Sick, Sick, Sick: A Conversation with Kirby Dick, the Director of "Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist"
by Aaron Krach
People have been talking about “Sick: The Life And Death Of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist” since it first screened at Sundance 1997. The film, by Kirby
Dick, opens to the general public tonight, but people will still be talking
about it at Sundance 1998. “Sick” is a rare film — one where the images and
ideas on screen are as viscerally disturbing as they are emotionally moving.
The same crowd that passed bootleg copies of “The Four Faces Of Death” around
in 7th grade will be first in line to see Flanagan nail his penis to a
board. Even more people should enjoy “Sick” for the several different stories
Kirby Dick weaves together; Flanagan’s artistic aspirations, his battle
against Cystic Fibrosis and his believably intense relationship (S/M,
creative, romantic and sexual) with artist Sheree Rose.
indieWIRE: You’ve been traveling with “Sick” for at least eight months. After
most of the screenings, you’ve been available for questions. What was your
worst Q&A experience?
Kirby Dick: They’ve all been good. Maybe it’s disappointing in some
fashion, but the film does not outrage people. Many people seemed to be
much more moved by it.
iW: Were you surprised by that reaction?
Dick: When I first started, the audience was very specific; artists, people
in the art world, people who go to see documentaries and people who are
into alternative leather. But that changed. I made the film with Bob and
Sheree and only a few people were seeing any of the footage. It wasn’t
until I started working with Dody Dorn (editor), that I even started
screening anything. I was quite taken aback by the reaction. People were
crying. They were telling me, “I dreamt about this film.” I realized this
film was going deeper than I ever considered it going, primarily because of
Bob’s work. I think because it is a dense film, and it is a film that is
hard to “process” and categorize. There is no way of knowing what you are
going to see going in. It takes time cause there are a lot of issues. You
see someone die on film, someone who is very ill, an intense love affair,
extreme S/M footage.
iW: There are more “alternative” documentaries coming out in the last few
years. They are hitting people on a different level than say, The Margaret
Mead Film Festival style documentaries. Do you see “Sick” in the style of
Errol Morris or “Crumb”?
Dick: Yeah, definitely “Crumb” and “Paris Is Burning” (Jennie Livingston). I
was always setting out to make a movie with a theatrical release. I was
assuming a much smaller release. But now it’s opening in L.A., New York,
San Francisco and Berkeley and that’s great.
iW: Who’s showing the courage to release “Sick”?
Dick: Cinepix Film Properties (CFP). They did “Daytrippers“, “The Pillow Book“, “Love And Death On Long Island“. They’re the young October. They’re
Canadian and got involved right after New Directors. It’s great because
they have not backed away from the subject matter and for the most part
followed every little lead to try and get publicity.
iW: Was there ever any discussion about whose film it was? Whether it was
your film or whether you were helping Bob and Sheree on a project about
their own lives?
Dick: It was always my film. Bob’s primary focus was always his work. If
this film won an Academy Award, and Bob was alive, it would not be anywhere
as significant as the next thing he was going to write. He was an artist,
and his own art is of paramount importance.
iW: Some of the performances are shown in a traditional documentary style.
The camera is set up and the action unfolds. (i.e. The Autopsy, where
Sheree “examines” Bob’s body as if it were already dead.) When this
happens, the intensity of his art really comes out.
Dick: Documentary is as formed, processed and worked over as dramatic is.
There is actually a documentary effect on an audience. They think that when
they are watching something that they are seeing it unprocessed. I
experience that as well, as a filmmaker. When you are watching fiction you
are in a different category.
iW: Your relationship with Bob and Sheree seems very close. Is Sheree
involved with promoting the film or is she busy with her own work?
Dick: It’s hard for her. She came to Sundance and she was just in Chicago,
but I think it’s hard for her to watch the film. She has a significant body
of photographs of the S/M scene and the piercing scene that are really
great. But she never had the inclination for showing them.
iW: What do you think about the, “dark side of L.A.,” that people are
curating exhibitions about? There was the “Helter Skelter” show in L.A. a
few years ago. There was a show called “Sunshine Noir” in Denmark this
year. At the Whitney Biennial last summer, the half dozen best pieces were
from L.A. All were slightly dark, a little odd. Now there’s you and this
film. Do you feel a part of that scene?
Dick: On the level of Helter Skelter, I can align myself with that. I knew
a lot of the artists in the “Helter Skelter” show. In fact the only person
that should have been in that show was Bob. I remember Sheree walking
around saying, “I can’t believe Bob is not in this show.” It was an
iW: If you made this movie in New York and Bob was a New Yorker, there
would be a completely different attitude surrounding his work and this film.
Dick: He was isolated. In many ways he was fortunate to be isolated. He had
a strong following, but an isolated one. He had a significant body of work,
but then he had the big show in L.A. and then New York, everyone thought he
came out of the blue. I just like it when artists are doing what their
doing. It’s hard enough just to make something good.
iW: The funding… You were working on the movie for so long. Did you have
the funding planned out ahead of time?
Dick: I got a couple of grants from art organizations. But it was a classic
credit card film. The advantages in documentary is that you can pull in so
much while you’re shooting and keep control of it. In the final post stages
CFP came in, for the 35 blow-up. In 35 you can hear a lot of the jokes
clearer so the audience can stay on top of things.
iW: Are you saving footage for the directors cut?
Dick: No. This is it. I didn’t take out anything…There’s a lot of amazing
stuff but it’s all in there.