Director Interview – Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash with Jared Cohn

There are few bands that are woven into the very fabric and history of a region’s culture, bands that are even regarded as a lifestyle. With lyrics and music relating to everyone from the common working man to the deployed fighting solider, Lynyrd Skynyrd, is such a band. Considered by countless fans as the greatest southern rock band ever, they’ve recorded a number of anthemic gems, with “Simple Man” and “Sweet Home Alabama” as common mantle pieces, and concert staple “Free Bird” having its own private pedestal. To this day, and when live concerts resume, people will still yell “Play some Skynyrd!” at a show. Sadly, the band is also known for the great tragedy that befell them at the peak of their success.

On October, 20 1977, due to faulty equipment and pilot error, the band’s plane crashed, killing three members, the pilots and their road manager, and seriously injuring all survivors. This tragedy halted the band’s performances for a decade. Over the years, there have been numerous documentaries, books, specials and interviews about the crash, all from different band member’s perspectives, each with their own version of events.

“This is something that shouldn’t have happened, but it did,” says former drummer, Artimus Pyle in the new documentary, “Street Survivors.” Known for his heartbreaking memories of leaving the crash site to get help, treading through woods, swamps and fields, and actually getting shot by a property owner as he tried to save his friends, it is Pyle’s story that is captured onscreen in this new documentary.

In 2017, after numerous conversations with Pyle, director Jared Cohn captured his account of the crash, the events leading up to the day, and the aftermath. The movie starts in 1975, when Pyle’s van breaks down and he runs with his equipment to the venue twice to audition. With a little over a million dollars, plus legal fees, Cohn made what you see on screen.

From the beginning, the film was embroiled in a court battle. The estates of Ronnie Van Zant and two other deceased members of Lynyrd Skynyrd, as well as the band’s surviving member, Gary Rossington, were against the movie, taking legal action to prevent its release. The first judge on the case had ruled that the project violated an agreement by the band members not to exploit the plane crash. In 2018, that decision was overturned on appeal, due to the decision that Pyle had a right to his own life story, which included the crash.

In a conversation with the L.A. Beat, director Jared Cohn explains, “We shot in 2017. It was held up in court. It couldn’t come out till June 30th. Unfortunately, it was delayed so long. We were going for the 40th anniversary.”

They planned for a 10-15 theater national release, then everything changed, so it came out On Demand and on YouTube. “It’s doing well, number one on Amazon for quite some time. Uncut Magazine, the UK version of Rolling Stone, gave it 8 out of 10…We’ve had some great reviews. Some good reviews, some bad,” Cohn says. “It got a good review in Variety.”

CEO Brian Perera of Pyle’s label, Cleopatra Records, first approached Cohn about the project. “I’ve done music videos and directed movies for Brian. He could’ve brought any film maker in, but we had a great relationship. He said, do you wanna tackle this project? And I was like, ‘Absolutely.’ I love Skynyrd, I’m not gonna turn it down.”

Artimus Pyle voices the opening, is on screen as narrator between scenes, and signs autographs at the end of the film. He was also consulted on storyline details, wardrobe, and conversations that took place. “I really wanted everything to be period correct. We went over the script. Afterward, we were on the same page. It wasn’t an issue having him sign off on stuff. I had to have his blessing. There were one or two things he laughed at, saying, that’s something someone else would say but, it was very minor.”

They sent Pyle links of the actor portraying him, Ian Shultis, and he weighed in. “He was very cool about it. I think we did a great job in casting.” Pyle had a strong emotional reaction on first viewing, “He actually cried,” Cohn relates. “He watched it four times. He thought it was great. That was nice to hear. It was a movie about his life. He’s a great guy at the end of the day, a really cool dude, I support and believe him.”

With the first version running over two hours several scenes were cut. “We shot so much footage; did lots of improvising and ad-libbing,” Cohn remembers. “There were some great moments that never made it. There’s actually a full length “making of” on the DVD. The shoot was crazy. It could be equally interesting.”

In 2017, Cohn couldn’t have known the Confederate Flag would be a hot button issue in 2020, though it was used sparingly. “I thought, look, in the ‘70s and the south, a Confederate flag was what it was, but I didn’t want to feel false and not include it at some point. They weren’t racist. It was more of a marketing tool.”

Though Cohn thoroughly researched the band’s history though books, videos and other means, he’s never visited the crash site. “I’ve seen many photos and videos of it. I know there’s a memorial. I’d like to [visit].”

Viewers may be surprised by the amount of nudity during different party scenes, though not at the Mötley levels of “The Dirt.” Cohn wanted to show that Skynyrd indulged in their own southern debauchery from time to time. “For me, it was slightly gratuitous, but after hearing about all those insane parties, hotels naked girls, [and] showing breasts during shows, Artemus would go on and on about it. I can see someone saying, you didn’t need that much. But at the time, I wanted to be edgy.”

Historically, the plane crashed in the evening, with Pyle describing his scramble for help as night fell. The sequence was filmed during the day, due to time and budget restraints, “It came down to lighting,” Cohn explains. “When you try and light the woods at night, it takes really long. There are so many accounts of what happened. Depends who you believe. At the end of the day, it was Artimus’ story, what he said mattered.”

Depending on the point-of-view, there is some intentional, or unintentional humor, as Pyle cusses out a water snake as he crosses the swamp, “I’ve seen that reaction from people. It’s humorous and true, there was a snake. He didn’t yell at it or say it, how he said it. He was like, ‘I told that fucking snake I’ll bite your fucking head off.’ I could have had him rip it apart in his teeth, more of like how it probably happened.”

Wet, wounded, and blood stained, Pyle is shot by the owner as he limps towards a private house. “He swears he got shot. He’s got a scar on his shoulder. I believe him. It makes sense, running, covered in blood on some dude’s property.”

There’s no rescue footage shown, although there’s a scene with Pyle returning to the site as cleanup crews worked. “We were telling it from Artemus’ POV, his storyline. There were so many scenes; I think Artemis is in all of them, pretty much.”

The crash transcripts were used verbatim, “It went down very specifically, Artemis said this happened, that happened, he was very clear.” Several lines in the movie come off as foreshadowing. While some are verbatim quotes, others could be seen as the film’s own dark humor or attempt at being edgy. “Some of them were verbatim, there were quite a few. I could’ve done without one or two lines. People said, oh, that’s kinda creepy, and reacted like it was cool. It was a mixed reaction.” Some of it may be considered as too forced, “Maybe I went a little overboard. Some review we got touched on it, saying there’s some interesting, foreboding moments. Other people were like, they thought it was funny. I understand all sides.”

Being an indie film, certain locations and events had to be scaled down, such as the tent scene. “I didn’t take many creative liberties in terms of things that happened or didn’t happen.” They shot in California, finding as many matching locations as possible.

There are some great scenes of Pyle visiting friends in their hospital rooms, with different levels of emotion. “The actor playing Artemis had some good moments, and definitely looked the part. It was a challenge working with that many actors on a movie.”

Cohn said Pyle’s main motivation was getting professional, medical help for his friends, although he says Pyle probably has some level of survivor’s guilt. “I’m sure there was some degree of why them and not me. He knew the only way to get help was ambulances and doctors. He did what he could in the moment.”

During the plane’s descent, Van Zant {Taylor Clift} grabbed a bottle of Jack, a pillow, sat down and accepted his fate. “That’s what happened, and I followed it. There was a contradicting story that he was asleep the whole time, which to me’s a little suspect. I thought he played that well, and enjoyed how he acted that. He accepted everything. That’s a good moment in the movie.”

Cohn says the crash was due to faulty equipment and human error, but not all blame lies on the pilots. “The plane rental company knew it had known issues. If the plane hadn’t had any errors, it probably would have made it. It was known to be a junky plane.” From the shaky wheels as the plane ascends to the first in air engine backfire, Pyle said it happened. “Who am I to not believe him? At the end of the day he was there, I wasn’t.” All information was straight from the source.

Skynyrd’s music was a big inspiration for Cohn while writing and filming, relating to their working man roots and life experiences in the lyrics. “It’s great music. It’s timeless. Ronnie Van Zant wrote great songs. I love the music.”

Cohn says it’s unfortunate there’s still bad blood between camps. There’s none for Cohn, as the only people made to look bad historically are the pilots, and the record executive telling Pyle they wouldn’t cover his medical costs due to a handshake deal with Van Zant, with no official contract.

Van Zant comes off differently in certain scenes due to his non-stop passion for the music and its presentation. “Ronnie was pretty tough and to the point. A very aggressive perfectionist, everything had to be flawless. When it wasn’t, he got pissed.”

Everyone can have their say on social media, good, bad or indifferent. Cohn’s happy and proud of the finished product. “If you’re a fan and wanna know about the plane crash and Artemis, definitely see it. If you like movies about airplanes and crashes go see it.” Cohn strongly encourages everyone in the world to watch the movie. 


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