Jared Cohn on Telling the True Story of Artimus Pyle in Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash Film

This week, the film Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash, was released digitally, and on DVD and Bluray. The film has a stormy legal history, but director and writer Jared Cohn was at the center of defending the film's chances for release to tell the story of drummer Artimus Pyle's life. Pyle was one of the survivors of the 1977 plane crash that killed members of the band Lynyrd Skynyrd, including Ronnie Van Zant and Steve Gaines, and also others from their entourage, and was also someone who pulled other survivors from the plane before seeking help in the Louisiana swamp where the plane went down.

The reasons for legal battles over the film's release are challenging to sum up briefly, but turn on a decision made by surviving band members and family members of the deceased, after the plane crash, not to use the names of the deceased for publicity purposes in future. When Artimus Pyle decided to work with Cleopatra Films to make this biopic, Cleopatra Films was sued by band members and their heirs. Things didn't look good at first for the film, since an injunction was put in place. But an appeals court overturned that, finding in favor, basically, of someone being able to tell the story of their own life experiences in their own words. In this case, that's Artimus Pyle. And that's what made this a question of freedom of speech in many peoples' eyes.

Now, fans can judge for themselves why Pyle's story needed to be told by watching the film, but we've also got the films director and writer, Jared Cohn, here to chat about his journey making the film. 

Hannah Means-Shannon: Had you ever visited Tower Records when the shops were open in the USA?

Jared Cohn: Yes, and I’ve been there at the venue for all sorts of private events, for Billy Idol and one with Fatboy Slim, on Sunset.

HMS: Well, congratulations, since your film has finally been released.

JC: Today. Yes. It was quite a battle, a long battle in courts, a lot of money spent, people getting anxious, myself included. It was a wild ride.

HMS: When was the main filming done for the film? Was it in 2017?

JC: Yes, April 2017 was the start date, around then.

HMS: It has been done for a while then. It’s a long time for you all to wait.

JC: Yes, it’s been so long that it does affect how you feel when it does come out.

I hope people enjoy it. I think it’s a cool movie.

HMS: When did this start for you? When did you decide that you wanted to make this film?

JC: As soon as I caught wind that this could possibly be a project, I jumped at the chance when they talked to me about it. But there was actually a moment of knowing about the legal thing, a millisecond, where knew there might be lawsuits. So for one split second, I wondered, but then immediately, it was like, “No way. I’m going for it.”

HMS: What was it about this project that made you immediately want to do it? Were you a fan of the band? Or was it the dramatic elements of the story?

JC: I’m a fan of the band. I knew about Lynyrd Skynyrd, mainly about the music, though I know a lot more about them after making the film than I did before. When someone asked if I wanted to make a film about Lynyrd Skynyrd, I said, “Yeah, that sounds awesome!”

HMS: Was there a moment where you thought, “Wow, this is a real-life story, and that’s different from many of the other films that I’ve done, so this is going to be a challenge.”?

JC: Oh, yes. There were a million people online, hardcore fans, and people who know everything, and you know they are going to be watching the movie, picking everything apart. So you have to do massive research, reading the books, watching whatever is available. That was very important to me. I knew that some critics might say, “Oh, he would never wear those shoes!”

So I worked really closely with some fantastic people to really do the best we could, costume-wise, and in production, design, and the whole look of the film. It was very important to be historically accurate as a filmmaker, it’s a responsibility when you’re telling someone else’s life story. Especially when that person is right there, and you’re working with them to tell the story! That really helps. You’re getting it straight from the source.

HMS: Filmmaking already is so much more difficult and detailed than many people realize, but then when it’s going to be a true life story, with people still alive that were there, you have a whole other level of scrutiny, I know.

JC: People love to screen-shot and circle stuff.

HMS: [Laughs] Really? Have they already done that?

JC: No, no, not on this one. But movie mistakes are a favorite, like on Moviemistakes.com. Every movie, if you go frame by frame, especially on a time period piece, you can say, “Wait, that didn’t come out until 1982, and it’s supposed to be 1977.

HMS: Like the Starbucks cups in Game of Thrones?

JC: That was really crazy. Nobody thought that it looked like a Starbucks cup was there?

HMS: Yes, if you’re ever down on yourself for making mistakes, just think of that one and you’ll feel better.

JC: I’ve made some mistakes. I’ve worked on some films with such mind-blowingly low budgets that you don’t have the choice. You have the choice to make this mistake or that mistake, maybe because you’ve just gotten the script that day or the day before. You get in these crazy situations where you just have to shoot something. But the bigger the budget, you have more rehearsal time with the actors and discover all the things that potentially need to be addressed.

HMS: You must have met Artimus Pyle pretty early on to work on this project. Were there aspects of his personality or view of the world that impressed you and made you want to tell his story?

JC: Yes. He’s a Marine, an Aviation Sergeant, a Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame drummer. He’s just done so much. He was on a plane that crashed, pulled people out, saved lived. In addition to, “Who is Artimus Pyle?”, he’s just a good dude. I’ve spent a lot of time with him, so that went into the script and went into the character. He’s a very impressive guy.

It became a high-pressure situation knowing he was going to watch the movie. When I found out that he watched the movie and enjoyed it, that meant a lot. It’s his story. He said, “You got most of it right.” He was very kind and completely cool with it. The things that we didn’t get 100% right were things that were more open to interpretation.

In the movie, there’s a scene where he’s walking and he yells at a snake. He said later, “I didn’t yell at it. I whispered that line right to myself.” And I said, “Well, you never told me that.” He said, “Well, I kinda yelled, but it didn’t come out loud, because I was scared, going through the middle of a swamp.”

HMS: Hearing this is making me laugh, because it’s so passe that he’s going through a swamp and talking to a snake. It’s crazy because it’s real, but it feels like a mythological story. Even though there’s a plane involved, it feels mythological.

JC: To be on a plane, like you’ve been, and I’ve been, and for it to go down, and for people to die, is so traumatizing. It’s extreme. But, it happens. It’s terrible. I had heard this story, and I knew that it happened, even though it happened before I was born. I knew the music, and I’d heard that the lead singer had died in a plane crash, when I was a kid. But in every bar in American and across the world, at some point has played Lynyrd Skynyrd.

HMS: I feel like I heard that story of the plane crash at a young age, too. It’s just become part of our American mythology now. But the survivor’s story is the harder story to tell, I think.

JC: Definitely.

HMS: The film really focuses on the crash as far as I can tell, but how much of the film goes into the other parts of Artimus’ life, like his younger years and his older years?

JC: It shows him before and then it shows him after, as well, at the end. The majority of the film is focused on the days before, during, and after the crash, but it gives a little about “Who is this guy? How’d he get into this band?” And there are some flashbacks giving you some more insight into who this guy is. It ends up in present day. It is a movie about this terribly tragic plane crash, for the most part.

HMS: Well, that makes sense from a storytelling perspective, since that’s part of the dramatic structure, too.

JC: Yes, it’s in the title of the film. That’s something else I like about this movie: it isn’t trying to be something other than it is. It’s a biopic. There are movies about bands, and it’s all about the band, or the band breaks up, and there are several main characters in the movie.

And this one has several main characters, but what makes it different is that it’s told through Artimus’ eyes. And he’s the drummer. Every other biopic is told, usually, through the lead singer, like Freddie Mercury and Jim Morrison. But there are other people, who would have different accounts. It makes sense to focus on the most famous person, but that’s not the case in this movie, which I think makes it unique.

HMS: Yes. It probably makes it more relatable, too, because the lead singer or the lead guitarist is sometimes treated like a god. Whereas it seems like people often have a special place in their hearts for drummers and bassists, as if they can relate to them more.

JC: Yes, and the drummer is so important. The drummer sets the beat to everything. I certainly think so. But we’ll see what the feedback is on the film. People tend to say either that it’s cool or it’s trash, and that’s it.

HMS: That’s the internet for you. People have nothing better to do than say negative things online. The more positive people tend not to say anything.

JC: The trash talking on the internet is the worst it’s ever been. People can communicate so directly now, unlike back in the day. In the old days, people would write a hate mail letter, and it would go into some kind of pile. You couldn’t Tweet at them and have that person feel attacked.

Just from talking to artists and people that I work with, I know it’s brutal. You can gang up on anyone. It’s unfortunate, but there’s also a good side to it, because some people have been called out who did things that they deserved to get called out on. It’s kind of like checks and balances, but people can be absolutely brutal.

I’ve had some of the most venomous, insane comments sent directly to me, not even on a thread or comment forum, but directly messaged to me. It doesn’t bother me, but wow. People went through the process to find me and do this. Why? If you didn’t like the film, then turn it off.

HMS: Right! And you’ve made a crazy number of films, over 30? You must have been dealing with this for a long time.

JC: Yes, thirty-some movies. People will say anything. I’m not affected, but maybe I shouldn’t read it. It can make you better at what do you, so that’s why I read it. Is there anything I can learn? Maybe they make a point about something.

HMS: Were you targeted in that way because of making this film, because of the lawsuits and things?

JC: Yes, there was definitely some very personal stuff. But it was more like, “I wish the movie would have been good, but it was directed by this guy. How can it be good?” That’s completely pre-judging. I did engage with some people on the Youtube comments when the trailer was posted, since they were actually looking at the trailer, and they could see what the movie was like.

Because I had worked on lower budget movies, they thought it was a shame I was directing this movie. But I thought that made them sound pretty stupid, since they weren’t looking at the film itself.

HMS: That’s kind of like telling people that they aren’t allowed to try new things or telling them to stay in their lane.

JC: Yes. Or any actor or musician, or director, coming off a small show, and then playing a bigger venue, gets asked, “Why do you get a bigger stage?”

HMS: Do you think that your previous experience working on things that were thrillers, or had tension to them, helped you to construct this film in a dramatic way?

JC: Yes, definitely. On every movie, I try to learn. And on every movie, I do learn. It’s good because you keep growing. As soon as you think you’ve stopped needing to learn, that’s when you need to learn the most, probably. Asking, “How can I better work with actors, or stunt coordinators, or special effects people?” Or questions about scheduling, or things on the business end. The actual filmmaking nuts and bolts are very important and the director needs insight on those things.

HMS: What do you personally hope that viewers take away from watching your film? I know that on some of your previous projects, you have had some positive messages that you wanted to work in there. Is there anything like that in this film?

JC: Definitely. I want to raise awareness for the sake of Artimus Pyle. This movie is for him, to tell his story. Because of all the bad blood, and lies, and things this guy has had to deal with for 40 years. If this movie can set the record straight for one person, that’s the goal. This movie is for Artimus Pyle.

HMS: That is really cool. As a journalist, I approve that message.

JC: Thank you.

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