James Broughton turns 100 years old in November.
Although the poet, filmmaker and writer passed away in 1999, it almost feels inaccurate to talk of him in the past tense. One of the biggest themes that runs through “Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton,” the new documentary by Stephen Silha and Eric Slade is that there was (and is) a timeless element to his work. Whether it’s his deceptively simple poetry or the emotional exuberance of some of his experimental short films, Broughton’s work seems as much of the present as it does of the past. “In a way, his work is more relevant to the 21st century than it was to the 20th,” Silha told Indiewire.
“Big Joy” chronicles Broughton’s personal journey as a member of the San Francisco Renaissance artistic movement and his individual achievements in the poetry and filmmaking fields. It also doesn’t hesitate to show the various periods of both turmoil and satisfaction in Broughton’s personal life, from his early relationship with film critic Pauline Kael, his marriage to collaborator Susanna Hart and his final decades alongside Joel Singer, a student with whom Broughton lived and worked until his death.
The film has had a busy year so far, playing at SXSW, Tribeca and Frameline in addition to SIFF. Monday night, it screens for LA audiences at Outfest. We had a chance to sit down with the Silha and Slade last month at the Seattle International Film Festival to discuss the directors’ personal relationships with Broughton himself, important interview lessons and the moments that painfully couldn’t quite make the final cut.
How long has this been something that you’ve been passionate about?
Stephen Silha: I had known James Broughton for the last ten years of his life. In the back of my head, I really wanted to do something to bring his work back into the world. I started doing research for a book, but then I realized that nobody would read the book because so few people have heard of him. His 23 experimental films were so groundbreaking and interestingly visual, so I realized it had to be a film. It wasn’t until 2008 that I finally said, “If I don’t do it now, I’m never going to do it.” So I went out to Port Townsend, did a ritual at his grave and through that process met one of our producers and cinematographers Ian Hinkle. Before that, I had talked to Eric because I realized if I was going to make a film I needed to work with people who knew what they were doing. I had seen Eric’s film about Harry Hay, “Hope Along the Wind,” which I just thought was great.
Eric Slade: I had met James at a Radical Faerie gathering at Wolf Creek in Southern Oregon in the late ‘80s. I had seen his groundbreaking film “The Bed” and that had stuck with me forever. So when Stephen and I started talking about it, I knew a little about James.
SS: I first encountered his work at the Museum of Modern Art when I was just wandering through one day. His films were playing in one of the small auditoriums and I just sat there, amazed at these visual, poetic images. Homoerotic, interestingly subtle and at the same time, out there. Ten years later, I was assigned to the same cabin with him and Joel [Singer] at the Radical Faerie Gatherings in Breitenbush Hot Springs. We became friends and James became a wonderful mentor for me.
How do you think your relationship with his work would have been different if you knew him first as a poet rather than a filmmaker?
SS: His poetry took me longer to get into. It seemed simplistic when I first encountered it. When we were making the film, we read his poetry all the time to try to infuse the creative process with his spirit. The more we delved into it, I really have come to appreciate his mastery of the English language and the way he worked and reworked those poems.
ES: When we first started working on the film, I think one of the challenges was going to be “How do we not make it look like he was just a filmmaker?” But after reading lots and lots of his poetry, I think we really distilled down to some of his best little nuggets in the film. Filmmaking can be this quasi-military endeavor sometimes. It’s expensive, you want to get the most out of your crew for the day. You go into a shoot and say, “Let’s go!” But when we’d sit down for an interview, Stephen would say, “Let’s light a candle….Now let’s read a poem before we start.” Every time we’d meet to discuss the next step as a group, we’d pass a book of poetry around and read it.
It helps that you not only have other people reading his work, but you have footage of him reading it too.
SS: There wasn’t as much usable footage of him reading his own poetry as we would have liked.
ES: There’s a lot of audio recording of him reading. So we just had to find different visual devices to do that. And how do you turn his journal entries, which are just words on a page, into a major element of the film? Stephen had met this incredibly talented animator, Michael Mann, at a conference in Vancouver. When he came onto the project, things changed a lot. Between his animation and Davey Havok reading his poetry, they both did a beautiful job.
SS: The fact that he journaled from age 13 until he died was a great gift to the film. A lot of documentaries don’t have the inner life of the poet the way this one does.
ES: His journals and his home movies were things that he never created with the idea of a wide audience and never intended to be read or be seen by the public. So you get that inner journey that you would have missed otherwise.
SS: There are even some times where what he said in his journal was different from what he said in his memoir.
I imagine that a lot of people who see this don’t know much about James Broughton, but also don’t know much about the culture he came out of. How did you decide how much to emphasize the background of the movement and the area versus just James himself?
SS: We discovered, in doing our research, that he was such a seminal figure in that San Francisco Renaissance period, but no one’s ever done a documentary about it. And you could argue that it’s more important than the Beat movement. It’s just that Allen Ginsberg was such a great publicist. They came and did the Beat thing in the soil that had been created over ten years in San Francisco by Broughton, [Jack] Spicer, [Robert] Duncan, [Kenneth] Rexroth, Madeline Gleason, Anna Halprin and all of their friends. We definitely needed to tell that side of the story too. We were doing an interview with Keith Hennessy, the performance artist. “The Crazy Professor,” I call him. He said, “Whenever I go on stage I feel like I’m standing on Broughton’s shoulders. I’m very influenced by his work.” We did the interview right before a performance of a piece called “Crotch” that he was doing in San Francisco. As part of the performance, he did a seven-minute history of queer performance art on a sheet of plastic. I asked him if he could do one for James Broughton.
ES: There’s so much to say. That clearly could be its own documentary. Keith’s able to cram in a whole bunch of stuff in an entertaining way. One of the comments from the rough-cut screeners was, “That’s the element that lets me know that I’m not watching an American Masters PBS documentary.”
You could also probably fill up an entire documentary with just Broughton’s personal life. Again, was there a specific line you drew when giving background on his family relationships?
ES: The thing was always: come back to the story. What moves the story ahead and in the best way? By following the story, one thing leads to another. Him making “Erogeny” led him to open back up to the idea of love with men, which led him to his relationship with Joel. Immersing ourselves long enough in the story, we just saw the thread, how it carried from one to the other. Pauline Kael was out of the film many times because there aren’t any photos of Pauline and James together.
SS: He said that it’s more important to live poetically than to be a good poet. So what does it mean to live poetically? What is the personal life? How does that play into his work?
Obviously you have to tread delicately when you’re talking with the family members, but there’s one moment when you’re talking to his ex-wife, Susanna Hart and you let that moment breathe as we see the changes in her face. That has to be tough because you also don’t want to make her the object of pity.
SS: That interview itself was powerful partly because Eric had coached me. He said, “Be careful not to emote verbally because after the pause, sometimes you get the best things.” It was our first interview we did together and I was really biting my tongue. Susanna was pre-Alzheimer’s at that time and it wasn’t until we showed her the wedding program that she had calligraphed that her memory started coming back. The first few questions were “I don’t remember…I don’t remember.” But then we she saw that and we had her read the poem he wrote about her, then it started to come back. It was a very interesting interview and I think Dawn [Logsdon] did a great job in the editing, deciding exactly how to make that work.
ES: I like that Susanna comes back at the very end reading “This is It.” You get the sense that it might have been traumatic, but yet she’s still on board for the whole James Broughton project. We didn’t want her to look like the victim, because she’s clearly not the victim. She went willingly into this marriage knowing she was marrying a gay man or someone that had at least had gay relationships. I think it was one of the best parts of her life and she was sad when it ended. There’s damage that comes along the way when you live your true path and we wanted to show that.
Was having everyone read “This is It” an idea that you had at the beginning or was that something that popped up organically?
ES: I just said, “Let’s have everyone read that poem.” I didn’t know what we were going to do with it. I had abandoned the idea towards the end, in the edit. But then our assistant editor, Kyung Lee (who is really great) came in one day and she said, “I just did this. What do you think?” We said, “Oh my God, that’s great!”
SS: The rhythm in that is so perfect. We agonized a lot about how to end the film. How to begin it and how to end it were the hardest.
ES: I’ve done a lot of film projects where you make sure everyone does the same thing and then you edit it all together. It’s kind of a trope, but Kyung found a way to cut it that made it so fresh. We also have all these people reading poems that you’ve never met before. You get the sense that his spirit is going out into the universe.
If James was working today, is there a particular format or style that he would seized upon?
SS: I think he would be into transmedia, experimenting with how you can use a film to get people to perform. He was, in a way, doing transmedia when he got dancers and people to improvise while shooting the film, then would show the film and sometimes do poetry readings in concert with those.
ES: One of the cool things about James is that each film was not only a new topic, but a new way of making films. You see new, wildly different styles that go through his work. He would have kept evolving, for sure. He was an expert craftsman. I think his work would have gotten sharper and sharper and clearer and clearer.
SS: If YouTube was around when he was doing it, he’d be well-known. But because all his films were different, because all his 23 books of poetry were slightly different, there wasn’t a niche that anybody could put him in. It’s one of the reasons we made the film.
Was there a particular work of his that you came to appreciate more over the course of making “Big Joy?”
SS: I think “Erogeny” is one of his best films. It’s this very short film that goes with the poem of the same name. It was really important to me to put those oases like that in “Big Joy” where you really dive into the work.
ES: To have some places where there’s just music and pictures for a while is nice. The one that I really came to appreciate actually isn’t in the film. It’s called “Dreamwood.” It’s his longest film. It’s a very Jungian, deep archetypal imagery film. When I first started working on “Big Joy,” I skimmed through everything just to see what the imagery looked like. But when you actually watch “Dreamwood,” it’s deep and very moving.
SS: Well, it culminates with the hero fucking the Earth. [laughs]
ES: Yep. It does. And it’s beautiful! It really is. That’s one that I really came to appreciate.
SS: Also “Devotions,” the film about all the different ways that men love each other. Very refreshing, fascinating and funny film.
ES: But “The Bed” is still my favorite. I never grow tired of watching it. The imagery is so vivid and so exciting.
For those unfamiliar with Broughton’s work, would you prefer they come to your film with a surface-level knowledge of his films? Or would you have them start with “Big Joy” first and then know the journey that went into his work?
SS: I think it makes more sense to see “Big Joy” first and then to see his films. Seeing them without context, you don’t quite get how amazing they are.
ES: I agree. Some people who see his films fall totally in love. But most people, like with much of experimental film, see it and think, “….Huh.” You have to really sit with it, and some of them you have to see a couple of times before you get all these deep layers. If you see “Big Joy” first, you’ll understand what went into them. I hope everyone who comes out of the film thinks, “I want to see ‘The Bed!’”
I’m guessing there’s a bunch of material you weren’t able to use. Any plans for those?
ES: One of his books, “Making Light of It,” has all these great aphorisms in it. One of them is “Simplify, clarify, vivify.”
SS: “And when in doubt, cut.”
ES: So our editor put those on the wall when she was cutting the film.
SS: I would love to make some of the interviews available online. We’re hoping to do an educational curriculum that would help people understand the San Francisco Renaissance and Broughton’s role in gay culture and hippie culture. That’s why I’m taking a couple of years before diving into another project. I’m trying to get this out into the world and amplify its potential.
ES: It’s really cool to see people writing about the film now, particularly about Broughton as though they’d known about him or as if they almost knew about him but just missed him. He didn’t get the media attention that he deserved, but now he is. It’s great to see that happening. That was always our goal, to make something that’s an experiential prayer that you live through that is the spirit of James Broughton. We get that reaction from people, that they come of the theater saying, “We want to go live a bigger life” or that they want to embrace their own spirit in a bigger way. That’s the most satisfying thing, that it can have that impact on people.