George Kuchar, one of the most interesting American underground filmmakers, died this year – on September 6. Strangely, it has not been published much on him. His work is overlooked. Here is a nice obituary by Paul Vitello in NYT. The interview below was done by Jorge Flores and myself in San Francisco back in 2006. It was not published in English before.
Jorge Flores: …Well I guess a lot of your work is like that, isn’t it? A lot of improvisation?
George Kuchar: Yeah, you start with an idea, and when you actually tackle…when you get on the set everything changes. You know, people aren’t always there or the lighting is different or something’s going wrong. So a lot of it’s based on that. And then this way you don’t have to pull your hair out, I don’t have that much hair to pull out. In other words you don’t get that frustrated, you got to leave it open. You got a definite idea and it doesn’t work out, you get kind of frustrated and angry. This way, if you have an idea that’s not working out, the hell with it, jump on to something else.
JF: But using the same footage, right?
GK: Yeah. Sometimes you got to save it. Sometimes you shoot something and no sound comes out ‘cause you did something wrong, so that means you either got to narrate or just put music on it. You know, you never re-shoot because it’s to much of a nightmare for the poor people, cause they are not getting paid. They’re doing it all for fun, you don’t want anybody to suffer, go through this stupid thing again. Or if I’m drawing, I just start and then start painting but I won’t do sketches ahead of time. It takes too much time. I used to paint ‘cause I was trained as a commercial artist. I kind of painted a long time that was my introduction to the art world. I was to be a painter. I studied illustration, like commercial arts, advertising arts. I hated advertising arts.
But you know, you had to get to art school and they said fine artists starve, I was told. Your better off going to a commercial art school cause then you get a job. And I hated the commercial art-world horribly. But I worked in the commercial art-world for a greeting card company, I gave art supplies to the artists. And then I worked for a television station, I used to draw the weather map. They give you a map of the United States and you have to draw the cold front, the warm front, the symbol for when it’s going to rain, arrows coming in from either north or south, so I had to do that. But the work got shown on television. I used to do my own artwork and they used it as background for the forecast. They put lettering on it. I used to draw mountains with snow or cityscapes. I used to like doing that, because it was like a gallery
Svitlana Matviyenko: There is something from that experience in your recent work, I think. You like the artificial.
GK: Yeah, I have that in my video stuff. ‘Cause, you know, sometimes if you want real life you just go outside. For the movies you want something different. Plus I like those Godzilla pictures, you know, the guy in the suits. I like those animated digital things they do nowadays too, but…so I can do my version of it. I can’t copy exactly, I wouldn’t want to.
SM: What do you think about the responses to your work?
GK: It’s only interesting that people have a different interpretation, and then as long as they keep talking about the movies it’s good. But it depends also on how they are trained to look at a picture. Sometimes they look at a picture and they read it all wrong ‘cause they got tunnel vision. They are trained like watchdogs. You’re not supposed to do that. That’s kind of lousy. But if they come with an open mind and try to interpret what the images are saying, obsessions and stuff, then I find that interesting.
JF: I have seen a few avant-garde/experimental films in video rental stores, but I haven’t seen yours.
GK: I mainly do them non-commercial. It’s not for the marketplace. For the marketplace you do everything by the book. I do it on the run. I even take pictures where you’re not supposed to, or you’re supposed to get people to sign their leases and stuff. I don’t do that. They’re just friends. So it’s not made for the commercial marketplace. And then also, it’s more fun to work on the outskirts. If you are doing work and it gets shown here and there but in strange places, nobody pays any attention and you can do whatever you want.
But as soon as the spotlight gets on there, you get kind of frozen cause people are watching. You got to watch what you do cause people are watching what you do. Your freedom gets lost.
SM: Who are your viewers?
GK: They are strange. There are always some people that are interested in bizarre or offbeat movies and so they frequent these strange clubs or basement cinemas. They’re always looking for an alternative to the big movies and so you can fill that niche.
JF: But how do they see your films, how do they know of them. Not here in San Francisco, but say somewhere in Texas?
GK: Well, usually if you’ve been making pictures for quite a while, which I have, you develop kind of a following and people write about that, like critics. Therefore, word gets around, and anybody interested in that kind of movies reads about it. And then when they read in the newspaper (they put an add) that the pictures are playing they go.
JF: But whoever gets the copies to show them, do they get them from you?
GK: No, they get them from Canyon Cinema, cause I can’t distribute my own movies, it’s going to take too much time. I don’t want to go to the post office and mail them out. If you get somebody interested in your pictures, they become your distributor. They take a percentage and they give you a percentage. So every couple of months or something, you get a check.
JF: I should try that.
GK: Try it! All you got to do is get somebody to champion your movies that likes your pictures. Otherwise you got to pay to get into festivals. And that’s like paying to get rejected. You pay money and you get rejected. Even I get rejected from tons of festivals. But I don’t send them, my distributor sends them. So I don’t give a damn. They don’t want them, go ahead, who cares. I didn’t spend any money. You don’t have to worry about it. Like I send them a master. Or you have them in the lab. There aren’t that many copies of my movies
JF: You obviously own some.
GK: I took them out of the house ‘cause the houses here catch fire. They are made out of wood. The houses here catch fire a lot. I don’t wan to keep the films in the house ‘cause it’s going to burn down and I can’t go save the pictures, I’ll have to grab the cats and get out of the house. I can’t go running around the closets. They’re too heavy and too many of them. So, luckily I went to a place to show movies in Boston, at Harvard, and a guy I used to know from another museum that use to show my movies, he was working for the Harvard Film Society and he said, “Where are your movies kept, the originals”. I said, “In the closet, I’m worried about them”. He said, “Give them to us”. And they have an archive, and so they pay for the shipment and everything. I got them out of my closet. I gave him all the films, I don’t have to worry about that stupid stuff. So if anything happens, the originals like I, An Actress and stuff… And they also have them across the bay (Pacific Film Archive and Berkeley Art Museum), which I don’t like that much cause there’s the earthquake fault, right near that museum. If that fault goes, that museum’s in trouble. That PFA is very close to the fault. That’s where some of my pictures are.
SM: Your movies always were alternative. Why?
GK: Well, I like going to the big movies, I used to go a lot, so mine are like my versions of big movies. Although now I’m making more diaries. I make video diaries and make them look like a movie. I sort of enjoy doing that now. And in school, I generally do the story type pictures, ‘cause it’s more like going to a regular studio. You know, you’re in the contract, you have to be there, the people are also in the contract, you all make a movie. So I continue the story-making in the class. We all get together and make a picture. That’s what I’m editing now.
JF: But you write the script?
GK: I come up with the idea and then from there I throw in some more substance. Then, when we’re actually there I see who’s coming in, who’s the “star”, who wants to act, who wants to do this and that.
JF: Your films are very much about making fun of Hollywood. Is it something that you want to criticize?
GK: No, I love it. I love Hollywood pictures. I love the style, the way they’re constructed, the craftsmanship. I love the color coordination. The way the music comes in, the individual cinematography. So I love to mimic that in my own pictures, with my own detail. It’s all exaggerated because also I put things in my pictures that I didn’t see in those movies. Like many years ago they never had toilet bowls.
And so they never showed a torrid in a toilet bowl. So I used to make torrid out of dog food. You know, get dog food and make a torrid and put it in a toilet bowl and take pictures of that. Cause I never used to see it in Hollywood pictures. So I wanted to put it in there and I was getting a kick out of it (referring to A Reason to Live). Plus, when you make a movie it’s hard work and you get a little devilish because you want to have a laugh. So you throw in little things like that. But I always liked Hollywood pictures so I just scale them down to make my own stuff. You have to have obsessions also. You have an obsession you want to address it or else it comes down, you can’t help it, it comes down. And that’s a good outlet, it gives you the energy to finish it.
JF: You were mentioning that you don’t want to re-shoot and the stuff you work with is really well edited. It interests me that you are really exploiting different moods that develop for no reason. It’s something that is very much a style of yours. So I’m wondering if you came up with that because you didn’t want to shoot again or from accidents of that sort?
GK: As long as you have footage you have something to work with. It may not be exactly the way you had it planned, but you got the footage and now you got to think of a new way to put it together. Otherwise, you do the same old things. Like I got lousy footage from this new class picture. It’s a good scene. Somebody shot a good scene of a Frankenstein monster.
It was on the school roof and some jet planes came by form this airforce celebration. So they shot the monster as if it’s angry at the planes and stuff. But the photography was horrible. It was shaking all over the place and I was upset about it. I was feeling annoyed by it. But I tried this effect in my computer that made the monster multiply in two. And the footage worked perfectly. It even looked as if the monster was being attacked by the world of computers and effects and media. I just like to go with the flow in films. There was a teacher we had in school, for example, Larry Jordan. He made a serious movie about this lifestyle in Marin county, people living in the woods and stuff. When he played it, the audience wouldn’t stop laughing. Then some man came up to him and said, “Now, that was a joke, wasn’t it, a satire?”. And Larry said, “yes, in a way it was”. And I never forgot that. Just go with the flow. It wasn’t a joke, it was a serious picture.
SM: You said you did not go watching your own films because they all reminded you of a some kind of painful experience until once your heard people laughing at one of your films that changed your attitude. Could you tell us more about that story?
GK: I didn’t want to go to the movie (referring to The Mongreloid). A lady that wanted to go to a show I had in New York playing in a theater (they didn’t need me there, they were just going to play the movie) asked me if I wanted to go. I said, “No, cause I’m going to remember all the pain”. There were painful episodes. I had scenes of my dog. We went to the country and there were beautiful shots of the dog and it’s a celebration of the dog but it doesn’t tell the story that I was up there and the guy I went with (referring to Curt McDowell) forgot to put anti-freezer in his car and the temperature dropped in the middle of the night and the oil froze in the car.
So we were stuck there and he hated me. For some reason he thought I was no good because we went up there and we had pasta and I ate more and he thought I was selfish that I ate it. But he had his before and so he was fed up with me and it was all frozen. We were in this little town somewhere up in the mountains, I don’t know where the hell we were. And he said, “Well, I got to go to another town there’s no gas station here, I got to somehow hitchhike”. He left me alone in a hotel with the dog. And I had no money in my pockets. What was I going to do if he never came back cause he didn’t like me? I was stuck in a place with the dog and no money and I had no transportation. I didn’t know how to get out of there. So that kind of thing was painful. Plus, he died, he died of aids. The dog is dead cause it got old and it got sick. So, everything hit me. And the other guy in the picture died too, he died. And so, they’re all dead.
Then I went to the movie. People were laughing and I started laughing because it was a happy picture. All you got to do is remember, no matter what went on during the thing, you made the picture and a different thing comes out, a celebration of the animal and the beauty of that scenery. And even those people now are re-living. They’re all alive again every time you put the reel on. And then some of the other movies were made because there were things going on in my head and I put them in the picture. You know, feelings and relationships. Although they were acted in kind of a big broad manner, it’s kind of funny, but they were all based on kind of serious things that went on.
But I went and I enjoyed the show. I was so glad that I went. All you got to do is remember to get out of the house. The pictures stand on their own. Making a movie can be hard labor, but you just go through it, like having a baby, right? Women say that they forget about the pain, they just have the baby.
JF: Did you start the diary series with The Mongreloid?
GK: I used to do it now and then with the movies. I would make little diaries of artists like Red Grooms and Mimi Gross, or about the weather. But then when I got the video camera, it was ideal for these things. For the movies you have to dress everything up, like window dressing, the lighting, you have to make everything bigger than it is. With the video camera you didn’t have to do that.
You just go on location, you can work with low lights. So I embarked on the video thing. I did it in 85, something like that, when they came up with the camcorder. First Sony came out with the camcorder and it didn’t give glitches when you stop and start, everything was in the machine. That’s when I said, “Now’s the time to get in, this is what I’ve been waiting for”.
SM: I noticed that in your new work you tend to repeat some scenes, motifs, images from your older films. For examples, in Dynasty of Depravity, motifs from Hold Me While I’m Naked. I am sure you are aware of it, why would you do it?
GK: There are always running motifs. Showers, or windows, or… They’re usually little clues of what’s going on in your head. Whether you want them deciphered or not, you know what I mean. Sometimes you rather not have it deciphered. Have you ever listened to Max Steiner? Movie music? He did hundreds of scores from King Kong to a Summer Place. If you listen to his music you’ll say, “Oh, I remember that from King Kong”. When you do hundreds of sketches, or music scores you always have something that comes back. Sometimes they are noted as your trademark. Sometimes you get branded. They say, “What’s wrong with that person, he keeps making these scenes?” And then sometimes you stop doing them but you’re always remembered for that sequence of scenes that pop up in your pictures even though you don’t do them anymore.
JF: Speaking of music, where do you get your music from?
GK: Records! I once was going to make a big picture. I went to this guy who played several instruments. I was going to score the picture with pianos and all. I said, “No, horrible, it’s going to ruin the whole stinking movie”. I got records, I have a huge record collection.
JF: So, have you gone into any trouble for it?
GK: No, that’s why they don’t show. They’re hit and run showings. It has no commercial space in the marketplace. And so you are working behind closed screens and doors, you know? Only if you make a big picture like the ones that are shown on television. If you want to make a big movie, they got lawyers, accountants… it’s such a pain in the ass. I did a picture like that. I was hired by this nice man who worked in Wall Street who was about eighty something. I was director and photographer and I even put the story together. He needed to skip tax payments. He was a nice man, he produced a couple of other underground pictures by artists that he knew. He himself was a painter, but he was a business man and he had two lawyers. The good lawyer died of a heart attack and this other horrible man had his wife as a secretary. And then you had to get everybody to fill in forms and we shot in the circus and he almost had a breakdown cause we had so many people in the audience, we had to get them to sign the leases. It’s such a headache. And the picture itself, nobody wanted to see it. So why do you go through that much trouble for it? It was a nice picture, kind of genuine. It’s called Unstrap Me, 16mm movie. That’s when you get the music rights and you get a lawyer, it takes a long time. But that’s if you want to make big commercial movies.
JF: What about your brother, he is still making films, right?
GK: Yeah. He makes these dramas. He’s got a whole different style. They are strange stories, but then he does also poetic, obsessive pictures about people and relationships. They’re very interesting. In my brother’s pictures everything is played on the same level. The music is as strong as the photography and sometimes the dialogue is completely lost. If he doesn’t like the dialogue he’ll make the music so loud that you can’t hear it. And the editing is as strong as the photography and the music so it’s like a real in your face kind of picture. Sometimes people go to the show and they’re shocked at the obsessive nature. My brother just throws it all on the screen so he’s got an interesting style and he has his followers. Sometimes he makes pictures that are strange performances and the people in them are kind of weird. Not what you would consider glamorous movie stars. He also did comic books. This guy who makes these homoerotic comic books hired my brother to do the pictures. My brother has a career as a comic book artist of homoerotic arts. And he even had show of his paintings in LA. It was a gallery, and in the back they had dark rooms where you looked at the paintings and you go in the dark rooms for “hank-panky”. I thought it was a great idea, that combination! There used to be places like that here, but they weren’t advertised as such. I had a show in a video gallery that was underneath a bridge of the highway in Oakland. It was ran by this ex-student. I went in there and a lot of women were coming in with low neck lines. They weren’t interested in me, they liked the ticket taker, who was another lady. It turned out to be a giant lesbian hangout. And they were making out during the pictures. So it was kind of interesting. I like that, that’s the way it should be. You know, you go to Cinematheque and there’s no beating, no this and that, no popcorn. There’s none of that in underground.
By Jorge Lorenzo Flores and Svitlana Matviyenko
San-Francisco, Fall 2006
*The interview is published in Ukrainian film magazine КІНОКОЛО 29, (2006) along with my article “Underground on the Roof: George Kuchar and the American Underground Film” pp. 75-79.