Would you explain Warhol's screen test films?
Warhol made 472 of these films between 1964 and 1966. They are short, silent, black-and-white portraits. Before he was doing this he was doing photo booth portraits, which he called “stillies,” so this kind of grew out of that – it was the next step when he bought a Bolex and decided that he was moving into making film. He didn’t really know how to edit film I guess; he didn’t have to edit film. He’d just load a reel of film, which is about three minutes in length, and he would sit someone against a white background or a black background and just let the film roll and tell them to stare straight into the camera and do as little as possible. Then he would play these films back at a slower speed, at a silent film speed instead of the sound film speed, so they’re all kind of stretched out. So, they play back and they were just over four minutes each and that’s what kind of gives them a slightly spooky quality. If you slow down someone’s face you can kind of see things flicker across them that you really wouldn’t otherwise notice. The first part of our assignment was to pick 13 of these films.
What drew you to these 13?
We started reading about the Factory in this period; it’s called the Silver Factory. It was the one that was painted silver and it was a former hat factory on East 47th Street. After this period he moved to Union Square, which is where everything changed. It’s where he got shot. I know a little bit about Warhol and the Velvet Underground and the people that were around them, but I didn’t really know much about them at all until I started researching this and the more we learned the more we decided to focus on the people that were there everyday, like Billy Name who was Warhol’s assistant and even Dennis Hopper who was an important early champion of Warhol’s work when he went out to the West Coast. This is at a point where Warhol wasn’t selling anything at all and Dennis Hopper was blacklisted from Hollywood, he wasn’t doing much at all either – this was before Easy Rider — he was blacklisted for the first time because he was too difficult to work with, I think. Hopper was one of the first people to buy a soup can painting.
Were you intimidated by the prospect of the project?
I was intimidated; we were intimidated. We’re used to going on tour and playing in clubs to people who know our songs and have come expressly to hear them, so it’s kind of outside of our comfort zone. We’re going theaters, and museums and arts festivals and playing to people some of them are there for us, some of them are there for the Warhol films. I was wondering if we would be judged harshly for even daring to put music to these things. To a few people that’s an outrage. A couple of film critics were like, “How could you do this?” But actually if you go back and look at them, Warhol often showed them in all kinds of settings. In fact some of them where expressly shot to be projected on the Velvet Underground as they were playing, so I don’t think he would have minded.
It seems to have been received fairly well over all.
Oh, no. It’s been received really well. It came from the Warhol Museum, so I’m not too concerned. They were OK with it and I think that they thought maybe we’d do 10 shows, but it’s been 70 shows all over the world: Sydney Opera House to Lincoln Center and some small places too, all kinds of things. It really took over our lives.
How did you go about composing or assigning the music to the film?
With scoring film it’s always trial and error. I went to the museum and looked at about 150 of these, sometimes just very quickly. I came home with about 40 of them and then Britta and I started looking at those closely and trying music against them — something of our own, or sometimes a cover just to try and get a sense of what would work. When we finally picked the 13, we’d find out as much as we could about that person. Each of them is like a different little short story, so we were trying to find out what the mood of it is.
What did you want to accomplish? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but a tribute, a certain mood or some kind of commentary?
I guess just to tease out the mood. The selection of music has something to do with the music too because it can change the mood drastically. But I like to think with film you can put the music up against it and then the film tells you whether it’s working or not. You might have a beautiful piece of music, but you put it in a scene in a film and it slows the film down or it’s confusing or it just doesn’t do the right thing.
Some of these films, some of the screen tests are tricky because within one film you have two very different moods. It’s kind of like a psychological test to sit in front of a camera and be filmed for three minutes. Everyone starts by projecting a certain image of themselves, and they say, “This is what I’m going to do. I’m going to be very serious.” But at a certain point, what you are trying to project cracks and a different element of your personality shows through. You can see that quite easily, like Dennis Hopper starts very serious, like he was going through some trauma and by the end of it he’s giggling and there are others who start giggling and end up in tears. I think sometimes [Warhol] would sit people in front of the camera and just walk right out of the room. That’s another thing, actually both Mary Woronov and Lou Reed said that they were like, “Is there even a piece of film in this? Are they just fucking with me?”
Woronov’s is interesting because she’s so stoic and then there’s this moment where she breaks and starts smiling and then goes right back to being straight-faced.
She wrote a really funny book about her period in the Factory, it’s called Swimming Underground. it’s kind of crazy and I don’t know how much of it is believable, but she talks at length in a chapter about the “mole people,” a subset within the Factory that took speed all the time. I guess she was on the edge of that group.
Tell me about the live show in Symphony Hall this weekend.
I think a lot of times people do a multi-media show, they have some conception, music, dance in front of film and it’s just very dull. [13 Most Beautiful...] really works. The films look beautiful. They are the perfect length for a song and it would be interesting to watch them without any music at all, but it would probably be a bit of a challenge. The music helps. And then we tell stories to explain who each person is and it works kind of like a piece of theater. I think it’s deeply pleasurable. The right mix of film and music I think can be very powerful.
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