Q&A with Matt Wolf, director of Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, screening at the Denver Film Festival

An image from Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell.
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The ongoing Denver Film Festival features a great many cinematic attention magnets, several of which have been covered in this space. (Examples include "The Brothers Bloom Flowers to Open the Denver Film Festival," "Grappling with The Wrestler at the Denver Film Festival," "Slumdog Millionaire Makes for a Big Night at the Denver Film Festival" and "The Class Act at the Denver Film Festival.") But there are dozens of other entries that deserve to be seen, including Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, which gets the showcase treatment at 6 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, November 22 and 23, at the Starz FilmCenter. The documentary is a fascinating look at Arthur Russell, a musical cult figure from the '70s and '80s who is now being rediscovered sixteen years after his death -- and Matt Wolf, who directed the film, provides insight aplenty in the following Q&A.

Wolf talks about hearing Russell for the first time; deciding to create a full-length film about him after meeting Tom Lee, Russell's longtime love; searching for archival footage of Russell, done with assistance from Audika Records' Steve Knutson, a onetime Denverite who starred in a prominent local band called the Young Weasels; determining his cast of characters; realizing that Russell's family and friends were more intrinsic to the project than David Byrne and other prominent performers who crossed Russell's path; and finding visual corollaries for Russell's idiosyncratic music. He adds that he hopes viewers of Wild Combination will be inspired to learn more about Russell -- but that they'll also remember the film as well.

Undoubtedly, they will.

Westword (Michael Roberts): How did you first become aware of Arthur Russell’s music?

Matt Wolf: Someone recommended his music to me when they were re-released in 2003. The re-release was Calling Out of Context. And my friend’s initial description really intrigued me. He called Arthur a gay disco auteur who wore farmer-plaid shirts and rode the Staten Island Ferry back and forth listening to mixes of his stuff. That really sparked my interest, intrigued me. And I got very involved in the music once I bought it.

WW: At what point did you think, this isn’t just a great musical discovery but the potential subject for a film?

MW: I come from a more experimental filmmaking background. So originally my idea was principally to render Arthur’s music visually. So I reached out to Tom Lee, Arthur’s boyfriend, to seek permission to use his music for this experimental project. And Tom got back to me and I went to visit him in the apartment that him and Arthur had shared. It was in the East Village, above Allen Ginsburg and Richard Hell. And I was so immediately touched by Tom and the connection he felt to Arthur still. And I realized while talking to him that he’d translate very well on camera – and that the biographical element of the story was potentially as compelling as the music.

WW: What was it about Tom that you thought would translate so well?

MW: His intensity and the tenderness of his relationship with Arthur, as well as his ongoing relationship with Arthur’s parents, and how he had become the person trying to preserve Arthur’s legacy in tandem with Audika Records.

WW: It was interesting seeing Steve Knutson pop up in the film. He was a musician based in Denver in the ‘80s, playing in a band called the Young Weasels, before moving to New York and working for Tommy Boy Records, and then founding Audika…

MW: I know Steve well, and I knew Steve was from Denver – and I knew he was in a band. I just blanked on it. That’s funny…

WW: At what point did you learn that there were quite a few films of Arthur, which allowed you to show him actually performing his music instead of having to rely on still photographs or things of that nature?

MW: Actually, there’s not that much material of Arthur playing. That was a concern of mine – that there wasn’t enough actual material of Arthur. That’s what led us to do our evocative recreations that read as archival material. But I think the performance stuff I found – the richest material I found right away, because Steve had already compiled and collected a lot of it. But the archival research process was a sustained endeavor that went on for the entire two years of filmmaking. As close to a move before locking picture on the edit, we found new performance clips. So it was always kind of a struggle to show Arthur performing in the flesh aside from being anecdotal about how he made music.

WW: So my assumption that there was quite a bit of footage was incorrect. Was pretty much all the footage you were able to find of him in the film?

MW: Correct. Basically everything that exists of him is in the film.

WW: You mentioned that it was a two-year filmmaking process. When did you start in earnest?

MW: The film was finished in January of 2008. I began in January of 2006. I remember when we finished, I looked at some of the e-mails I’d spent related to the project, and it was exactly two years. For a documentary, that’s actually a very fast process: two years. But in normal life, two years for a project is a long time (laughs).

WW: Were there any people you approached to talk about Arthur in the film who weren’t interested?

MW: There were conversations I had without being determined that they’d appear in the film that I dismissed after those conversations. I had pretty specific criteria I was looking for when I was choosing characters for the film, and I was fairly ruthless in terms of narrowing down the field of those participants. And certainly, I think the biggest regret I have is that a lot of people who would have been very relevant, particularly in the field of disco, are deceased. There would have been some dream interviews with people who aren’t around anymore. Obviously, if I could have interviewed Allen Ginsburg myself. Or if Steve D’Aquisto or Larry Levan were alive – they were disco DJs – they would have been extremely appropriate. There were people I approached that we mutually decided not to include, but the deceased people are the ones I have regret about.

WW: Some viewers may wonder where David Byrne or Jonathan Richman are. Did you reach out to either of them?

MW: I did reach out to David Byrne, who wasn’t able to participate. But when you said that, it made me think why he might not want to participate. And I think one of the reasons is that his relationship with Arthur might be overanalyzed in a certain sense. I think they had a more incidental relationship, in that they had mutual collaborators and were part of a common scene. In terms of Jonathan Richman, Jonathan didn’t really work with Arthur. It was really Ernie [Brooks, an original member of Richman’s first major band, the Modern Lovers] who had the relationship with Arthur. Arthur had associations with a lot of luminaries, but because it was such a narrow field of characters participating in the storytelling, I didn’t want it to be name-droppy. I wanted it to focus on people who had a really significant, substantive association with Arthur and his work, whether they were critical or affirming. [Record producer] Bob Blank, for instance. Bob Blank was very critical of Arthur and his working methods, but his relationship with him was quite substantive.

WW: You make it clear that Arthur’s personality could be prickly at times. Were there some people who simply couldn’t talk about him with any level of objectivity, despite how many years have passed?

MW: I think both for Will Socolov and for Bob Blank, there’s a fair amount of residual frustration in terms of their working relationship with Arthur. But I think ultimately, they were left with a feeling of warmth or remorse because they recognized the level of Arthur’s talent and how significant his contribution to music was then and could have been now.

WW: In watching the film, it seemed to me that you tried to come up with a visual corollary for his music. Is that something you consciously set out to do? Or did it develop along the way?

MW: Certainly, I was trying to design a form for the film that was responsive and illustrated Arthur’s music, and that was on the level of choosing and focusing on imagery that was thematically relevant. But also making expressive and purely visual choices that were demonstrative of the level of ideas or tones in the music. And I think one of the impulses in a conventional music documentary to make a kind of music video that has stylized visuals, and that give you an opportunity to hear the music. And obviously, I had a need to cover music visually, so you could hear it – but I wanted to do it in a somewhat different way. And so I tried for all of these kinds of visual things to use elements that were involved in the storytelling and pushing the film forward as well.

WW: Like the sequences toward the end of the film with the fields in Iowa?

MW: Exactly. At once their illustrative and representative of the iconography of Iowa, which is so relevant to the music. But there are also elements that are pushing the story forward, that are illustrating what’s happening in the story of the film. So I tried for these visuals to be storytelling devices as well as stylizations.

WW: You mentioned earlier that you come from an experimental background. Is this one of the more narrative projects you’ve worked on? And if so, what did you learn about narrative in making it?

MW: It’s the first real full-length film I’ve made. I’m 26. I started the film when I was 23 and just out of school. I feel like even though I went to film school and learned quite a bit about filmmaking, I learned everything about filmmaking through the process of making this project. But also about storytelling and handling an emotional response and shaping that. I guess in terms of filmmaking, it’s all about relationships. Every single picture in the film, I had to develop a relationship with the rights holders of those images, whether it was searching for them or getting permission to use them. And every single person that I interviewed in the film, obviously, I have a relationship with. So I think the most significant aspect of that process is forming so many new relationships and understanding how to manage and handle those in the best way.

WW: In watching this story, it’s really tempting to play amateur psychologist – to think, Arthur’s insecurities about his appearance and all the abuse he took from his peers growing up may have fueled his art in some way. Did you resist doing? Did you want to present the material and let the viewer decide – or did you want to present a theory about why Arthur was who he was?

MW: Well, I certainly don’t think the film has a thesis, and I wasn’t trying to create one. And I also wasn’t trying to psychologize or pathologize his kind of paranoid or self-defeating behavior. [Musician and author] David Toop is in the film the most pushing this kind of idea that we aren’t just one static kind of persona. Within all of us, whether we’re creative people or not, there’s so many facets. We can be funny. We can be serious. We can be lazy or we can be determined. And in all those ways, I think Arthur allowed himself to explore all of his possibilities. He had a certain kind of freedom and determination to do that. And I think for that very reason, it makes it impossible to sort of theorize a central kind of core or essence for Arthur. I think he was an artist who defies those kinds of explanations. He allowed himself to go in so many divergent directions.

WW: Just the idea of cellist who makes disco music is a contradiction in and of itself…

MW: Yeah, but at the same time, if you look at it from a cultural point of view, the avant-garde scene of The Kitchen in the ‘70s wasn’t unlike the Buddhist commune that Arthur came of age in when he lived in San Francisco. And when you see the footage of the underground Loft club, you can see that it has this kind of communal, social-experiment feeling that isn’t so different from the performances we see at The Kitchen or the environment we might imagine in the commune. So I think socio-culturally, those environments aren’t that radically different. And that’s part of the cultural history of the film to understand that, and to see how those kinds of possibilities might be different now because things are institutionalized and socialized in different kinds of ways. Whereas that fertile period of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, those experimental communities were a little more open, you could say.

WW: If Hollywood were to try and tell Arthur’s story, I’m sure the filmmakers would have tried to distill all of these contradictory elements into a very black and white portrait. One of the things I liked best about the film is that you resisted that temptation and let Arthur be as contradictory as I’m sure he really was.

MW: And as anybody is. I don’t think you can really prove that somebody was or wasn’t a certain way. People can act in many ways and do many things that never have a consistent kind of thread, per say.

WW: Arthur’s death from AIDS and his subsequent rediscovery ties into that great popular archetype about the artists who are underappreciated during their lifetime only to be appreciated later. Did that make you a little nervous – the thought that viewers would automatically think, it’s this kind of film, and it’s going to go in this direction?

MW: Well, that narrative about the undiscovered genius who’s later appreciated, I think there’s a reason that it’s on some levels a cliché, but also a kind of trope. And that’s because there are a lot of great artists who weren’t discovered during their lifetime. I don’t think there’s a model or a pattern that you see that’s totally consistent on that end, except that it’s useful to look back and appreciate the contributions of people from the past, because so often not everyone can be recognized. But anticipating reactions or expectations, I think I tried to distance myself from that. As a filmmaker, I don’t think I can be accountable to people’s expectations. I have to trust my own instincts and impulses and follow my own interests in relation to the material. I think I wasn’t concerned with other people’s expectations or interests or the models of other kinds of stories that are similar. I was just trying to trust my own sustained interest in the material.

WW: You mentioned earlier Tom’s relationship with Arthur’s parents, and that was one of the nice surprises about the film – that Arthur dies, but the story isn’t over. The relationship between the three of them was so unlikely and yet so beautiful. For you, was that story in some ways as important as Arthur’s story?

MW: Yeah. I think Tom and the Russells are the most important parts of the story for me. They’re the most emotionally direct. I think they’re incredibly interesting. It’s not all about the music for me. It’s about Arthur as a character and as a person, and I guess this was the support system that backed up that art, and to me that’s incredibly interesting. And it’s also interesting the way they connected as a way of coping and moving on from Arthur’s death, and are kind of mutually celebrating his rediscovery. For me, that was as important as the music and a huge focus and priority.

WW: I also liked the conclusion, in which his folks speculate about whether he would have become famous had he lived, or if there would have simply been several thousand more tapes that the general public wouldn’t have heard. Do you have an opinion about that? Was he an artist who was too eccentric to ever have achieved mainstream success?

MW: I don’t know. I think Arthur’s music would have reached an audience if he were alive now just because of the Internet. I think he could have been quite effective at reaching people in a way that wasn’t possible back then. But I also think that Arthur would have really taken advantage of the technological advances that made the means of production much more accessible for musicians. He would have been inside his apartment on Pro Tools and his computer making music just as he was then. But I think some of the obstacles – particularly money to get into the studio – would have vanished for him. And that would have enabled him to work in a more sustainable way and make more music and perhaps finish more music. Who knows what would have happened. I’m just convinced that he would certainly have been making music no matter what his level of success or recognition.

WW: What role would you like your film to play in terms of getting his music out there to even more people?

MW: I hope the film introduces new audiences to his music, which I think it is doing. I hope it deepens the experience of people who are already familiar with his music, so that it takes on new significance or meaning for them. And I also hope people who come to the film with an interest in the music have an experience directly with the film that’s unique and separate from their own preconceptions or expectations that are generated from the music. That they remember the film as a thing unto itself, too.

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