"A Walk into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory" A Conversation with Esther B. Robinson By Dana Linssen
by Dana Linssen
DANA LINSSEN: Can you explain how you got in touch with your uncle’s work, and how you embarked on this seven-year journey to get hold of the material and make the film?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: I never know sincerely where to begin. But probably it all started when I took a job for a foundation in America that funds experimental artists in four disciplines: visual arts, performing arts, film/video and expanded fields like computer art. So I took a job for them building that for America and I was in charge of film/video and performing arts and we were housed at the Warhol Foundation. My grandmother was very excited, because instead of just producing films, I finally had a real job. So she came to visit.
Because of the history, I think, with my uncle they were always very worried about me, because I was in film and film was sort of related to danger. And so my grandma came to visit me and the head of the Warhol Foundation was this really sexy blue-blood guy, very well-raised — went to all the best schools, and really handsome — in his seventies. My grandmother just started flirting with him. Which was very shocking; I had never seen her do that. And she started saying: “My son went to the Factory, and he lived with Andy and his mother, and he was his boyfriend.” And although I sort of had known that he had been at the Factory, I had never known that he had lived with Andy and his mother, and how did my grandmother know that? And right at this moment, this other person — whose name was Eileen — was walking through the hall, and Eileen was a close friend of Callie Angell, who was the Warhol film archivist at the Museum of Modern Art. And Callie had told her about these films that she had found among the Warhol materials.
The simultaneous story is that when Danny disappeared he was living at the Factory, and all his physical possessions were absorbed into Warhol’s. When Warhol died in the eighties, they gave literally everything in his house to the Foundation, and then they in turn gave everything that was tangible film to the Museum of Modern Art. Callie’s job was to catalogue all of that material. And most of it was Warhol’s, but some of them belonged to other people. And during that process she found these films that were labelled “Danny Williams”, that had this really weird look, that were just dramatically different than Andy’s work, which she was charged with studying in a scholarly sense.
So: Eileen and Callie are friends. Eileen hears my grandmother talking about Danny Williams, it triggers in her brain this relationship to Callie and she calls me inside and she said, “You should call Callie Angel right away.” And to be honest, I waited for a little bit to call, because I was uncomfortable with the idea that there was some unknown thing out there again. So about a week later I called Callie and she said: “I have all your uncle’s films.”
Now, two things are remarkable at least. One: We had no idea he made films. At least, I had no idea. I think my family knew in the back of their minds that there were films, but I think they were thinking that they were gay. So they did not want to know about them. But for me, my entire background is in experimental cinema. Not as a director, but as a producer and a curator and a programmer and what is called in America a program officer; I have helped fund that kind of work in America. I have been a big champion of it since my early twenties. So the idea that maybe my uncle made films that were related to what I did was so serendipitous. But also it felt like a strange fate, when the universe says: “Okay, you’re on a journey and it is your journey.” I felt like I was handed something and there was no turning back. But still, at that point I was pretty ambivalent. I knew, as a producer: “This is a great film”, and as a producer I knew that it would even be a greater film if I directed it.
My grandmother was ninety. So I thought we’d start with my grandmother, and we will get the films any day, and then we will start the film. Well, it took two years to get them out of the Museum of Modern Art. And in that period of time, my grandmother actually got very sick — and this isn’t in the movie, but we got the films right as she was dying, and she died eight hours after she saw the films.
Second: Once we had the films, and once I saw them, everything in my life changed at that point. Because until then, Danny was an abstract concept. Something that has to do with ‘absence’, something that feels like a person and you think it is a person because it is ‘present’. But it was completely different from seeing someone’s vision. And to me, I think literally because of my entire professional background, when I saw them, it was like he was speaking to me. Everyone with a really specific vision who makes films, when you see their films you know that it is their film. It had that quality. Like you know them. Like their life. The best filmmakers, in certain ways, live through their frame. There is a way that all of their love is in the frame, all of their care for the world. They are observers. They are witnesses to our moment. And Danny had that character, that quality. And I felt like I ‘met’ him. And I loved the films. They were so immediate. Almost a storybook romance. My heart broke. And then I had to find out what happened. Especially because I felt like, how could we have lost it? How close were we to never even knowing that this person had even done anything?
And then the first journey is with the family. And also I have to say that I am not sure that I would have been able to ask the questions about the drugs and a lot more (about) the sex stuff if my grandmother had been alive. Because she died then right after we got the films, it was like we were free to go wherever we wanted.
DANA LINSSEN: But it seems in the film that your grandmother knows it all, because she tells about throwing the drugs away after Danny’s disappearance and everything.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: She does know it all, but it is not to be public. She comes from a generation where you don’t talk about these things. That is what I wanted to show in her character — that she is a person from a moment in time who is really struggling with the legacy of their generation. And I think my grandmother really struggled with that. She was very bold. She moved to New York in the middle of the American Depression to become a reporter. She had that kind of energy. She is adventurous. But there is this place about Danny where she shut down like no other subject. It was pain and it was guilt and it was fear and it was homophobia. It was all these things. Like when she says: “I do not want the police to find out”. That is about the outside world knowing. She did not want there to be a gaze. And obviously a cinema gaze would have been a gaze. I would have still done it, but it would have been a lot harder.
I sometime get these criticisms in my film for not going for the dirt. But for me it is really important to go for this subtlety that needs to be injected into the discourse around this era and families and filmmaking. I actually really believe in humanness and the quality that comes from generously caring for somebody and showing their flaws but not ripping them off. And that is not a particularly well-liked trait in American cinema. Which is much more about like “show it is bad” and “take it to this extreme place”.
I believe that those movies actually could not live in extreme places. They are extreme for a second and then they come back and they go all the way in the other end. And they live and actually the truth of their persona is in the middle.
DANA LINSSEN: But to me, in a way, your film was very extreme, because even though you interviewed these people in a very considerate way, it was very shocking in confronting how they were debunking themselves without even knowing. It is all about having these 15 minutes of fame without allowing others their 15 minutes, even though those other people perhaps are not even after those 15 minutes.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: The power for me in that is that I could trick them and then you could say it was me. But for me it was very important to show that they believe this. It is not that even they are lying. It is not even that they wanted to do something damaging. It is how they constructed their sense of themselves. It is all around this ‘truth’. That is life. That is how most people are. And this situation is very extreme. It is a group of people that has inherited this incredible painful legacy. I think it is one of the worst things that could happen to you, to be a Warhol Factory member. Just because everyone you meet cannot see you, in the present. You exist as this other thing. Which was so long ago. And in a time that was actually quite painful for you. But nobody wants to imagine your experience, really. They want to either hear the dirt or they want to hear that Andy was great. But they want to hear about Andy. They do not actually want you. You do not matter. Every time you come in contact with the world, there is a reinforcement that you do not matter.
DANA LINSSEN: But is also seems that these people built their own identity upon Andy Warhol, and stopped living by the time he died, and are still living in this amazing past as if nothing happened. They are kind of reclaiming their place next to Andy Warhol and do not tolerate any outsiders, especially not Danny Williams.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: The closest analogy that I can draw is that it is like they are like children of a famous person: They cannot leave the parent, they do not have the creative will, or the sense of self or the structure in their lives, to leave. Some of them actually have, but they are financially dependent on that income. So it is even more complicated, because they rely on the Warhol legacy to pay their bills. But actually they write poetry, they make movies, they do other things, but they cannot actually get away, like from a famous parent. Like: What if you are not as famous as your famous parent? And you make money off your famous parent? And often times and now it comes to money, but it is really important that the people who see my film have compassion. These characters, they are people, they are not characters, I have to stop that, too; all of them are trying to construct a life, and it is an uncomfortable life. But to me, the way they struggle is actually quite beautiful. And equally painful, because it is very hard to interview someone who denies the existence of your uncle, someone you care about.
DANA LINSSEN: You stay very polite. Did you never, at any point, want to scream it into their faces?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: The whole time. The hardest thing for me, as I am actually a very fiery person, was that it was very uncomfortable for me to not defend Danny. But also I believe in people and I believe that what happened to Danny could have happened to them, only their legacy of that experience was longer. And if I had compassion for Danny’s breaking apart experience or whatever that painful journey was in that last year, I had to have compassion for them, because they had the same experience. And it broke them in different ways. Danny disappeared, but could he be one of those people? Absolutely! If he had not disappeared could he be living in some kind of crazy apartment with his films and photographs, whatever? Yes!
DANA LINSSEN: It is also easy to imagine that he would not have ended up like that, because he was an outsider all the way.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: For me, the difference in the most important way — and therefore I was very grateful to John Cale for example — is that people who intersected with the Factory who are intact, and who actually have a strong life and a strong care for Andy and a real sense of appreciation for that time — and Billy is actually among those as well — had their art. And their art was not broken by these feelings. They actually knew how to make work. And that work was their balance. And I do feel that is what Danny had. And I do have confidence that, if he had not become untoward, he would have used the work as a way out.
One of the notes in his notebook was “Ask Bill Graham for a job”. Bill Graham was the big light-show person on the West Coast. For all I know, he got on a boat and he is in San Francisco now. The thing is, my mother and my uncle believe that he is alive. That he could be alive. Without a second thought. On one hand, people are very confident that he killed himself, that he went into the ocean, but to me it is not clear to my family that that is what happened.
DANA LINSSEN: Does the title “A Walk into the Sea” refer to the Ben Vautier 1963 Fluxus performance with the same name?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: Oh yeah, there is. But to me, “A Walk into the Sea” also stands for the artistic experience. Every time you make something you walk into the unknown. And the unknown at its best is terrifying and larger than you and you do not know how it will impact you because it is bigger than you in a certain way. So for me it was like, making my movie was like a walk into the sea, going into the Factory was a walk into the sea, for Danny and for me, dealing with my family stuff was a walk into the sea. It was not like this journey that has this foregone ending. It is an interaction with something bigger than you, that has an unknown quantity to it.
DANA LINSSEN: In order to look at Danny Williams’ films, you actually had to develop some yourself. Could you describe how they differ from the better known Factory films?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: Warhol is interested in the passage of time, and for the most he has a very static frame. For the most time, you are watching something happen. And the people in his frame are often acting in an operatic fashion, like they are trying to get his attention and trying to make a place for themselves through their performance. The gaze in Andy’s work is much more voyeuristic. Not dispassionately, because I think that is pejorative in a way. But there is a certain emotional remove, even though what is happening is very operatic and seems very emotional. But you do not feel the emotionality of the filmmaker.
Whereas Danny’s work is really emotional. It has this really delicate interaction, the way he works with focus, things coming in and out of focus and he pays a real strong attention to light. So Warhol generally uses two lights. It is brightly lit. The frame is almost always usually white, the background has a bright quality to it. Whereas Danny’s is like an inky black, and things come in and out, and they are lit to be revealed and disappear.
At the risk of sounding very corny: I believe that Danny also really loved the people in his films. I look at the way he looks at people and I feel that is where his care is. He was quiet and he did not communicate a lot about his life. But the way the camera looks at Andy or the way it looks at Chuck, the reason it feels so different from the other films of that time, is also because there is a combination of a really aesthetic sensibility, of bright whites and dark blacks, and a strong editor’s sense of movement, almost like a dance across the frame. And then also there is like real love for the person in the frame. Like he is looking at them. But is like a caress. It is not a dispassionate gaze.
DANA LINSSEN: In what way did you try to invoke that in your own film?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: I shot for two years without ever seeing his films. My palette and my cinema language was set before. Which was why it was so shocking to me. My director of photography Adam Cohen and I had talked a lot about wanting to be very close and the idea of the face as an intimate landscape.
I took this premise of the construction of truth. The cinema construction of truth has certain tenents, which is: Three-quarter framing in an interview, everything has to be in sharp focus, in each shape it says: “This is truth”. It is like a language, a documentary language: When the person is in three-quarter and in sharp focus, they are an expert. Adam and I talked a lot about how to create something more organic. Something that is a subjective gaze, that even when the person telling you the story is fucked up, and maybe wrong, and maybe lying, I wanted you to always think like “now, wait a minute…”
A lot comes from Adam Cohen’s own filmmaking. Actually this is one of the very only times he worked as a DP. He is most known for cityscape work and I was interested in taking that kind of landscape view, but his landscapes are people, there is this dimensionality of time passing and people disappearing and appearing — and so I was in love with his method and thought ok, let’s transit it to the face. I am really interested in the face. And we also have landscape, like where Danny disappeared and we shot of lot of New York which did not make it in the film. There is a lot of things we explored that did not come back — we developed this landscape and we spend three months with the camera. We were trying to find the right camera. We wanted to bring down the sharpness, make soft edges. I was interested in blacks that were kind of busy, you know like video-busy, so that you felt like past was sort of humming near you.
All of this stuff happened before. And then all of the language I just used, appearing and disappearing, humming blacks, all of it is in Danny’s work. And I was interested in lots of details; hands, we shot all these hands, and then we heard of Danny’s films come up and it is all hands. Adam and I were like giggling in that way that you can only do when you are so nervous and so overwhelmed, that it is almost freaky.
But they are so similar. They don’t look similar, but they have strict rules. And the rules match. They meet up. And then once we got the films, what was so exciting in the editing room, working with my editor Shannon Kennedy, was this idea of a conversation, of a cinema conversation. I could speak to Danny only through the movies. Like my movie to his movies. For a long time I was actually in the film. And it became too disruptive. My eye and his eye needed to be the same, otherwise we would lose him. Because he was such a fragile construction, because no one remembered him. It was so hard to make a movie in which no-one remembers anything.
DANA LINSSEN: It works like a time machine or a memory machine. But it still gives you the feeling that one can try to reach out to the past, but never really touch it. Which is intensified by the way you mix images and sounds without really clarifying or justifying them.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: We knew from the beginning that Danny’s films were in black and white, because we had seen the stills from Callie. And so I knew we had to be in colour. Later on we changed that around a bit. Because the Exploding Plastic Inevitable footage was in colour. But for the most part when you are in colour, you are in the present and when you are in black and white you are in the past.
But again we developed it while we were on the way. We did not know in the beginning if we should bring Danny’s films in. Because the reveal is so exciting when you see them. So we tried stills from them and tried other things. One of the things I really wanted to capture was the idea of “this is the person then and this is the person now”. The shock of seeing them aged. To confront the audience with “this is the person now”. In order to do that I did not want to overlay, I wanted you to have a shock — “Wow, that is them” — and that “wow” locates you in the present.
Then we decided to show Danny’s films and not explain what they are. And we would not choose the most luscious, like, black-black sort of stuff. We would choose the stuff that could be like almost any archival material. So most of it actually came from this movie Brigid at the Mass, which is less saturated than the others, it is an earlier film. And it was actually serendipitous, we shot with a lot of other people, but everyone that ended up in the movie were in Danny’s movies, with the exception of Nat Finkelstein and Al Maysles and Callie. But everyone else actually appears in his movies. So that just ended up being lucky.
DANA LINSSEN: Do you feel that film history has to be rewritten now that this material has resurfaced?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: The great thing about art, and what art matters, is that that is an ongoing conversation at all times. And what happens is that every era has its witnesses, and those witnesses may or may not be in favour during the time that they are alive. But over time, when you sift through the body of work that exists and you find new work and someone dies and their aunt opens their closet…
It takes time to decide what is important. Which showcase is the essence of something. To me, the value of art is the ability of somebody to tell the story of our time in a way that is unmistakable. That is what an artist does. They show you something about how, where and what the way you live that you recognise. That is always happening in the world. There is always work being (re)discovered. That is what makes people like Callie so important. Their job is to help us discover those things and contextualize them. So of course I think the cinema history will re-shift, and the Warhol history will re-shift. But to me, it is also important not to see Danny as the master film maker. He is a 26 year old kid who made movies for six months.
DANA LINSSEN: But he made a lot of them.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: He did. And they are beautiful. Absolutely magical. But again, to set him up as a master person would be to fail him. What is important to understand is that he was going to be there. He was going to make it. But again, what matters, someone else will decide. For my own sanity I had to recognize that the conversation would begin with me, but would leave me. For generations, people will be learning about this person. We are going to find people that knew him, people that we could not find. We will probably find other films. There is going to be a continuous process of learning who this person is. It is just my job to ask the questions. To start the conversation.
DANA LINSSEN: Can you really stick up to that? You are an expert in experimental film making and you already mentioned how radically Danny Williams’s films differ from the films we know from that era.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: [laughs] The great joy for me is that I can let Danny go and make his own way into the world. You could tell from my film that I have a basic distrust of authorative statements. I believe in this weird complexity, like it can be both be something and not be something at the same time. We will know more. He has just arrived. But if I were to be off print I would say: “I love him.” [Laughs]
DANA LINSSEN: We already talked a bit about the visual style of the film working as a memory machine, but also the soundscape has the same effect, which has an especially strong effect since his films were silent.
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: One of the greatest joys of working on this films, besides working with Danny’s films, and working with Adam, was working with sound, because I had not known that much about it from experience. T. Griffin, my sound designer, who is also my composer, showed me how you could take things and move them and change character completely. In one scene it would seem ominous and in another one it would seem euphoric. I did even lack all these music terms I would say this sounds ominous and they would say do you mean it is in a minor key? I actually learned a lot in order to be able to communicate.
We started with a palette. I knew I wanted music, but my goal was to have the least amount of music possible. It sounds sort of embarrassing. But one of the sounds I was obsessed with was a sound in the harbour where Danny disappeared, where there is a mast of a sailboat and the little halliwoods — they “kling klingkling klingkling”. And there is another sound which is like when you blow over a bottle. So I wanted instruments that you do not recognize what they are, but also I did not want them to sound inorganic, made by machines necessarily. So with those two sounds, for example, we set the tone for the disappearance sounds. And then I was really interested in the idea of open space and closed space. So we just played with all these different kinds of ideas.
What ends up being funny is when the movie starts being sad, then you work with this whole other thing like when do you psychologically need to open. So sometimes you would be watching something and we would put street sounds behind it and it would make you feel good. Because you are so relieved: you are in this little world and all of a sudden you hear the street sounds come in and it works like a release. It all comes down to the psychology of sound, but I never had done that before and it was so pleasurable.
But in terms of putting music under Danny’s films: That was a really hard decision. That was one of the things I struggled with the most. My cinema purist friends, of which I have a lot, were like, “It has to be silent at all times.” But I felt like it did not work. The movie basically has a lot of sound and music until then, and then there is almost no sound and music. And we played with so many things in the last two weeks, because the movie has been done since two weeks, in the last two months we would strip all the music out and put it back in. A lot of the transitions are not even music, they are just sounds. It was trial and error. What would work and what not. I wanted the sonic role to be to lift you a little bit, because even though we start with the disappearance, it gets much darker. So it starts with those bright organic sounds and as the Factory time starts to decompose, it fractures in more machine kind of sounds and then also like an outdoor, spacious crowd sound. And when my uncle David comes on, we worked a lot on the sound of being outside, because we felt at that time, physically, it would feel as a relief to be outside.
I was so lucky to have the collaborators. Like Todd and Shannon and Adam are artists completely in their own right. Todd is a singer/songwriter, Shannon is a visual artist and Adam makes his own movies. So with each one of them I would have these conversations at the highest level and they would challenge me. It was sometimes hard, they would ask me those questions — “Why this?” — and I would really have to articulate myself. They are all my close friends. I believe that cinema is created in a community. It is very painful and difficult and hard to make a movie. In my case, it is a very fruitful situation, and in Danny’s case, it was a very dangerous situation.
DANA LINSSEN: So you created your own little Factory, there are parallels and mirrors, but what is different in your situation?
ESTHER B. ROBINSON: My situation is filled with love. Without being super hippy-dippy about it, super American, but honestly, it has love and it has collaboration. I want them to have credit. And I want them to be equal to me. And we share that dream. And it is my movie. My movie looks different than Adam’s and it looks different than Shannon’s artwork and sounds different than Todd’s music. But they each had, not only a vision for what it could be but also the ability to talk. We could really communicate. Which was really helpful, because in the early stages we got a lot of rejections from broadcasters, et cetera. It was simply too weird for them. They wanted me to be the central character, instead of Danny. And they wanted a conventional story arc. But there was no big reveal. A lot of American documentary filmmaking is about the journey. Learning something, and being taught by your learning. And I am really interested in what you discover when you journey. It is like seeing, not telling. I am not going to tell you what to think. I am going to show you a lot of things, and then you have to make up your own mind. Because for me, that is what is meaningful in cinema. But in America, making a movie about not knowing is almost inconceivable.