BETWEEN DOCUMENTARY AND FICTION
Director of Born To Lose (The Last Rock and Roll Movie)
I met Lech Kowalski at the NYUFF premiere of Born To Lose, a documentary about Johnny Thunders. Kowalski has done other movies in the past including DOA, a documentary about The Sex Pistols and punk rock. But Thunders was a seminal member of The New York Dolls and The Heartbreakers. He died in 1991 at age 38 of years of drug abuse. Thunders was an influence on almost everyone who came after him, with his sense of style and always being close to the street. It was a twenty year rock and roll journey that had it's high and low moments and few survivors. In the movie, we see rare footage of The Dolls and The Heartbrakers, plus interviews with Mink Deville, Dee Dee Ramone, Sylvain Sylvain, Wayne Kramer, Thunders' family, and a cast of sleazy characters and depressing junkies that make your skin crawl.
AL: A few months ago in Toronto you showed a version of the film that was three hours. You had a bunch of footage to chose from. What was the original idea you want to convey in this documentary?
LK: Making a documentary about Johnny Thunders seems like an easy thing to do. You can choose to easy or complex. When he died in 1991, and I originally thought of making a documentary about him, I had already shot a bunch of footage of him in the early 1980s. I had also shot a movie with him in it called "Gringo." It was a combination of a narrative structure made with real people, and then I added some real elements. It's a very real film. Johnny was going to be in that film, but it didn't work out because he was hard to work with. The people who were financing the film were uptight about drugs. Not that they had a problem with drugs, but that Johnny was so consumed with cocaine, it was difficult to work with him. We shot a lot of footage at the Mudd Club. Then Johnny had to leave the country. At that point the shooting ended. I decided not to use that material in the film because we never finished it. I decided to make another film called "Stations of The Cross" which never got done, but a soundtrack was released in the 1987 by ROIR Records. We shot him doing forty songs over three sets at The Mudd Club. I shot most of it myself.
AL: That was the stuff in color?
LK: Yeah. I went off and did my other films and I didn't keep in touch with Johnny. I talked to him on the phone a few times. I was working on a film in 1991 called Rock Soup about the homeless scene in New York. I came out of a mix and bought a newspaper and saw that Johnny's picture was in there. He died in New Orleans. I immediately decided on the spot, the corner of Broadway and 49th, to make a movie about him. His death signified an end to an era. His death was both expected and unexpected. Finally it happened. You would hear that Johnny died over the years. When he died, it was shocking, because it finally happened. I make it sound very cold now, but it a moving moment because I was involved in the scene.
AL: When did you start shooting actual footage of the family and places that Johnny went?
LK: I went down to New Orleans and started shooting on High-8. This was when High-8 was just coming in. I had bought a new camera. That's how the whole thing started. I had footage, I knew about other footage that had existed in New York. I shot stuff in all formats and over the years I accumulated all this material. The concept kept changing and it was at first financial. I wanted to shoot everything in 35mm in the studio. We did that with Johnny's son, Vito, and Dee Dee Ramone. The people who were financing the film in France were nervous about the cost. I modified my original idea because the stuff I shot in High-8 for mainly test shots was better. So I traveled around the world with a High-8 camera for years interviewing people and going to places were Johnny had played. I had five hundred hours of tape. I was thinking about how to structure the film.
AL: What were some of the ideas about structure?
LK: I had this plan to make this big fucking four hour movie. It was not going to be just about Johnny but the whole scene. Johnny would be the catalyst for it and the reference point. But I got tired of anecdotal stories. I wanted to make a different kind of film. I didn't want to make a "looking back" film. I wanted to make you feel like you were there in a club. I didn't want a bunch of junkies reminiscing about the past and make it dated. It took a long time to find a structure. There was one version that was five hours long, and another that was three hours, and an entire different version that was structured around Dee Dee Ramone.
AL: Do you change the film every time you screen it? To see what the audience reacts to?
LK: I watch the rhythm of the film. What works or doesn't. By playing this film in different forms, it not like the film is crystallized in any specific way. Each version gets a strong reaction from people. This film is always changing. I've screen the film in Poland, Sweden, Toronto, Finland, New York, France, and England, and there's always been a strong reaction from people internationally.
AL: I saw D.O.A. about twenty years ago so my memory is fuzzy. But it seems that in both movies there's no strong point of view, relying on talking heads to drive a point, or any moral perspective. You just show the subject and let the flaws show. You have to judge for yourself.
LK: I don't like moralizing. It's a simple thing to do. Who's to say who's right or wrong? People see the film and say "What a sad life Johnny had. It's too bad he died. It's too bad he took drugs." Johnny did what he did because that was a choice he made long ago. There's nothing sad about it, for me. If someone doesn't like it, or does like it, I have no feelings in that way. The power of what he did and how he lived is what I tried to interpret in the film, but I didn't want to say that this is bad or good. That stuff is boring. We have too much of that shit in our media anyway. That's not the point of the films I make.
AL: Much of the film is about heroin use. You interview many of his friends and you see Johnny Thunders on stage especially in the later parts, and you see the gradual effect of what heroin does. Having all these people talk with slightly slurred speech and slow drugged out tones, makes you feel intoxicated on something.
LK: I want to induce this state of what it would be like to be him. Johnny was high almost all the time. He lived this chemical existence like a lot of other musicians did who come from other musical traditions like Jazz. There's a history of musicians with talent who take up this drug thing. It goes back to the 1940s and 50s, to up till now. It's a reality.
AL: Taking drugs mixed with artistic expression always seemed to me a Romantic ideal. But when the ideal is not far away and it's in your face, when your whole life is fixated on drugs, it's very ugly and a bad idea at the end of the day.
LK: What you saw in the film was twenty years of Johnny's life condensed in an hour and a half. You see his physical progression from being a young stud superstar, who believed in the rock and roll dream, to what he became in the end. That arc is pretty strong. You mentioned the structure of D.O.A. before and compared it to this film. Both films were very hard to edit. But both structures are very strong, not that obvious to the eye, yet if start breaking it down you can see a certain progression. Filmmaking is divided into documentaries and then Hollywood fictions, the three-act play sort of thing. But there's also another category of film which is pure cinematic storytelling. That's a tour de force of what the medium can do which borrows from both documentary and fiction. That's what I try to do. I don't think of these films as just documentaries, but as pure filmmaking techniques that stand up on their own. It's like looking at a painting. A painting can be an action painting or a more realistic thing, but it's still a painting. The films I make are just films.
AL: When you go down to New Orleans and talk to Willy DeVille and the people who saw Johnny in the last days, you raise a bunch of questions and create mysteries: Was he murdered? Did he die of AIDS? Was he just sick of all the drug use?
LK: Johnny lives on in a state of a myth more now than when he was alive. There was always a myth floating around Johnny. To me that was the most important thing, not to answer any questions, but to help move that myth along.
AL: Did you interview Johnny Thunders himself and why didn't you use any of that footage?
LK: There's a lot of interviews with Johnny. I have a lot of stuff with him, but I didn't want to use any of it. I've done cuts where he speaks in the film. When Johnny spoke on camera, he was very literal. What he was saying was not that interesting. It didn't do justice to Johnny. When I put that material in the film, it made Johnny too realistic, and it didn't add anything to the flow. I said fuck it. I don't want to see Johnny talk about anything, because he talks to me with his music and that's enough. It's a film where you don't see Johnny speaking. The times where I liked Johnny speaking was in between songs. He would say a few words and that was his stand-up routine. That was a form of genius there. It was entirely non-intellectual. He was connected to the audience. He had a few things on his mind. The audience would feed him some energy and he would jump in there and say something and move on to the next song. He didn't have any intellectual pretensions. He needed a rhythmic thing to happen in between songs to keep a tension and keep the audience's attention, so he had a complete show.
AL: Was Johnny Thunders a Nazi? I ask because he wore the swastika.
LK: Johnny had that insignia around him a lot. Bob Gruen has this great photo of Johnny standing in front of a bunch of Andy Warhol paintings of swastikas. It's a weird and powerful image. Did Johnny know the power it had? Subconsciously I think he did. But I'm not sure if he understood the history of Germany at that point or discuss it at all. I'm not sure what it meant to him.
AL: Why does a movie about Johnny Thunders seem like an event, but any other rock and roll group would seem like a joke?
LK: It's there for people to discover, and it's fresh, because very few people know about it. Johnny is a known source. Who cares about the fucking Rolling Stones? They have no relevance. Johnny has a relevance because of the way he lived and his myth never really coalesced historically. So it's all left open. Nobody wrote a definitive biography about him. There's no definitive album. No record company has exploited his myth and reality and put out a CD that sells millions, and therefore end the myth. Once something is pushed by the corporate system it's dead. At this point in history, people are sick and tired of packaging and selling. I don't want this film just to be a flavor of the month. The film has to have a sense of discovery, so they can enjoy it without the sense of it being forced down their throats by Miramax. Those companies are concerned with making money, so most of their films add nothing to the culture. Who cares about any film made three years ago or three months ago, because they are all boring.
AL: Do you think that filmmaking is the only democratic artform?
LK: Until you get to the point of financing. All these new DVD formats is interesting, but it's still expensive to transfer to film. The mini-DVD is a real great tool for filmmaking. I'm making a film in Poland right now about a bunch of underground guys who make handmade boots. I'm making it for French TV. I shot some stuff on High-8 to give it a certain texture to mix together. I like cutting films on the computer. People who are purists and want to shoot only film are silly. Film is really dirty ecologically and fucks up a lot of water. Unless you are a really good filmmaker and going to make a good film, why mess up so much water? Shoot on video.
AL: Are there any directors that you like?
LK: I just saw an interview with Polanski. He's been around for a long time, but for me, he's a real brilliant filmmaker. He's the elder statesman of a certain film heritage that's almost gone. He bridges different worlds and different time periods. I'm curious to see his new film. Wim Wenders I have a lot of appreciation for. I'm really not interested in filmmakers who want to travel around the world, looking for adventure, tapping into other cultures, using that to say something that is really irrelevant. They're tapping into exotic cultures because they're bored with reality. Wenders is guilty of this in the case of Cuban music, with The Buena Vista Social Club, but hopefully that music isn't destroyed because it has been packaged.
You have to be careful of how you present a subject because filmmaking can be like pollution. There's too many cars in the world and that's destroying the world ecologically. Films have the same potential to destroy the world, not ecologically, but culturally. When you present things to the world, it becomes a product. I'm afraid of extinguishing anything that is vital.
-- by Alexander Laurence