Unbeknownst to many, famed musician Dave Navarro (most widely known as the guitarist of Jane’s Addiction) is a trauma survivor of the highest order. He was 15 years old when his mother was brutally murdered, and over 30 years later, in the documentary Mourning Son, directed by his best friend Todd Newman, Navarro confronts the events that changed his life forever. The film is a darkly tragic and deeply beautiful tale of the human experience, and through revelations from friends and family, and the police and FBI, he uncovers the truth of domestic violence, as he faces his deepest fears on a journey through art, drug addiction and escapism.
As someone who is a longtime fan of the music of Jane’s Addiction and someone who understands the loss of a parent, I was fascinated by how well Navarro articulates the emotions he’s gone through and his willingness to face his own fears, in order to move beyond them. During a 40-minute chat with Collider, while at L.A.’s Downtown Independent theater to screen the film, both Navarro and Newman talked about sharing the experience of making this film together, entirely independently, following the journey where it led them, interweaving the various artistic outlets and escapism, the ongoing process of recovery, whether they ever considered scrapping the project entirely, and how the film is speaking to other trauma survivors. They also talked about their hopes for the future of their production company, Spread Entertainment, the types of film they’d like to make, and their cinematic inspirations.
Collider: How did you come to make this movie, and why did you decide to make it together?
DAVE NAVARRO: Todd and I have been best friends for close to 15 years, and both of us are cinephiles. We’re lovers of film and lovers of cinema, as it were, and have always wanted to make a film. So, we got to talking one night and decided, “Okay, let’s stop talking about this and actually make a film.” We decided that a subject matter that would be close to our hearts would make the most sense to focus on, since it would be a subject matter we would know, inside and out, better than anything else. And we decided to go down the documentary road and tell this story. We really embarked upon this primarily because we wanted to make a film. It wasn’t until we were in the process that we realized the impact.
Did the experience make you want to jump right into doing more films?
TODD NEWMAN: Yeah, absolutely. Making this film was us putting our feet in the water of filmmaking, and we want to keep making films. Dave and I have done a lot of other things in other mediums, like radio and other online shows, but we want to be filmmakers. We want to do this together again, and we wanted to do scripted stuff. Going down the road of making a documentary was a great way to learn what to do and what not to do, as far as the actual technical side.
NAVARRO: It’s probably the most difficult type of film to embark upon, just because it can go so many different directions and isn’t written a specific way. It’s all based on the information you conjure up, throughout the process. If you conjure up certain facts, it will dictate the direction you’re going to go, as opposed to a script that has a finite linear story. This was a project that came out of our interest and need to make films. We figured we’d learn how to do it on our first one. Neither one of us had made a feature-length film, ever. We’ve both made shorts and we’ve both done a lot of different film styles, but in terms of feature-length, we’d never done it. It literally started with two guys getting in a car with a video camera, not having any idea what to do, and with no financing, funding, manager, agent or studio. We had nothing. It was crazy, and we wanted it that way ‘cause we wanted to have complete and total control of everything.
And you didn’t even have a subject to answer to because that subject was yourself.
NAVARRO: Yeah. I think [Todd] had to lock me down a little bit, but that’s okay because we’re best friends and we talk every day, anyway. He could easily lock me down for timeline stuff.
Did you go into this with any kind of set plan or ideas, or were you just completely open to wherever it might take you?
NEWMAN: Once we came up with the inception of doing a film about this subject matter, for the first few things that we shot, it was more to see if we could go down this road, or if [Dave] was comfortable going down this road, based on the personal nature of the story. We knew that we wanted to make it artistic. We didn’t want to make it a straight crime documentary that was like a 48 Hours episode. We wanted to make it in a style that shows us, creatively. But a lot of the information, as it was divulged to us, led us to something else we would have to go chase down. There were many parts to the story, but we didn’t have time to tell a 14-hour movie. So, stylistically, we had some ideas of what we wanted it to look like, but it changed dramatically, throughout the process.
You’ve interwoven the film with various different types of art, from music to painting to photography, etc., which makes it really beautiful to watch, even with the dark subject matter.
NAVARRO: Thank you. There were so many different elements. It’s our first film, and in your first film, you want to exercise a lot of different creative ideas. Music is certainly a very important element to [Todd and I]. It was also very important to me that none of my own music was in it. I felt that that would just start becoming a vanity project, and I couldn’t handle that. I think both Todd and our editor wanted some of my own personal music, but I couldn’t do it. But the element of music, the element of art, and the element of darkness and crime and drama and tension were all things that we wanted to express in the film, and we got to do that. We had seven and eight hour versions of this that, artistically, might be a little bit closer to what we had in mind, but ultimately, we have to give our audience a break and keep them in mind, too. We wanted to make an art film, but we also wanted to make a crime film. We wanted to make a story of hope, and we wanted to make a story that was a cautionary tale and a story of healing. Hopefully, within our realm, we’ve accomplished that. We’re happy with how it came out, in terms of hitting those goals. How it speaks to anybody else, I can’t tell you.
NEWMAN: One of the things for me, as the director, was that I wanted it to be there in the story that this is a creative person and a creative mind that this happened to. With time since the actual event, you can see the ways that he has tried to cope with it, artistically, through heavy drunk use, and through all of the ways that went down. It’s an artist trying to cope, and that was important to me, as a story element. To me, putting the painting in the beginning, middle and end is the film you just say, in the painted version. That expresses what this person went through, and that’s what came from it.
How did the idea for that painting in your blood come about?
NAVARRO: We are fortunate enough to be friends with those artists, Aneta and Samppa Von Cyborg. They are body modification artists, performers and artists, and that’s what they do. We were socially hanging out with them, and Samppa, who’s blood paintings I knew, said, “You should let me do a painting of your mom in your blood.” It was the idea of taking a painful circumstance and making something beautiful out of it, which is metaphorically what we’re saying with the film, in a way. This crime gave birth to a really beautiful experience, in the right headspace, and we’re trying to articulate that with the painting. But it was 100% his idea, and when he said it, we realized that that’s the thread holding this thing together.
NEWMAN: I remember that I was going to Vegas with my wife and I said, “You’re going to stay there for a little while with your cousins, and I’m going to rent a car, drive all the way to the desert, shoot all day, and then drive back and meet you guys.” So, we just made it happen.
NAVARRO: There were a couple of threads and through-lines with the film. In the beginning of the film, we’re in the car, on the way to San Quentin, but it’s not revealed until we get there, why we’re in the car. Another thread is the linear story of the crime and the outcome. And then, another thread is the creation of the painting. It’s supposed to all go along at the same pace and all resolve at the same time.
What made you decide to include glimpses body suspension in the film?
NAVARRO: It’s included because it’s yet another road I go down to escape. We focus on drugs, sex, the suspension stuff, tattooing, music and art. It’s another portion of the potpourri of escapism that is my life. There are only a few ways that I escape and suspension was more interesting, visually, than a shot of me at home, watching TV.
What do you get from an experience like that?
NEWMAN: It’s hard to describe. For me, the times that I’ve done it, I find that the benefit is a couple of days later. I can’t speak for anybody else, but I realize all the mental stuff that I had to battle to accept the hooks going in, to be hoisted and the release that you get from it. The adrenalin takes over and pushes that all away, and you realize how much you overcame, but only well after the fact. That’s why I like to do it, and probably will continue to do it. It’s an escapism, but it’s also therapeutic for me, personally. There are many cultures that practice that art for therapy and meditation, historically. The first time I did it, I did it because I was like, “I’m not going to be a pussy. I’ll do it. I have friends that do it. I’m a man, not a pussy.” When I came down from doing it, I was like, “Okay, I get it.” It’s not so easy to articulate the exact experience.
NAVARRO: It’s different, every time. We didn’t want to make it gratuitous. I wanted it to be part of the escapism, but not focus on it. We already had the drug addiction, which is some dark stuff to show.
Dave, in the film, you talk about how there was the you from before your mother was murdered, and then there’s the you after. Do you feel like you’ve reconciled both of those sides of yourself, at this point?
NAVARRO: You mean the caterpillar and the butterfly? I don’t know. I think that trauma comes in all shapes and forms, for all different reasons. To really learn to live with it, you have to learn to have an approach, on a daily basis, to deal with it. Trauma has no memory and it has no sense of a timeframe. Trauma doesn’t know that it was 30 years ago. Trauma embeds itself in your brain chemistry and your physical body, as if the event is taking place now. That can be triggered by anything. It can be triggered by walking down the street, and a car nearly hits you and screeches to a halt. That moment of fear can bring back all that stuff from 30 years ago, and it will feel as though it’s happening now. So, the real key is learning how to identify that and move through that however you can. There’s a multitude of ways, but it would be irresponsible for me to teach treatment to people. For me, making this film was one element of doing that. A lot of trauma survivors will, in therapy, put their trauma story in a linear narrative, so that it’s not free-floating insanity in their brain, but there’s actual structure to it that’s comprehensive. So, this film and the process of making it with someone I trust was really a huge component of the overall picture.
Growing up, you’re not thinking about what your mother means to other people. What was it like for you to hear the effect she had on so many other people?
NAVARRO: That was beautiful. We do mention in the film that, as a result of doing all this work and going down this road, all these memories of my life before the crime, that were good memories, came back. And a lot of those are, as an adult, visiting some people who knew her really well and hearing what their stories are. That was one of the more beautiful aspects and discoveries of this process for me.
Todd, was this experience anything like what you thought it might be, going into it?
NEWMAN: No. I know [Dave] so well, and I know the subject matter, in a common sense level, so I knew there would be hurdles and that it would be tough, but it was affecting. As a director, it’s work. You’re trying to tell the story and have it be powerful, but then I’m also dealing with my best friend. I was learning stuff about this case even before him, at times. I’m emotionally attached and it was one of the reasons we were working together, so I had to navigate through that. And navigating through the best friend side and the director side was a fine line to walk, for sure. There were times where I learned information about the case that he didn’t know, and I had to break it to him. Most filmmakers would probably kill me for saying this, but it was always a case of him being a friend first and the film being secondary to that. If we needed to take a little extra time or not go down certain roads, that was it. There were certain things that I would push and pry for that were creative choices, but they were chosen very carefully. I have a lot of growing to do, as well, and it was tougher than I thought, at times. There were times where I said to him, “We can scrap this whole thing.” Up until the release of it, it was, “If this isn’t cool, we can stop.” It was tough. It was not easy, but it was worth it. It was strengthening, in a lot of ways.
NAVARRO: One of the things that was so great about our working relationship is that we trust each other to the point where, generally speaking, if I were to disagree with a creative partner and want something cut or added, that’s it. What I’m saying goes. But with Todd as my partner on this, I trust him enough to know that, if he gives me a valid reason why what I’m saying isn’t the right call, I can say, “You’re probably right.” It was really important for us to be able to let go of ego and really hear each other. There’s a great quote, which is, “Do you want it to be good, or do you want it to be yours?” Sometimes they’re not the same, and we wanted it to be good. It was nice to have that kind of relationship where I could say, “All right, I don’t want this, but you say it’s important, so I’ll let it say.” An example would be that the film opens with a dream sequence that I adamantly didn’t want in there, and still don’t know if it’s necessary, but his reasoning made sense to me, so we kept it. It ultimately adds to the artistic layers throughout the film, which I wanted to do, anyway.
Dave, did you ever truly think about just walking away from this and totally scrapping it?
NAVARRO: Yes, but I also work on a TV show and I’m in a band (Jane’s Addiction), which kept me out of L.A. for months at a time. You would think most filmmaking projects would have intensive focus on that film, for however long an amount of time. With this film, I got to walk away from it for three months at a time. I’d go off to Europe, and then come back and look at it.
NEWMAN: It was actually good for the process because I could sit there and cut a bunch of stuff and present it to him, and then he could say, “I like that,” or “I don’t want to go there.” It was easier to digest than if he had been there for some of the emotional stuff we had to cut. Even just going through pictures and deciding which ones to use was a process I’m glad he wasn’t in the room for. It was like, “Okay, this is what we picked. Do you like it?” “Yeah.”
There’s really an unexpected beauty in all of the tragedy of this story.
NEWMAN: We wanted to make it human. [Dave] is very articulate, and I wanted it to be explained in a way that people could digest. I think he did a beautiful job of explaining where the humor comes from and the various escapism, making it a full experience and not just crying on camera. I think the film is hopeful.
NAVARRO: It’s hopeful that there’s help out there and that you can find peace, hopefully. It was a rough road for me, but I’m pretty happy with my life and it’s doable.
What was it like to watch the finished film put together?
NAVARRO: There was really never a moment where I wasn’t aware of exactly what we had. I was hands-on, the whole time. But what was fun for me was that there were times where I was able to not be the participate and not be the subject, but be a creative partner and watch it as a story and step back from it. I was able to not really have a personal emotional reaction to it, but just have an emotional reaction to the story I was watching. That’s a very strange sensation. One of the things that came about, throughout making the film, was the fact that it could speak to a lot of other survivors, people who have gone through traumatic experiences, and victims of domestic violence and sexual assault, and their families and loved ones. We really wanted to highlight that, focus on it and show that, but we also wanted to be really careful to not be over the top with that. We wrestled with it.
I’m a huge documentary film fanatic. I’ve seen most of them, of all the ones that have ever been made. When there are really gripping, interesting, salacious, dingy stories that go on for 45 minutes, and then the last half an hour is walking in the light and rainbows, I can’t do it. I always end up turning that film off. There’s a certain amount of time that I felt is acceptable for that in the film, but without losing the dimensions or getting too into self-help land. We felt that was important. At the start, we didn’t think we were making a film that could speak to people in domestic violence situations. It was through the making of it that we were like, “We could share this with people, make a difference and raise some awareness.” We didn’t set out to do that. It selected us. Also, in 1983, we didn’t talk about domestic violence. I don’t even know if that was a phrase then. So, it took me until a year or two ago, before I realized that’s what that situation was. As a result, we’ve partnered up with www.nomore.org and they’ve been super supportive, and we’ve been jointly spreading the word about their organization and the film. I also wanted it to be a cautionary tale. There are warning signs. You shouldn’t allow the shame of being in a situation like that to prevent you from reaching out ‘cause that’s what happens. So, we’re not cause filmmakers, but we’re filmmakers that a cause presented itself to.
With how the music business is now and the way the film business is now, is it hard to find creative satisfaction?
NAVARRO: No, it’s not because we’re not trying to make those people happy. We don’t fucking care! Certainly, we were not under the illusion that this could be a blockbuster, on any level. I might be singing a different tune, when we do our first scripted project. This couldn’t have been more independent. It was [Todd] and I and our credit cards, and that was it. The music industry has changed, but I feel fortunate that I’m in a band that people come to see live. I’m able to still have a real connection with the audience. And frankly, I don’t really consider us a part of the film industry. Not yet, anyway. We are just launching our production company, Spread Entertainment. This is our first release. We’ll see how it goes. But ultimately, if we’re trying to make ourselves happy, that’s what’s going to resonate.
NEWMAN: I wanted us to like this film. It was important for me, as the director, for [Dave] to like it. He’s my friend and I wanted to impress him with what we could do. What other people will think about it, there’s some base level stuff in there with the humor and the darkness, and some people are going to love it, but some people aren’t going to go for it. We made it for us, and I made it directly for him. I want him to be proud of this and not have it be a hindrance.
Do you have any idea what you want to do with Spread Entertainment next? Do you have any ideas or scripts ready to go?
NAVARRO: We have a handful of scripts ready to go.
NEWMAN: I was a screenwriter before this, so I’m like, “Let’s do this. Let’s modify this one.”
NAVARRO: We’re also accepting scripts. What’s really important is that we want to stay in the psychological thriller realm. Not horror, per se, and not slasher, but films that can make you think with lots of heavy dialogue. For some reason, I just love that. I personally want to do slow, deliberate, psychological, almost tough-to-watch stories. These are all things the studios don’t love to hear, but that’s what we want to do. We want to make art films with story.
Creatively, are there filmmakers you’re inspired by?
NEWMAN: So many.
NAVARRO: I really like Gaspar Noé, Werner Herzog, [Stanley] Kubrick.
Mourning Son is available at iTunes, Google Play and Amazon.