In 2014, when I saw the rerelease of 1983’s Burroughs: The Movie, a vivid vérité portrait of the famous writer, it was hard not to wonder about the people working behind the scenes of that lost classic. Not only did it have soon-to-be indie film icons Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo on the crew, it was directed by a guy named Howard Brookner, who managed to capture Burroughs with seering honesty and nuance, not to mention a flair for slipping into his subject’s off-kilter sense of the absurd.
A quick investigation revealed that Brookner made one more documentary, about theater director Robert Wilson, and then died of HIV complications while making a feature film with Madonna, Matt Dillon and Jennifer Grey. Wow! The restoration of Burroughs: The Movie had been overseen by Brookner’s nephew, Aaron, who was making a documentary about his uncle and, lo and behold, here it is — Uncle Howard is playing at New York City’s IFC Center, starting this Friday.
The film falls into the well-worn genre of documentaries about a beloved, distinctive relative and hits many of the right notes — nostalgic, intimate and revealing. Aaron has certainly done justice to his uncle but more so, it’s a well-crafted film for anyone (me!) interested in the 70s and 80s filmmaking and art scene in New York City. And for Burroughs fans, it’s essential viewing.
I asked Brookner some questions about the film.
Tom Roston: What was most challenging about making Uncle Howard?
Aaron Brookner: Getting Howard’s 300 cans of film out the Bunker, then making sense of it, having to sync it with no camera/sound log and very few slates. It was also a very difficult film to edit. There were so many important themes to layer in, and I was very close to the material.
Roston: your film works as a perfect companion piece to your uncle’s Burroughs film; is there a plan to distribute them in some way together?
Brookner: Uncle Howard and Burroughs have played side by side in many festivals. There is a beautiful Criterion DVD/blu-ray of Burroughs and perhaps Uncle Howard can one day join Uncle William in the collection.
Roston: What are your favorite docs that feature 80s NYC?
Brookner: Lightening Over Water and Paris is Burning which bookend the decade. I also love the fiction work that came out of NYU (by Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Spike Lee, Sara Driver, just to name a few) which feature the city. Abel Ferrara films too, like Ms. 45.
Roston: What sort of creative input did [executive producer and subject] Jim Jarmusch give for the film?
Brookner: We spoke a lot about Burroughs and Howard and both their creative processes, and the artistic process in general — how you need to keep questioning and trying new things. I tried to incorporate this spirit in making the film. Jim viewed the edit at different stages and that was invaluable. When he said “This is freaking me out,” as we were about to shoot, that was very useful input too.
Roston: What sort of career do you imagine your uncle would have had if he had not died so young?
Brookner: We found out he had a few projects he was developing when he died: a film on David Bowie; adaptations of Brad Gooch’s novel Scary Kisses and James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm and The Works; I was told Madonna wanted him to direct Truth or Dare.
It’s hard to tell what kind of career he might have had. He was pretty unique. Maybe something like the Coen Brothers in that he would have made really great films within in the studio system (especially once he could get final cut). Maybe like Gus Van Sant and bounce between studio and independent. Howard might have also gone on to do something completely unpredictable. Like becoming a criminal mastermind.
For screenings of Uncle Howard, visit the official website.