I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This interview took place in New York City in January of 1981, a few weeks before the final edit of Subway Riders was completed. Subway Riders is premiering at the Carnegie Hall cinema and could be featured at the Bleeker St. Cinema this month. Unmade Beds was made in 1976, Blank Generation in 1976, and The Foreigner in 1978.
Amos Poe Is this for the record?
Sarah Charlesworth For now. Later on you can rewrite the record if you want. Two years into the work—how do you feel about Subway Riders as you’ve completed it?
AP I feel good about it.
SC Of all your films, Subway Riders seems to have gone through the most transformations in its production period. How has it changed since you first conceived it?
AP Yeah, I don’t know…the more it’s changed the more it’s stayed the same. It’s different from my script but still recognizable. It’s taken more time so the bottom line is that it has to pay off.
SC It has to pay off? In what sense?
AP Well, in order to make it all worthwhile, it has to be so much stronger—or make a lot of money or whatever. Something big has to come out of this picture.
SC In Subway Riders the main character was originally played by John Lurie but was switched to be played by John in part and you in part. Could you clarify?
AP When I first conceived of Subway Riders, at a party I had in December of 1977, it was a thing about a saxophone player. In fact, I meant to title it The Saxophonist.
SC Is that the one with James Chance?
AP Yes, James Chance. I was filming James playing under a street lamp on Lafayette Street. I liked that image, and the film just grew out of that image—a sax player in an urban landscape. Then I met John, I thought I could work more easily with him and I started to write it specifically for him by observing his nature.
SC It’s about a psychopathic killer isn’t it?
AP No, it’s much more than that. It’s based on the concept of the modern hero—a tragic hero and a musician, and John was supposed to play Ant Zindo, though all the characters in the film were conceived as tragically heroic. But John was the musician.
SC Tell me how you see a musician, a sax player, as modern hero?
AP Well, he’s the focal point of modern mythology.
SC What do you mean?
AP Most people base their lives on musical figures.
SC Most people base their lives on musical figures?
AP Uh huh. Like that guy, whats-his-name…Mark Chapman.
SC Okay…ummmm…how did the role switch to you?
AP There was a break in the shooting, and when we resumed production, like the day before, John came up to me and said, “he couldn’t afford to play the role of a psycho-killer.” He was going into the studio to do a demo with The Lounge Lizards and Chris Stein. He felt his responsibility was there and I understood his predicament—financially, psychologically, professionally; so I figured it was either ending or postponing the film, or going ahead without John. Then I thought, “We have to go on, well how?” It was too late to bring in a new actor, so I said “Fuck it, I’ll just do it and see what happens!” I talked it over with my co-producer Johanna Heer, and the rest of the cast, re-wrote a scene and went on.
SC So it was an improvisation?
AP Yeah, you could say that. The original script was always a very straight narrative, a kind of demonic action urban picture. It continually changed into a more psychological warp; neurotic, psychotic, schizoid, paranoid, obsessed…though at first I hoped to make it like Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso and like that, in terms of literature, it was well…poetically, mythologically bent.
SC You’re back to the modern hero?
AP Yeah. Five and now six modern heros. It’s a drama.
AP People’s obsessions and frustrations—careers, drugs, artistic expressions, etc. It’s about people’s lives. It’s a drama or a series of dramas. For instance, when Johanna and I were talking about shooting it in color, I was saying how it should be a drama of colors of pictures. Johanna was very much for it, we worked out an equation. From there I became interested in the levels of drama.
SC Could you elaborate on what you mean by levels of drama?
AP Well, drama exists between the contrasts of certain identities or images, and I tried to deal with this in The Foreigner, but with that it was in black and white, and the contrasts were like…drawings or photographs, but with color…I had to redefine my standards. I wanted to use wide and macro lenses…Sergin Leonesque, it works in Westerns—the wide screen landscape and then a tight close-up of a fly in a bottle, captured or something—but in my case the landscape was like the fly in the bottle, and my close-up was under its skin. So the drama works as a contrast of the two lenses.
SC You mean there’s no in-between?
AP No medium shots.
SC What is the relationship of color and character?
AP Each character has an identifiable color as part of their territory or frame, so that the film itself is like a color co-ordinated legend. Instead of a drawing more like a sculpture. A self-reference point.
SC Your intention initially was, then, to use color to enhance the sensory impact or emotive impact of the images?
AP Yeah, exactly, a manipulation.
SC Let’s talk about the concept of narrative. You had to alter the script during the shooting. Would you say that your conception of narrative has to do with telling a story in the classic sense? Going from beginning to end?
AP Yeah. Yeah.
SC And a moral?
AP Yeah, I think that’s the most important part in filmmaking. Telling a story and having a moral. You need to tell a story to have a good film.
AP Because there’s nothing else. Every person’s life is a story. But not all have to be told.
SC You could turn on a camera in a room of people and leave it on for two hours and in the end there would be something resembling a story which is recorded in “real time.”
AP Yeah, but that’s a documentary.
SC I’m not talking about documentary, I’m talking about what the parameters of a story could be.
AP I’m talking about narrative, a movie that tells a story. There are films that don’t tell a story, but a movie has to tell a story, whether it’s Birth of a Nation or Mean Streets or Permanent Vacation.
SC Well, I don’t know whether I agree with you that films have to tell a story in that sense.
AP There’s nothing else.
SC Do you feel that Subway Riders is in any way a copy or an imitation of any type or genre or is it…
AP A genre unto itself would be apropos.
SC Well, say in the sense, and I’d like to know if you agree with me, that to a certain extent, your previous film, The Foreigner, is a pseudo spy movie—it’s like a spy movie only it doesn’t ever work out quite right…
AP Well, yeah, a bad spy movie.
SC Or, Unmade Beds, which is reminiscent of the style of a French New Wave film, referring to Godard’s Breathless?
AP Yeah…Unmade Beds was a homage and The Foreigner was an anti-homage. Each film has to be the complete opposite of the one preceding it…
SC Oh yeah?
AP That’s what keeps it interesting.
SC Do you feel that you self-consciously make references to other films or to other genres?
SC I do.
AP Yeah but I don’t even see those things anymore. Only in Unmade Beds, I retain that feeling, but not really in The Foreigner or in Subway Riders.
SC How do you conceive The Foreigner?
AP The Foreigner remains a mystery to me now, a very cloudy space where questions are allowed to go. Say you call it a genre, where the typical film tells a story by giving certain facts. The Foreigner tells a story by leaving out the facts, a cloudy space where ambiguity, most fears, and emotions exist. If the film is successful at all, in any sense, it’s only if that occurs, that type of mystery…
SC Do you self-consciously frustrate the viewer’s accustomed expectations?
AP No, I never frustrate their expectation. I have no idea of their expectation…except to be entertained.
SC It’s like being a host at a party?
SC What about acting? Do you conceive of characters and then find actors and actresses that can make those characters come alive? Or do you use personalities to fill out the characters; almost as extensions of the actor’s own personality—as with John for instance?
AP Both, I try for a balance of both. I just look and listen.
SC In terms of acting style, do you subscribe to some notion of naturalism or realism or do you feel that your casting as well as your directing is…well in most of your work the acting is very deadpan, low key…underacted for the most part. The impression is not that you’re attempting to make a realistic character but that you are allowing the realism of the actor and the filmmaking moment to emerge. It’s not dramatic acting.
AP Well…it’s below dramatic acting. Sub-dramatic…
SC Would you say it’s stylized?
AP Sometimes when the actor understands the emotion of stylizing a character, it’s stylized…
SC Well, for instance, the character Eric plays in The Foreigner is very stylized. He didn’t resemble a spy, as much as he did an actor in a spy movie…an actor acting. I had the impression he was acting the part of an actor not a spy.
AP Well, that’s Eric’s approach to acting. He’s extremely specific and that’s where it comes from.
SC Do you use actors and actresses of different types and different approaches?
AP In Subway Riders, they’re all extremely different. Susan Tyrrell is very dramatic, Cookie is both camp-comical and poetic, Charli is kind of weird method, Robbie Coltrane is like British or Scottish Shakesperean. I think the most dimensional actor I’ve worked with, John, is a natural type like…Peter Lorre. But most of the actors I’ve worked with I never saw act.
SC Do you see the context of your work changing as time goes on?
AP I hope so. Yes, but I can’t explain.
SC Who do you feel your audience is and has been?
AP I think my audience has been the modern alienated young person of the world.
SC So they have to be alienated?
AP Or at least have experienced it at some point in their lives and aware that they experienced it. But the work changes and I think the audience is not that limited, as far as popular culture…my idea of my work’s importance is to see how it moves the culture to where I’d like to see it. Pop Art.
SC But wouldn’t you make a distinction between Pop Art including film of course, and popular art?
SC The difference between Campbell’s Soup and a Warhol? I think there’s a difference between Pop Film and popular films.
AP You can have a Pop film that’s not popular, but I don’t think you can have a popular film that’s not Pop.
SC You don’t? Would you say Apocalypse Now is Pop?
AP Extremely. It’s experimental American Pop. The two most important American films of the seventies—Apocalypse Now and The Godfather—moved American culture or reflected it in some way. Whereas, Star Wars, for instance, became a culture or something like that. An ever expanding neighborhood. So I feel a little less isolated maybe, more friends more enemies.Subway Riders is an attempt to see more than my block, it’s much broader.
SC To what extent do you feel the film is a product of the director and to what extent do you feel it’s collaborative?
AP Most films are a direct responsibility or expression of the director. There is a collaboration that occurs between the director, the writer, the actor, the camera person and the rest of the crew. The better that collaboration, the better the film ultimately becomes.
SC What about the relationship between a director and a producer, a particularly critical relationship in terms of the outcome of films in general. Have you worked with producers in any traditional sense?
AP No I never have. Except for Subway Riders—I’ve produced all my films. Subway Riderswas co-produced by Johanna Heer, under the corporate title of Hep Pictures.
SC In terms of future films that you’re planning, what kind of production situation are you ideally working towards?
AP I wouldn’t mind producing my own films or the films of other directors. But the thought of having a competent person to take on that responsibility and not interfere in the work that I must do, is certainly appealing. Ideal.
SC Do you want financing from “Hollywood,” big production companies?
AP Yeah. That would be ideal.
SC In your writing as well as your editing, how do you conceive of or use the experience of lived time in relation to the experience of “fictive time?” Is temporality in general a critical dimension of your work?
AP I’m not sure if I understand the word “temporality”.
SC About time, having to do with time.
AP Oh…I thought you meant political as distinguished from spiritual…you mean how do I edit time?
SC How do you use film time in relation to fictive time?
AP In Unmade Beds I tried to incorporate ‘time-lapse’ between two eras, the late ’50s versus the late ’70s. The real time was inspiring a kind of trip through time, to a time that you wanted to be in or were in fact in, part of the time; therefore you were in the time that you were in…the “retro look”, as in fashion…baggy pants and pink shoe laces…two tone shoes. A creation of reality that deals with memory, a chain reaction of nostalgia. So that the “success” of the film is whether it can communicate today, yesterday, and tomorrow.
SC So what you’re saying, is that you make a film of current time, and that you’re incorporating the fictive time of the ‘50s, and then you’re boiling it down to 90 minutes?
AP Yeah. But the fictive time…ummm…comes from the movies of that era not through having been conscious of living in it. So that Breathless will always be about the late ’50s becoming the ’60s, and Unmade Beds the ’70s becoming the ’80s. The stuff of legends.
SC In other words, you feel that the fiction or the narrative is located in one point in time, from which the past or the future is perceived?
AP Exactly, perceived. The vanishing point or illusion. In Unmade Beds it was a kind of joke to recreate another time and another place. James Nares did the same thing a couple of years later, with Rome ’78, which was a joke about a more previous time, but was very much about 1978 Bohemia.
SC So it’s a joke about the romanticism of the times we’re living in?
AP It was.
SC Do you feel your films are about now—about a contemporary experience?
SC So the violence of Subway Riders is very much how you experience the violence of NY—of our environment.
AP Filtered through this sensitivity to current times comes my expression and my vision, visuals specific to my life—being alive, not just fashionable.
SC What do your movies represent? Do they come from your experience, your fantasies, your unconscious?
AP They come probably from fears, fears and yearnings.
SC So they are a projection of your unconscious?
SC To what sense do you incorporate actual dreams into your writing of a script—into your imagination or realization of a movie?
AP Completely. I don’t sense any borders…ummm I view my films a lot of times in a state of…semi-consciousness. When I see the old films, it’s like a recurring dream or ghosts in a familiar landscape that haunt me.
SC So, making films is like making dreams, for you?
AP Exactly, but I don’t know if the films look like my dreams…
SC I’m not talking about look like, so much as what part of your mind you write from.
AP Writing and especially shooting a film is like being in the middle of a very powerful dream, an excited state, sweat and chills…that’s why after shooting a film, everyone goes into a coma or a deep depression or both. There’s almost nothing as satisfying as the production period—it’s crazy and it’s when I feel most alive.
SC Would you identify with the lead character or all of the characters in Subway Riders? Are they projections of you?
AP They’re projections of both myself and the people who portray those characters, the actors whose work is to become the film. If I was just writing it, yes, it would be just me; but since it’s performed, it’s not just me…and that’s a great release and relief. That’s why I wouldn’t want to act in a film I direct.
SC But that’s in fact what you did in Subway Riders.
AP That was against my better judgment.
SC I suppose I’m suggesting that you work more directly out of your unconscious—less self-consciously than most people. Not only filmmakers but artists as well; your approach is more intuitive than intellectual.
AP I suppose…I’m sentimental, romantic—it brings out an intuitive logic. The intellect is there but I’ve got to feel it in my gut, maybe that’s intuition. I don’t know. Sometimes when people see my films, they say I got a “good eye,” not a “good mind,” but I think cinema is sensual not intellectual.
SC Do you think they’re naive?
AP Yeah. I treasure that. It’s like something that’s me that I try to retain, just to keep sane. I think we’re all naive, it’s just that some of us express it, some defend it, some just try to live with it. You can’t be an artist if you’re not naive. When the radishes come up, they come up. You don’t question the radishes. If they taste good, they taste good. (laughter)
SC Your The Blank Generation, was about music. Is that still a primary interest for you in terms of film?
AP Yeah. Music is one of the primal motives behind my films, and that’s my primary motive in making movies, changing the culture that we live in. I mean if we don’t change what’s going on, then who will? With The Blank Generation, it was all happening around the corner, in the neighborhood, now it’s so much more widespread, but less intense.
SC Do you think there is a common style among the younger underground filmmakers in New York?
AP No. Not as such. There’s some people that could be grouped together. The B’s, Eric, Vivienne Dick, and Becky, even Betsy all work in Super 8, but their films are quite different, apart from the fact that they’re both primitive and sophisticated in the same breath.
SC You’ve been called both a punk and a new wave filmmaker…to what extent do you see that term as a kind of stylistic label, are there basic conceptual ideas that those terms represent?
AP There are conceptual innovations, just like you could group Rosselini, Visconti, and DeSica, and call them postwar Italian neo-realists, that’s more like a group show, and I’m not that interested in the similarities between artists but more in their uniqueness…
SC Is there a common style? I’m trying to generalize.
AP O.K. Ummm…there are some films that may be similar on a literary level, like Becky’s and Betsy’s. Maybe Edo and Eric have the same fashion fetishisms…James’ Rome 78 reminded me a lot of Unmade Beds…I think the B’s intentionally or unintentionally copied The Foreigner, in some of their films…there were a whole rash of films for a while about terrorists and kidnappings when that was in the news. Michael Oblowitz uses stereotypes and camera movements that are a lot like The Foreigner‘s, except they’re cleaner. Vivienne Dick’s films are quite unique. But basically, there’s a big difference in everyone’s approach and care. Once you take the time to look at each film—you sense more the differences than the similarities.
SC In your life in New York, it seems you spend as much time with visual artists as you do with filmmakers. Is there a common thread?
AP I’m drawn more to artists, than to one particular medium…
SC Is there a commonality between the best of the fllmmaking that’s being done and other current art?
AP Yeah, hustling, exposure, immediate and long-term gratification. Some filmmakers do other things besides making films. The common bonds of people interest me, but I still see most everything in terms of cinema…I’m still a voyeur but I’m beginning to participate more. I’m learning, my attitude is becoming less passive. Or my passivity is becoming more active.
SC It’s as though you were watching your life as if it were a movie.
AP Yeah…a tragicomedy, a musical, a love story…whatever. I want to make movies and I want to live. I guess that’s my role in the movie I’m watching. I feel like that’s what I was born to do. I think this is where I came in…
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee