A four-hour look at the life of the 20th century’s greatest artist, Ric Burns‘ latest documentary is “Andy Warhol – A Documentary Film” from American Masters. While it won’t have a full theatrical release, the film opens for a two-week run at New York City’s Film Forum on Friday, followed by screenings in select cities via Emerging Pictures and culminating in a two night PBS television premiere on September 20 and 21. The film, from the maker of such notable films as “New York: A Documentary Film” and “Ansel Adams: A Documentary Film,” is narrated by Laurie Anderson and features Jeff Koons as the voice of Warhol.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I got into filmmaking through my older brother, Ken, in the mid 1980’s, working on a series about the Civil War. The power of the medium, the strangeness and beauty of its impact, dawned on me then. Also: the power of taking fragments of reality – photographs, images, facts, voices – and orchestrating them into a story through film.
Can you talk about how the initial idea for this film came about?
Five years ago, two people I had never met before, Daniel Wolf and Donald Rosenfeld, brazenly introduced themselves to me in a restaurant in Harlem and asked me to make a Warhol movie with them. How could you say no?
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project?
The image Andy Warhol created of himself was so powerful, and one of its powers was that image always seemed to be anti-narrative: “this is me, there’s nothing else here, don’t ask where I’m from or where I’m going, it’s all here in this simple banal image.” From the start, our ambition in the movie was to challenge that superficially anti-narrative quality, and re-insert the images Warhol created – on canvas, on film, in his persona, of himself – back into time – into narrative — into history. We wanted to find the story and the time element out of which he emerged.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the film and securing distribution?
Raising money was nightmarish. It’s shocking how few people were willing to come forward to support a film about the greatest artist of the 20th century. They either think he doesn’t need it, or think he doesn’t deserve it, or have a knee jerk reaction to the atmosphere of the Sixties that hovers around him – sex, drugs, homosexuality, experimentation, etc.
Another challenge was the size of the archive: impossible to comprehend really. There are six hundred time capsules – sealed cardboard boxes – at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, filled with memorabilia. The tip of an iceberg. He left behind the least concise archive any great artist has ever left behind.
Another challenge was avoiding the hip-ness plague. Andy’s a walking invitation to make an ass out of yourself by trying to seem as hip, in an offhand slightly nerdy way, as he seemed to be. This was something to avoid.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
More painfully than I can possibly express. Thanks to my partners – Donald Rosenfeld and Daniel Wolf – and to our executive producers – Larry Gagosian and Peter Brant – and to a slowly growing, stalwart freemasonry of funders who understood Andy and wanted to see a serious film made about him – we have now, after five years, almost reached our funding goal. But not quite. It’s been brutal.
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
My brother, Ken. My mentor and friend at Columbia, Edward Said, who died a couple of years ago. Martin Scorsese.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I want to make a film about Edward Hopper, based on an amazing essay about Hopper by the writer Leonard Michaels, which would simultaneously live inside Hopper’s paintings, and inside Michaels’ head, as a kind of film dream/meditation on time and light. That seems like fun.
What is your next project?
There are a few. A film about American Ballet Theater. A film about the slaughter of whales in the 19th century. A film about The New York Times. And a film about contemporary America, called “Wasteland.”
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Making it your way, within the hellish constraints of time, money and your own humiliating limitations. I don’t think my sense of that’s changed. The fuel of filmmaking is the control you have of a powerful powerful medium. That control is really the only reward — that and when every now and then a moment on film seems to sing.
What are some of your all-time favorite films, and why?
Al Pacino‘s movie, “Looking for Richard.” It’s the best film every made about Shakespeare. “Fargo” and “Blood Simple,” two actually perfect movies that make you happy to be alive. “Good Fellas” and “Raging Bull,” arguably the two greatest documentaries ever made.
What are some of your recent favorite films?
I have two boys, six and eight. So I guess I can say Star Wars Episodes One through Three – Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, and Revenge of the Sith. What’s bad about each of these movies very quickly burns off like haze after a couple of viewings, and leaves nothing not to like behind. Also: “The Red Balloon.”
What are your interests outside of film?
My two boys, Simon and Adam. My wife Bonnie. My dog Maggie.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
It’s an amazingly powerful medium that can go deep into people. Honor that power. Don’t give up before the film is done; hell is looking back at a moment in a film and realizing you could have made it better, but quit too soon. Use everything you have, heart and mind.
Will you please share with us an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of?
I always feel most proud of the film I’ve just finished. They never get any easier. Each one’s different. Andy was an amazing amazing artist and personality to try to come to terms with. I can’t remember being more transfigured by a subject.