If William S. Burroughs’s work seems different, his life could be considered alien. Yony Leyser’s new documentary, “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within,” explores the personal life of the celebrated and controversial beat author of “Naked Lunch.” The film, narrated by Peter Weller, combines never-before-seen footage of Burroughs and interviews with a wide variety of figures familiar with the writer and his work.
This is Leyser’s feature film debut and the 25-year-old director made sure to secure important interviews with some big names, including Dr. William Ayers, Amiri Baraka, Dead Kennedy’s Jello Biafra, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and poisonous snake collector Dean Ripa. Leyser was also able to collaborate with the band Sonic Youth, who also provide the music for the film’s soundtrack. indieWIRE spoke to Leyser about his film, which opens at New York’s IFC Center today, November 17.
Leyser on why he chose Burroughs as the subject for his first film,
I’ve always been interested in the creative documentation and exploration of the sometimes overlooked or dismissed arenas of the grotesque, brilliant and confusing world that surrounds us. As documentary film incorporates drama, photography, music, reality, and a director’s subjective view into a powerful, all encompassing medium, it seemed a natural choice for me. “William S. Burroughs: A Man Within” is my first feature length film. I was 13 years old when he died, and this was my journey to find the man behind the persona and work that I knew so much about.
Burroughs opened so many avenues of thinking for me. He was an outsider that faced enormous personal struggles, but changed the world (and my world) with his fearlessly creative work, and was eventually celebrated. I can’t think of many people more interesting than him to make a film about.
Leyser on how he framed a documentary around Burroughs’s persona,
When I picked up my first copy of “Naked Lunch” in high school, I instantly fell in love with Burroughs’ pure deviant genius. Burroughs, Ginsberg and Kerouac were cultural beacons breaking away from the grey, conformist, 1950s American machine, and remain potent critics. Though Burroughs’ books are widely available, I wanted to capture his life, persona and the friends he influenced on film. I interviewed numerous people in Lawrence, KS, where Burroughs spent the last years of his life. Later, I reached out to scholars, poets, and eventually those closest to him in order to build a foundation before working my way up. Burroughs’ circle of friends was incredibly diverse. They included rock stars, trash collectors, intellectuals, “gun nuts,” conservatives, shamans, upper class New Yorkers, junkies, and good corn-fed Kansans— and I would be able to meet quite a few of them. They were absurdly supportive of the film, and once they saw the progress I was making, they pushed me forward with footage, introductions and incredible interviews. Of course I was placed in an unsavory situation or two, but that made the process all the more fun.
Leyser on how he hopes audiences see the film, and on his inspirations of the project…
For those not already familiar with Burroughs, I hope this film will motivate you to read Burroughs’ work and explore your own avenues of critical thinking about control and daily existence. I hope Burroughs would be proud.
On a personal level, meeting people who are able to drop out of “mainstream society” and take a non-conventional approach to life often inspires me (or at least makes me laugh here and there). On a professional level, going to film festivals and seeing documentaries made from the heart really move me. I saw some great ones at Seattle, Sheffield, and most festivals I have attended.
Future projects for the young director,
I am working on two new films starting in the spring. I’m also finishing my photo book currently titled “Daily Life Sucks.”