Artist Eric Drooker on animating Allen Ginsberg's Howl for a new film
Artist Eric Drooker's existentially spooky urban drawings and paintings often adorn the cover of The New Yorker or the pages of such graphic novels as Bloodsong and Illuminated Poems, the latter a collaboration with the late poet Allen Ginsberg, then a fellow denizen of New York's Lower East Side. It turns out that Ginsberg was a fan of Drooker's work -- he'd been pulling the artist's posters off telephone poles -- before he even knew Drooker had created them.
The product of a match made in heaven, Illuminated Poems in turn played a large part in the creation of the new movie Howl, which was shot by the same documentary filmmakers who made The Times of Harvey Milk and The Celluloid Closet and stars James Franco in an incandescent turn as the poet Ginsberg. Animated sequences designed by Drooker are interspersed throughout the film, which cuts back and forth between an imagined interview, a live reading of Howl and the famous obscenity trial against Howl publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. It's a magical hybrid with an important story to tell, and Drooker's beautiful sequences inspired by the poem are intrinsic to the spell it casts.
I had a chance to catch up with Drooker and his part in the film. The interview follows. All artwork by Eric Drooker.
Westword (Susan Froyd): How did you become part of the project? Eric Drooker: Epstein and Friedman are documentary filmmakers. They had never done anything else, so a drama with live actors was a complete departure for them. They started shooting it as a documentary, interviewing people like Ferlinghetti and Orlovsky. They got all of the oldest surviving members of Ginsberg's circle on video first. Then they stumbled on a copy of Illuminated Poems, and suddenly my phone was ringing, and they came over to my studio in Berkeley. They wanted to know if they could use some of my images the way Ken Burns would do, but when they were in my studio, they saw other work lying around, some of my graphic novels, and that's when the light bulbs went off over their heads. A graphic novel looks like a storyboard: it's sequential art in panels. And then they called back and asked me about animating Howl.
The poignant detail in all this -- it's almost a mystical connection -- is the way they discovered the book at the house of an old guy, Tuli Kupferberg. He's this hardcore bohemian who was born and grew up on the Lower East Side and knew Ginsberg in New York, and he's one of the guys Howl is about. One stanza -- "Who jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge this actually happened and walked away unknown and forgotten into the ghostly daze of Chinatown soup alley" -- is about Tuli in the 1940s. When they were interviewing him, he showed them a copy of Illuminated Poems.
That's the genesis of it there. I thought they meant I would do just a few sequences, but then I was shocked to learn they were proposing that I animate the entire poem -- a good twenty, twenty-five minutes worth. Originally, it was going to be a documentary with talking heads that would somehow jump into the animation, using Ginsberg's voice from recordings. Instead, they used James Franco's voice and broke up the animation into different pieces that weave in and out throughout duration of film.
The whole emphasis of film shifted in a mystical way in favor of dramatization. They were almost creating a new form: They used actual court documents verbatim like a documentary would, but it ended up the next couple of steps removed with actors playing the parts. None of players on the project ended up doing what they thought they'd be doing. It turned out to be something more challenging, experimental.
WW: You knew and worked with Allen Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems. Drooker: These were poems written before I was even born, but we came from a very similar cultural family background, and we only lived two blocks away from each other on the Lower East Side. I would show him what I was working on, and then there was a lot of back and forth: He would suggest a poem of his that would go with it. Most of the time, the illustrations were new and inspired by the poems, but others were images that stand on their own. More often, though, it went the other way. Ginsberg's was a prophetic voice who thought about what he felt deep down about the direction of culture. His political analysis in Howl doesn't offer much of a prescription. But there is a diagnosis.
WW: What challenges did you encounter in illustrating Howl? Drooker: The biggest challenge was coming up with imagery that would complement the poem rather than merely illustrate the poet's words. I already came face to face with the situation when I collaborated with Ginsberg on Illuminated Poems. I don't simply want to be illustrating literally what the words are telling you.
As I worked on Howl, memories came back from collaborating with Ginsberg on that book. He had died by then, but I knew where he was coming from. I internalized the poet's voice, sitting on my shoulder as I was working, and I tried to create images that will create a mood and work in harmony with the poet, without getting in the way of his words. The challenge is in trying not to be too literal or trying to keep up with the words. I'd rather just bounce off of the words.
WW: How did you adjust to the animation process? Drooker: Really, I'm visually sophisticated, but I'm retarded in other areas, and animation is one of the more tedious artforms. But I was working with a team, a whole animation studio, with a division of labor. There were teams for the characters, for the background and the storyboard, and they all worked according to to my specs, working in my style in idiom and lighting. It's like being in a band with other musicians. And I thought it was a strong team: There was good synergy between us. Sometimes I thought the studio didn't interpret things quite the way I meant them to be, but at other times, they exceeded my wildest expectations.
Also, an animator works without a safety net. We didn't get a chance to rehearse the way actors do. It is so labor intensive, and you only get to do each thing once. Everything happens very quickly: You feed artwork to the studio, and by the next morning they've already animated some of it. I didn't have the luxury of a redo.
WW: Would Ginsberg have liked the result? Drooker: The animation turns out to be the most controversial thing about the movie. Critics either like it or they really, really don't like it. I think he would've liked most of the imagery -- most of it does feel like my work. And he himself was always trying to find ways to make his work more accessible.
WW: Does the film succeed in doing that? Drooker: One of the things I caught myself doing was trying to make poetry more accessible to young people. But then I realized that young people who grew up with hip hop actually grew up with more poetry in their lives than ever. Much of it is bad, some is good, but even when it's lame, it's still very participatory. We never did that, outside of weirdo poets like Ginsberg, but as a cultural phenomenon, it's just the rhyme and rhythm of their thing.
Young people are already hip to poetry. What would you see in Howl that would shock a younger person growing up with Eminem?
WW: Looking back, how do you feel about the experience now? Drooker: Howl was an unexpected creative journey that just landed in my lap. I don't know if I would have agreed to do it if wasn't that material. I would have been daunted by the responsibility. But I felt confident I could come up with imagery that would fit the material, because I had been there: It was the same tenement landscape and politics and sociology we'd explored before. There were enough things in common, a natural harmony, when we collaborated on first book.
WW: What are you working on now? I'm painting a New Yorker cover. It's kind of a relief getting back to that -- one picture tells the whole story.
Drooker's book of illustrations from Howl is available in paperback for $19.95 from Harper Perennial. See Howl on October 21 and 22 at the International Film Series at CU-Boulder. The film then opens in Denver at the Chez Artiste 3 Theater on November 5. Here's a clip:
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