Interview: Yony Leyser

stilinberlin yony leiser

Yony Leyser is an American filmmaker now based in Berlin, whose first film William S. Burroughs: A Man Within has just opened throughout Germany. The film features interviews with Burroughs’ friends and associates, from John Waters to Genesis P. Orridge to Robocop himself, as well as a soundtrack by Patti Smith and Sonic Youth. He’ll be hosting a Q&A tonight at Moviemento, where the film is currently screening.

So how did this all get started?

I had just gotten kicked out of film school at CalArts for an art piece I did criticizing the dean of students. I snuck into her office made a fake expulsion letter to myself on her computer, printed it out, signed her name, blew it up, and put it in the main gallery. She told me I could either leave the school or sue me for libel, so I left. I didn’t really know where to go after that, but my sister was teaching in a small college town called Lawrence, Kansas, where William Burroughs had also lived. I’d learned about Burroughs years earlier in Chicago, so I thought it must have been a cool town if he had lived there.
I started working for this really wealthy kid. He was almost comic book rich. His name was just one word, like Madonna. He drove a custom-made Lamborghini to school, had bodyguards, and his buzzer on his house said ‘James Bond’. Anyway, he hired me to shoot something for him, and in return I would get the equipment. So once I had the equipment, I just started shooting. Originally it was more about the history of Lawrence. And slowly I started to interview Burroughs’ friends.

What was the first connection you made?

I interviewed this trash collector, one of the few women that was friends with him. When I met her she brought half a lamb with her and asked me to drive with her to upstate New York. So I went with her, eating this lamb out of a plastic bag. It was really gross, but I was a broke college student. When we got there, she introduced me to Charley Plymell, who was another friend of Burroughs. I interviewed him as well, and he told me that Sonic Youth lived a few towns away, and we organized an interview with them through him.

When did you realize that it was going to be a film about Burroughs and not Lawrence?

At that point I had already realized that it was going to be about Burroughs. Just before I went on the road trip I had my first experience with psychedelic drugs, and it really helped me form my ideas around the film. Before that experience, I didn’t think I could make a film about Burroughs, since I didn’t know much about him and his life. But I kind of developed this blind bravado after that and said “Why not?”.

How did you end up getting all these big names attached to the project?

In the beginning, I was just getting fake press passes, sneaking backstage, and doing craigslist rideshares to get around. It was kind of a punk rock approach to doing things. By halfway through, when I had done a few interviews and started putting together rough cuts of the film and showing it to people, they began to get on board and wanted to help me. I think people were impressed by the story and how far I got with the method I used.

What did you find out from the subjects you filmed?

I was surprised at how different the public and private personal of an artist can be. For example, as I read Naked Lunch as a teenager, I really thought Burroughs must be completely nuts, from the way he wrote about sex and murder and death. But in private, he was just a really conservative guy. In the film, he’s sitting and talking with Allen Ginsberg, his best friend, about sex, and he’s squirming in his seat. It was amazing to me that someone could write like he did, but then not be able to speak casually with his best friend about love or sex. Burroughs had this great output, but he struggled in his personal life. I think a lot of people want to be friends with artists, but in many cases I think it’s smart to never meet them. Artists are often disturbed personally, which is why they make art, as an outlet for it. Which is great, but it doesn’t mean that they would make a best friend.

And what’s the response been like in Germany so far?

The Q&A’s have been totally different. I’ve shown this film around the world quite extensively, and my Q&A’s in Berlin have been totally different than anywhere else. They’ve all turned into debates about capitalism. I don’t know if it’s a post-Occupy thing, but all the discussion has eventually become about late-stage capitalism, which I found to be a strange connection.

Is there a connection between Burroughs and capitalism?

I guess there is, maybe. It seems to be a generational thing. Most of the discussion evolves from the comments of an older person in the crowd. At one screening, it came from a discussion of the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests [which feature in the film] and Occupy Wall Street. Burroughs was at the protests, where the police beat protesters in the street.

What’s your next film about?

I’m working on a film now about queercore, which is the intersection of queer and punk in the late 80s and early 90s. It was started mostly by G.B. Jones and Bruce LaBruce in Toronto. Punk kind of started out as really queer. The term was originally used to refer to a young, gay hustler. But with the hardcore scene, punk began to turn very macho. So Bruce LaBruce and G.B. Jones created this zine, J.D.s, where they basically got punk guys in Toronto drunk and got them to make out for the magazine. Then they wrote up these fake articles saying there was a big queer punk scene happening in Toronto. It really wasn’t, but people were reading it and believing it was true. But eventually the scene did come to exist, which was a real alternative to the normative gay culture that you’d expect in the 70s.
A lot of people involved in this scene now live in Berlin. I’ve been in and out of the city since 2007. Bruce LaBruce is here a lot, and Peaches and Vaginal Davis and Joel Gibb all live here now. So it’s an interesting tie-in for me to work here in Berlin for the next film.

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