Friday, May 7, 2010

Our full interview with Yony Leyser

Posted By on Fri, May 7, 2010 at 7:00 AM

click to enlarge burroughs_poster.jpg

When articles run in the print edition of the Pitch, they sometimes have to be edited to fit. In the case of this week's interview with Yony Leyser, the director of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, there were a couple of interesting stories that we just weren't able to fit in. Here is the interview in its entirety.

How long ago did you start on the film?

Is started five years ago in Lawrence. I was kicked out of Cal Arts Film School in Los Angeles and my sister taught in Lawrence. I went there and started developing the project. I wrote an article for the paper called "From Beatnik to Anarchist: Radical Eruptions in Lawrence." I started working from there. I mentioned Burroughs and started talking to the estate, and was introduced to several of his friends down there, and started working on the project. I had no idea it would turn into such a big movie and how big of a scale it would become.

When you say "paper," is that the University Daily Kansan or Lawrence Journal-World?

The Kansan, yeah.

So, you got introduced to all these people. Did the idea for the film start taking place right away or was it sort of a gradual process, or did it start right away?

No, I'm a documentary filmmaker. I've been making movies since I was 16. I started working on it there right after my 20th birthday. It's like Burroughs says--he sees his books are like turning a film into words. He was someone that comes across great on film. Film is a powerful medium. There've been a lot of great books on Burroughs, but I don't think there's been a great comprehensive documentary since the one when he was alive--the Howard Brookner one. Since his death, I decided there needed to be one made, so I made it.

You spoke with his friends and you spoke with those he influenced. Did you get footage from any of these people that hadn't been used before?

Yeah, there was lots and lots of footage that hasn't been used before. Most of it came from people's basements. One friend in Lawrence, Tom Petchio had quite a bit home footage of him...Wayne Probst. Sonic Youth, when I was interviewing them were like, "we shot all of this Super-8 film of him that was never touched or developed or watched." It went on like that.

It took you five years. When did the film debut?

It debuted last January at Slamdance in Park City.

Since then, where have you shown it? I know you just got back from Sarasota.

Steve Buscemi is making an adaptation of Queer, so he launched that down in Sarasota. Patti Smith came down and performed, and my film screened as part of those Burroughs events. It screened in Chicago. It's screening just before Lawrence in Baltimore. John Waters is presenting it at the Maryland Film Festival. Then it's going to Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., Philadelphia, Provincetown, London, Melbourne, Sao Paulo. That's where we have it scheduled so far, and more dates are being confirmed.

Are there any plans for a forthcoming DVD release of this?

Yeah - after the film festivals, and then theatrical. Then DVD. It's going to be released in the fall to select art house theaters around the world, and then TV and DVD next spring.

I've noticed that there have been a lot of special guests at these screenings. Patti Smith in Sarasota, and James Grauerholz is speaking with you when you present the movie at Liberty Hall. Have there been any other people who've turned up at these screenings who've surprised you in terms of their relation to Burroughs?

It hasn't screened that much. I'm sure it will happen more as the screenings come. Gus Van Sant came to the screening in Park City. That was nice. Genesis P Orridge came to the one in Florida. It's really only screened three times so far.

Is there anyone involved with Burroughs who you would like to see the movie?

I'd like everyone involved with Burroughs to see the movie.

Were you a fan of Burroughs work before you made the movie?

I read the Beats in high school and was hugely influenced--it changed my world. Part of the reason I came to Lawrence was because I knew Burroughs lived there. I had been there before, because my sister lived there, and I knew it was a nice town. I kind of almost moved to Lawrence with the intention of working on something about him.

Is there a specific sort of person you're trying to attract to the film, or do you hope this film speaks to people that aren't familiar with Burroughs' work?

I think it especially speaks to them. I just screened at the Sarasota Film Festival, and it's the oldest audience--everyone in the audience was 55 plus. The majority of them were 55 plus, or 65 plus. It's all retirees down there. They were a little nervous because there's queer elements, junkie elements, guns, the shooting of a wife, all these punks. I was a little nervous, but they loved it. Every single comment, everyone who raised their hand during Q&A--they loved it. And, I asked them, 'How many of you are familiar with William Burroughs' work?' Not very many were, like maybe 20%. I asked, 'How many of you have heard of William Burroughs?' About 40% of the audience. I asked, 'How many of you knew of any of the peoples' work in the film?' Only 60% of the audience. So, 40% of the audience didn't know any of the well-known people in the film, didn't know William Burroughs, and loved it, and loved it as a film. So, I think that is a big compliment. I think that people who aren't familiar with his work, and only know the name will love it. The film's for everybody. As far as the Lawrence screening, I think it's going to be the coolest screening of all. Half the people at the screening will have known him, or seen him around, or met him. He lived in Lawrence longer than anywhere else. So, this hometown screening is probably the most important screening we'll have, at least as far as William is concerned, or what he would've wanted.

You can also read Scott Wilson's review of the film before you go see it Sunday, May 9, at Liberty Hall.

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