INTERVIEW: Out of the Past: "Downtown 81's" New York Odyssey
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 07.13.01) — It took 20 years for photographer-director Edo Bertoglio, writer Glenn O’Brien, and producer-fashion designer Maripol to see their collaborative chronicling of the New York art scene “Downtown 81” finally reach audiences. Faced with bankrupt financiers, missing footage, and the passing of their late great protagonist Jean Michel Basquiat (the famous graffiti artist and painter who stars in the film as himself), the filmmaking team finally located the mislaid footage in 1998 and finished the film for its Cannes premiere last year. (Zeitgeist Films releases the movie in New York this Friday, followed by a national roll out throughout the summer and fall.)
Equal parts documentary time capsule, East Village club tour, and meandering narrative, “Downtown 81” follows a day in the life of the 19-year-old Basquiat. Sort of like a road movie through Alphabet City, Basquiat encounters several unique characters along the way, from new wave punk bands like DNA and The Plastics to Debbie Harry and Fab Five Freddie to such downtown denizens as Amos Poe and scribe O’Brien.
At Cannes 2000, indieWIRE’s Anthony Kaufman spoke to the international crew (Bertoglio’s Swiss-Italian, O’Brien’s American, and Maripol’s French) about the missing years, community spirit, documentary verses fiction and Saul (“Slam“) Williams‘ reincarnation of Basquiat.
indieWIRE: How exactly is it that we’re seeing this film now?
Glenn O’Brien: We got our money from a European company that went out of business. And it was just one of those situations where you think, “I’m on top of the world, baby.” We had a roughcut, we were in great shape, and then suddenly, there was no one on the other end of the phone, there were no checks. Our roughcut was lost in Italy; I went to look for it at some point in the ’80s and that fell through. But finally, we were able to put the pieces together. We let it slide in the late ’80s and early ’90s, but then we all felt that we owed it to Jean Michel, who was our good friend, to get it out. Especially for me, because after [Julian Schnabel‘s] “Basquiat” came out, I felt like it was so off the mark that I wanted to set the record straight. I also think it’s great to get these bands out there that people haven’t seen.
iW: So what were you all doing in your own careers at the time the film was made?
Edo Bertoglio: First of all, we were collaborating with each other. Maripol and I were documenting the downtown scene through photography; Glenn was writing for Andy Warhol‘s Interview, and he would use my photos to illustrate the articles.
Maripol: I was an art director and fashion designer for a big Italian house.
O’Brien: Much of what happened was through everyone being friends with one another; I was good friends with Chris and Debbie from Blondie and they met Edo, and Edo did beautiful photographs of them and ended up doing album covers for them. It was a communal thing because we all worked on each other’s stuff. I had a cable show that was called “Glenn O’Brien’s TV Party,” which was probably one of the more outlandish shows that’s ever been on TV and Edo and Maripol would work the cameras, and Jean Michel would work the character generator and sometimes Debbie Harry would direct the show. “TV Party” was where we met a lot of these musicians — like Tuxedomoon came on “TV Party” a lot — and we were all good friends with DNA. It was all our friends, basically.
iW: It comes across. You feel like it’s a community effort. Do you think New York 2001 has any spark of that community spirit that what was in “Downtown 81”?
O’Brien: New York was the art capital of the world from after World War I until the end of the boom in the ’80s. And you could be an artist and you could live in New York and you didn’t necessarily have to have a day job. You could live in a dumpy commercial space and maybe drive a cab a couple of nights, but basically, I was able to pay my rent by selling the review records I didn’t want, so that enabled me to be a full time writer. That is what’s missing today. If you want to be an artist and especially if you want to live in New York, you either have to be rich or you have to get a grant or you have to have a job, and then you come home exhausted at night and look at your canvas. That’s not the way it’s supposed to be.
Bertoglio: I go back to New York every year and I have seen it change slowly but surely. Today, when I go back, in the past five or six years, it really looks like a big shopping center.
iW: The film has this voice over from Saul Williams (“Slam”), which was obviously added later.
O’Brien: It was written before, and we were going to record it later, but when our post-production stopped, we didn’t bother to do it and so that’s why we got Saul.
iW: Do you think of Saul as a sort of kindred spirit to Jean Michel?
O’Brien: He totally got him. It was like he was channeling him. I got chills sometimes when he would say things, because he got it so right. His voice is naturally a little deeper than Jean Michel’s, but he really got him as close as he could.
Maripol: We cast Saul, because of the poetry in “Slam.” That’s the kind of thing that Jean Michel would have don today.
iW: How much did the movie cost to make in 1980?
O’Brien: Maybe $300,000.
iW: Really, in 1980, that much?
Bertoglio: We were not a few people. We had professional electricians and gaffers and a production office. And we shot for three weeks on 16mm, 22 hours in all, so it was not your typical underground production.
O’Brien: We wanted to make sure we had enough money to record the music properly, so the performances at the clubs were done on the RCA 24 Track mobile, which they’d use to record a live Rolling Stones concert. We had two cameras on all the club shoots.
iW: As much as the film is a portrait of New York at the time, it does reflect an American independent cinema around this same time period. Did you feel like there was a film community as much of a music community?
O’Brien: There was a movement called the New Cinema in New York — Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Betsy Sussler, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, Becky Johnston, James Nare — all of these people were making films, Super 8 films.
iW: Did you feel apart of that? Was there some mixing of those talents?
O’Brien: At the end of the film, in the Mudd Club, there’s a guy in sunglasses who says to Jean Michel about his experiences, “Maybe you should make a movie about it.” That was Amos. He was making movies that were pretty low budget, but made a splash: “The Foreigner,” “Subway Riders” and “Unmade Beds.” It was a pretty lively scene, but there weren’t many outlets to show these films. It was more of a salon-type scene.
iW: Glenn, have you written screenplays since?
O’Brien: Yes, I have one now that I’m trying to direct, actually, which is also motivated by revenge, about Andy Warhol in the ’60s. I decided to write it after I saw “I Shot Andy Warhol.” It’s called “I Shot Mary Harron.”
iW: Edo, Have you continued to direct?
Bertoglio: I do commercials. I also produce and direct documentaries for TV, but mostly commercials and industrials for banks and big companies.
iW: What do you consider “Downtown 81,” fiction or documentary or both?
Bertoglio: It’s a fiction, of course. Today, it’s a document because of its time, but it’s a fiction.
O’Brien: I recently said, “If you want to tell the truth, make a fiction film. If you want to tell a lie, make a documentary.” Because a lot of times, documentary is pretending to tell a truth, but they also have their own sense of fiction and bias. What we wanted to do was make a light musical comedy, a period musical comedy.
iW: So this must be so strange for you, seeing this movie go out to audiences 20 years after you made it.
Bertoglio: We’re lucky. The movie is finished after 20 years. It was selected in Cannes and people like it. What more could we possibly want?
iW: Had you given up at any point over the years?
Bertoglio: No, it came and went. Hope went up and down, at least, personally, I went through different periods.
Maripol: I was the one who was the pain in the neck. I had a vision.
iW: Is it an emotional experience watching this movie for you guys?
Bertolgio: Yes, yes.
Maripol: Every time I watched the movie in post-production, I can’t even tell you. . . I never had a dry eye. I so missed him.
O’Brien: A lot of people say to me, “Doesn’t it make you sad?” And it doesn’t make me sad. It kind of makes me happy. I think a lot of people didn’t understand Jean Michel, and everybody thinks he is a big tragic story, but he had a really good life and enjoyed himself more than almost anybody did. So I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I miss him, and I miss a few other great friends that we lost who are in the film, but I’m happy to see them.