Susan Kouguell speaks with director Aaron Brookner on his journey of re-mastering and re-leasing the documentary on William Burroughs, Burroughs: The Movie (1983) directed by his uncle, Howard Brookner, and Smash the Control Machine the feature documentary that tells the story of Aaron Brookner’s investigation into the mysterious life and missing films of Howard Brookner, who died of AIDS at age 34 in 1989 on the cusp of fame. Howard Brookner’s films also include Bloodhounds on Broadway (1989) and Robert Wilson and The Civil Wars (1987).
Born in New York City, Aaron Brookner began his career working on Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes and Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity before making the award-winning documentary short The Black Cowboys (2004). His first feature documentary was a collaboration with writer Budd Schulberg (On the Waterfront), and his film, The Silver Goat (2012) was the first feature created exclusively for iPad, released as an App and downloaded across 24 countries, making it into the top 50 entertainment apps in the UK and Czech Republic.
The re-mastered print of Burroughs: The Movie will have its premier University of Indiana’s Burroughs 100th birthday event on February 6th, 2014.
SUSAN KOUGUELL: On your Kickstarter site you wrote:
“Howard Brookner directed three films before his death in 1989 from AIDS at the age of thirty-four. In the final year of his life he wrote:
If I live on it is in your memories and the films I made.
It was this quote that inspired me, Howard's nephew and enthusiastic Burroughsian, to search for the missing print of his first film, Burroughs: The Movie. After a long search I found the only print in good condition and embarked on a project to digitally remaster it and make it available to the public.”
This has been both a personal and artistic journey for you. When did this journey begin?
AARON BROOKNER: It probably began when Howard died, originally. My lasting memories of him were of watching him make his final movie Bloodhounds on Broadway on the set, hanging out together and rough-housing, walking around downtown, the secret handshake and spoken greeting we had, the cool toys from Japan he brought me, messing around with video cameras, trips down to Miami, and oddly enough the Rolling Stones 3D halftime show during the 1989 Super Bowl.
But I also had seen him in a hospital bed. I had been to the AIDS ward. I was over at his apartment quite a bit during his final few months of life. Watched his funeral. And I was seven. Kids know everything that’s going on around them even when they don’t. I guess this was the case and that making Smash the Control Machine is some sort of way to articulate my childlike perspective on the story, as an adult. It’s also a way to satisfy my curiosity.
Howard, I’ve found out, in some weird cinematic way, left clues all over the world really, which show how he lived, and what he lived. He documented everything.
A few years ago when I started the search for the Burroughs: The Movie print, I started to find all these pieces to his puzzle. Not to mention his films! So I went all the way and committed to gathering up everything and telling his story, which has brought me into contact with the people who knew him best -- and survived him -- who each knew a completely different yet same Howard. It’s amazing to watch Howard come to life in the eyes of someone that knew him, through the stories they recall.
It’s been a very interesting journey, and still is. It was a hard one to start, obviously, because of the awful tragedy looming at the end, and I was sensitive to not want to stir this back up for the people who really suffered his death, but the feeling has really changed. There is so much life and joy of living and making movies that transcends through Howard’s work which I’ve discovered, and in the people who knew him best; that this feeling of life and art really trumps death and AIDS, and a lot of the political bulls--t that fueled that fire, and this is a good feeling, and sort of what I hope to bring out in my film.
SK: You successfully raised more than the requested budget with Kickstarter to fund your film. Talk about the pros and cons of using this crowdsourcing resource.
AB: A big pro is that you skip all the gatekeepers, which saves a lot of time. You go straight to the audience and in the case of remastering Howard’s Burroughs: The Movie film there was pretty straightforward thinking behind it. I thought if enough people know about this film and want it back, or if they want it for the first time, they’ll help me deliver. If not, so be it.
A con, and I don’t know if I’d call it a con or just the reality, is that you’re never getting something for nothing; you’ve got a lot of work to do to run a crowd-funding campaign. It’s great if there’s an audience for your project, but how are they gonna hear about it?! My partner, Paula Vaccaro, and I spent months working on this day and night, not knowing if we’d even succeed. A little stressful...but overall I think it’s amazing that crowd-sourcing exists, and that it can work. It’s also a pretty great exercise in clearly communicating what you want to do and why, and what’s the plan for how.
SK: Smash the Control Machine, the film you are making on Howard’s story and the search for his lost work was selected in its early stages for the Berlinale. What was that experience like for you?
AB: In a lot of ways it was like the Burroughs: The Movie Kickstarter experience, in that first of all, it was a great endorsement and support to have, and that it certainly helped to streamline the concept and see what worked and what didn’t.
We were specifically selected to the Talent Project Market at Berlinale as the only documentary of 10 total films from around the world. It was a few very intense and focused days like a workshop on all the different angles around your film, that as a creator you might not be thinking about -- like what your pitch is going to be and how to pitch for that matter -- to what are the comparable going numbers around and how an international co-production might work. It’s great to learn this because then, after the workshop days, you’re sitting at a table where film market people are coming to meet you and talk to you, and you kind of understand where they are coming from, so you’re confident in talking about your project, and knowing what’s good or not good for it.
SK: Do you have any international partners with whom you are working?
AB: The main production company for the film is Pinball London, which is mainly based in London, UK, our other partners are of course the executive producer of the film, Jim Jarmusch, producer Sara Driver in New York City, the Berlinale Talent Campus and the Talent Project Market, (who have been invaluable allies of the film) the Jerome Foundation, MEDIA Program (the European Union’s main audiovisual development program (http://ec.europa.eu/culture/media/index_en.htm), the Independent Filmmaker Project in NYC, which runs our fiscal sponsorship campaign and supports the film with knowledge and an amazing network, and the generous support of other partners, such as the Arnie Glassman Foundation and private individual donors. We’re currently having conversations with other co-producers, distributors, transmedia partners, as well as sales companies from US and EU but I can’t go into more details at this stage.
SK: Film director Jim Jarmusch, who worked with Howard, is your executive producer. His features Permanent Vacation and Stranger Than Paradise, were influential works not only to the downtown New York City art film scene, but to the wider independent/art film movement. You mentioned that through this filmmaking process you have been exposed to the art and film created during this time and its staying power. Please elaborate.
AB: New York City in the late 1970s was really the last place and time where two generations of artists overlapped and met and fed off each other. They lived in the same neighborhood, did the same drugs, went to the same clubs, and in some cases slept with the same people. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, much as they were artistic innovators for the way they completely broke the rules of literature, were also pioneering in the way they were open about their homosexuality and the way they put in their work.
Writer Brad Gooch, Howard’s long-time partner, told me that his and Howard’s was the first generation who really got to live openly when they got to New York. All the first love straight people get to experience in high school, gay men (and women) were experiencing at age twenty-five in downtown NYC against this epic backdrop of all sorts of art and space and time to create it. This sexual liberation really fed into the art scene. It was political without having a message, just by being.
The films that Jim Jarmusch and others were making at this time, they sort of applied the total lack of respect for rules that Burroughs and Ginsberg had laid in literature, and applied it to cinema. They took what they saw around them and put it in their work. And in the case of Howard making Burroughs: The Movie, with Jim and also Tom DiCillo who was doing camera, he went straight to the source. Howard decided not only am I going to apply the lack of rules, rule to movie-making, I’m gonna turn the camera on this moment in time as it’s really happening. I mean it’s incredible. They’re filming Burroughs at home, working out his speech to protest Proposition 6 in 1978, which Burroughs then incorporates into his reading at the Nova Convention -- to a packed-to-the-rafters theatre filled with 20 and 30-year-olds. Howard and his crew actually shot this.
There is just so much truth that shines through this work, and the work of that time like in Jarmusch’s films, and I think it’s because you had new artists’ energy directly side by side with the source. It was exceptionally rare, I think, historically, where one generation of artists so directly influenced another, only with the newer generation using a different medium, which of course was film.
SK: You discovered more than 35 hours of film Howard shot from 1978-1983 that was stored in Burroughs’ bunker for 30 years. These reels include footage of Andy Warhol, Burroughs and Howard in the Chelsea Hotel, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Zappa and Patti Smith. How did you learn about this footage?
AB: James Grauerholz, who was very close friends with my uncle and co-produced Burroughs: The Movie, who is William Burroughs’ heir, early on when I was looking for a print of the film sent me a detailed inventory of everything Howard had stored in the bunker (Burroughs’ NYC residence). I looked at the list and my jaw dropped. Howard had finished Burroughs: The Movie with the BBC (who provided completion funds) in 1983. Sometime later they shipped back these giant trunks of all of Howard’s rushes, outtakes, workprints, and negative rolls. Howard didn’t have a permanent residence at that time because he was traveling the globe making his next film on theatre director , who was preparing six different international plays around the world to all come together for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. So Howard got these trunks of his films and asked Burroughs if he could stash it in the back room of the Bunker. And there it sat undisturbed for 30 years! After Burroughs died, John Giorno, who lived above the bunker, decided to keep it as a sort of museum to William. And of course along with Burroughs’ hat, canes, and spices from 1978, are Howard’s films.
SK: What condition are the reels?
AB: The negatives look great. The work-prints are all kind of pink, which happens to color film over time, but this is fixable with a good colorist as per example:
There’s a tiny bit of shrinkage, as photochemical film will shrink over time, but it is very minimal considering 30 years with no climate and humidity control. Only one roll was lost completely to severe water damage. It’s very fortunate really so much of it survived. It was a race against the clock. Film is a living breathing organic material.
SK: How were you able to access them? Where was/is the bunker?
It was a complicated battle. I fought, with support, a dedicated fight that lasted for well over a year. It was extremely anxiety-provoking, as every day there was a potential risk these precious films could have been destroyed. For all I knew there could have been vinegar in the cans, which happens to deteriorated film. There was a lot of faith involved, a bit like the Kickstarter campaign. You can image what Hurricane Sandy did to my nervous system. It was indeed a race against the clock with all sorts of obstacles, and so stressful I had to document it to cope, and because it really illustrated an issue that’s central to my film, which is: What happens to the work created by artists when they are gone? And this is key to artists who died of AIDS as they generally did not have the time or resources to prepare for their legacy. So, now that is a part of my film. There was a more or less happy ending. But you’ll have to see the film to get the story! The Bunker is on the Bowery in NYC.
SK: With some of the clips you’ve shown me, this is quite a treasure trove that captures an important history.
AB: There is a definite staying power of the art from that time because of its authenticity, and also because of New York City; these film rolls capture what New York City was like! So much space. Desolate downtown streets. Gritty details. It’s just pure beautiful decay. No one watching you. It looks like artistic paradise. And I’ve seen Howard’s rental contract for his loft on Prince and Bowery: $100/month!
SK: Film preservation is vital, and as you mentioned, it’s a race against the clock before more films are lost.
AB: This is a huge issue. Hundreds of thousands of films that maybe aren’t necessarily directly on the Hollywood radar are really in danger of being lost forever. You got time working against you because film deteriorates. You got money working against you because it costs a lot to keep climate and humidity-controlled vaults. Traditionally, labs all had vaults, but labs are closing. If not very nearly all closed. So it comes down to institutions and their funding, space and ability. You also got technology working against you. How many people out there know how to fix a film splice or thread a projector, or read camera roll code? And how many people will know this in 30 years? Who’s going to know how to fix the old film machines that stopped seeing use decades ago? It really needs attention because we’re looking at a century of film facing extinction.
Robert Wilson is a majorly important figure in the theatre and art world. Most people don’t know about Howard’s second feature documentary, which took the audience inside Robert Wilson’s creative process, and emotional process of making his work. I know this because I found part of these original film rolls packed into unmarked Igloo picnic containers stashed in the supply room behind the toilet in an archive in Hamburg.
SK: When and where will Smash the Control Machine have its premiere?
AB: The film is currently in early production and there is a very strong element of unpredictability in this story, making deadlines pretty impossible. But, Berlinale really gave us great support at a very early stage, and it would be a very nice honor to premier the film with them in 2015. But we will need to keep working and see what unfolds. There is a long year ahead.
SK: What are the distribution plans for Burroughs: The Movie and Smash the Control Machine ?
AB: For Burroughs: The Movie, we’ll be unveiling the remastered DCP (Digital Cinema Package) of the film at University of Indiana’s Burroughs 100th birthday event on February 6th, followed by other Burroughs events throughout the year, such as at the ICA in London and the Photographer’s Gallery for their William Burroughs/Andy Warhol/David Lynch show.
The New York City premier will happen next fall at the New York Film Festival -- where the film first screened in 1983(!) -- possibly followed by a theatrical re-release and DVD/Blu-ray sale towards the end of the year. (Those who pledged for a DVD through our Kickstarter campaign however, will be sent their own copies of the film shortly.)
I’m also putting together a video art/sound installation piece from some of the never before seen material, that will show along with the film at BAFICI in April, and likely in New York and London if not elsewhere. And we’re putting together a record with All Tomorrow’s Parties, using much of the never before heard audio from Howard’s Burroughs archive, to be sampled by select musicians.
For Smash the Control Machine: There are various plans I can’t discuss at this stage. What I can say is that our distribution will be tied to other impactful activities and events. I am working closely to build partnerships with those who care about the subjects of the film and the themes. Gentrification, Gay history, art legacy lost to AIDS. There are many great ways to distribute this film along these lines, as well as having a commercial release. My producer, PaulaVaccaro, and I are working hard to make sure this is tied up with whatever the film will do out there.
SK: What advice do you have for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
AB: Sometimes the best story for a film is right under your nose!
BREAKING NEWS: We are now working together with Janus Films and Criterion Collection for the distribution of Burroughs: The Movie. We are still creating a plan for the film although we know we will do a theatrical run in the US sometime after the re-launch at the NYFF
See the Trailer HERE
Award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, Susan Kouguell teaches screenwriting and film at Tufts University and presents international seminars. Author of SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! and THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER, she is chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a consulting company founded in 1990 where she works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, and executives worldwide. www.su-city-pictures.com .