Interview with Jim McBride, Director of “David Holzman’s Diary”
The man behind America’s first mockumentary shares how it came into being.
I first watched David Holzman’s Diary in 1986, by myself in my room. Sitting beside a 16mm projector in the afternoon, with my windows blocked out, in a house consumed by no-budget film production and cinephilia, it didn’t take long for me to be seduced. Jim McBride’s images unspooling on my screen via a print borrowed from a film professor friend seemed to be a mirror of my life, or perhaps what I wished my life to be: a vision of a young cinephile-filmmaker enmeshed in a seemingly humorous struggle to discover himself and the meaning of his life by not only documenting his world, but also by turning his camera upon himself. This first viewing left me with only the slightest inkling of the depths of its philosophic inquiry into the nature of the truth of cinema and the cinema of truth, but I was bowled over by its fully-fleshed narrative, brilliant style, and an intense yet quirkily charming performance by L.M. Kit Carson (pictured above) in the title role. And here was a “real movie” made for only $2500! (These were late 60′s dollars, worth much more than those of the Reagan 80′s, but still!)
This fascination, which had only increased over the years and incessant viewings, had a pay-off last year when McBride and Carson appeared at the San Francisco Cinematheque’s premiere of a glorious 16mm restoration of David Holzman’s Diary by the Pacific Film Archive. Before and after the screening, I was able to ply them with inquiries as obsessive as David’s; over drinks, I bonded with them as best as I could via my ardor for their creation. Then and there, I conceived the idea of creating an oral history of the making of DHD. When Fandor contacted me to interview McBride and Carson on the occasion of its multi-platform re-release, I jumped at the chance to get the ball rolling; eventually the full story shall be told.
Keyframe: So when you were still at NYU, you were part of the first film school generation that was absorbing all this amazing cinema, and having this process of discovery together.
McBride: First of all, you had a guy like Marty [Scorsese], who had seen every film ever made, and could sort of quote them to you shot-by-shot, the way some people can quote all kinds of poetry. So he had this enormous film knowledge, but I can’t say that anybody else in the class particularly did, and the instructors were not film buffs at all, and the leaning of the faculty was toward socially relevant films, and documentaries. Hollywood movies were sneered at, and foreign films weren’t really talked about much. So, at least for me, it really wasn’t until after I got out of there that I began to hear about the New Wave guys, and see Breathless, and start reading Andrew Sarris.
Keyframe: In talking about influences on David Holzman’s Diary, you’ve mentioned Stanton Kaye’s Georg, and of course you guys were hanging out to some extent last year, but also Scorsese says that you were the guy who first told him about Peeping Tom.
McBride: Yes, and I will always cherish that. That he keeps saying that.
Keyframe: Scorsese gives the impression that you were really taken with it, and it was a prime inspiration for David Holzman’s Diary.
McBride: Absolutely. I mean, that’s true. Yeah, it’s about cinema, and about weird perverted self-consciousness that makes you wanna record your life and make sense out of it.
Keyframe: That’s interesting, the idea of filmmaking being a perversion in a sense, especially because you didn’t come out of a crazed cinephiliac background –
McBride: By the time I was making this film, there were a lot of things going on, and Peeping Tom was one of them, but there was the whole cinema-vérité movement that I got very fascinated by, And Kit and I — again, I can’t remember exactly when we became friends, but it must have been in 1966, or something like that, and he promoted the Museum of Modern Art film department into giving us the commission to write a monograph about cinema-vérité… So we went around and interviewed all these people, and hung out with them. It was really an exciting time for documentary filmmaking, because you could go into real situations in a way that you never could before. Most documentary before that was either recreations of real events, like Nanook of the North or something — building an igloo, or they worked exclusively with narration, because the footage was usually silent. You couldn’t go out in the field and shoot synch sound with any kind of spontaneity until this stuff came along, until these guys we’re all discovering new ways of looking at the world. It was very exciting to me.
And then on top of that, there was all the underground stuff that was going on, too, which in its own way was sort of searching for a different kind of truth, but it was also a response to conventional Hollywood filmmaking, which seemed so false to everybody. So all this stuff was going on, and I was following it all, and a lot of it had a kind of built in philosophical context. People had theories and ideas about what a movie should be, and what a movie could be, and stuff like that, and I was just absorbing all that and processing it all, and came up with this idea about David Holzman.
McBride: Oh, ’cause he was somebody who was just as excited about this story as me. And he had done some acting. I didn’t know any actors. And the way he talked about some of the issues, and stuff — you know, he had a kind of excitement about him. You know, he seemed like the guy, on some level.
So much of what happened on that film was… sort of coincidental. If it weren’t for — one thing I have to say about Kit is that he’s somebody who makes things happen, or helps make things happen. And I’m somebody who generally doesn’t make things happen unless somebody’s pushing me. So, I think he did a lot of pushing, along with Mike Wadleigh, and a couple of other people. Without them, I probably just wouldn’t have had the energy, or the belief, to be able to follow through on it. So in that sense, he was really an important collaborator.
Keyframe: And you would do these rehearsals…
Keyframe: And I guess that included some improvisation between the two of you, on some level?
McBride: Yeah, it was very much an improvisation, in the sense that I had a pretty good idea about a lot of what the movie was going to be, particularly the scenes in his apartment where he was talking to his camera. I hadn’t written anything down, but I kinda knew scene-to-scene what was going to go on. So I would sit in the room with a tape recorder and I would tell him what I wanted him to say, what was going on in the scene, and he would put it into his own words. We would tape record it, and play it back and listen to it, and emend it, and I would say, wow, this is great, and I didn’t like this so much, and “why don’t we do this?”
And he had all kinds of ideas, too — it wasn’t just a one-way thing of me telling him what to say, and him figuring out how to say it. It was a very creative contribution. But in the end – so, it was that kind of improvisation. But because we had so little film to work with – we were working with short ends, and stuff like that, we didn’t have the luxury of being able to do multiple takes, so we would try to refine it as much as we could on audio tape, at least to a point where we were in agreement about how the scene was going to go, and knew pretty much how it was going to be, so that when we shot it, it came out that way, kinda.
McBride: A Thunderbird, yeah, we used to call her the Thunderbird Lady, yeah. I guess she had seen us shooting, so when she saw us on the street, she pulled up and started talking to us, and she was an exhibitionist.
Keyframe: Right. And she drives into the shot, so…
McBride: Yeah. Nothing was recreated, that was all –
Keyframe: So you had the camera rolling?
McBride: I guess, yeah. I don’t remember now what we were shooting, but I certainly had the experience with Michael Wadleigh of actually shooting much real stuff. I often went out as his soundman. You know, something would happen, and we’d kind of signal to each other “keep it rolling!”, you know, and catch whatever it was that was going on. So I do think it sorta happened the way the way it happens in the film, she sort of drove up and said “what are you guys doin’ there?”
Keyframe: That’s amazing. Anyway, so, she was, uh, transsexual?
Keyframe: And did you know that at –
McBride: We didn’t find that out – no, no. I mean, I’ve told this story in front of audiences before, and they always kinda laugh at me when I say I thought she was a woman, because it seems so obvious to everybody these days, but, I did, and we all did. A very outrageous sort of a woman, but nevertheless we thought she was a woman. It really wasn’t until many months later when the film was finished, and somebody wanted to distribute it, that they decided that, well, we would need a release from her. And he went around the neighborhood, I guess with her picture or something, and he tracked her down. It was a very impressive piece of work.
McBride: He discovered – wait a second, that’s not actually totally true. Did I ever tell you about this friend of mine? This friend of mine had seen the footage while we were shooting, and then a couple of months later he called me up, and told me “I just had this really weird experience. I was walking along Broadway one night…” — like three o’clock in the morning – and she drove up beside him, threw upon the passenger door, and patted the seat – the passenger seat. And he remembered her from seeing the dailies, and he jumped in, and essentially went home with her. And he thought that she was a woman –
McBride: And when he called me to tell me about it the next morning, he said ”I don’t know whether I’ve fucked a woman or a man.” I don’t know whether I really have the right picture in my head, exactly –
Keyframe: How did he find out, exactly?
McBride: She had muscles.
Keyframe: Well, I have to tell you that, when I first saw it, which was back around ’86, she came across totally as a woman to me. I mean, she was very believable -
McBride: Oh, I’m relieved to hear that –
Keyframe: — and it crossed my mind, you know, “What’s going on here? Who is this strange person?” It might have gone through my mind that maybe there were some kind of manly features, but at the same time she was seemed so feminine in terms of her facial structure, that I dismissed that thought, so… I think until –
McBride: I remember getting a little hot for her as we were filming, you know, and so I didn’t question my own emotion –
Keyframe: Well, how could you not?
McBride: You mean (in terms of) that person?
Keyframe: Yeah, I mean, well, she’s coming up, and she’s acting the way she is, and there’s clearly not going to be any money involved, and it’s just an unusual situation, and exciting.
McBride: Absolutely. She was actually talking to Wadleigh, who was behind the camera. Because he was the only one who sorta had the nerve to talk for him (David Holzman).
Keyframe: And Kit wasn’t there.
McBride: Kit was there. Yeah, I’m pretty sure he was. But, you know, he was as tongue-tied as I was. And Wadleigh just sort of stepped into the breach, and –
Keyframe: Well, Wadleigh’s voice totally works. I mean, I never even thought about it not being –
McBride: It does, yeah.
McBride: No, we had literally had done that shot.
Keyframe: Oh, I see. Wow.
McBride: Without knowing her, or even thinking about “who were those people in the background?” You know, we were taking a shot of Kit. But she, I guess, was watching as we were taking the picture, and that’s what made her drive up to us – she had seen us shooting. Anyway, whatever it was, it wasn’t until long after we shot her, that we remembered oh, that she was in that picture that we had taken of Kit, and (that) made a nice connection.
Keyframe: I’m not familiar with Wadleigh’s whole body of work, but he seems like one of the great verite shooters.
McBride: Absolutely, absolutely. I’m glad you recognize that. I mean, I got to know the Maysles brothers, and I got to know Pennebaker, Leacock, and all those guys and I don’t think any of them – they were all great filmmakers – but I don’t think any of them had the – just this artistic eye that he had. And this ability to just focus all his attention on what was going on, and could sort of see beyond where he was pointing the camera, so he knew where to go next, in a very intuitive way.
And he also was tremendously strong. You know, the camera was very heavy, and difficult to maneuver, and he had a sense of the importance of camera movement. Generally, what the other guys would do, is they’d be pointing at something, and then they’d see something “over there” — they’d just kinda pan over to it. And readjust the zoom, and refocus once they got there, but he would – and literally, you couldn’t use the pan if you were the editor (of the other filmmakers’ footage), you would have to, you know, edit the end of one shot, and then throw out all that panning and refocusing footage, and then start the next (section) as another shot.
But Wadleigh would think about that, and he’d plan how to make a connection between what he was looking at “here”, and what he was going to look at “over there”, so he could pan over, and be sort of zooming in, or pulling out at the same time that he was panning, and adjusting the focus, all at the same time. And that was really, a really difficult thing to do, and something that very few people besides him ever really mastered.
For example – I don’t know whether I talked about this when we were in San Francisco, but that shot of those old people on the benches that goes on and on and on – it practically makes a complete circle around (the park) – well, that’s in a place called Needle Park in New York. I lived near there, and I used to walk by there every day, and I said to Wadleigh one day, “Look, I really want to shoot this kinda just tracking around these people, and I didn’t really have any idea beyond that.
So, what was so innovative was rather than putting the camera on his shoulder, and pointing at the people, and walking sideways past them, he cradled the camera in his arms, so that the lens was pointing out to the left. He was walking forward, and the camera was at eye-level with them, but they didn’t know that he was shooting them, because he wasn’t looking at them. He was just carrying the camera in his arms.
And it was with a kind of wide-angle lens, so it seemed to kind of undulate, rather than be all kind of shaky, and annoying, which is the approach, I think, that most filmmakers (take), which is to stay the distance, zoom-in, then you’d have a telephoto lens which can’t be held steady, and gives you that kind of jerky, annoying quality. So, to me that’s just sort of a brilliant thing that he did there nobody else would have thought of, and really made that shot work.
Keyframe: So the breakdown that David has – it’s pretty intense.
McBride: Yeah. That was – that, I have to say, I give most of the credit to Kit. I had the idea of it, but I didn’t have any idea about how to actually pull it off. I mean, we spoke about a lot of stuff that we had done in other scenes, so those are all kind of referred back to – his whole process, as it were. But how Kit sort of fell apart there – that was a nice piece of acting.
Keyframe: I wanted to talk about the distribution history.
McBride: (laughing) What distribution? I never had any financial success with this movie, but I had a tremendous amount of recognition, in Europe mainly.
Keyframe: So it was distributed in Europe?
McBride: It was shown a lot in Europe, particularly at film festivals, and it got written about a lot. In fact, the only place it actually had theatrical distribution, which was very small and very brief, was in France.
Keyframe: In Paris?
McBride: Yeah. But ever since then, and forever – because I wasn’t very good about keeping track of things – somehow, bootleg prints got around. I’d always be hearing “Oh, yeah, I saw your film in Amsterdam”, and this and that and the other thing. Somehow it got around, but it wasn’t really through me. But it got me invited to a lot of film festivals, and I met a lot of people I looked up to, and eventually I became friends with some of them.
Keyframe: Godard knew who you were.
McBride: Godard knew who I was, and I… can’t say I got to know him, but I have spent some time with him. He’s not one of my good friends, that (didn’t come) out of that, but Agnes Varda is, we’ve become very good friends. Bernardo Bertolucci is a very good friend of mine.
McBride: And lots of writers and critics and people, and this was all through film festivals, which in those days were just the most wonderful kind of experiences. A way to meet people, and see films, and talk about films, and eat good food. And there was a little sort of network of filmmakers, and writers… And none of that — I guess it still exists a little, but I’m just not part of it anymore… But you felt like you were part of a community, and it was a wonderful thing.
An interview with actor L.M. “Kit” Carson will be published tomorrow.
Brecht Andersch writes for the SFMOMA’s Open Space, for which he penned In Search of Christoper MacLaine: The “The End” Tour, a book-length study of the great and obscure Beat filmmaker’s masterpiece. His interview with Stan Brakhage appeared last year in Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000. He is currently editing a low budget feature film shot in16mm b&w, inspired, in part, by David Holzman’s Diary.