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Talking William Burroughs With Yony Leyser

The best things are always a little serendipitous.  Listening to Iggy Pop in high school, I would have never known that his lyrics were filled with references to the work of one of my soon-to-be favorite writers, William S. Burroughs.  Then, after high school when I first read Burroughs, I would have never guessed that he was considered to be the literary godfather of Punk Rock, this thing that had driven my life to some degree up to that point.  That’s how then best things are, inter-connected in some way that makes you feel like some kind of cultural anthropologist.  When you discover something on your own it becomes all the more meaningful.  That’s what punk rock is about, challenging what’s before you in search of some kind of self-discovery or self-expression that, in the end, makes life seem more meaningful. 

William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, is a new documentary directed by Yony Leyser that features interviews with; Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Gus Vant Sant, John Waters, Jello Biafra and many more.  The film is a must-watch for any Burroughs fan or punk rocker because in painting a portrait of Burroughs’ life, it clearly illustrates why he considered is the godfather of punk.  Burroughs was a man who would go to any lengths in the name of self-expression and self-discovery.   Burroughs lived the kind of life that needs its own documentary and Leyser made one with exactly the kind of spirit that Burroughs would have wanted.


Pretend you’re speaking to someone who’s never heard of William S. Burroughs.  Tell me in a nutshell why he’s important.  Why is he someone worth making a documentary about?

 I guess it’s his real breaking away from linear and traditional format and his interesting and humorous critique of society and control systems.  Each person can draw something completely different from him because he’s so multi-facetted.  I think it depends on the reader, but for me, I was first drawn to his awareness of control systems, the government, queer issues, drug control, and the fact that he could critique these things in such a humorous way.  I was even more shocked to learn that he wrote this at the end of the fifties when everything was so repressed and dreary, and drab, and conformist, it’s shocking.  He has a really amazing and widespread life and creative work.


I’d like to hear about the process you went through to make this film.  What was the inciting action?

Well, I got kicked out of film school at Cal Arts.



I made an art piece attacking the Dean of Students that I put up in the main room there.  I was on the student council and got into a lot of trouble.  She [the Dean] had gotten in trouble for all of these racist incidents and I wrote a letter to myself saying "Dear Jonathan Leyser, your strange nickname, big curly hair and olive complexion does not yield the conformity necessary to be a team player at Cal Arts.  We thereby dismiss you.  And I signed her name along with the names of the Cal Arts student councilmen.  I recently found the actual letter they sent when I got kicked out and it says they dismissed me for unlawfully using Cal Arts letterhead, for signing other people’s names and for unlawfully using school computers.


You’re Israeli right?

Both of my parents are Israeli.  My dad is Jewish and conservative and my mom is a die-hard atheist.


So, you got kicked out of Cal Arts…

I moved to Lawrence, Kansas where my sister was going to school and where Burroughs lived, and I was like, "I’m going to make a documentary about him, and it will be a small regional project that will help me develop and learn about documentary filmmaking. 

So I started shooting and just became more and more interested and everyone was saying, "It’s about time somebody made a movie about this," and it just kind of became the documentary about him.  I got a nice camera from a student at Cal Arts who gave it to me after I shot a project for him.  So I started interviewing Burroughs’ friends in Lawrence and they introduced me to other people. This Junkyard trash-collector Modi, introduced me to the Beat poet Charlie Parnell who introduced me to Sonic Youth who introduced me to Hal Willner and I got this film made through that.  It’s been pretty amazing everyone’s introduced me to someone else.  Patti Smith donated her music and then Sonic Youth donated their music and all these people just kind of helped push the film forward.  I never set out to make the William S Burroughs documentary, but it just kind of became that.  I guess Burroughs would have thought that, if it wasn’t all me, that it was the force, and the time and all this.  So, I guess it just happened that way.


So basically there was a lot kismet involved in the making of this film.

A lot of what?


Kismet.  Right place, right time, fate, coincidence.

It was a lot of schmoozing and sharing of gefilte fish.


How did you go about contacting all of these people, like some of the bigger names that you interviewed?

All of these filmmakers that I met at Slamdance and such asked me, "What agencies did you go through?" and stuff like that, but I didn’t go through a single agency.  Everyone introduced me to everyone else.  I smoked pot with Mike Watt at this thing North Hampton, Massachusetts and Grant Hart brought up that I was making the movie and Mike Watt was like, "Oh yeah Iggy was friends with him," and gave me the contact for Iggy Pop.  Then I was interviewing the photographer Marcia Resnick and she was like oh, "Oh, you should talk to John Waters, here’s his number."  I mean, I started this movie when I was 19.  So I think they were kind of impressed that I was an early twenties film maker that had gotten so far and I showed people rough cuts and things like that, and they just wanted to push it forward, and I think they thought it was genuine and done well and with DIY spirit.  It wouldn’t have worked if this had been another rock documentary, or about the beats in general, or just some other famous writer.  The reason that it was pushed forward was because Burroughs was such a genuine and utter influence to these people.  You talk to Patti Smith and it was like he was this holy man.  All these people, he opened up the doors for them to make their art.  He was the one.  That was why everyone wanted to push it forward, for William.  So it wasn’t interviewing rockers about rock music it was interviewing them about someone who was this huge inspiration.


Was filmmaking your primary thing?  Before starting this documentary, did you consider yourself a filmmaker first and foremost?

Well, I studied film at Cal Arts.  When I moved to Lawrence I was mostly doing experimental work and I’d shown my films and some experimental animations mostly at galleries, I’d showed in London and Venice and Paris and Australia.  So I did have a background in film, but then I started doing journalism in school to develop my skills as a documentary filmmaker, because I didn’t have much experience with documentary.  But, I actually made my first documentary when I was sixteen.  It was about a obese carpet cleaner who lived with his mom and his love affair a crack prostitute, and it was in a more experimental format.  So, yes I did have a background in filmmaking. 


What was the first Book by Burroughs that you read?

I read Naked Lunch in high school.


When you read Naked Lunch in high school, was there this spark of recognition that this was something that would become important to you in some way?

There was with the beats in general.  At that point Kerouac and Ginsberg were hugely influential to me.  There was like this shock and I think, like any teenager, I wanted to live this life that I didn’t know was possible in the nineties, let alone the fifties.


One thing I noticed about the interviews in your film was a real sense of intimacy.  The people being interviewed seemed really comfortable.  Where did most of the interviews take place?

All the interviews took place in people’s houses.  They felt comfortable because they saw that I was this genuine non-threatening kid who was interested in the subject.  I knew my shit.  I’ve gotten really good at interviewing people.  I’m a good interviewer because I listen, and I do my research.  After I finished this film, people have interviewed me and I realized that a lot of them don’t really listen to what people say, and they don’t do they research and aren’t knowledgeable about the subject matter.  So I think for these people to be interviewed about this subject that they’re interested in, by a young person who’s educated and listening, is interesting.  A lot people say, "I’ll give you ten minutes" and it turns into an hour and a half and then another hour-long conversation afterwards.  I feel comfortable and I’m a really good interviewer now.


Do you have any other tips for people who want to be good interviewers?

Preparation, flexibility, and a sense of humor.


Do you have any funny stories about interactions with people you interviewed or funny situations you got into making the film?

I went to interview Iggy Pop in Miami, I didn’t know anyone to stay with down there, and eventually my friend was like, "I have a friend who shoots porn that you can stay with and she can also shoot your interview.  So it was perfect. But, she had a job as a repo-person and she had to repo some cars, so she recommended another friend who also shot porn, and then at the last minute he told me that he couldn’t do it and recommended this other guy.  So this other guy picks me up in this big fancy Mercedes SUV, and drove me to go interview Iggy.  So, on the way back he was dropping me off in front of this record store that had a mural of Iggy in front of it, and he said, "How much money do you have in your wallet?"  Originally he had said that he was going to do the interview for free, just to meet Iggy Pop.  So, he asks me how much money I have in my wallet and I say, "Oh would your like me to give you some money for the interview?"  And he said, "No, you have to give me all of the money in your wallet if you want to get your equipment out of my car."  He was like this huge guy in this huge fancy car.  So, I basically got robbed. 


So, not only did you did not go through agents and the usual conduits that people would use but you also sort of couch hopped and borrowed equipment when you could and sort of booked your own fucking movie.  Is that right?

Yeah, it was very unconventional and only at the end did the money come through.  We did a fundraiser here in Chicago for the fiftieth anniversary of Naked Lunch and we raised some money through a website called Kickstarter, and then we got a grant from Frameline. So, all the money came through at the end.  It kind of stinks that the film industry is so lame right now and all of the big distribution companies want such a huge percentage and want to rip off the filmmaker. It’s pretty frustrating.


What would you say to someone who sees Burroughs as a Villain?  A lot of people would see him as this guy who had a thing for young boys and was a user/promoter of drugs who murdered his wife and they would say, "Why would you make a movie about this kind of person?"

He’s also one of the most interesting people of the twentieth century, I mean I’m scared of and bored by someone who doesn’t question authority and doesn’t get into trouble.   The conformists, those are the people you really need to worry about.  And anyway, who wants to make a documentary about them?


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