was a film about friendship. She wanted to emphasize the intimacy and strength of the relationship between the three artists, and the crucial roles that they each played in each other's lives.
"We could easily make another movie of just Guy," Whitfield added, but Saviano was quick to cut him off, and laughed.
"We could, but we won't."
Without Getting Killed or Caught screens at AFS Cinema starting this weekend. Read our review here.
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