Matt Wolf makes his feature directorial debut with the documentary “Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.” The film celebrates Arthur Russell, an important figure from New York’s downtown music scene of the 1970s and 1980s. The film features commentary from people such as Allen Ginsberg, ex-Modern Lover Ernie Brooks, composer Philip Glass, and Arthur’s parents. The film screened at the Berlin International Film Festival, and begins its American theatrical release this Friday, September 26, at the IFC Center in New York.
Please tell us about yourself… What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
As a gay high school loner, I went to the local arthouse movie theater every weekend. I became obsessed with the films I later understood to be “New Queer Cinema,” and I wanted to move to New York to make experimental films. So when I went to NYU’s film school I found myself resisting more conventional models of filmmaking, despite the program’s fairly mainstream leanings. But after finishing school, my interest in full-length storytelling was reinvigorated. “Wild Combination” is my first feature documentary, and its emotional impact and storytelling are as important to me as its unconventional formal approach.
Please discuss how the idea for “Wild Combination” came about.
A friend of mine told me about a long-forgotten gay disco auteur, who wore farmer’s plaid shirts and rode the Staten Island Ferry, obsessively listening to mixes of his own music. That image really intrigued me, and when I heard Arthur Russell’s complex music I became obsessed. Initially I wanted to make an experimental film inspired by Arthur’s work. But when I met his former partner Tom Lee I was incredibly inspired. Tom lives in the same apartment that he once shared with Arthur next door to Allen Ginsberg, and his connection to Arthur seems very much alive and real. I realized that this film could be much larger than I initially imagined, and that it had a strong narrative dimension.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
Since there’s such limited archival footage of Arthur Russell, I needed to create a unique visual language to bring him to life. My cinematographer, Jody Lee Lipes, and I worked with an outmoded VHS camera and Super8 to create “fake archival” material that seamlessly integrates with real archival footage. Actors wore Arthur’s actual clothes or handled the objects and materials that Arthur possessed in evocative recreations. Arthur’s music lends itself incredibly well to visual interpretation, but I didn’t want stylized visual in the film to be decorative filler. Instead, I tried to make this visual material push the story forward. I also tried to avoid some of the traps of the conventional music documentary–too many uncharacterized talking heads and overly detailed musical lore. So I really limited the amount of characters in the film.
My editor, Lance Edmands, and I focused on Arthur’s relationship with his boyfriend and his parents in Oskaloosa, Iowa. My goal with “Wild Combination” was to introduce Arthur’s music to a larger audience, but also to tell a more resonant story–about the pursuit of art and popular success; downtown New York in the 1970s and 80s, and the experience of being gay and confronting AIDS. My hope was that the intellectual and visual dimension of the film would be matched by a powerful emotional experience.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
It’s not easy to raise money for a film about a gay Buddhist cellist from Oskaloosa, Iowa. But I was lucky to have immensely supportive executive producers and partners. And as any documentary filmmaker working on a historical subject will say, archival clearances aren’t fun.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you? Watching and learning from movies as a teenager was extremely formative, particularly films by Fassbinder, Todd Haynes, Kenneth Anger, Sadie Benning, and Derek Jarman. In college, the filmmaker Kelly Reichardt was a teacher of mine and really activated my interest in filmmaking and challenged me. And more recently music and its cultural contexts have been a major source of creative influence.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I think about independent filmmaking as an “artist-model,” in which filmmakers generate ideas autonomously, free from creative demands or limitations imposed by funders, distributors, or broadcasters.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
To develop sustainable models and goals for filmmaking; to not take on insurmountable personal debt; and to finish what you start.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Figuring out a way to balance earning money and making a feature film.