Winner of the 2007 Teddy Award for best documentary at the Berlin International Film Festival, Esther Robinson‘s “A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and The Warhol Factory” is a personal journey into the story behind Esther’s uncle Danny Williams 1966 disappearence. At the time, Danny was Andy Warhol‘s lover and a promising filmmaker, and “Walk into the Sea” explores the discovery of 20 never-before-seen films that Danny made during his time working at the Factory (which included subjects like Warhol, Edie Sedgwick and Paul Morrissey) and combines them with interviews with surviving Factory members. The result is a “dismantling of the Warhol myth-making machine, allowing a deeper examination of the human fragility on which Andy Warhol’s empire was built.” The film indieWIRE talked to first-time director Esther Robinson about the film, which opens December 14 in limited release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I love producing and actually never thought I would direct. Sometimes I think the fates conspired to have me direct this film simply because I had the audacity to say out loud that I never wanted to direct.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
I’d like to direct a film that is a bit easier to make–but I’m pretty sure that making one’s first film about ones own family and the Warhol Factory means number 2 will be less difficult.. of course now I’m just tempting the fates again!
How did the idea for your film come about and evolve?
The idea for my film came about pretty organically. When I discovered that my uncle, who had disappeared in 1966, had made films at the Warhol Factory that no-one had ever seen, I felt pretty confident that we had the beginnings of a film…. And then when i saw Danny’s films, I fell in love with them and had to find out what happened to this young kid. In way the film evolved directly from this love.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences, as well as your overall goals for the project? I wanted to break down the standard documentary construction of the “expert” in favor of something more human.
Since my family had been very hurt by the characterizations of Danny at the factory, I was acutely aware that each person before me was not an icon or an image or an expert but a living breathing person. My goal was for each person that appeared in the film to be recognizable to their family, not used as a simple vehicle for conflict or gossip. I also wanted for the camera to be close enough that the vulnerabilities and indecision of each person could be easily seen, and for the difference between the iconic images of the past and the person of the present to be very clear.
In its most basic sense I wanted to adapt my director of photography Adam Cohen’s gift for landscape and city shooting to the landscape of the face. I wanted to represent what I was finding in my interviews: complex individuals with unreliable memories trying to reconstruct a vital and important moment of their lives. It is a complicated and difficult legacy to be a Warhol Factory member. Imagine one of the most vibrant and creative moments of your life. Then imagine if everything you did during that period was linked and attributed to someone as famous as Andy Warhol. Imagine that for the rest of your life people would rather talk to you about Andy Warhol than about you. I wanted my film to embody the compassion that is so often denied these people. In doing that, I hope that we get to see them and the Factory with an intimacy that is often lost to the glare of celebrity. How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
Thank God for grants and folks crazy enough to invest in docs!
I got grants from NYSCA, Women in Film, Experimental Television Center and Chicken and Egg Pictures, I also had a couple of private equity angels (including my awesome executive producer/brother sasha robinson). The rest I filled in myself by slowing the film down enough to shoot then save, then shoot then save , then shoot then save, (for 6 years).
Who are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Ok. That’s daunting!!
In a direct sense, for this project, I sought to work with artists whose work I admired. My editor Shannon Kennedy, my director of photography Adam Cohen and my composer T. Griffin are all generative artists in their own right and their influence on my film is quite direct.
On a larger level, the list is too big and too boring for general consumption but quick films that come to mind are:
Jem Cohen and Pete Sillen‘s “Benjamin Smoke , Michael Almereyda‘s “Wiliam Eggelston in the Real World“, “Manufactured Landscapes” (this came out after my film but I was so blown away by it that I’m putting on the list anyway!), “Grizzly Man“, “Killer of Sheep.”
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
My next big project isn’t a film it’s called ArtHome ( www.ArtHomeOnline.org ). It’s a project that came out of my time building a granting system for artists at The Creative Capital Foundation… ArtHome’s mandate is to help artists build assets and equity through financial literacy and home-ownership and to foster long-term stability in the American Arts and Culture sector by harnessing the economic power of real estate and equity on behalf of individuals.
As for film, I’m really interested in the people on the periphery of historical moments particularly wives and I am contemplating a documentary that focuses on rock wives. I’ve also become really interested in revisiting the 80’s aids crises through the lens of artmaking and joy as opposed to looking at that time only through the lens of catastrophe, but both are in a very gestational place!
What are your interests outside of film? well, besides the obvious professional things like ArtHome and the obvious personal things like my family–I’d say Tae Kwon Do sparring.
Learning to kick people in the head, has done wonders for my stress!
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Don’t look to the market for answers or salvation. Find your voice, make your movies, build your community and don’t go into debt you can’t get out of…
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Right now I have four: having “A Walk into the Sea” distributed, having Danny’s film screen at the Berlin Film Festival, founding ArtHome, and co-creating the grant making system for the creative capital foundation.