INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Aaron Michael Thomas, Creator of BY ANY MEANS, a Documentary About Black Flag

There’s no shortage of Black Flag-centric and related media. Whether it’s Stevie Chick’s 2009 biography Spray Paint the Walls, Henry Rollins’ own Get in the Van, Barred For Life (an examination of Black Flag tattoos) or even the 1981 documentary about L.A. punk, The Decline of Western Civilization, the band has been put under a microscope in all sorts of ways, by all sorts of people.

Which makes it sort of weird that there isn’t any singular, all-defining Black Flag documentary, considering just how many documentaries — and punk rock documentaries in particular — there are nowadays.

Aaron Michael Thomas takes note of this in his two-part short film, By Any Means: A Brief History of Black Flag. Uploaded to YouTube over the last six months, By Any Means spans Black Flag’s rise, continued rise, multiple personnel changes, and abrupt end, just to see a rejuvenated interest in the 2000s and two separate band reunions.

It’s surprisingly good and manages to pack a ton of information in. We reached out to Thomas to ask him about the making of the film, and why he felt a Black Flag documentary was necessary now.

You say in By Any Means that you felt the need to create a Black Flag documentary because of a lack of them. Why do you think it’s been difficult for anyone to put together a documentary about the band in the past?

I think the primary thing that has stood in people’s way is Greg Ginn. My assumption, based on what he has said and done, is that he does not like the idea of someone telling Black Flag’s story or even making money off of their work. Ginn has stated that he believes that Get in the Van is “full of lies,” though admitting he hasn’t read it. As mentioned in the video, there was at least one filmmaker who wanted to make a Black Flag documentary before me and Ginn turned them down.

That’s no small thing; he is not only the most important member of the band, he is also the gatekeeper to all of Black Flag’s publishing. Ginn also blocked Reality 86’d from being commercially distributed. I don’t know why he is so adamantly against people talking about the band.

A lot of people point to The Decline of Western Civilization as a defining documentary of that time in punk and hardcore punk. How, if at all, do you think that documentary influenced what you wanted to say in By Any Means?

To be honest, [The Decline] had little to do with this project other than some related subject matter. It’s a fantastic documentary, it just didn’t impact how I decided to tell the story.

Tell me a little about your connection to Black Flag. Are you just a fan? Has the band and their message influenced your life in any way?

I am just a fan. I grew up in Indiana. I had no formal connection to any member or any of the locations. What I am is someone very similar to their other fans. People who heard the music and knew instantly that they were hearing something special. The more I heard, the more I liked. I’m naturally curious, so in just finding out that they had four separate singers was enough for me to know that there was an interesting story to be heard.

I don’t know that the band has a message per se, but they definitely set an example. A band that no one wanted to record or distribute, and when they wanted to play had all kinds of obstacles put in their way, and they still had the impact that they did in spite of setback after setback.

I would say that example they set has been something I strive for. I have stories I want to tell and I want to find a way to do it no matter what. If it’s that important to you, you’ll find a way.

What was the process like in reaching out to members of the band for interviews? Why did you eventually decide not to use interviews with the band in the feature? 

When I initially started reaching out to members of the band, this was in the heyday of MySpace. Several of the members were on MySpace. I believe that’s how I got in contact with Keith Morris, Chuck Dukowski, Bill Stevenson, and maybe David Markey as well. Henry Rollins has had the same e-mail address since the dawn of the Internet, so that was easy to find.

Not a whole lot has changed; most of them can be found through social media. With regard to the interviews, first and foremost, the video looks bad and the audio is worse. Not that they were unusable, but I’ve shot many interviews since then and I would have been embarrassed to put something like that in this video.

Secondly, I shot those interviews under the presumption that they were more helping me get to know the people and establish a rapport and these interviews would help me shape a more formal interview later on. So I never had them sign any kind of release form.

Realistically, I probably could have used the footage and no one would have been upset with me, but I feel it would’ve been disrespectful at best to have used the interview footage. There’s more I could get into with how I decided to structure the video and how I used the clips that I did, but I won’t bore you with that.

There’s been a sort of resurgence in Black Flag’s music over the last decade. Why do you think that is? Did that resurgence influence the way you decided to create this project? 

While I think every year new people discover them, I think the resurgence has everything to do with the increased publicity by the reunion tours and everything that has come from that.

I’m sure everyone, myself included, never thought we’d see a reunion tour of any kind. So when that happened, it got a lot of attention because they have such a big fan base. The resurgence really only influenced this project by bringing the band back to the forefront of my mind again. It woke up something in me and I just felt that I couldn’t not do this project.

I’ll say that I know not everyone is crazy about having my story be part of this. I know that a lot of people would prefer a straight history video. That was the plan. I was going to do something like that.

I spent many months planning the video out in my head, and what I eventually landed on is that I still do want to make a feature length documentary on the band. What I made for YouTube, I made as something that could stand on its own no matter if I made the documentary or not. The only way I could think to do that is to tell an original story, and including my story in with theirs just felt like the right thing to do.

Randy LoBasso

Randy LoBasso is a freelance writer and bicycle rights advocate from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’s written for The Hard Times, Bicycling Magazine, Philadelphia Weekly, and some more places. He likes it when you tweet at him: @RandyLoBasso
Randy LoBasso
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