Veteran underground filmmaker Jacob Burckhardt is surfacing in New York for a retrospective of his career output. If you’re in the Big Apple on April 17 and 18, you’ll be able to check out his iconoclastic and always-entertaining films.
Burckhardt has been shooting films since the 1970s, and has produced 33 films to date. Much of his work has been self-financed, and his sources of income have been anything but quotidian: he’s been a blueberry picker, steel mill laborer, Fuller Brush salesman, truck driver, taxi driver, camera repairman and a fine art photographer. He’s been behind the scenes on other people’s films, including a stint of sound recording in North Africa, and he currently runs a post-production sound editing and mixing facility at Workedit Inc.
Film Threat caught up with Burckhardt to discuss his career retrospective and distinctive approach to underground filmmaking.
So, what brought about this upcoming retrospective of your films at the Anthology Film Archives?
I’ve shown movies at some point at almost all the “important” venues in New York: Millennium, the Pioneer, the Robert Beck, even the Museum of Modern Art. My second feature, “Landlord Blues,” played at Anthology for about a month at some point in the 1980s – Jonas Mekas at that point told me that I “could make movies in Hollywood,” but I couldn’t tell whether or not he meant that as a compliment.
It seems like it was almost two years ago when I approached the people there with some recent movies, and suddenly last December I was there for something else and Andrew Lampert said, “Oh by the way we’d like to give you a couple of screenings. I had one planned at Millennium for January, so we waited until April, in the hopes that the public would have time to forget.”
How do you view the current state of independent cinema, both as an industry and as a vehicle for artistic expression?
For one thing, in my mind there is a distinction between “independent” and “underground.” It has to do with money and budgets. Independent means anyone not in the studio system. A Spielberg can make an “independent” movie. The problem that many independent filmmakers without a lot of clout make so many compromises that the quality of their project suffers. I think this is particularly true for fictional narratives (as opposed to docs).
I started making “underground” movies with simply a camera and some film. I admired people like Robert Breer, Kenneth Anger, John Cassavettes, Robert Downey (senior), Stan Brackhage, George and Mike Kuchar, Shirley Clarke, Rudy Burckhardt (my father), and others of that era who just went ahead and made movies by the seat of their pants. The “rules” of how you had to make a movie were, in a way, constraints that forced you to spend money and therefore be dependent on it, and they ignored them. For example, the camera used to always be supposed to be locked on a tripod, or, if moving, on an expensive dolly or crane. Handheld was a no-no, because you might notice it.
But for many years, underground movies were out of the mainstream. Then in the early 1980s, people like Jim Jarmusch began to make weird movies, like “Stranger Than Paradise,” that were acceptable in the mainstream. I made my first feature around then, “It Don’t Pay To Be An Honest Citizen,” which turned out to be my biggest success, both because of the brilliance of the filmmaking and the people in the cameo roles: William S. Burroughs (as a mafia boss), Allen Ginsberg (a sleazy lawyer) and the-then unknown Vincent D’Onofrio (a mugger). I made another feature two years after that, “Landlord Blues,” but after that my ambitions got bigger, and so did the budgets, and the fundraising got harder, and I decided to go back to underground moviemaking, and to not worry about money. Or at least not too much.
Since you began working in cinema, what have been the pleasant surprises and unpleasant surprises you’ve discovered about the sector?
The big change came at the end of the 1990s, when the digital revolution made a lot of the major expenses of moviemaking go away. You can now carry the means to make a pretty high quality (technically at least) production in a bag. Just about anyone has access to the technical means to make a movie, and that means that lots of people who couldn’t, before, and lots who shouldn’t, now, are making movies.
What projects are you currently working on?
I have a kind of schizophrenic approach to making movies nowadays. On the one hand I like to make campy comedic collaborations, like “The Frankie Lymon’s Nephew Story” (made with Mr. Fashion in 1990, reviewed in Film Threat, issue 3, Summer 1991), which is playing on the 17th, or the more recent “Tomorrow Always Comes.” But also I like to make moody black and white “poetic documentaries” like the “Surface” and “Black and White,” and am looking for a suitably decrepit post industrial ruin to investigate.
What is your opinion of (and your experiences within) the festival circuit?
If your film is doing well in a festival – i.e. good publicity, big attendance at the screenings – it’s the greatest high. If it gets buried, and that’s happened to me, it’s a bummer. But nowadays there are ten times as many festivals as there used to be, and I suspect there’s some kind of scam going on. Thousands of hopeful moviemakers’ admission fees sure must add up, as well as the tickets of them that attend.
Over the years, what has been the strategy in financing your films?
Look in the cracks behind the cushions of the couch, turn all my coat pockets inside out…
What advice could you give to any new filmmaker who wants to set forth into the independent cinema universe?
You really need a powerful desire to make movies, for the fun of making them, not for fame or celebrity or riches, because you are not likely to get much of those, unless you are really good, and it takes practice to get really good, and it’s a big pain in the neck waiting for people to show up, for the rain to stop, etc. Also, try to make the shoots fun and not too boring, if they involve other people. That way they are more likely to show up the next time.
From your canon, which films reflect your finest work?
I always like to think the most recent is finally the masterpiece. In this case, “The Surface,” which is playing on the 18th and will be different every time because I’m editing it each time, and “Tomorrow Always Comes,” a detective story that is a collaboration with Royston Scott, finished in 2006. Otherwise, they are all part of me, but they’re also out on their own, so it’s really hard to say I like one more than any other. I guess it also depends on the time of day, my mood, etc.