Interview with Aaron Brookner

Aaron Brooker has saved his uncle Howard Brookner’s seminal documentary on William S. Burroughs from being lost forever. He discovered all the rushes in Burrough’s infamous bunker and eventually a pristine print at MoMa which is what they used for the restoration. The restored version of Burroughs The Movie was eventually released on Blu-Ray by the prestigious Criterion Collection label.

Simultaneously to restoring the film Aaron was working on a documentary about Howard Brooker. It’s a great document of the early ’80s New York art scene, the Aids crisis but also a loving tribute to cinema and of course Howard himself. It may end tragically with Howard’s death of Aids in 1989 but it doesn’t bath in tragedy but celebrates the man’s life which is how it should be. Howard would only make two more films after Burroughs The Movie firstly a documentary on the avant-garde theatre director Robert Wilson and finally his only feature Bloodhounds of Broadway. However Howard never lived to finish Bloodhounds of Broadway so it was recut by the studio. 

I talked to Aaron about both films during the London Film Festival back in October. The film is now on general release in selected art house theatres and will soon be coming to VOD and Home Video formats sometime this year. Check for local screenings here

What was the hardest thing with the restoration of the Burroughs Movie? 

Finding it. (Laughs) Probably.

I’m confused. Does [James] Grauerholz own The Bunker [William Burroughs’ apartment] and rent it out to John [Giorno], or does John own it?

No, John owns the bunker.

And he rents it Giorno to keep the archive, basically?

John just keeps the bunker preserved as William Burroughs’ museum/meditation space. The agreement was always: it was Burroughs’ place, and Burroughs rented it. And then at some point – I don’t know when exactly.

It was like ’83-ish, ’84, I think?

Yeah, and then Burroughs went to Kansas. But at some point…John bought it? But John ended up owning he space, and kept it at Burroughs’ place and maybe they paid him something, I’m not quite sure. But it was known as, like, Burroughs’ pad in New York when he was in town up until his death which was in ‘97 and just kept it there. But the film that I was looking for was actually not there in the end. Actually everything but the film, because it was the outtakes but the cut neg that they used to make the film…wasn’t there. so what I uncovered there was everything except the one thing I was looking for.

So where was the film eventually?

The negative is still missing, We have no idea.

So you just chopped it together based off an old copy of it, then?

Well, no. What happened was it seemed like there was nothing in New York, and nothing in the archives in the US, in Washington D.C. The closest thing I came was a really bad festival print that had deposited in Australia, the national archives there. I found a print in Berlin, but that had German subtitles burned into it. So the Australia one looked like it was the only thing, only surviving print without subtitles on it, in a really bad state.  I was talking to this producer – this is after like a year – who was the partner of Thomas Oman who was one of Howard’s investors of ‘Burroughs’, who died of AIDS. And he said, “You should check in MOMA because I’m sure one was deposited there.”

I was like, “MOMA? No, that’s impossible.” We’d exhausted everything in New York because none of the New York People found anything; why wasn’t it in any lab?

And then we found out after a year that, yeah, a brand-new print had been deposited into MOMA by Brad Gooch in like,1990, shortly after Howard died. Brad was Howard’s partner. Brad had been involved in the search from the beginning, so it was like, “Brad! You didn’t remember that you deposited Howard’s print at MOMA??”

He was like, “Oh…! Maybe? Yeah. You know, I was really fucked-up in that period, you know?” Which he was; I mean, from the devastation of the loss of Howard, and that period – he lost a hundred friends. And he had kind of forgotten that period.

So it was right where we thought it was, and it turned out to be a brand-new print that had never been seen through a projector; it was Howard’s perfect copy that he deposited there himself. So in the end that’s what we went with. It wasn’t a neg, but it was a very good print and we were able to work with it. But that year and change of looking was pretty exhausting.

Did you ever get in touch with the BBC? Because obviously they put some money in. And did they have They used clips of it in Howard documentaries that they made.

Yeah, they’re very free with using clips of it. I did find the agreement that they had with Howard, which was pretty interesting; it was finishing funds in exchange for the right to broadcast the film twice, which aired in ’83 and then in ‘97.

But I had seen it, I think, online. I think there was a bootleg VHS copy at some point.

Yeah, there had been VHS versions floating around and on YouTube. Which was also part of the impetus for making me want to find it. They never mention Howard Brookner anywhere. I don’t want to see this great film reduced to YouTube 10-minute clips; it looks like shit. Didn’t seem right.

But no, BBC, their archives, they went through everything; nothing turned up. In fact, the reason why all the negatives and workprints ended up in The Bunker was because they called up Howard after he’d finished editing the film and said, “We want to send you all the stuff back”. So he took it in New York and had no place to live at that time; he was doing the Robert Wilson film, travelling around, so he stashed it in The Bunker.

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So are you going to restore the Wilson film?

I would love to. It’s a bit more complicated than the Burroughs in some ways because there is no perfect workprint first of all; the workprints are good, but they need work. And it has music; once you remaster film, as much as the technical stuff, it’s all the clearances and rights. We’re talking about a couple of Otis Redding songs in there, and lots of other moving parts. Unfortunately it comes down to money because it ends up costing an awful lot, which is hard for any distributor to say, “Oh yeah, I can make this back.” So you’re dealing more with art funds and grants and institutions. And the reality is there’s just a really long line of great films that deserve proper restoration, and very few people can do it, very few funds for it.

Very few people can do it well.

Exactly. That was actually very scary, when I was looking through the whole process, how few facilities are left who know what they’re doing. I mean, I was becoming like a sort of expert in…16mm film and sound and telling, in some cases, people at labs how it should be done. It’s not to brag at all; I mean, I’m the last person who knows about it, but just to go to show how few people are educated in it, and how few facilities are left for it. It’s really…dire.

So when did Criterion come on board?

We were talking to them from the beginning. They have a long relationship with Jim [Jarmusch]. And Burroughs The Movie – he had been talking about it for a long time, as well as Sara Driver.

So I talked to them in the beginning, and they said, “Look, we’re all about: make it as big and beautiful as possible. You find a negative, we want to do it.” We didn’t find the negative of the film, but they love the movie so much and thought it belonged in their collection. So they came on after I had done the restoration privately, essentially, through Kickstarter and crowdfunding. And they came on board when I had the archive, essentially, out of The Bunker. They were really key, crucial partners in helping all that stuff get digitised and organised; and I think they got very excited obviously, not just about the film, but the outtake potential.

How hard was it to get Jim to do a commentary? Because he never does commentaries.

He never does commentaries, that’s right. And he said, “I never do commentaries of my films. But this isn’t my film, so I can do it.” [Laughs] You know, Howard and Burroughs and the project is…very, very special to Jim. I mean, Jim and Sara in film school called Howard “Uncle Howard”. Why, I’m not sure exactly, but that’s something about him; he remained

What’s the best or most surprising outtake?

There’s so much that’s incredible. I mean, pick a topic. If you want to go intellectual, there’s a 45-minute conversation between Burroughs and Brion Gysin of Gysin Studio in London…about art, time, space, gun control, New York vs LA. You’re there with these incredible minds, and the way that…those kinds of thinkers have a discourse…is just really special around that. That’s incredible. The NOVA Convention performances.

When I saw your doc, I was like shocked that was even around.

Yeah. And, you know, a couple of people remembered that there had been someone filming, but no one had ever seen footage of it because Howard was the only one who shot it; he shot it like a concert film, with four crews.

One thing I was curious about, because I went through Howard’s credits, is he never mentioned his script for Max Headroom.

 That’s right.

So what’s the story behind that?

He was doing – yeah, it’s interesting that you found that. He was doing writing stuff. He had an agent and he did do that. I think he wrote another TV show. He’d have, like, a couple of scripts that he was working on. And then he also wrote ‘Fuckles’ for William Burroughs which are also available. Somewhere there’s a porno book that Howard and William Burroughs wrote. [Note supposedly under the pseudonym of Smokey Mimms]

So what’s the story about compiling a recut of Bloodhounds of Broadway?

Well that was really sad, he had come to a director’s cut. He was going blind and really sick at the point. He had finished his cut with his editor but they did a test screening. It scored like a 7/10 and the studio came back with a 7 page fax with editorial notes. Howard and his co-producer were totally against it and were like let’s make a new workprint. The studio was like we’re out of time, out of money and cut the negative and it screened 3 out of 10 for test audiences. The executive were was like the 3rd executive (it had changed 3 times over) and patted Howard’s co-producer on the back “I’ve guess you were right”. They put that version out and when it first came out it was missing a reel. That’s it the negative is cut and it’s impossible nevermind knocking on the doors of a big studio.

What was the most surprising or hardest part of making your doc about Howard?

Well, there was a lot of hard parts. The searching was really difficult because I committed to making it harder for story and the process, but…in reality, it took a long time to find certain things, and commitment or time and money…to something that could produce nothing. So that was really difficult. And also I think it was the most challenging, but also it became a great thing about the film; it was changing all the time. Because at one point it was gonna be, like, “Oh, some Burroughs stuff; and some interviews, maybe, about Howard.” But then it’s like, “No, we’re lucked out, but it might be nothing. It’s going in a different direction,” and I would go with that. Or new stuff of Howard would appear, like a video diary or film. So it was changing all the time. Which is very difficult to pitch, very difficult to fund, very difficult to plan, get your mind around it. But when you give yourself into that, which I really did, then it’s like, “This is a movie about this.” And…have to be present with this…journey, capture the journey correctly. So it ended up kind of being its strength, but it really was enormously challenging.

I would hear interviews with people who were making films, talking about how difficult it is working with archive, and I’m – “You wusses! You just went to an archive house and they gave you a tape!” You know, we were making our own archive as we went along. Digitising film, syncing it – no, just syncing…all that stuff from the time. And there are no log notes or any sound rolls, obviously, but – magnetic sound. From the time we took the stuff out of The Bunker, which, mind you, was only one part of Howard’s archive, was September 2013. I didn’t actually have everything to edit from until April 2015. So it was little pieces here, little pieces there all the time.

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I’m very curious because obviously James [Grauerholz] talked to Howard when he had AIDS, but did William [Burroughs] ever talk to him? Obviously William’s talked about Howard because, you know, government conspiracy and stuff, which it could have been, we don’t know; there’s always that possibility that AIDS was partly done by government. But did William ever talk to Howard during the illness?

Speak to him; I’m not sure. He wrote to him. I have some cards from William to Howard. And I know when James found out was at a dinner with Steve Meier and with William, and it hit William very bad; he was very upset. [Note Burroughs does have a small cameo in Bloodhounds of Broadway]

How does James feel about the film now? I mean, obviously William was companion throughout all that time and is now the executor of the estate. To people who don’t know the story and don’t know about James – who, arguably, doesn’t come off that well when he meets Billy [William Burroughs’ biological son], when he’s saying, “I’m now William’s adopted son”. Did he [Howard?] ever talk to James about that?

Yeah, extensively. That was one of the reasons – when I didn’t know him, when I started this – I was kind of worried about approaching him, because maybe he didn’t like how he was portrayed in the movie, because he is kind of intercut as the bad guy.

I’ve always heard the best thing about him is he’s a really stand-up guy.

Yeah. And when I called him up he actually said, “Aaron, I’ve been waiting for this call for thirty years.” Because it meant someone could actually come along and do something with the film again, breathe new life into it, but also the archive and the story. James kind of came to terms with his portrayal of it, and I think time helped because, as more people know the story, it’s like, “Well, James is actually being quite honest about his role in it.” I think when it’s coming from a show-off young guy in the moment, it feels a bit like boasting. But now with the distance of time, it’s accurate. He was very happy that his story in a way corrected his portrayal towards the public if you will, because he really was such an important friend to – well, William would have never…

William would have probably been dead in a year or two.

Oh, yeah! I mean, James left to Kansas and wanted to take William because he didn’t like the idea of him never writing another book, never doing anything. William would have never finished The Western Lands trilogy; he would never become a painter; all the audience stuff – everything.

He would never have been cool and everything, and that was all James’ – there’s Punk kids who like his stuff; “Maybe he go do some shows, and get paid some good money for it, because he hasn’t made any fucking money!”

Without James, really, most of us would probably not know a whole lot about William Burroughs; and he certainly would have not traversed all the different mediums that he did.

And he’s been really good about Billy’s stuff as well, making sure that’s still out there for people, because there’s books…

There’s stuff that’s not in The Burroughs Movie, but James was really taking care of Billy; I mean, sending money, being on the organisational stuff if you will – that wasn’t William’s domain at all. James was holding that together.

So, yeah, he was upset by that. But it was really touching that in the 2014 screening at the New York Film Festival of Burroughs The Movie, where a lot of the people were back. James had such a great time, and everyone kind of haves a different opinion now of James. So that was cool; I felt good about that. Because I feel like I was making up for Howard in a way. I know Howard loved James a lot.

So what are you working on now? And why are you in London? Because you’ve lived here for a while

That’s a question I’m asking myself more and more each day.

London is not the best place.

No, I really like where I live; I really like my neighbourhood. But now I really think everything’s a bit confusing. I’m not really sure.

And it’s too fucking expensive.

Yeah, although the Brexit thing’s helping! [Laughter] Probably opposite of what the English thought would happen. It’s making me a bit more liberal. Basically I’ve been here because my wife and I like it. Its proximity to Europe, and London’s full of great people and things; to me it’s like a quiet New York, a provincial New York City if you will. How long it remains this way, I don’t know. I do really love London, and it’s sad to see what’s going on with the business end of it, because if they remove themselves from Europe –

They’re fucked.

And it’s also very, very difficult to do films here.

What’s the big European film fund you got money from?

Europe Media?

Yeah, Europe Media. If they’re out, they’re completely screwed.

I mean, Uncle Howard would not have been possible without European funding. And my next film takes place in Berlin. I have US partners and European partners. If the UK is out, it’s a very big disaster for the arts and also academically.

You’ve got roughly a year, maybe two.

Trying to sneak this one in before it explodes. So yeah, my next film is a fiction adaptation of the novel Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney, who’s in Uncle Howard. Because Pinckney lived in West Berlin in the 80s. This is a novel about a young, gay, addict, African-American from Chicago who goes to live in West Berlin in the 80s. And the book came in early February (of 2016). I read it on the plane back from Sundance and thought, “I can do this. I want to tell this story.” So I headed out, optioned the novel, and writing the screenplay.

What was the most surprising bit of the archive for that film?5665ca6c2c856

It was full of surprises. I’ll tell you a weird thing: before we actually got the archive out of The Bunker, I had gone to Kansas and gotten Howard’s safety sound rolls and digitised that – it’s quarter-inch tape, so I could hear it. So my introduction to that world of New York was just 30 hours of the sound. And what struck me was how different New York sounded. Basically now, it’s built up along the river edge-to-edge. The sound is very much on top of you. But then it was sort of like – it wasn’t built up on the river, and it was kind of bombed-out, so there was a kind of lateral sound-travelling going on, and it just sounded so echo-y and cacophonous. And it started to put me into a. state of almost time travel, going forward through time. And I definitely think that early discovery influenced me as far as how I would approach the film, so that it would offer this journey into the past, and it seemed to fit a lot with William Burroughs’ ideas of

Time travel.

and time being a resource. My editor, for example, his favourite cut in the film is between when I first get in The Bunker and very overwhelmed emotionally with the orange chairs and you cut to the film – that’s a 30-year cut. Well, it’s not often an editor gets to do that. And there’s something in that kind of approach that’s very much what we were after.

There’s that great bit where you and someone else talked about the footage, and it’s Burroughs and John – I think both Johns –

Yeah, with Tom DiCillo. That was just like real-time. That was a case of how well, I think, it was thought through with the whole crew. We knew that we wanted it to be serious, and we’re dealing with new footage and old footage. The connections are going to be in this middle space of filmmaking, when the camera’s moving and things aren’t quite set-up, and you’re fighting different things. It’s uncomfortable to be not behind the camera as a director, but as I was in it, kind of had to have a clear approach that: there are going to be these moments that we need to capture, and that’s going to be our point of entry. And the crew is spot-on in that case. Because it’s happening in real-time, and it was really important to bring the audience into that journey of our film, to see the physicality of the [film] can, going from smelling it –

That’s one of my favourite moments.

 to walking it out of The Bunker 30 years later. In that sequence, we’re talking about the power of film and preservation and the real kind of magic that can happen from film.

Was there anyone you wanted to talk to who just turned you down?

Well, I kind of had mixed feelings about wanting to talk to Madonna. My producer really wanted her in the film, of course. But I wanted to talk to her, and obviously you can’t just pick up the phone and call her. By the time we actually made enough progress to get to someone where it was direct, it was in August, just as we were finishing up the edit, and she was just starting her ‘Rebel Heart’ tour, locked in through the end of the year, so the timing wasn’t good. It would have been good to have her in the film, but creatively there’s something I kind of like about all the people through Howard’s story are with you, guiding it, but as his Hollywood career never quite solidifies, you don’t have someone like Madonna or Matt Dillon in there; in a way I think it kind of works, and I think the film would be a bit different with them – not that it wouldn’t be better or worse, I don’t know, but it’d have been different. So it would have been nice to talk with Madonna. I would have liked to talk to William, of course, if he was alive.

While we’re on Madonna, the film has got a crazy soundtrack.

Yeah. I definitely challenged the music supervisor. As I was telling you about working with the sound at the beginning, early on I was doing like little pieces of experiments with stuff I would shoot, through video and music, just to create feels. And when after in the edit and everything, had the structure, I had this kind of music – the sequences still kind of worked – in my pocket, so it ended up being extremely eclectic. But I worked with Barry Hogan of All Tomorrow’s Parties.

How was he? Because I’ve heard…

Well, he’s a really good friend of mine. I know like the business side of things can get complicated.

I’ve heard both sides, yeah.

You know, they’ve been putting on independent, amazing festivals for so long. No corporate interference, advertising, anything; I think a lot of people underestimate just how extremely difficult that is.

But anyway, his taste in music and his knowledge in music and musicians is second-to-none. So I worked with him, and it was like: the approach was always just about finding the right thing that fit; there was never like, “I’m gonna find a track from 1982.” Or whatever. I remember when we were cutting, Barry was just playing around with something; he was like, “What is that?? That’s great! [LAUGHS] That has to stay!”

“Well, I don’t know if it’ll make sense – ”

“No, it works. Just works.” That’s kind of the beauty of working with so much interesting footage and ideas and sounds that you get these great moments just to experiment like that whole AIDS sequence, overlaying a White Hills track and a Vision Fortune track with newsreel clips, sounds of the cityscape, and footage and old footage of New York kind of in that space that we’re playing with.

How do you feel about Kickstarter? Because I’m always a bit on the fence about it.

Mixed. I mean, you’re buying into a cause, so there’s that. I’m really glad that it exists, but I don’t necessarily want to do it again. It’s not about the money; this is the thing I think people don’t understand. But with ‘Burroughs’, it was a way to: A) see, “Who’s the audience out there? Is there an audience out there for this?” Like, if I’m not going to get the money, there’s not an audience. Instead, what happened was all over the world, people were talking about the movie, and it was very good for that. Because the money doesn’t make sense. We had myself, my producer, and like three people working with us for 3 months campaigning non-stop for 20 grand; at the end of the day you’re making below minimum wage. So it doesn’t make sense, maybe, in that regard. So…I’m mixed about it, you know?

I think crowdfunding is a ton of work. You’re running like a store for a year or two, and people kind of get angry with you and think you should be on the ball, but you’re not a store; you’ve got a life, you’ve got different jobs, you’re trying to manage this on top –

And you’re making the film as well.

Yeah. So it’s a ton of work for really very little but I’m glad it’s there. It’s good that we have it.

Is it Amazon or some big corporation that’s a chunk of Kickstarter?

That’s also true. I’m sharing my cut with Kickstarter and Amazon. Guys just taking cuts of everything, all over the internet! Alright.

Obviously because Amazon’s streaming service is rubbish, how do you feel about the whole Amazon Videos thing?

Well, not that it’s rubbish; it’s the curation – I don’t know if you know the Film Shop that used to be on Church Street, which is round the corner from here; it’s like Kim’s Video in New York where it’s organised by director and nationality, and you can actually go in and do taster videos. I just hate the fact that someone’s movie that they made for 10,000 bucks, which is shit, is next to ‘2001’; it doesn’t make sense. But Amazon Studio, they’ve got a lot of money, and they are making a big point about backing auteurs. From what I hear they’ve been pretty good to Jim [Jarmusch].

Well, obviously he is very picky about the money.

Jim’s very picky about everything with his projects, which is how he’s maintained such a great career. And it’s a big corporation, and I think they’ve been pretty respectful, and it’s gone well. So I don’t know, they’re giving Woody Allen a ton of money. I hope that their model works well enough with the auteurs that they could take more risks.

Buy Burroughs The Movie (Blu-Ray)

Ian Schultz

(and special mention to Josh Merritt for doing the transcription)
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