“David” in Real Life: Interview with L.M. “Kit” Carson
More stories behind the making of a low-budget classic.
This is the second of two interviews with David Holzman’s Diary director Jim McBride and actor L.M. “Kit” Carson. The following interview with Kit Carson was conducted on June 6, 2011. The interview with Jim McBride can be read here.
Keyframe: So is this whole experience of David Holzman’s Diary getting shown around and re-released in various forms exciting?
Carson: I am excited, because I (recently) had the experience that it actually worked, that it works in an unexpected way. That it’s a flashback and a flash-forward at the same time, you know? I think that David Holzman had a kind of currency because it was genuine and authentic, and that continues, that value communicates. It was very stunning watching these people watch this film in Pennsylvania last weekend at this film festival – they weren’t watching a 1968 film. It was totally current… Because, you know, it’s just like reading Catcher in the Rye. The coming-of-age story keeps being real. When I looked at what [Keyframe] had put together [about the film] last night, it kind of for the first time hit me what a lucky chance that was that McBride said “why don’t you play David Holzman?” How the “David” job was a life-changing moment…
Keyframe: You’re from Texas. Can you talk about your early life, and how you got to New York and found yourself in David Holzman’s Diary?
I was born and raised in Dallas, in University Park. My father came from a cowboy family in the panhandle, during the Depression, and was now a vice-president at a small company in Dallas called Atlas Metal Works. When I was seven, we moved to this small town nearby: Irving, population 7,200. I lived on a small farm, fourteen acres, with some horses, pigs, and chickens. I grew up on a farm, basically, and I think that’s really had an effect on the rest of my life – that I would wake up at dawn and go milk cows with my dad. The idea of having an effect on reality in the simplest ways. We’re talking about from when you’re age nine, learning that you can make something happen. You carry that with you for the rest of your life.
In the summer (in the early 60’s) I would work at Irving Lumber Yard unloading freight cars, and at night I would go to the Dallas Theater Center, and had gotten a scholarship to be in plays. So I had that complete double life. When I went to New York, my first jobs were again multiple platforms, as they say now – during the day I worked at a theater called the American Place Theatre. I was an assistant stage manager, and that meant I sometimes acted in the plays. This was a legendary theater where Robert Lowell’s first play, The Old Glory was put on, starring Frank Langella and Roscoe Lee Browne. I’d work at that theater, which was on Broadway and 47th Street until midnight, then I’d walk across to 53rd Street, to work at another job I’d gotten through a friend of a friend. This was Drew Associates — where the whole cinema-vérité movement started – as an assistant-assistant-assistant-assistant editor. From midnight, I would synch up the rushes of all the shoots on the Moviola. I would do that until 5 a.m., and then I would pass out on the sofas in the lobby, and then be awakened by everybody when they came in at 7. And that’s where I met Ricky Leacock – on a sofa as he came in and woke me up. That was my first year in New York.
Keyframe: Before working on David Holzman’s Diary together, you and Jim McBride worked on a book for MoMA on cinema-vérité that was never published, for which you interviewed many important figures, some of whom aren’t normally associated with the movement, like Andy Warhol and Andrew Noren.
Carson: We got the job from Willard Van Dyke, the legendary documentary cameraman who was the head of the Museum of Modern Art film department. We convinced him that there needed to be a book on cinema-vérité because there wasn’t one. Part of the scheme, or strategy of the book, was not to do the expected, not do a “dictated reality”. This was non-didactic filmmaking. So we started interviewing these people the summer of ’66.
I went back and forth from Texas (where I was finishing my last year of college) to New York a couple of times as we were doing the book, and that’s when McBride proposed that I get involved in David Holzman’s Diary. We were surveying some of the interviews that we’d done, and were typing up of all these guys, and he invited me to dinner. At dinner, he said “I want you to audition (for David).” And he had a twelve-page outline of scenes from this movie David Holzman’s Diary. So after dinner, I did a couple of the scenes, and that’s when he said, “OK, you got the job.”
Keyframe: McBride had already done an earlier version.
Carson: They had shot some of it, then McBride had his car broken into, and the footage was taken. When he asked me to do it, what I was told later was I put humor in the role, and that’s what was not there the first time. And it makes total sense that if this guy wasn’t funny, you wouldn’t want to be in the same room with him. It was just my natural tendency to fill out the character with a kind of irony.
Carson: Well, it’s interesting, ‘cause when I was finishing my last year of college, one of the courses I took was called “The Roots of the English Novel”, a course about how the first long-form narratives that existed were diaries – Robinson Crusoe, Pamela. It was the first way writers had figured out how to do something that wasn’t a short story. So I was very full of the concept of the diary form, and I think that really informed the way I played that role, and the feeling of it. I think one of the reasons it succeeds is because there seems to be a bit of depth to what he’s doing.
Keyframe: David’s isolation is certainly like Crusoe’s… I gather that Jim had a pretty strong idea of what he was going for, but the two of you worked to create the monologues.
Carson: He had a very clear idea of a beginning, middle, and end that he wanted on this film. He also had a very clear idea of the style of how it played in front of the camera. When I came to do the shoot, we rehearsed for like a week, and we would do the scenes, and improvise dialogue, and record it. We’d do it two or three times, and then feel like “OK, we got it”, and “we’re going to play this take right before we shoot.” When we got to the shooting, I said “I don’t want to listen to what we did before, I want to surprise you.” ‘Cause I had it in my head. So I just played it.
I actually lived in Michael Wadleigh’s production office for the shoot, because I felt I really had to be isolated like David Holzman to make it work. I lost my girlfriend because she thought I was nuts going to live with these cameras.
Keyframe: You and Jim had a lot of shared interests, and ideas about the character, so you were kind of exchanging ideas back-and-forth?
Carson: Well, it was a milieu. Wadleigh also had a lot of ideas. It wasn’t like we sat and talked about all this stuff, it’s that we embedded it in ourselves because of our interest in documentary film, and cinema-vérité. It was a natural thing in a perfectly artificial way – you put me, and Wadleigh, and McBride together, and you got people sorta wanting to do something unique. It was lucky — right after shooting David Holzman’s Diary, “Wads” went off and shot Who’s That Knocking At My Door, Martin Scorsese’s first film, and then a whole bunch of other stuff, and eventually Woodstock.
Keyframe: So what kind of framework as an actor were you coming from in terms of your experience, your training, your methodology?
Carson: I really don’t know. I didn’t go to acting school. I was at the Dallas Theater Center for a couple years. The guy who ran the Center was a man called Paul Baker, who had a kind of theater philosophy, and I just absorbed that. It was a kind of Actor’s Studio feeling, but… I don’t know, actually I like looking back at the fact that I didn’t go study someplace, that it was just observation, working at a theater and a documentary film place. I was prepped (for David Holzman’s Diary) because McBride and I had a real dynamic of trying to outsmart each other, you know? It’s why we worked together on other projects, because we liked that feeling.
Keyframe: You don’t come across as being from Texas in the movie.
Carson: Because radio had happened, the voices that I heard from the time I was born had no accent; the prominent voices in the milieu — the family radio’s on, and Arthur Godfrey’s talkin’. So I didn’t pick up a Texas accent. Also watching people living in New York City, and synching them up (in Drew Associates cinema-vérité footage), I’m able to become somebody in New York, ‘cause I’ve been looking at them for months. I’m a totally naïve person – I’m being informed by walking up-and-down the streets in the Broadway area, I’m being informed by watching the shoots, and going on a shoot at St. Vincent’s Emergency – living there all weekend, because I’m the guy who’s got the lights, and I basically had to stay up for three days. This is all about an immersion in life at a certain angle.
So therefore you try and create that – what you just saw on film, what you’ve been working with on film. So that it’s OK to be on film; it affects the way you are on film. I think that’s why David has a slight feeling of being informed about what he’s doing without being real self-conscious. With the way he behaves in front of the camera. He has a certain presence where he doesn’t even think about the fact the camera’s running, except that he’s playing; he knows he’s kind of playing.
Carson: It’s the only way to make it play. He’s got to feel that way. It came out of McBride’s experience (and) a milieu that both of us were in, and all of us were in – Wadleigh and Scorsese – we were all in a milieu that had to do with being intimately connected to film without even thinking about it as a big deal. For me this all started – cinema-vérité and the question (of the nature of cinema) – around ’63, when I came to New York on another weekend and saw Breathless (1959) with a friend of mine from college. When we left the theater, the streets were like jump-cuts; all around me was like jump-cuts. The experience of watching Breathless – Jean-Luc Godard raised the question: what is a movie? And that’s part of everything else that happened. Once you raised the question, it’s no longer just Hollywood movies.
Keyframe: What was McBride like as a director?
Carson: Jim? I think basically he’s a genius, you know? He just let it happen. His presence has a certain guidance – approval, disapproval — in it, but he’s not – for making David Holzman’s Diary, there’s just no other way than to say it’s a collaboration, but he’s the genius who thought the whole thing up. You know? I just got the “David” job. I can’t answer your question because I worked with him on several film projects – I mean, it’s just a collaboration.
Keyframe: But your first collaboration was as an actor –
Carson: Not really; I mean there’s an actor/writer going on here.
Keyframe: OK, well let’s talk about that –
Carson: Well, it’s just his freedom to allow the exploration of the character, and to allow me to say to him “I don’t want to listen to the rehearsal tapes, I want to surprise you.” Him being open to that. I don’t know how to talk about it, I really don’t… That he was open to all of these different ways to try and get what we wanted, and he was the guy who knew what was going on, knew what we wanted, you know? At the same time you’re dealing with someone like Michael Wadleigh who’s got his own presence, and his own ideas, and, I mean, there’s this group: it’s a group thing. That was my experience on this show. We’re talkin’ about a buncha guys makin’ a movie for 2500 bucks. There’s no ego here, really.
Keyframe: Could you relate to David’s relationship to women? The distance and the scopophilia?
Carson: Not really. That’s a part of the character – it’s more part of the film, than part of me as a character. I think that’s it, that David is obsessed and cut off from women at the same time.
Keyframe: So can you think of examples of your surprises for Jim? ‘Cause he’s talked about these, and how they were exciting to see happen in front of the camera.
Carson: Well, I’ll give you one example. Penny’s agent comes and takes her clothes and leaves, and David says “fuck you” as the door shuts, right? And you turn around and cut to David Holzman sitting on the bed, talking to the camera. He talks about imagining sex, and at a certain point he starts shaking the microphone wire back-and-forth in his hand. You know what I’m taking about?
Keyframe: Yeah, you’re talking about — it’s a very interesting monologue full of cinephiliac images: “trains in tunnels”, referencing North By Northwest —
Carson: Right. It’s like he’s jerking off. He’s talking about jerking off, and he’s actually doing the motion of jerking off. That was very exposing, that moment. Because in order to do that, you really have to be naked. So Jim let me do that. And at the end, then there’s this beat where David Holzman’s stopped talking, and he’s just looking at the camera. He’s just totally bared himself, and then he takes a moment, and reaches over and turns it off. That’s all about the moment being created of incredible vulnerability and exposure. You know? That’s a collaboration with McBride, to do that. ‘Cause I think for that shot, specifically, there were only the two of us in the room. Wadleigh, and the other guys were out in the hall (while we) were doing that little close-up shot. That’s an indication, an outline of the dynamic between McBride and myself: that I could do that, because I trusted him.
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.