William S. Burroughs: A Man Within is a feature length documentary made by Chicago Director Yoni Leyser in collaboration with BulletProofFilm Inc., paints a tender portrait of the Beat author and American icon, whose works at once savaged conservative ideals, spawned vibrant countercultural movements and reconfigured 20th century popular culture. His influence lives on.
A Man Within features never-before-seen archival footage, as well as exclusive interviews with Burroughs' colleagues and confidants including John Waters, Patti Smith, Laurie Anderson, John Giorno, Sonic Youth, Amiri Baraka, Anne Waldman, Gus Van Sant, Genesis P-Orridge, Hal Willner, David Cronenburg, Jello Biafra and many more. The actor Peter Weller, who played Burroughs in Naked Lunch, narrates.
Burroughs was one of the first writers to cross the boundaries of queer and drug culture in the 1950s. His novel Naked Lunch was one of the last books banned in the United States, and now remains one of the most recognized literary works of the 20th Century. However, his friends were left wondering, did William ever find happiness? This intimate documentary breaks the surface of the troubled and brilliant world of one of the greatest authors of all time.
I had the good fortune to catch up with Yony and ask him about the documentary.
Paul Hawkins : Yoni, tell me about your background in the genre of film making?
Yony Leyser : I began filmmaking in high school, at the Chicago Academy for the Arts. My first documentary was about a dysfunctional obese middle-aged carpet cleaner named Bill, who lived with his Mom, and his love affair with Anna, a drug-addicted prostitute. I made that when I was 16. Then I went on to work on experimental animation at CalArts... Then started this film.
PH : Was being kicked out of film school a major turning point in your life?
YL : I'm really happy I was kicked out of CalArts (for a controversial art piece I made). Otherwise I would have never made this documentary. I needed a good kick in the ass to start this film.
PH : What fueled your interest in the Beats?
YL : I picked up On The Road, Howl, and Naked Lunch (in that order) in high school. I was blown away. The writing was amazing and the places it took me was even more far out. It opened up new avenues of thinking for me and so I went down the beaten road.
PH : I know 1950`s Hipster writer & poet Charley Plymell (who published WSB as well) believed the marketing skills of Ginsberg helped some of the Beats to remain culturally and financially solvent well after the 1960`s. How do you understand the longevity of the Beat movement?
YL : Ginsberg totally helped that out. He was the best sales person. He was the most pop. They are still shocking and relevant, especially Burroughs... Authors and artists are still afraid of breaking away as far as he did... And he did it in the 50s!
PH : At what point did you begin to hatch the WSB plot that turned into A Man Within?
YL : After I got kicked out of CalArts, I moved to Lawrence Kansas where my sister lived. I began working on A William S. Burroughs documentary. I had no idea it would turn into such a big film.
PH : I read that there is extensive footage of WSB, some never seen before, in the documentary. Where did you source this from and did you personally have an archive of material?
YL : All of his friends pushed it forward and introduced me to one another. I was able to enter into that beat family for a while and document it... And it was a great time.
PH : How did the film`s Fundraiser get put together and organised?
YL : I organized the film fundraiser with a local curator and socialite, Laurie Glenn who threw the event at her home/gallery in the neighborhood Wicker Park, Chicago. Chicago International Movie and Music festival helped sponsor us and guided us through the process. We made it in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the publication of Naked Lunch. It was MUCH more of a party than the NYC events. Peter Weller (who played William Burroughs in Naked Lunch) hosted it and read the most grotesque parts of Naked Lunch. Anne Waldman, John Giorno, Penny Arcade, Hal Willner and Peter Weller acted out routines from the book. We had nude (body painted tuxedos) servers serving Moroccan style treats and Burroughs favorite drink (vodka and coke) and sold Burroughs artwork (it was at a gallery). We had spontaneous happenings. Many sponsors came including the Poetry Center, Goodman Theater, and French Consulate, as well as several colleges. We had a lot of fun!
PH : How did the world premiere at Slamdance go?
YL : Slamdance was a great place to premiere. We played the opening night and it was sold out. Gus Van Sant and his friends came to the screening and loved it. Slamdance did a great job. Sundance claimed to be "rebellious" on all of their programs, but they are not. Most of the movies at Sundance were multi-million dollar pictures that were already guaranteed a theatrical release. Slamdance actually is indie and rebellious. Sundance obviously felt threatened.
PH : What was the feedback after the premiere?
YL : The feedback was great. We got one of the best Variety reviews of Slamdance or Sundance.
PH : Is the film going to shown outside of the USA?
YL : Yes, A Man Within will have an international theatrical / DVD / TV release, but I can't announce the details yet.
PH : Great, I look forward to that. You specialize in working with outsiders in your photography work. Tell me what fascinates you about the subject matter being across the tracks?
YL : I like documenting people who can break away from the conformist boring world we are stuck in and either live their life in a much more far out way or create art that critiques it well.
PH : Are there any other counter culture movements that you would be interested in documenting in the future?
YL : I am making a photography book of the outsiders culture, based on my show Daily Life Sucks
Read more on William S. Burroughs : A Man Within here. http://www.burroughsthemovie.com/
BulletProof Film, Inc are here. http://www.bulletprooffilm.com/
More info on Yony`s Daily Life Sucks Exhibition here. http://www.heavengallery.com/node/690
Image above: Akasha Rabut
A Man Withing Credits: Camera (color/B&W), Eric Burton; editor, Ilko Davidov; music, Lee Ranaldo, Thurston Moore; sound, Andy Wenrich, Dustin Camilleri; animation, Aimee Goguen, Dillon Markey; associate producer, Scott Crary. Reviewed at Slamdance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 26, 2010. Running time: 90 MIN.