Editor’s note: A version of the following interview was originally published in FilmWatch, the publication of the Telluride Film Festival. “Heart of a Dog,” a diary film directed by Laurie Anderson, opens in New York on October 21 ahead of a national expansion.
On a very hot day in early August, I interviewed Laurie Anderson in her high-ceilinged penthouse apartment in the West Village, which had amazing views of the Hudson River. So as not to be distracted by the Carnival luxury liners passing by, we sat at a table near the kitchen, beside photos of her late husband, the musician Lou Reed.
Could we talk about the inception of the film project?
I was approached by Luciano Rigolini, the commissioning guy from Arte TV who is based in Switzerland. I was in Paris, and he came to Paris and said “Would you do a personal essay film for us?” I said I had no idea what that was. Of course I could put Chris Marker into that category but he didn’t immediately come to mind. He said “It’s about your philosophy of life” and I said, “I don’t have a philosophy of life. And if I did, I definitely wouldn’t put it in the shape of a film.” As it turns out, this film is my philosophy of life. So Luciano and I had a series of conversations over a period of three or four months about what this could be, and he’s saying “You should really do this.” Then he came to a show of mine called “Dirt Day,” in which there were stories about my dog Lolabelle. He said: “How about the stories about Lolabelle?” It snapped into focus—you know, shaggy dog stories, perfect! I said, “That’s a good coat hanger, I’ll see what happens.”
So I began working on it. It was to supposed be 20 minutes. Basically, I’m a short story writer. Sometimes they look like songs, sometimes they look like paintings, but they at least have a story, they have a little narrative thing and then a punchline. Then they’re strung together in various formations, as records or shows or something. In this show “Dirt Day,” there’s a lot about place. Then I realized that in almost every show I’ve done, the very first sentence has been about place. That was how I expected this to start.
Did you have a budget, a cameraman, or—
No, I didn’t have that stuff. I just started shooting with my Canon 5D, and I shot about 80% of the film in the end. I shoot a lot of my stuff, because I use it in performances. No, I didn’t start it as if it were a film, at all. After a couple of months, I thought maybe I should get a producer. So I talked to some friends, and one of them, Rachel Chanoff, gave me a list of indie Brooklyn producers. I went through that list: they were all very nice, cool, but with each of them, the first question was “What’s your budget?” Dan Janvey’s question was “What’s your story?” I said, “You’re hired, man! I love you!” I tried to tell him the story. The shaggy dog story expanded into other things. He said, “We can wrap those into it.”
Except for the California parts, which were shot in Green Gulch, most of it was shot a couple of blocks from my studios—the one in Springs, where all the trees were shot—and my Canal Street place here in New York. I was taking my camera to a very small target area. We didn’t really travel anywhere.
Which came first, the text or the images? Or was it both at the same time?
All of my work is always flowing between about four things: the music, the text, the structure, the images. This film could have been called a few other things. It could have been called “How to Feel Sad Without Being Sad,” courtesy of my Buddhist teacher, Mingyur Rinpoche. It could have been called “The Lake,” which is the music that runs through the whole thing. It could have been called “A Story About a Story,” because it’s about stories and how they’re made. Or it could have been called “Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.”
Well, it’s called “Heart of a Dog,” and you quote Wittgenstein, Kierkegaard and David Foster Wallace in it, but you never quote Mikhail Bulgakov, who wrote the novel, “Heart of a Dog.”
I know. [laughs] Bulgakov’s story is about what makes a human being.
It’s also about operations that transplant one creature’s organ in another creature. Your film begins with the dream about giving birth to a dog.
That’s true, it’s about an operation that I engineered myself. And then the second scene is a death, and my mother’s last words. When she was speaking, it was one of the most amazing things, because it was about language being ripped apart. As she was dying, she was trying to give, on some level, a speech, like going up to a microphone and saying “Thank you, all of you, thanks for coming.” I was there, we all were, all her eight kids were surrounding her bed. She’s talking to us, and then to these animals. She was a horsewoman and a dog lover, and that was so beautiful when she just began to see them up there on the ceiling and started talking to them. Wow, I watched that story break apart, as she was trying to sum up, this beautiful explosion of language, it just kept shattering.
Let me ask you a difficult question. In the very first section, you begin with a dream, and you also introduce the theme of guilt. That recurs again and again.
Oh? Tell me where you saw the guilt, because I sort of feel it, but that was not one of my thematic points.
First of all, there’s the guilt that you’ve sewn the dog into your stomach, in the dream. You introduce your mother, and later on there’s the problem of having to go to her when she’s dying and not being able to love her. Then there’s a recurrent statement of regret that you’ve promised your heart things that you cannot deliver. Whether you call it rue, guilt, regret, there’s something going on there.
I’m a big F. Scott Fitzgerald fan, and you know that idea of his in “The Crack-Up” of being able to hold two opposite things in your mind at the same time? It’s what my teacher Rinpoche was saying as well: how to feel sad, accept death, feel it, without actually becoming that.
Could you just explain how one can feel sad without being sad?
It’s my life’s work to do that. Rinpoche is a really amazing teacher. He’s the happiest man in the world, by the way. That is, according to a Wisconsin neurological testing procedure. They put on headphones, and play people being tortured and children crying, and he’s able to sustain a level of—he’s not pulled into the agony. He’s expert in empathy, compassion, detachment, how to balance them at the same time. So when he says, “Try to practice how to feel sad without being sad,” it’s of course very hard to do. But the point is: not to push away painful things, but also not to have them drag you down. You don’t have to be a suffering, fearful, sad person. I don’t want to suffer! I want to be happy. But I know that pushing suffering away from me, and not feeling it as much as I can, makes me feel rotten.
Couldn’t that ability also be something very useful in making art, where you have to bring people to a place of feeling and put them through something, and you yourself can’t be completely destroyed by it?
Yes, exactly. Also, if you’re making something, it’s a creative act, not a destructive one. So even if you made a work of great sadness, that would still be a positive act. Rinpoche says, “Everything is about love. Even suicide’s about love. Because it’s an attempt to be free.” He’s very extreme.
In the movie, you put forward a sort of equation between love and death. What is the connection between love and death?
As I experienced it in my own life, with Lou’s death, my mother’s death, a friend’s death, it released love in me. I started this movie when Lou was still alive. He played the doctor in it, he knew all about this movie and was enthusiastic, read the script and we talked about it. Then he got very sick. And I stopped working on everything. When I complained that I was feeling overwhelmed, my friend Craig told me, “Just make sure you have no regrets.” Because when it’s over, it’s forever. When someone dies, you have to live with that absolutely, until you face your own death. At that point I realized, I just have to do this 100%. And I am so glad I have no regrets. Lou’s death was an experience that in a way I’d always wanted to have. A door opened and I—I walked through it, and I—haven’t actually been back. I rowed my boat out pretty far.
A lot of people are going to see this film and they’re going to think that when you’re talking about Lolabelle you’re really talking about Lou.
Of course I’m talking about Lou, and I’m talking about my mother, I’m talking about Gordon [the artist Gordon Matta-Clark], I’m talking about—you and about myself.
One of the things I like so much about the movie is the way you move from the personal to the speculative, and from dream to concreteness. Just when you’re deep in your philosophy of life, you’ll suddenly come out with this anecdote about when you were 12 years old.
I wanted to situate myself as a narrator from the very beginning. And the dream body is an important concept. This film was going to be half-that, the way you walk around in your dreams, with speculations and memories…
So a lot of the movie takes place in a dream-space.
A lot of my life takes place in a dream-space, and more and more. So back to how the film developed. One of my brothers said he had a lot of 8mm stuff, home movies of the family, and would I mind transferring it. That proved to be so useful. I had not remembered that last story about rescuing my brothers from the ice, and I called up my twin brothers and asked them if they remembered when I was taking them to the movies and they fell into the ice, and they said: “Yes. Why? Are you going to put that in the movie?” I said, yes, I have the lake, I have the island, I have you guys in a stroller, I have Mom, I have the whole thing.
There’s a lot of water in this movie. So many rain images, for instance. One can’t help thinking of tears. On the other hand, you quote “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” which says that you’re not supposed to cry when someone dies, because the ghost can’t come back to life and it just upsets him or her. So is the rain supposed to be tears, or—?
Poets have used rain for tears from the beginning of time. But it’s also an enveloping thing. It’s also a way of looking into another world, the bardo [the 49 days of transition after someone dies], as seen through a glass that is covered with rain. I don’t think the Buddhists would say “world,” they would say something more like “process.” It’s not heaven, it’s not hell, it’s all happening in here. [taps her head]
That’s a very strange section of the movie, the bardo. One thing that happens is that there are a lot of commands in the voiceover. So who’s commanding whom?
I would say the sages or the collective writers of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” are speaking to the recently dead, telling them not to be afraid. Trying to give them instructions for how to die, to let go of aggression and passion and fear. Fear runs through this movie, in many ways.
You have Lolabelle going blind. There are a bunch of connections with this idea of entering into the dark….
That dark world was very interesting to me, in terms of trying to find it with Lolabelle, and myself too, through meditation. This is also a film about meditation: what happens to language and thought when you meditate, and the words fracture and you let them go, or you try to attend to the senses without using your mind to judge. All those meditational techniques were in the film—I hadn’t thought of that.
So when you were assembling the film, were you consciously trying to make it feel like a meditation? Because the images are excellent but they don’t knock you over the head, like: Hey, look at me! They’re always receding, or moving from one to the other. There are a lot of trees, a lot of rain, a lot of sky, and a lot of amniotic stuff.
It has to do not so much with meditation, but with trying to create a sense of visual hypnosis. In working with music, I realized that loops are really effective. I used that loop-like approach to imagery here because the story is really complicated, and you can easily lost track of it if you’re too distracted by images jumping around.
Another aim of this is to make my voice central to your perspective. I mean that I want to identify with the audience so much that when I use the word “I,” it will also refer to the person who is looking at the movie. Identification is a very important concept for me. I don’t want it to be someone talking at you, but kind of be someone who’s behind your eyes for a while.
So the images give you this sense of inner consciousness?
Well, not so much that, but just something that frees your own mind to participate in this. It frees you up enough to have your own associations to what I’m taking about, rather than be constantly illustrated. I’ve noticed that in my own performances: if I use too-specific imagery, it limits people’s capacity to be part of it. I’m trying to use empathetic devices to tell the story, so people can see it from their own point of view.
So would you say that in constructing your I-character, “Laurie,” you’re both giving out pieces of your experience but shading them so that you’re not so idiosyncratic that you’ll only be that one person?
Exactly. I’ve never been someone who said: “Look at me, my life is so fascinating and interesting!” I’m more the narrator who says, “What do you think of this? Here’s one thing that happened to me, and then there’s this other. What do you make of it?”
And now, to add to everything else, you’re a filmmaker.
I don’t consider myself a filmmaker. I did make this one film, however, which I delivered two years late and at four times the length that it was originally supposed to be. On the other hand, I’d love to make another one.