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Worth Their Salt Lake

[whitespace] SLC Punk!

They're All That: Matthew Lillard, James Merendino and Michael Goorjian.

Star Matthew Lillard and director James Merendino go off about 'SLC Punk!'

By Michelle Goldberg

A WALKING COMMERCIAL for Ritalin, SLC Punk! star Matthew Lillard bops around a downtown hotel room worrying about his new movie's financial prospects and complaining about Hollywood players who say he "can't open a film" while his bemused director, James Merendino, and co-star, Michael A. Goorjian, sit nearby taking in the show.

In a way, Lillard couldn't be more different than his character, Stevo, a mohawked small-town punk playing at anarchy with all his heart. Stevo rails at poseurs, while Lillard unabashedly declares, "I'm not an artist. I sold out. I was never a real artist. I was never really about art." Then he pauses, before resuming, "but that's such shit too, I don't know..." Like his latest character, Lillard seems to choke with irony as he tries to maintain a pose, even a nihilistic one, for more than a few moments.

A guy who says he played with action figures right up until he had to leave for his high school prom, Lillard's spastic smart-ass charm is evident in all his roles, whether he's playing a computer geek in Hackers, a psycho baby Tarantino in Scream, a DJ and MTV Real World character in She's All That or a middle-American freak in SLC Punk!, his best role so far.

SLC Punk! harks back to the halcyon days when angry teens battered each other with their fists instead of with pipe bombs and machine guns. Set in Salt Lake City in the middle of the Reagan years, the film is a hysterical celebration of raging post-adolescent punk posturing with a strangely poignant subtext about the meaning of rebellion and the necessity of giving up the prefab identities of youth.

Best friends Stevo and Heroin Bob (who's never tried drugs) are middle-class kids (one upper, one lower) earnestly trying to live like they have no future. Lillard glows with goofy charisma as he parties, fights with mods, skinheads and rednecks, and expounds on the myriad micro-cliques and complex social structures of underground Utah. Oakland native Goorjian's Heroin Bob is the perfect foil, a morose and neurotic kid who has much more reason than his friend has for his rage.

It's not giving too much away to say that Stevo's subcultural affectations don't last forever, and listening to Merendino, Goorjian and Lillard, I get the sense that SLC Punk! serves as a metaphor for the conflicts faced by young actors and directors and their uneasy absorption into Hollywood.

"When we're young, we rebel and we learn certain things about ourselves," Merendino says, "and as we get older that rebellion takes a different form. You learn from the days when you were incredibly rebellious, and you bring that into a more matriculated circumstance."

Stevo, Merendino explains, "does not say, 'I am going to sell out.' The character of Stevo says, 'Well, I'm going to go be a lawyer and stir things up instead of just sitting around and doing nothing.' You know, a lawyer can make more waves than almost anybody else."

Still, while his movie carries a message about the inevitability of growing up, Merendino isn't ready to abandon his outsider status. "I'm trying to make a living at this, that's the truth, dollars and cents," he says. "I'm trying to make a living as an artist. But I'm a little weirder than the average guy in Hollywood, so I have a little harder time making as big a movie as Jan de Bont, my associate producer, who made Speed."

Merendino, Lillard and Goorjian all rail against "Bob," the name they've given to some amorphous consortium of Hollywood players ever ready to thwart small films like SLC Punk! "For me and you and him and everyone involved I want the movie to just kick ass," says Lillard. "I want people to go see it! Bob has nothing to do with this movie--I want to throw it back in his face!"

Adds Goorjian, "This whole thing is to get back at Bob."

Merendino says to Lillard, "If I had made a movie, starring you, that was about this rich guy who was really popular in school who kept putting people together like in Clueless it would have opened on 3,000 screens. But because I made a movie that calls the government fascists, it will open on 150 screens."

In a more optimistic moment, Merendino adds, "The movie's just fine. Everyone said this movie's going to be scoffed at and spit at because it's about people who no one wants to know anything about. And in fact, it's been the exact opposite of that, people actually like the movie."

A SMALL, SLIGHT guy in grungy sweat pants and chunky black glasses, Merendino is 32 but looks and talks like a teenager. SLC Punk! took him three days to write; it was partly inspired by a guy he used to follow around as a kid in Salt Lake.

Similarly, Goorjian says there was much of his own adolescence in the movie. Probably best known as Justin on Party of Five, Goorjian divides his time between L.A. and the Bay Area, where he works with punk bands like the soon-to-be-reforming Idiot Flesh.

"I grew up in Oakland and listened to totally different music, but in terms of rebellion, I went through a lot of SLC punks," he says. "I came very close to still being over in this house in Oakland smoking pot every day. I know dudes who are still doing it, still talking shit. Of course I'm sure that in their eyes I'm the guy who sold out and went to Hollywood."

To which Merendino says, "Sold out what, sold out sitting around and smoking pot and talking shit?"

Of the three, only Lillard says his young life wasn't anything like the film, which may be why, of the three, he seems to have the least angst about embracing Hollywood. "I was never really a rebellion guy," he says. "I never smoked pot until I was 23. I never did drugs. I might get into drugs until I can open a picture. I have this theory that I'm not going to be successful in Hollywood until I go to the Betty Ford clinic, and then I'll suddenly be really successful, like, uh, Matthew Perry."

Since the script didn't have any personal resonance for him, it seems odd that he would take time off from his big-budget projects to do such a small movie. What was the draw? "First of all, there's the freak in the corner," he says, pointing at Merendino.

"Meeting him was the thing that kicked it off," Lillard continues, "because if you talk to him for five minutes about his movie, you become inspired. I get chills thinking about it. In all seriousness, he's a great filmmaker, he's intelligent, articulate and he wants to say something. For me, that inspiration will make up for a hundred She's All Thats. Another reason is that I got to carry a film. The burden is on me, not on Freddie [Prinze Jr., billed above him in She's All That]. It's going to be me who gets the acclaim, or not. The burden of success or failure--I wanted that on my shoulders. In the movie, I do everything, I've got to be funny, I've got to be romantic, I've got to be sad. It was a battlefield of acting." In other words, Lillard took the lead in a tiny, commercially doomed project because it would give him a chance to stretch himself as a performer. Maybe he's not so eager to sell out after all.

SLC Punk! (R; 97 min.), directed and written by James Merendino; photographed by Greg Littlewood; opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose and the Aquarius in Palo Alto.

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From the May 6-12, 1999 issue of Metro.

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