On Art, Identity, Families, Fragmentation, Medication . . . and Fulfillment
George Hickenlooper’s life on film began shortly after his graduation from Yale in 1986 with Picture This, a documentary on the making of Texasville, Peter Bogdanovich’s sequel to his own groundbreaking 1971 feature, Last Picture Show. So began an association with the architects of what Hickenlooper has asserted in his 1991 collection of interviews, Reel Conversations, was the last Golden Age of Hollywood filmmaking. Since then he has gone on to profile on film other such figures as Dennis Hopper, Monte Hellman and, with co-director Fax Bahr, Francis Ford Coppola – the latter for Hearts of Darkness, their Emmy-winning account of the filming of Apocalypse Now.
Not content with mastering one form, Hickenlooper has also written and directed a series of fiction films of increasing technical and narrative sophistication in a variety of genres, from Grey Knight (variously also known as Ghost Brigade and The Killing Box) in 1992 to the short film on which Knight co-star Billy Bob Thornton’s breakthrough feature Sling Blade was based, Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade, in ’93. There followed the post-collegiate drama The Low Life in ’95, the crime thriller Persons Unknown the following year, and his take on Bogdanovich territory, Dogtown, the next. In 2001 he released both an adaptation of the unproduced Orson Welles political thriller The Big Brass Ring, and a romantic comedy in the Lubitsch vein, The Man from Elysian Fields. His 2003 documentary on deejay and scenester Rodney Bingenheimer, Mayor of the Sunset Strip, was a highly acclaimed dry-run for many of the characters and themes he would revisit in the controversial Factory Girl in 2006, his reading of the tragic life of actress, model, and muse to Andy Warhol in the 1960s and early ’70s, Edie Sedgwick. While not universally well received, the film has had an active life in home video and serves as a prism onto the whole of Hickenlooper’s output so far. Whether fiction or verité, all his films have borne a personal stamp, whether in references to his own life experience or themes and imagery from a canon of highly personal iconography.
When we first spoke, Hickenlooper was heavily into promoting the video release of Factory Girl. Our talk was interrupted by the writers’ strike, during which he stayed busy scripting and directing episodes of the on-line series speechlesswithoutwriters.com. On last speaking, he had a new script he was hoping to interest A-list talent in, was developing a TV pilot, and, as always, was patient, thoughtful, engaged, and realistic about his life and work. He is as passionate as he is independent, modest as he is ambitious, and as rewarding in his film history as he is formidable in his future.
In Factory Girl, Edie’s therapy sessions and screen tests are complemented by Andy’s confessions and film interviews. All recall your own background in the interview format.
When I made the film I deliberately wanted to evoke all the sensibilities I had making my documentaries; they elicit a truth of character even in fictional films that sometimes you don’t necessarily get in dialog with two characters. Such dialogues have an interesting dynamic in themselves and either they ring true or they don’t, but when you’re dealing with an actor in an on-camera style interview there’s nowhere for that actor to hide. The performance has to ring very true, and I think it heightens the realism of the piece, which makes it interesting to me as both a documentary filmmaker and a narrative/fictional filmmaker.
It’s interesting that, through all these confessional situations, the one person who refuses to participate in such revelation is your Bob Dylan character, Billy Quinn. Since the film is stamped less than usual with the autobiographical elements that you brought to your other films, is this a way of saying that there is less of yourself in Factory Girl?
I think the opposite. I think there’s more of me in Factory Girl than in any of my other films. There’s not the token “autobiographical stamps” – references to St. Louis [Hickenlooper’s hometown] or whatever that peppered my other films – but on a purely visceral level, I made the picture for the same reasons I made Mayor of the Sunset Strip, because something in Rodney’s character or Edie’s character reminded me of myself. When I first read the Factory Girl script I had very little knowledge of or interest in Edie Sedgwick. But Edie reflected in me a kind of emptiness that I experienced as a child of divorced parents looking for films as a kind of medication to heal the pain of that abandonment. I made Mayor because I felt that this emotional dynamic that I had and that I saw in Rodney and Edie was kind of metaphorical in terms of western culture’s relation to celebrity and use of celebrity and fame. So in many respects Factory Girl is more autobiographical than any film I’ve made, because my other films have token aspects of my life which I inject for reasons of vanity or whatever, but this film emotionally rings true at least to my childhood. I mean, I have nothing to do with Edie, I’m not like her in any way except for that simple and broad emotional dynamic that she had with her family and what drove her to the Factory – the same thing that drove me to Hollywood.
She’s more of a window onto a certain experience or characteristic.
Yeah. That’s why it’s important to note why Mayor and Factory Girl are really good companion films and would make a great double bill. Because there are in fact references to Edie in Mayor long before I even knew I was going to do Factory Girl.
Edie’s sanitarium sessions relate to the interview that makes up a large part of Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade. Putting these into the context of your own interviews with film icons like Dennis Hopper and Francis Coppola, I get the idea that the “asylum” is Hollywood itself.
Absolutely. As a fairly dysfunctional person myself, I felt quite at home in the dysfunction of Hollywood.
But Hollywood is not a freak show. (You know the joke, if you tipped the United States over, all the nuts would fall to California.) It’s simply a microcosm or an exaggerated paradigm of what the rest of the country is. And so I guess it’s not the insane asylum; in a sense, the entire country is. The interest in celebrity has grown exponentially in the last 30 years. In 1975 you had People magazine and Rona Barrett on the “Today” show and that was about it, and in the ’40s you had Photoplay and Walter Winchell, and now you know what the checkout stand looks like at the supermarket. All major news stories now lead off with Britney Spears. We have surpassed Paddy Chayefsky’s vision of media in Network.
But because Hollywood is under a microscope, behavior like that tends to be magnified more. It’s the last outpost of the Wild West, the last frontier from a hundred years ago. It was pushed to the Pacific Ocean and it’s still here in Los Angeles. Anybody, from any walk of life, if you’re from a trailer park, if you went to Yale, or if you didn’t even graduate from high school, if you have something that is deemed saleable in this ravenous marketplace, you can be successful and live the “American dream.” And there’s no other place in the world left other than L.A. where that exists, which makes it a very unique city, and at the same time makes it almost unbearable to live in, because it’s one of the only places in the world where 90 percent of the population is here for one reason and the other 10 percent are here to clean hotel rooms and make beds. So the idea of intimacy or friendship or any human relationship is built upon this idea of usury and achieving success – striking gold in this Wild West outpost.
It’s one of the hallmarks of your documentaries that they often reveal or express the ambiguous sides of your subjects that you don’t see in ordinary industry profiles. So it’s notable that among these, your piece on Monte Hellman, American Auteur is the only one free of such a critical tone. Can I assume that Hellman represents some sort of avatar to you of the ’70s sensibility you’ve termed a Golden Age of American filmmaking?
The documentaries reflect the personalities. Monte Hellman is a very humble, demure figure. He made one masterpiece, in my view – I mean, he made many good films; The Shooting I love, and that Warren Oates one, Cockfighter. Two-Lane Blacktop I think is an absolute masterpiece and one of the greatest films of the ’70s. It’s a really elegant portrait of America at that particular time.
It’s very difficult to be critical of Monte or to scrutinize him because he’s very much a cipher; he’s almost transparent in the sense that when you talk to him you’re sort of experiencing his aesthetic point of view. He’s very quiet, very humble. Rodney is in many ways, too, but the Rodney documentary is much more scrutinizing of him because he invited scrutiny; he was much more open, and so hungry for attention. Also, the Monte Hellman piece is a short one. I don’t know if Monte has had the career to sustain a feature-length documentary. I felt that film reflected Monte’s view on life, that he hasn’t had a lot of success as a director, and I think part of that is his personality type – he’s a very quiet filmmaker, and so the documentary resonated that kind of aura that he had.
And his willingness to work behind the scenes so much — editing Grey Knight. . .
That was a great honor for me. I can’t tell you how excited I was having him do that.
You were talking about the trauma that the country seems to be experiencing, or nullifying itself to. This recalls some imagery in several of your films — of characters getting hit by cars. It happens in The Low Life,in Dogtown — first the dog, and later the Philip Van Horn character — it happens to a couple of different people in Persons Unknown. Edie herself is a figurative roadkill of the Factory machine.
Besides these events, some kind of father figure also dies in several of your films — the early ones, at least: Blessed Williams in Dogtown, Uncle Darr in Low Life, Tobias Alcott in Man from Elysian Fields, Kim Mennaker in Big Brass Ring.
And in essence Andy Warhol dies: when Edie leaves him he stops being human. He becomes a kind of caricature. At least that was my view, my intention. Edie was Eros, and when she split from him he was left with a sort of death instinct. It turns him into kind of a caricature and more of a monster, and as the years progressed you see him becoming more and more a grotesque version of that. So in a way, he sort of passes away.
With your first three film profiles being on the architects of the “Golden Age” — Dennis Hopper, Peter Bogdanovich, and Francis Coppola — and the way they crashed and burned like your other “fathers,” is there a comment to be found here on the difficulty of creating a personality as a filmmaker yourself after such a storied age?
I think the early part of my career has been about finding my own voice, clearly, and for a long time – this is really hard for me to admit, because what filmmaker wants to admit that they don’t have a voice? When you grow up in a divorced home you fall in love with movies and those movies become who you are. Those movies seep into your DNA. Those movies become your parents, in a very emotional, subconscious sense. So when I reached a level of maturity and I had access to these filmmakers, without them even knowing it my tribute to these guys was a way of saying thank you – thank you for looking out for me when I was a kid; thank you for creating these great works of art. These movies were and they weren’t love letters, because I made them in a very intelligent way. I mean, I wasn’t making puff pieces, I was making serious and intelligent documentaries, but my interest in making them inherently came from this love. And so as a consequence of that, I made a lot of films where I was evoking the sensibilities of a lot of other directors – Orson Welles, Bogdanovich, John Ford. Dogtown is clearly an homage to Last Picture Show – more than an homage, it’s virtually a ripoff.
A cover version.
Yeah, exactly – a cover version of Last Picture Show, though it can hardly be compared to that film, which is a masterpiece. Dogtown was made by a very young filmmaker struggling to find his own voice and dealing with certain autobiographical aspects but still clearly not confident as a storyteller. Persons Unknown was an opportunity for me to do something in a genre I hadn’t dealt with before, and yet there are parts of me that clearly manifest themselves – Naomi Watts’ being an artist was completely my invention (I drew a lot as a child, for the same reason I watched a lot of movies). They display a certain lack of confidence as a storyteller simply because I was too immature as a filmmaker to know my own voice. Even a movie like Big Brass Ring, where I took on Orson Welles – which now that I think about it was pretty damn audacious – despite its limitations, I think it holds up. I would have done the ending a little differently, but for a $4 million film it’s pretty smart. I was evoking Orson Welles but it also had a very strong voice because I was injecting myself within his framework. (My great-uncle had been the governor of Iowa, so I knew that whole political milieu and I related to it.) I think, next to Factory Girl, the most autobiographical film I’ve made is The Low Life, and it’s one of my personal favorites. The original draft was written by John Enbom but I completely rewrote it, and the entire Sean Astin character was my invention. That was a reflection of a relationship I had with someone at Yale who was like a brother to me and was killed in a car accident.
Wow. Yeah. Another one. His name was John Linck. Very devastating – still, to this day.
I’ve just written a script that I’m real excited about; I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. It’s adapted from a novel called Morning Spy, Evening Spy [by Colin MacKinnon]. Very different from anything I’ve done before. It’s about a CIA agent who – wow, this is so freaky – his marriage is falling apart because he lost his son in a car accident. It’s set in the year 2000 –
So it’s a futuristic story.
Yeah – and he has a directive to find and hunt Osama bin Laden. The whole tone of it is about now, even though it’s set pre-9/11, but he’s sort of given a back-off from the CIA. They’re taking al-Qaeda seriously, but it’s not a priority right now. They’re interested in finding Colombian drug lords and they’re worried about the Chinese, and this guy really knows how serious bin Laden is and in a way is using him the way Edie Sedgwick used celebrity, as a sort of medication to deal with his own fragmented personal life. In that sense I see him as a metaphor for Western culture now. I mean, Islamic extremism is very dangerous, but our obsession with it as the living, breathing Satan of our time is a sort of medication for not dealing with what is going on inside ourselves and is what has brought us to this point. We often build up these people and then they become our enemies, and how does that define us? In a way this agent is a broken metaphor for the way our country is fragmented – historically, in terms of its foreign policy. Adolf Hitler was our ally and then he wasn’t. Stalin was our ally and then he wasn’t. Ho Chi Minh was trained by the Vietcong to fight the Japanese by the OSS and then he was our enemy. So it’s the natural cycle of history, and yet it creates this sort of chaos. And that fragmentation is seen in very broad terms of guilt. This movie is about trying to find your way home.
Andy Garcia’s last trick in Elysian Fields tells him, “For what I’m paying you I expect you to be on my side about everything” — which Chuck Wein echoes when he tells Warhol “I can get her to say anything you want.” It’s a chilling line, and really makes Wein out to be something of a pimp. That recalls the whole theme of whoredom in other of your films, as it comes up in Dogtown, Low Life, as well as Elysian Fields. I wonder if you can talk for a minute about what that concept means to you.
Where does it occur in Low Life? I’m blanking.
It’s a leap, but in the first shot of the film John Martin is standing under a sign which says “Now Renting.” Then in Dogtown we understand that character was turning tricks when he was in Hollywood.
I think it’s this kind of polarity between knowing that you have talent and intellect but due to lack of self-esteem – and I think everyone can relate to this – not feeling worthy and so underselling yourself. Or – this is better, actually, as it rings more true for me – feeling a kind of isolation and estrangement from the mainstream. And I don’t want to sound self-important when I’m saying this, but – because of one’s intelligence and talent, feeling like an outsider because you don’t connect with the collective express train of mainstream culture. You feel like the train is rushing you by, not for lack of anything unique, but because you are unique you can relate to the rest of the world but it can’t relate to you. So you feel the need to make yourself commodifiable at your most base level because you feel that that’s the only way you’ll feel embraced by the mainstream. The sense of whoring oneself is selling yourself at the most primal and base level with the hope of sneaking your intelligence in through the back door.
That feeling of alienation materializes in another motif in your films, that of homelessness. There’s a homeless person in Persons Unknown and Big Brass Ring, John Martin sleeps on the street near the end of Low Life,Rodney Bingenheimer is dumped on the streets of L.A. by his mother early in his life, Byron loses two homes in Elysian Fields.
Orson Welles, whom I worshiped to some degree, was fascinated by failure. His movies reeked with failure. And to me it’s much more interesting than success. Failure, the breakdown, human decay. I love older people – I love drawing old people, I love that wear and tear of life. It’s filled with such rich history. And when you see a homeless person you just wonder and think, God there must be incredible history here. I’ve even got a homeless moment in my Morning Spy script.
On the other hand, you have several characters who are drawn back to their homelands. Peter Bogdanovich returns to Archer City for Texasville[which Hickenlooper documented in Picture This], Jim Holland to his honeymoon hideaway in Persons Unknown, Dogtown’s Philip Van Horn to his Missouri hometown, and finally Edie back to Santa Barbara by the end of her drama.
It all stems back to my childhood. I don’t have a very romantic view of the 1960s. My mother was a political organizer in the early 1970s and kind of made the 1960s her mission and didn’t spend a whole lot of time at home. To me the ’60s were much more about the Manson family. It was a very corrosive period in American history, and it had really negative consequences in the 1980s: all the failed idealism led to cynicism and a culture of greed. I’m speaking in very broad terms here, but my view of the ’60s certainly colored Factory Girl, which was why I think it got such a venomous response, ’cause it was playing against all the clichés and romantic stereotypes about how great an era it was. I saw it as a very narcissistic time where basically you ended up with a bunch of abandoned children with latchkeys to fend for themselves. Tom Hayden, Jane Fonda, Joan Baez – all those people were hanging out at my house; Cesar Chavez and all these great political figures. I thought it ironic that when Elia Kazan at the Academy Awards in 1999 went up to get his honorary Oscar, all these self-important actors refused to even applaud him, and yet when Jane Fonda took the stage – a woman who actually sat in a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft gunner post taking pictures [rather, she was photographed there herself] – was given a standing ovation. I’m not a McCarthyite or anything; I just see a lot of hypocrisy, and so I feel my whole adult life has been trying to reexamine or to re-find my way home. A home I never really had, or had when I was very young.
So filming is kind of creating a home to come back to.
That’s probably why I was so obsessed with The Wizard of Oz. “There’s no place like home,” right? And when we’re talking about home we’re talking about who we are at our core.
In Jungian terms, it’s a turning inward to a mystical center of the self.
Absolutely. If you can find your way home you can find your way back to God, maybe not in religious terms, but the essence of Who Created Us, which is home. Whether you’re religious or not, we ultimately come from something. In my view we’re not all arbitrary accidents. I’m not into transcendental design, I just think that home is all about who we are at our core. We can never escape from or leave there, so you need to embrace who you are and find peace in that.
At the same time, every center has its Minotaur — which has several meanings, including that of the divided self: half-man/half-beast; the instincts against the intellect. In Factory Girl, Edie’s father, Fuzzy, seems to be the monstrous aspect of this figure, but Andy in his divided character suggests something of a Minotaur, too.
Besides the Minotaur there’s the Tiresian figure too, the ambiguous, hermaphroditic character who enables the transference of reality into art — the soothsayer and the truthspeaker. You play such a character in the beginning of Grey Knight, the effeminate artist painting the General’s picture. Warhol is described in similar terms, as taking ordinary objects and turning them into icons. The role of the filmmaker?
Certainly in Factory Girl Edie Sedgwick is an underground icon, but I thought one of the things that appealed to me was trying to make her – and I say this in all humility – trying to make her more of a national icon, to raise her level of importance in pop culture by making people more aware of her. She had a profound effect on this culture, but I don’t think she was ever properly credited for it, and I think I had a certain obligation in raising her profile in the American consciousness. And I think I did that, to some degree.
Even though you speak of Warhol in almost purely negative terms outside of Factory Girl, in the movie he comes across as very rounded — sad, gifted, influential, and moving. In fact, the only character who enjoys no privileged moment of insight or nuance is, again, Fuzzy.
Like a lot of your characters, Edie is seduced into a sort of netherworld, maybe paralleling your own drawing into the Coppola fold to make Hearts of Darkness.
Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is one of my favorite novellas. That river metaphor – you can really cast a wide net with that in terms of storytelling. There’s quite a bit of Heart of Darkness in Big Brass Ring, I think we even actually quote it when Mennaker questions young Blake; he mixes Mark Twain with Conrad. And even in Low Life there’s a certain bit of venturing out into the heart of darkness of Los Angeles. Dogtown’s returning home has a sense of the journey. With Edie it’s the Factory, with the way Warhol became the Kurtz figure. It’s a theme that really interests me, taking this journey, because it relates to finding your way home. With Marlowe in Heart of Darkness he’s finding his way to the really dark and organic side of primal human nature, but in a way Conrad is saying he’s finding his way back home to who we are.
Edie’s brush with conventionality on Arthur Bainbridge’s marriage proposal is similar to Andy’s near-miss with her, romantically. Mayor has a scene where you encourage Rodney to pop the question to Camille, andElysian has a character similarly rebuffed. As an independent filmmaker, does this reflect a particular aversion of your own toward the Hollywood mainstream, as an alliance that perhaps should never happen?
Yeah, I think so. There’s this kind of ultimate rejection that I’ve felt since I was young, coming from, as we’ve discussed, that era. I’ve always felt a little bit like an outsider, more like the bridesmaid when it came to mainstream Hollywood. My sensibilities are different than what it takes to be quantifiable in Hollywood’s terms. But it’s fine, I mean it’s garnered me quite a bit of respect and enabled me to have a career and to have created a name for myself. I wish I’d made more money, but there’s a certain price you have to pay for wanting to do quality work that’s a reflection of who you are, you know? I’m not good at being Brett Ratner.
The Syd Pepperman character in Factory Girl seems to have a thing for Edie too, which puts him in the company of a lot of the naifs in your pictures. The character is so interesting, I wonder if there were more to him in earlier drafts of the script. You could almost see the whole thing restructured with him as the main character, observing this culture in a Nick Carraway kind of vein.
The film ends, basically, in a hallway. Some Folks Call It a Sling Bladebegins and ends there; that’s where Mayor begins, and it’s a strong visual element in Elysian and Ring. Can you talk for a minute on the significance of the setting?
I’ve always been fascinated by hallways, and I’m sure there’s some primal reason I’m interested in entranceways and passageways. I remember when I was a child of three or four in 1968 or ’69, Life magazine had a photo profile of a boys’ orphanage, and there’s a series of shots of an orderly chasing a young boy. The boy is trying to escape, and you can see him kind of longingly looking for his parents. He’s naked and he’s running down these hallways and this orderly is chasing him, and I remember being very frightened by these photos. I asked my mother to explain them and she did her best, but it could sort of tie in to this whole idea of abandonment and longing and loss that seems to dominate a lot of my films.
Between the wordsmith, Dylan, and the image-maker, Warhol — two facets of the filmmaker — is Edie. Can you say precisely what she represents, and what her death signifies?
Edie is a life force. I mean, what do writers and image-makers have in common? They draw from life. And when Edie dies, or falls out of their world, they lose their purity. And I’m not saying this is a bad thing either, I’m not trying to judge their value as artists after her death (I consider them both very profound artists), but in an aesthetic, semiotic way, they lost their purity, their innocence as artists when she left that realm. Because she was to a great degree an inspiration to both of them. And I don’t think she’s been given enough credit for influencing Warhol, publicly. I mean, if she had been just a beautiful, overindulged debutante who was pretty on Andy’s arm she would have been long forgotten, but she endures because her influence on him was so profound. It’s been undocumented, but it’s there. And I think that’s why it’s persisted and survived for four decades.
Several women reveal men to themselves via their artworks in a lot of your films, most notably in Persons and Dogtown, and possibly Ring. Edie shows Billy a sketch of a bird, but it’s actually Syd who delivers the most telling picture here, in the cab ride toward the end, when he gives her an old photo of herself as a student at Radcliffe. What did Factory Girl and Edie tell you about yourself, and where would you take this learning from here?
The picture Edie gives to Billy comes in the middle of the film and it’s the fulcrum, the whole eye of the hurricane. That moment defines Edie’s character. Her real passion was to be an artist herself, but it was completely consumed by her father – a dominant figure who also was an artist – and by Andy himself. If you remember the phone conversation in the first act, she’s talking about having an art show, and Andy is worried he hasn’t sold enough Brillo boxes. And so she’s constantly squelched, and not emotionally strong enough to succeed because she’s so fragmented internally. She can’t draw love through her natural talent, so she does it by becoming this fabulous, beautiful thing, because she can do that, too. It’s not necessarily what she wants, but it’s a medication that makes up for what’s lacking in her life. One of the tragedies of Billy is that he recognizes her ability as an artist and wanted to help her, but in the wrong way. He misunderstands her. Had he tried to nurture her drawing and told her you’ve got to get out of this scene and go back to what you were trying to do when you were in school. If you had a sense of self, you wouldn’t be so restless, you wouldn’t have wanted to leave Radcliffe. . . But because she is so fragmented, she did wind up going to New York. Had she been nurtured in the proper way, I don’t think she would have been a great artist or even a known artist, but she would have found some internal peace. And that ultimately is the biggest success you can have in life.