LOS ANGELES — Dakota Fanning’s porcelain-doll features were swathed in exotic makeup and her blond hair coiffed into a feathery shag; she raised her umpteenth shot of sake and cast a knowing glance at Kristen Stewart. The “Twilight” star held Fanning’s gaze briefly and toasted back, looking every inch the tough rocker chick, with her matching black shag hairdo, spiked bracelet and razor-blade charm necklace.
The actresses clinked glasses and giggled.
With downtown Los Angeles’ Kyoto Grand Hotel standing in for a bustling Tokyo sushi joint last summer, the teen stars were on the set of the coming-of-age drama “The Runaways” — in character, with Fanning as Cherie Currie, the wild-child lead singer of the titular all-girl rock group, and Stewart portraying Joan Jett, its electric-guitar-wielding, ‘tude-copping founder. Between the years 1975 and ‘79, the Runaways packed shows from coast to coast, toured the world and racked up hits before self-immolating in a blaze of drugs, jealousies and in-fighting.
“The Runaways” will premiere Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, arriving as one of the fest’s most outrightly commercial offerings, thanks largely to Stewart’s demonstrated “opening” power as a marquee draw. (Put out by independent distributor Apparition, the movie reaches theaters in March.) But “The Runaways” is also one of the most piquantly feminist films to touch down this year at America’s preeminent independent film forum — albeit a punk-infused genre pic with a pronounced generational viewpoint and no shortage of blood, drug abuse and bodily effluvia.
Written and directed by Floria Sigismondi, the acclaimed photographer and video director behind such foreboding, atmospheric clips as Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People” and Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” the movie was less intended as a by-the-book musical biopic a la “The Doors” or “La Bamba” than an impressionistic character study illuminating a unique female predicament: What happens when teenage girls get handed too much, too soon via worldwide rock stardom?
No stranger to the rock ‘n’ roll life in her own right, the Italian-born first-time feature director — a striking woman with a mane of raven-black hair who was clad in a vampire-chic, all-black ensemble on set last summer — said she drew on personal experience to connect with the characters. “It’s young girls getting swept up into a world they couldn’t handle,” Sigismondi said. “Feeding on those confusing feelings that develop from moving from girl to woman, I could reach deep into myself to find those things.”
Sigismondi, who is married to Lillian Berlin, lead singer of the hard-rocking alt-quartet Living Things, continued: “I wanted to focus on Joan and Cherie. How different they are, how they were drawn together for this crazy experience. Joan is so focused, she really wanted to have this band. And Cherie wanted the rage of rock ‘n’ roll, the rebellion.”
The film follows Currie at age 15 as she chafes against the San Fernando Valley’s suburban torpor and her family’s psychological abandonment en route to becoming the most forward female face in rock. On a parallel track, Jett is shown raging against the proverbial machine, defying all cultural expectation to stake out her place as a young woman in the boys’ club of hard rock while still in her midteens.
One night in Hollywood, Jett approaches record impresario Kim Fowley (a scene-chewing Michael Shannon in campy glam drag) who introduces her to drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) and becomes the band’s Svengali. Fowley “discovers” Currie at a nightclub, installs her as frontwoman and even concocts the lyrics to one of the group’s biggest hits, “Cherry Bomb,” on the spot during Currie’s audition. Scant character development is devoted to West and bandmate-guitarist Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton).
“Runaways” producer John Linson pointed out that even though the film is partially based on Currie’s 1989 memoir “Neon Angel: The Cherie Currie Story,” “The Runaways” is not a “band film” per se, because the filmmakers did not secure life story rights for Ford and bassist Jackie Fox (Sandy West died from a brain tumor in 2006; original bassist Micki Steele was fictionalized by Alia Shawkat’s character “Robin”).
Instead, the grander ambition was to faithfully capture “the youth ethic in film.”
“It’s about 15-year-old rock stars, the rise and fall of kids,” Linson said. “We’re trying hard not to let that get taken away.”
Profligate prop sake consumption aside, Fanning, who turns 16 next month, and Stewart, 19, appear side by side in an overwhelming majority of the movie’s scenes. The two are shown snorting cocaine in an airplane bathroom as well as getting very up close and personal in what is sure to become one of “The Runaways’ ” primary talking points: a make-out scene in a roller rink that takes place about two-thirds of the way through the movie.
The scene was inspired by a remark Currie made in the rockumentary “Edgeplay: A Film About the Runaways,” made by former band member Victory Tischler-Blue.
“In ‘Edgeplay,’ Cherie mentions that Joan is really good in bed,” Sigismondi said. “I thought, ‘I have to pry into this a bit. It will cause an explosion in the film. Why not go there?’”
Stewart and Fanning first shared screen time in “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and became fast friends. “You can probably tell we get along really well,” Fanning said in between takes. “For the characters, it’s really important that bond is portrayed. And we have that in real life.”
Rather than talk up the more sensational aspects of filming — like, say, the scenes in which Fanning writhes and vamps onstage dressed in fishnet stockings and a revealing bodice — the actress chose to explain how she and Stewart (with castmates Taylor-Compton, Maeve and Shawkat) rehearsed the Runaways’ music together for a month before filming began. Stewart and Fanning then re-recorded the vocals for several of the songs heard in the film.
“When you’re up there and you hear yourself singing the songs and feel yourself performing the dance moves that are so iconic — when you’re up there having the time of your life — you feel like you are those girls for a few minutes,” Fanning said. “It’s really fun!”
Asked if the role was an attempt to shatter the conception of her as the child star of such kid flicks as “The Cat in the Hat” and “Charlotte’s Web,” the actress demurred, explaining it was simply part of her natural career evolution.
“I’m just portraying what was going on with (Cherie) when she was my age,” Fanning said. “I want to continue to act for my whole life. Eventually, everyone will have to let me grow up, somehow, some way. I’m just trying to let that happen as naturally as I can.”
During production, the real Joan Jett was a semi-constant presence on-set. At the Kyoto Grand location, the rock icon huddled with Stewart conspiratorially in between takes, their closeness highlighting a remarkable physical similarity. In the film, Stewart convincingly channels something of Jett’s androgynous, take-no-guff demeanor and rock star swagger. (Stewart declined comment for this story.)
“She has completely embodied the character of Joan,” Sigismondi said. “Her body language, her face, her walk. It’s amazing how she has just become her.”
Production designer Eugenio Caballero was even more blunt. “Kristen is Joan,” he said in between scenes. “You talk with her and you think it’s Joan Jett.”
The notoriously private rocker, whose post-Runaways project Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” famously hit No. 1 and has sold more than 10 million copies, did not want to be interviewed. But she admitted feeling a strange satisfaction while watching the actresses perform the Runaways’ music.
“It’s surreal, that’s all I can say,” Jett said. “But I have a smile on my face.”