Trading Places

Michael J. Fox straps on a guitar and Joan Jett gets into character for director Paul Schrader's upcoming movie 'Light of Day'

Actor Michael J. Fox during filming of the movie 'Light of Day' in Chicago, Illinois, on April 7th, 1986. Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

It was gray, drizzly spring day in Cleveland, and Michael J. Fox was getting nervous. Accustomed to coasting through light comedies on the strength of his likable personality and clean-cut looks, here he was in a gritty drama concocted by Paul Schrader, the guy whose credits include Taxi Driver, Hardcore and American Gigolo. Experienced as an actor but out of practice as a musician, he was expected to play lead guitar alongside Joan Jett. And without much of a singing voice, he was about to tackle the vocals on, of all things, a brand-new, unreleased Bruce Springsteen song.

"This is one of those movies where every time you get a certain thing licked, there's another dragon in the closet that you gotta tame," groaned Fox, nursing a Pepsi and pacing in the small courtyard behind a funky, cluttered Cleveland rock & roll bar called the Euclid Tavern. "I learned the guitar parts, then I finally got myself pumped to sing this, and now I just realized that I have a whole intro where I've got to act where I need to get across everything we've just come out of at the end of the movie. It's really stacked up."

But did anybody say it would be easy?

"No, nobody said it would be easy," he said, flashing that familiar, wholesome Michael J. Fox grin. "And there are rumors I'm being paid."

In fact, Fox is being paid so much that his salary took Light of Day from a low-budget movie to a medium-budget movie, joked director Paul Schrader. Six years ago, Schrader wrote the first draft of what he envisioned as a quick, inexpensive movie that would explore some of his own family conflicts against a setting of Midwest bar-band rock. Since then, Light of Day has developed into something considerably more complicated – and risky.

In the movie, which will be released next month, Michael Fox gets the chance to shrug off the kid-next-door image of TV's Family Ties and the movie Back to the Future, to grow his hair long and wear an earring and play a struggling rocker caught in a violent battle of wills between his older sister and his mother. His costar, rocker Joan Jett, has the chance to hold her own opposite established actors like Fox and Gena Rowlands. Moviegoers have a chance to see if the Barbusters —– Fox, Jett, Michael McKean of This is Spinal Tap on bass, L.A. drummer Paul Harkins and Michael Dolan on keyboards –— can play convincing bar-band rock without overdubs, lip-syncs or any of the usual movie tricks. Schrader has a chance to recapture the commercial and critical success that has eluded him in recent projects. And the Boss gets the chance to atone for swiping the movie's original title, Born in the U.S.A.

Springsteen saw a script around 1980 and chose not to write the music. "He's a control freak," said Schrader during lunch in his trailer, "and doing films requires giving up an awful lot of control." Though Schrader turned his sights to Cat People and Mishima, he didn't forget about Born in the U.S.A. and planned to make it "before I turned forty and the idea of doing a film about my youth lost its appeal."

Then, on location in Japan for Mishima in the summer of '84, he walked into a record store and saw his title above Bruce's rear end on the album cover. On the inner sleeve was a note from Springsteen: "Thanks to Paul Schrader." "I was never formally asked, but there's no legal reason to do so," said Schrader, who added that he's hardly the first to have supplied Springsteen with a song title. "From 'Mansion on the Hill' to 'Wreck on the Highway' to 'Point Blank' to 'Badlands,' Bruce has turned a lot of titles around."

Near the end of his 1984-85 tour, Springsteen invited the director to dinner, avoided the issue for most of the meal and finally, over dessert, apologized and made an offer: Schrader could use the song "Born in the U.S.A." for free, or Bruce would write a new song. Schrader opted for the latter. "By this point," said Schrader, "I didn't want to use the title anyway."

Later, Michael Fox picked up the story. "So we were all waiting for this new Springsteen song to come, and here comes this thing called" – he grimaced – "'Just Around the Corner to the Light of Day.'" They kept the song, a raveup with echoes of Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Green River." (A version of the song, with Jett singing and the four Barbusters playing, will soon be released as a single.) But for the benefit of theater marquees everywhere, they took a pair of scissors to the title.

When actors try to rock and rockers try to act, they need a little help. On the Light of Day set, that accounted for the presence of Paul Hanson, who trailed Michael Fox around the set and conducted regular on-the-spot guitar lessons. It also accounted for Sondra Lee, who worked with Joan Jett on her character and honed her dramatic skills. Watching everything from the sidelines, meanwhile, was Mark Addison, who six years ago showed a movie director what life's really like in rock & roll bars. In 1980, Schrader went to Cleveland to do research and hooked up with Addison's band, the Generators. Schrader hung out with them for several weeks, took hundreds of snapshots and borrowed details, characters and incidents. "It's a bit strange," said Addison. "Every once in a while I'll go, 'Damn! I remember when we did that!'"

But in Light of Day, rock is the context, not the content. "It's not a rock & roll movie," said Joan Jett firmly, "although it seems to me an awful lot of people are looking at it that way."

Schrader isn't one of them. "When you're writing original material," he said, "you try to combine some personal expression with some social metaphor, whether it's the ascent of loneliness in the cab driver or the lack of being able to give love in the gigolo. In this case, it was the sense of family relationships and how to forge an individual personality vis-à-vis your parents, and the context seemed to be perfect for rock & roll."

The basic situation —– the rebellious Patti Rasnick clashing with her dying mother while her younger brother, Joe, tries to hold his band and his family together –— comes from Schrader's life. "When you get a family situation as odd as this one, you know it has to be true," he said. "It's not really one-to-one. I'm one of two brothers. My mother died pretty much in the fashion depicted in the script, but my conflict was more with my father than her. I just moved the pieces around to invigorate them."

Schrader was raised in Michigan by conservative parents who frowned on drinking, smoking, gambling and all performing arts; he remembers his mother smashing a clock radio as it played Pat Boone's "A Wonderful Time Up There." Like Jett's character, he rebelled: "As a freshman in college I got involved in a lot of vandalism and petty crime and got in trouble with the police, and my brother [Leonard Schrader, who wrote the screenplay for Kiss of the Spider Woman] took me aside and said, 'You're not the only one who thinks like this. There's a whole bunch of us, and we all work at the [college] newspaper.'"

Journalism led to film criticism and eventually to screenwriting (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Mosquito Coast) and directing. As a director, said Michael McKean, Schrader's "so precise that [after a take] he'll say, 'I liked everything but the word house.' And you go, 'All right.' You can understand that." He also puts the performers through what Fox calls Schraderization, which consists of long, probing conversations about the film, the characters and, essentially, the world according to Paul Schrader. "You get the entire philosophy of life," said Fox. "You get every experience, everything. The whole Schrader package. He goes, 'This is who I am, and it may freak you out or it may inspire you.' And the next day you're left kinda doing the funky chicken backwards, but it all sinks in.

"Working with Paul can turn your brain to cheese after a while," Fox added with a laugh. "There's a tendency to look at the script and say, 'Okay, what does this mean, what does this mean?' It's different for me, because I worked with [Back to the Future director] Bob Zemeckis, who's like, 'Turn on the lightning machine and it'll all work out,' which is also great."

Fox was initially uneasy about working with Schrader. "While I really liked a good portion of what Paul's done," he said, "some of it's a little bit off the beaten path, and I didn't know how that would work for me." But he liked the idea of doing a drama before making two more light films (Herb Ross's The Secret of My Success and, eventually, the Back to the Future sequel). The notion of playing a rocker also appealed to him. As a teenager, he played guitar in garage bands in Canada, but he gave that up when he sold his guitar to raise enough money to move to L.A. and concentrate on acting.

Originally approached because he resembled rock singer Fiona, who was the first choice for Jett's role, Fox said he was "shocked and amazed and incredibly flattered" by the interest. "I had a lot of options," he continued. "But a lot of the great things that have happened to me have come out of a certain personality I have, you know? And I don't disrespect people supporting me for that, but it was time to say, 'Thanks for this, and now if you'll indulge me, I'd like to try something else. Maybe it'll work and you'll have more of what I do to enjoy – and maybe it won't and I'll put the lamp shade back on.'"

Opposite Jett, the lamp shade stayed off. "She's got an intensity that's real frightening," he said. "When you're working with her, you have this feeling that she could haul off and belt you. Not that she isn't a real sweet person –— that's the paradox. She really is a sweet, generous person, but she's got this armor. So what Paul had to do was selectively help her take off plates here and there."

Schrader said that process was tricky – and it reportedly caused occasional clashes between the rocker's camp and the nonrockers in charge. Sometimes the arguments were minor: Schrader thought Joan's character should always wear a leather jacket, but Jett said it interfered with her guitar playing. And sometimes they narrowly avoided bigger problems: At one point, Schrader recalled, an argument over which take of a song to use grew so intense that he was ready to give his Director's Ultimatum Speech –— "There's only one person in charge here, and I'm gonna stay in my trailer until you decide who that is." Then he listened one more time and decided that maybe Joan was right after all. "Hers is a performance that, at least from this vantage point, seems to be extremely good," said Schrader. "But I really don't know where it's coming from. With most actors and actresses you can discuss motivation and technique and so forth. With Joan, you do so at the risk of losing it. It's the damnedest thing: I've never dealt with a performance this good that I didn't feel I had access to."

"This whole world is very strange to me," admitted Jett, who said she resisted launching her film career by playing a musician. "Even when I heard it was a really good script, I didn't want to play a rock & roll star. But after I read it, I realized that it's a family drama and music is a big part of it because it's a big part of these people's lives. So once I could tell that, wow, I'm gonna be an actress, then I was interested in it."

And how did she do opposite the likes of Gena Rowlands? "You think, 'How am I gonna do this?' But everybody in the cast has been so giving. They know that I'm a rookie. I had no idea what I was doing at the beginning, and they've been very helpful."

Added Fox, "The moments in the script that she had to fight for, she eventually understood. The moments already in her blood –— like when she says, 'That one hour onstage makes up for the other twenty-three' –— she just nailed."

It wasn't as easy for Jett, Fox and the Barbusters to nail "Light of Day" — – it took about half a dozen takes, an hour or so of acting and singing and playing guitar. Finally, though, the band emerged from the Euclid Tavern and ran through the light rain to a sound truck parked out back; when they emerged a few minutes later, smiles had replaced their scowls.

Schrader headed into the Euclid to prepare the next shot, Jett wandered toward her trailer with her manager and her acting coach, and Fox walked to the picnic table where he'd been pacing earlier. "Boy," he said with a relieved sigh, "am I glad I don't do that for a living."