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Writer-Director Stephen Kijak on 'Shoplifters of the World'

March 30, 2021
4 min read time
When iconic English rock band THE SMITHS broke up in 1987, their legions of highly devoted superfans around the world were crushed. Fans' devotion to the band's music elicited tears, heartbreak, anger, confusion and, as an urban legend has it, a hostile takeover of a radio station in Denver.
 
A distraught 18-year-old SMITHS fan arrived with seven cassettes, an album by THE SMITHS and possibly a rifle (depending on who you talk to), demanding radio station KRXY (a station that never played THE SMITHS prior to that day) play only SMITHS songs, holding the station hostage for four hours. 

Final Draft sat down with writer-director Stephen Kijak to talk about his new film, Shoplifters of the World.

The film develops  with poetic license  the events of that urban legend; a plot that runs in parallel with the evening of four friends reeling from the sudden break-up of THE SMITHS who embark on a night out of partying to mourn their musical loss. With the radio station playing as the soundtrack to their night, the friends go on a wild journey of self-discovery that transforms them forever.

"I had cooked up an idea a while ago trying to come up with a story that told the tale of me and my friends over a new wave summer back in our hometown," Kijak said.
 
"Sadly, my first attempt at writing this film [about friendship and growth] was structurally aimless." 

THE SMITHS, he says, were his band back in the '80s.
 
"And I was talking to Lorianne [Hall], who has story credit on the film. She grew up in Denver and said, 'Dude, remember that thing that happened at the radio station?' From there, it took a few gin and tonics and we broke the whole story," he said.
 
"We thought, 'wow, now this story, coupled with this urban legend, is a film,' and the structure found itself. [Lorianne] wrote the treatment, I wrote the script."
 
Kijak has a history of directing musically driven films, a number in the documentary space.
 
"Docs happened to me by accident and then just took over, but I actually started as a writer-director back in the '90s."
 
Music docs he has worked on feature many icons as subjects, including Judy Garland, LYNYRD SKYNYRD, THE BACKSTREET BOYS, and THE ROLLING STONES.
 
"But my education at [Boston University] actually focused on screenwriting. I had found this sweet spot in music and film and I loved it," he said.
 
"But writing and directing a film like Shoplifters has always been something I wanted to do. Music docs are a great space to be in, but there just comes a point when you realize you're telling other people's stories."

Shoplifters was "one of those fast first drafts," according to Kijak.
 
"It all just kind of happened, maybe because it was very true to life; me and my friends. I knew these kids," he said.  
 
On developing the characters, Kijak says, "It was really drag and drop; it was so weird and cool. There's all this drama surrounding the radio station while these four kids are just running around on a night out. And in the treatment, we never even went to the radio station. It was just happening. But after we finished the treatment and first draft, we just realized something was missing."

It was then that Kijak and Hall decided to build out the urban legend, and incorporate it into subsequent drafts.
 
"We knew we needed to create this DJ [played by Joe Manganiello in the film] and that part was super fun. His character just hit me out of the air, and I started to just play with these two characters,  the kid and the DJ, as I worked through writing the story."
 
Shoplifters of the World's writing style is unique, as the script is so heavily built out of SMITHS quotes and references.
 
"That evolved," Kijak said.
 
"There was some early inclusion of that even in the treatment; casually, like total nerds, we'd toss SMITHS lines and quote lyrics back and forth as we were writing."

Kijak wanted to continue that work and infuse the film with SMITHS referentiality.
 
"It all goes back to the creative process of the artist, which unlocks our methods and informs our decisions," he said.
 
"I went back and spent time reading a ton of original SMITHS materials and old interviews, letters ... I created just a big document of references and when I was writing I just sifted through it. It became a fun puzzle of 'what lines belong where?'"

Acquiring the rights to use THE SMITHS music was "long, arduous and expensive," says Kijak, noting it happened relatively early in the conception process.
 
"We got a rare opportunity to use an enormous amount of THE SMITHS' catalogue so we thought, 'well now we have to make this film before anyone else does,'" Kijak laughs, adding he worked with "brilliant producers."
 
"We got Joe Manganiello signed on as an actor and producer. The casting director had sent him my script and said to me, 'Go have lunch with him, he's awesome,'" Kijak said.
 
"And we just clicked. He embodied a high school metalhead, a jock who was forced into drama club because of an injury. I was a metalhead as a kid, too; part of the Kiss Army. So we immediately hit it off, and his character Mickey was truly my favorite character to write, so it all just worked out perfectly."
 
When it comes to writing, Kijak says he needs total silence when he works.

"When I'm writing a script heavily revolving around music, you write the scene out and then you play it back with the song for timing and tone and you find yourself asking a lot of questions," he said.

"Is this the right song for this scene? And, can I get away with using this much of the song? And, is that lyric hitting right? You just test the scene against itself."

Kijak describes himself as a "fast-first-draft person," and sets page-count deadlines to create a first draft quickly.
 
"You know, like five pages a sitting. If I can crank out five, no looking back, doesn’t matter how good it is," he said.
 
"You can make a scene great later, but right now it's done. Move on and get [the script] finished."
 
Shoplifters of the World is now available on VOD and in theaters.
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