Yony Leyser - Interview
Watching a documentary on William S. Burroughs is kind of like opening your mind up like a flower waiting for a bumblebee to come and pollenate it. You know that in order to carry on, you need to have someone assist you in continuing down the path of evolving as a species. Burroughs was that bee. He was slight, unassuming, but wielded such a power as to be completely and totally dangerous.
I hadn’t ever come into contact with his work until having this documentary, crafted together by director Yony Leyser, put in front of me to see exactly what kind man he was. Forget about what the media has built up around the perceived mystique of the man, what you think you know about him, as this documentary is informative as it is, at times, nonlinear. Burroughs’ sensibility lives in this documentary but it’s completely accessible. Through the wonderful lens of archival footage, interviews and excerpts from the man’s work this film is a loving testament to the enduring power of Burroughs’ strengths as a writer, a poet, and as someone acutely aware of what was happening in the world around him. I had a chance to talk to filmmaker Yony Leyser about the making of this movie and why John Waters is so delightful.
William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is now playing.
CHRISTOPHER STIPP: Yony, it’s so nice to talk to you. I saw the movie over the weekend and was mesmerized by it.
YONY LEYSER: Great. Thank you so much.
CS: You are so welcome. Unfortunately, I’m not a hipster and can’t say I knew of his work and never interacted other than seeing Naked Lunch. How did you come upon the idea that this would be a documentary that you would want to do?
LEYSER: I read his work in high school. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago and Naked Lunch was the first thing I picked up. It blew my mind. It opened a whole new world to me.
CS: I had no idea that the notion of the beats was manufactured, that it was something the media crafted and ran with. You sort of explore that a little bit. Did you feel that Burroughs ever felt comfortable with being labeled being part of that scene?
LEYSER: I don’t think he was, no.
CS: As you look on it and his work was it hard getting this film off the ground?
LEYSER: Oh yes, absolutely. I started to film in the spring and had no idea what I was undertaking.
I worked on this film for many years. I actually started in Lawrence, Kansas and then moved to New York.
CS: I was very taken by the amount of footage that you were able to get from various sources. When you were doing the project, were people giving you these things or were you finding these things on your own?
LEYSER: Yeah, a lot of it was just in people’s basements or junk drawers.
CS: Really? They thought there was just no need for it, put it in a collection somewhere?
LEYSER: Yeah, it was like, “What am I going to do with it?”
CS: I would imagine that there would be some sort of writing museum that would love to have it or some school that would love to own it. With regard to the process of making this film — did you go to film school or did you just have a camera and say, “I want to interview some people about Burroughs?”
LEYSER: Yes, I got a camera and started shooting and had no idea it would turn into what it turned into. It was really all his friends that pushed it forward.
CS: Was this an ongoing process? Did you have another job?
LEYSER: Yes, I had jobs and enrolled in school so I got my diploma while I was making the film.
CS: So on weekends, were you going places to get this done?
CS: And I have to say this and I think he gets a bad rap but I’m a John Waters fan. When he’s talking, the mind of that man is brilliant in the way he sees things is very matter of fact, no superfluousness.
LEYSER: He’s brilliant…… He nailed everything as soon as I asked.
CS: He makes it so people like me who are not familiar with his work become familiar, like I get it. I understand. The other people you got to interview for this, Laurie Anderson, Patti Smith, were they just as receptive as John was?
LEYSER: I think John was unusually receptive.
CS: Did you find the narrative for the film difficult in terms of knowing where you wanted to start?
LEYSER: Yes, I knew I didn’t want linear form but Ilko Davidov, our editor, helped with that a lot.
CS: When you started the editing process when you were like, “OK, I got what I needed, I have what I have.” How much footage did you have by the end of this?
LEYSER: I had about 100 hours and cut it down to an hour and a half.
CS: Where do you start on a process like that? Did you find you had to come up with the narrative yourself?
LEYSER: I let his friends tell the story. There wasn’t much time for me to edit but having a big time editor was very helpful.
CS: Were you sick of Burroughs at the end of this?
LEYSER: He was such a complex, multifaceted, person. Not only him but the influencers that he influenced.
CS: I noticed that the project started or at least had some part of this movie began on Kickstarter, which I have become very familiar with this year. It seems to be a new way for filmmakers to get financial support without having to go to a man in a suit and tie. Did you find that was a real positive way to help get your film financed?
LEYSER: Yes, it was awesome.
CS: Were you looking for a lot? 5K? 10K?
LEYSER: We weren’t looking for much but raised 150%.
CS: Was it knocking around any film festivals beforehand or did this go straight from finished product to getting it into their hands?
LEYSER: It was a part of the film festival circuit extensively.
CS: I’m curious to know from this standpoint, now that you have this finished film, are you looking ahead to do another 5 year project?
LEYSER: I have two films in the works but can’t talk about them yet. One is a major documentary and one I hope doesn’t take me 5 years.
CS: And the technical aspects of filmmaking…was it sort of a learn as you go, get the best camera you can find?
LEYSER: I worked on a film set and I had a bunch of sound equipment.
CS: And the technical aspects, like framing, it’s quite wonderful to look at. I would never has assumed that this would be anyone’s first film. It’s a high compliment to you.
LEYSER: Thank you much.
CS: Do you feel like you have lots to learn or found out that filmmaking really isn’t that difficult?
LEYSER: I just went head first and learned so much like a doctorate degree.
CS: Any sort of ideas of lessons you took away from this film? Did you think you knew everything you knew and this bolstered what you thought of the man or did you come away with thoughts of, “I didn’t really know what I thought?”
LEYSER: I learned every day.
CS: Why do you think the man’s work still endures to this day? It’s amazing that the man is still alive in pop culture to this day.
LEYSER: I know. He was the first to do it and anyone who is the first is going to be remembered.
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