INTERVIEW: Public Consumption; Fremonts Cook Up "Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story"
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 05.04.01) — “My mother wanted me to be a slim, respectable socialite. Instead I became an overweight troublemaker,” says Brigid Berlin, one of Andy Warhol‘s “Superstars,” a photographer, key lime pie addict, constant performer, and the subject of husband-and-wife filmmaking team Vincent and Shelly Dunn Fremont‘s fascination portrait, “Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story.” In Warhol‘s “Chelsea Girls” Brigid’s the one who sticks a needle full of speed in her ass.
Vincent Fremont worked with Andy Warhol just as “The Factory” began churning out its ironic product in 1969. He knew and began videotaping the outrageous Berlin over the years and went on to produce and create TV work for Warhol, with “Andy Warhol’s Fifteen Minutes.” “I originally wanted to be a filmmaker,” says Vincent Fremont, “but through Andy I actually became a TV producer. And so for Brigid to allow us to make this film, it has allowed me to get back to what I really want to do.”
With an unprecedented access to archival footage, audio taped recordings and the still spirited sexagenarian recounting her past relationship with Warhol and her own art; and her current disturbing obsessions with food, ceramic pugs, and lung x-rays, the Fremonts’ documentary is a vivid glimpse into her own gluttonous life and the Warhol world. Ending its run next Tuesday at New York’s Film Forum, “Pie in the Sky” is still seeking U.S. distribution and further venues. [Anthony Kaufman]
indieWIRE’s Erin Torneo spoke with Vincent Fremont at his office on the edge of Union Square, a quadrant of big-chain consumer culture, including dueling Starbucks, the Virgin Megastore, Staples and Barnes and Noble.
indieWIRE: It seems that this film would be a natural choice for Brigid, who spent most of her life around cameras.
Vincent Fremont: Yes, I’ve said that this project really started in the ’70s with that footage of her, but my wife Shelly thinks it really began 50 or 60 years ago with Brigid’s father who used to film her as a child with home 16mm cameras. So she’s always been on camera. She’s always had access to cameras. And she performs for the camera. She’s a natural, which is why Andy loved her. There are no hesitations, nothing shy: this is the person; this is the person playing a part. There are double layers. Brigid being Brigid, but also Brigid playing a part, i.e. “Chelsea Girls,” or in “Imitation of Christ,” where she’s playing a character, but it’s also Brigid, too. I think that was part of the magic of Andy’s filmmaking: to cast people, and put them in situations where they could portray themselves, yet play a character because it wasn’t real life.
iW: You’ve known Brigid for so long. Do you have any sense of what she, or her personality might have been like without the cameras, or without the whole phenomenon that was “The Factory”?
Fremont: I don’t think it ever would have been the case. I think she would have found some outlet, in some form or another. She’s that big a personality, and I don’t just mean when she was 260 lbs. As John Waters says in the film, she was completely un-self-conscious on camera, which is very rare, but especially so considering her struggle with weight. But her body was just an extension of her art. She used her body as art. She was a conceptual artist, as was Andy, which is probably why they were so well matched. I think they understood each other’s thinking.”
iW: The keys to a great documentary are always access and editing. You, of course, had extraordinary access to archival material, and Brigid documented things heavily. At what point did you decide to organize them around Brigid and her story?
Fremont: When Brigid said she wanted her life story on film, I knew there was a lot of material in existence and though I had produced TV, I was rusty. I had to get a crew together, so I made some phone calls, called PBS to find camera people. I had to decide whether to use film or tape. So it really became a mom-and-pop, ground zero kind of operation. We were going to hire a director, but it didn’t work out. And then it seemed to not make sense [to pay a director], and everyone said I should do it. And then Shelly was made co-director because she knew Brigid quite well too, and brought a whole other element into it. And then we put a shooting crew together and shot John Waters on 16mm. But I didn’t want to shoot film because it was an added grief for me, and was more expensive.
So we went to digi-beta, and it was much more flexible and comfortable for me because I had been working in the tape environment because of television. The quality, of course, was so much better than what I had worked with. And we shot it in letterbox because we saw it as a theatrical release. And I told Brigid we’d have to set up in her apartment on and off for 2 weeks. And that isn’t an easy thing, because her apartment is filled with little things that can be broken. It’s her private world and she’s very protective of it. But she was very patient. We had to keep the lights there the whole time.
iW: Was there any kind of script?
Fremont: Yes, and the end result was very different from what we originally planned. We were actually going to do “A Day in the Life of” with breakfast, lunch, and dinner and to compact that down. But you start to film, and things start to evolve. You start to see things, and then we hired this wonderful editor Michael Levine. He was very objective because he didn’t know Brigid. And he brought another element to the project. I’m way too close sometimes. So there were the 3 of us working together, and in the middle of the edit, we knew we were missing something. But I knew there would also be an opportunity, and there was. There was a scene where she starts to eat the key lime pies, and has a break down. I did that with a mini-DV. Threads started to emerge in the editing room, and I think Levine did a masterful job. We did a six or seven month off-line edit and so it was a big process. Editing is the most interesting part of documentary, because that’s where it takes shape. We didn’t write dialogue because it wasn’t a “script” script. We had an outline of what we wanted to shoot, but we started changing it as we went along.
iW: Did you ever feel that you were exploiting her eating disorder because you were “too close”?
Fremont: The scene in the restaurant where she’s eating the pie, she had already eaten two whole pies before I got there. So she’s working for the camera there. This is how good she is. It’s real, but she is going to eat five more pieces because she wants me to get it on tape. As upsetting as it is, to have your life displayed, she knew intuitively that these had to be filmed. And even though she called me five times a day, she stayed out of the editing session. And I think she was very brave. But you have to have the trust of your subject, and I know she trusted Shelly and myself, because we’re like family.
iW: She’s obviously a very frank personality and loves to be on-camera, but do you think the level of intimacy, and the raw exposure of her eating disorder, would have been different if someone else made the film?
Fremont: It’s hard to say. She’s very up front. She doesn’t hold back. She’s 61 years old and don’t think she’s not capable. I don’t think Shelly and I made a puff piece. It’s very real, and so it could be upsetting to Brigid because it’s not my family, it’s not my life. Her brother and sister declined to be in the film. Bob provides interesting back story and John Waters gives a whole other perspective as a filmmaker. He was a teenager watching her films. But we just went to buy her a new TV, and she asked a million questions and had it all prepared. That’s how she approaches life: full-tilt. People identify with her obsessive behavior, her weight issues, and her struggle with her mother. But these are life-long battles for her. People react very differently to the film; my wife calls it a Rorschach test. There’s humor in there, because there has to be.
iW: What was your financing for the film?
Fremont: It was all private financing, and we were very fortunate. Because if you work for somebody, they’re always over your shoulder saying, ‘I want this’ or ‘I want that.’ We were fortunate in this instance because any mistakes were our mistakes, and the vision was all ours, not someone else’s. I’m very proud of the film. Some people won’t like it, hopefully most will. But it’s something I always wanted to do: tell Brigid’s story. Hopefully it will have a long shelf life, but it’s here. It exists in the world and I think that she’s someone who needs to be remembered. She was one of the most fascinating people who came out of Andy’s Factory. But not simply because she was outrageous, but because she has so many different dimensions.
iW: What was Brigid’s reaction to the film? You are wearing two hats because you are her friend, but also one of the directors and producers of the project. What was it like to watch her watch it?
Fremont: She saw it 3 times. Once, before we did the final cut and once when did the final blow-up to 35mm, because I wanted her to see it on the big screen. And she loved it. And then she saw it again with her sister and the Feature Film Market at the Angelika, and I think it had a delayed effect on her. She got very depressed and it was very difficult. She started eating more key lime pies. Because it’s hard. And I understand that. It screened at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, at the Hamptons, and Berlin, and friends of hers all called up to say how much they loved it. And I think that helped her. But this project was done out of love and care for her. I mean, any documentary is exploitative to a degree. But I think someone else could have done this and would have tried to make it provocative to the point of absurdity.
iW: There’s a suggestion in the film that perhaps Brigid’s own creative capacity was overshadowed by Warhol’s celebrity. Did you feel Brigid was a creative force in her own right?
Fremont: If you talk to anybody who was “working” for us then, they were all overshadowed to some degree, because they weren’t Andy. Andy was the center. Everyone moved toward the center, which was Andy. Brigid was one of the true “Superstars,” and she was closest to Andy for the longest period of time. And their relationship, self-destructive or not, was always there because she was her own person; she was never a “groupie,” not of Andy’s, nor of any of the artists she hung out with at Max’s. She was one of the rare females in this transitional period of history in New York, who was really participating in collaboration with poets and artists who were male. She was one of the few women really allowed into that world. She was an equal. And she treated Andy the same way. Andy could also be very nurturing.
It’s been 14 years since Andy died, but I’ve known Brigid with and without him. Brigid could have done any number of things — she’s this amazing entity. I think she would feel Andy overshadowed her — they were very competitive in the Polaroid film department. Who was going to get the best equipment, the best film? She had a certain style, and Andy had a certain style. You put them together and you see the differences, but both were remarkably good. Andy had a survey show done in Hamburg; Andy was the center and we had about 6 photographers who were associated with Andy, including Brigid. And you really saw the power of her vision, which was on the same level. No one was doing double exposure polaroids at that time — and she was doing it in a really interesting way. Andy may have overshadowed those that were around him, but he also gave them an opportunity to grow. The “Superstars” actors and actresses went on to self-destruct or whatever, but of all the things Brigid did in her life, she was a survivor.