Memories for a Future Past: David Shapiro Interviewed by Michael Almereyda

The filmmaker on unpacking a forty-year friendship, turning the form on its head, and pizza as a madeleine to a lost city.

David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson in front of Lobardi's, NYC, 1995, in Untitled Pizza Movie

David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson in front of Lobardi’s, NYC, 1995, in Untitled Pizza Movie, 2021. Directed by David Shapiro. Courtesy of the artist.

David Shapiro’s brazenly unclassifiable Untitled Pizza Movie unfolds over the course of seven episodes like a detective story chronicling the fates of multiple missing persons, including a younger version of the filmmaker and his friend Leeds Atkinson (now deceased), seen scampering through a transitory New York City in the mid-’90s as they starred in their own would-be reality TV series Eat to Win. Footage retrieved from this unfinished, pizza-centric project forms a scaffolding for a multi-layered maze that presents memory as a frail defense against time, the devourer of cityscapes, identities, and era-defining cultural flotsam. Shapiro’s investigation is personal and metaphysical, characterized by hectic energy and a tone that’s both rhapsodic and mournful. He inserts frequent interstitial shots of tenderly archived objects—books, toys, album covers, and his own sculptures and drawings—rotating on a turntable or sliding by on a conveyer belt. These intervals and, indeed, the entire series, catalog bittersweet evidence of expired experience, underscoring life’s impermanence even as they attempt to enshrine it.

—Michael Almereyda

Michael Almereyda How did the idea for the project first come to you, and how did it evolve?

David Shapiro When my old friend Leeds died in 2014, I wanted to actively remember him. We were childhood friends, but we had been distant for years.

Like you, I shapeshift in form. I could have made, say, a sculpture or a painting, but I also make character-driven films, biographies. Biopics are usually reserved for well, the “worthy,” or crudely put, famous people. But the people who occupy a lot of space in our own life stories are famous too, at least to us. So, for me, a film seemed like the natural way to go, worthy subject be damned. I decided to turn the form on its head—to paint a small story on a large canvas. To push it further, I would make a deeply personal series, a film wolf in episodic clothing.

I started unpacking our forty-year friendship. I fondly remembered the first time we had lunch. I even recalled—to a T—what we ate. Memory is triggered in many ways, but few more powerfully than food.

But my memory of our seminal lunch was clouded by sentimentality. It wasn’t as fond as I initially recalled. In fact, I misremembered it. As the sequence plays out in Part 1, in 1974, on the first day of fourth grade, a boy named Leeds called me a “Kike.” My mother telephoned his so we could set things straight on a “reparation playdate.”

But this casserole was lodged in my memory. I needed and wanted to see it again. So, I bought a vintage Pyrex casserole dish on eBay, made the pilgrimage to Schaller & Weber on First Avenue in old Yorktown (where Mrs. Atkinson procured all her German products), bought the same variety of wursts and their famous sauerkraut with caraway seeds, and I cooked it. That’s when I knew. I had to film it. That was the first shot I conceived, and with it I landed on the form. There would be other strategies at play—pizza as a madeleine to a lost city, making a work about Leeds by comparing his biography to that of Andrew Bellucci, a pizza man we met once in 1995, and so on. But that first image started the film rolling.

Photo of Andrew Bellucci at Lombardi's, NYC, 1995, in Untitled Pizza Movie, 2021.

Andrew Bellucci at Lombardi’s, NYC, 1995, in Untitled Pizza Movie, 2021. Directed by David Shapiro. Courtesy of the artist.

MAWhat do you imagine your younger self would think of the movie you’ve made about him and his best friend? 

DSIf I look at myself now as a character then, the first thing that comes to mind is, what the hell was I thinking? Hair down to my ass, the ’70s shirts… I mean, you know, it was a look. In retrospect, I connect now to that sense of freedom, of youthful possibility. Rounds of self-invention, with less obligation, expectation, and debt. Back then, discovery was time-based work, which required getting out of bed and stepping onto the sidewalk. Pass through the turnstiles or jump them. Be alive in the moment. You couldn’t Google; you had to set out to find the best taco in Queens, or the best slice in Staten Island. You know, there are five boroughs; you just have to cross the bridge.

We were geniuses of stupid, but hey, we were trying. Leeds and I made things, played music, made movies, wrote stories; it was a burst of energy. I cherish that. You get older, and creativity becomes honed but also calcified. The hard part is getting back to a Tabula rasa. After a while, the table is partially set.

Leeds and I were pre-sentimental at a young age. As lifelong New Yorkers, we knew that our city, our version of the city, anyway, was a goner. Maybe it wasn’t real in the first place. The iconic New York of steaming manholes and skyscraper canyons is as much image as fact. Leeds and I, in a sense, were manufacturing memories for a future past.

We construct memory as much as identity. Over the course of our lives, we reinvent ourselves time and again, play updated versions. Eventually, by default or choice, we park the bus and live there. I think my younger self would be mortified by me now. David Byrne’s hand chop: Behind the wheel of a large automobilemy beautiful housemy beautiful wife … two kids… a dog… how did I get here? In Untitled Pizza Movie, I try and acknowledge that reflexive moment we all must have, that moment of acceptance and shock, hopefully peace: “this might be my life.” If I turn the lens around and look forward, from back then to now, I think Dave would be “cool with it.” Mortified, yes, but glad that I still trust the process and am willing to fail.

Upm Still Dave And Leeds 1995

Still from Untitled Pizza Movie, 2021. Directed by David Shapiro. Courtesy of the artist.

MAWhat you confide here presses up against the fact that the series can be considered a kind of memoir. You’re resurrecting old footage and conjuring new connections, and you keep catching sight of yourself in the mirror. You’re also withholding things. Can you talk about how much of a challenge it was to include more or less of your own personal story?

DSWe all drop the bits of the story we don’t like to the edit room floor. In your film Marjorie Prime, Marjorie initially loves hearing Walter’s stories, but she asks him to make them sweeter for the next time. I’m just as guilty as Marjorie, or just as human.

Leeds and I were playing characters of ourselves. Perhaps Bellucci and I were doing the same. When you walk on documentary fault lines—with social actors in constructed scenarios—sometimes you fall into fiction. Initially, I wanted to minimalize my role. I cut myself out at one point; it fell flat. On the other hand, I was interested in versions of oneself (Dave vs. David). Lumps and all, I was the narrative glue.

Deep down, I knew my memory was driving the train. The first line of UPM is, “I remember the sequence of events.” But if my memory is the narrator, by nature, it’s unreliable, if not withholding and protective, which I suppose could well describe a memoir.

Where I could be level was with the construct, to announce quietly but clearly when we’re shifting form: “I imagined Bellucci’s pizza meltdown,” and then we see it as such, speculated. “I imagined Bellucci looking for real estate. I enlisted the help of an actress-turned-realtor,” and then we see that. For that scene, I hired Sarah Fearon, an actress who works as a realtor. But if a viewer is along for the ride, maybe they tune out the word “imagine” and just enjoy the scene. Like your documentary William Eggleston in the Real World, UPM is elliptical and slowly works its way around, acknowledging it’s making, if you look closely, listen, and wish to see it.

AMThere’s a kind of giddy circularity in the storytelling throughout the series, a repeated flipping and layering of facts, not unlike the process of pizza-making. Also, the meandering, labyrinthine layout of Stuy Town, where you grew up, bears some resemblance to the overall structure. How consciously did you consider these models as the project developed?

DSStuy Town was and is a nightmare. Of course, it’s a lovely place to live, and people are lucky to be there. In New York City a place to live is like a career, and now that it’s private, a one-bedroom is worth a boatload of money. To me, Stuy Town felt like a Borgesian maze. All the houses look the same, whether you’re straight or stoned. But if you look at it clinically, Stuy Town feels like an architectural model. I knew I wanted to film it that way. Shooting with drones was a revelation—I never knew the building numbers were painted on the roofs, like cell blocks.

Leeds and I, our friends, connected to the Mods, bands like The Jam. We felt the same alienation they felt across the pond, in the Stuy Towns so many of us grew up in. We were living in the same modern world at the same time, after all. One Jam song is entitled “The Planner’s Dream Goes Wrong.” This was the plan? Ice cube trays? Playgrounds with concrete animals? A concrete seal?

I played with scale to underscore the expansion and contraction of memory. Sometimes the thing occupying the most real estate in our mind is a tiny event, and sometimes a tug of memory masks a trauma so deep we can’t possibly face it. To see Stuy Town from a bird’s-eye view is to see the Lego lack of imagination, and by contrast, to see a rich one in “Bellucci’s World. To make big things small and small things big—a model city, a greyhound bus you can hold in your palm, an email as a physical sculpture—is to rock focus back and forth in space and time. I wanted to make a work that could walk the ancient ramparts of St. Malo, and absorb a cheap souvenir, which is the French word for remember, if I remember right?

Upm Still Conveyor Belt Booze And Cigarettes

Still from Untitled Pizza Movie, 2021. Directed by David Shapiro. Courtesy of the artist.

MAAnother way you achieve scale, and travel through time, is through sound and music. A particular high point for me came in the seventh episode, which begins without explanation or attribution with “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” with Richard Burton’s unmistakable voice coming on strong. At the end, a footnote explains your first contact with the passage while it plays again, crossfading with a bit of the Terminator score. Can you talk about how you built such an associative soundtrack?

DSEach element of UPM was put into service to answer the foundational question laid out in Part 1: how do you re-present somebody—all the books they’ve read, all the films they’ve seen, all the music they’ve listed to? The work unpacks an encyclopedia of references—shelves of books, decades of DVDs, and hundreds of record sleeves. I designed the sound to underscore that re-presentation, to speak to a lifetime of listening, a musical education. I wanted UPM to sound like milkcrates of records. The UPM soundtrack flows organically from associative triggers to balance its visual and narrative tone—unexpected things in unexpected places. By including soundtracks themselves, I could simultaneously associate films. I always tried to bring it back around to memory. We hear a poem upfront in Part 7, and re-remember it in the footnotes, but now we see and hear that poem, The Ancient Mariner, as a childhood memory of grade school trauma—a poem we had to recite in fifth grade, but I was shy and Leeds was dyslexic, so neither of us got past the seventh stanza. I wanted Untitled Pizza Movie to be a work of alchemy, where a Hebrew Kaddish and an Islamic call to prayer could be at home alongside a poem, a joint compound bucket drum, and enough silence to hear the sound of pizza.

Untitled Pizza Movie will debut in a virtual screening from Metrograph, shown in staggered episodes from February 24–March 16. 

Michael Almereyda is a writer and filmmaker living in New York City. His Tesla: All My Dreams are True will be published by OR Books in the spring, and Winogrand Color, co-edited with Susan Kismaric, is forthcoming from Twin Palms Publishers.