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Greg Whiteley, the director of the very well-received new movie New York Doll, has kindly agreed to answer questions from our readers.
So please post your questions here and we’ll send them along to Greg.
To start, congratulations for a superb documentary. My questions:
1 – One of the most appealing aspects of this film is the intertwining of Mormon themes with the NYD’s story. Because it is done in a unobtrusive way, it makes the film, I believe, still very palatable to a non-Mormon audience. How did you come to find the balance between those two worlds? Was there a conscious effort to make non-Mormons aware of Mormonism through NYD or did you rather weaken the Mormon aspect to satisfy a non-Mormon audience?
2 – During the filming, were you ever afraid that Arthur Kane might not make it? It seems many things were major obstacles, his picking up of the music, the travels, the relation with David, his health… Of course, all this makes the film almost like a thriller, but for the director it must have been a real-life thriller with an uncertain outcome, or not?
3 – When and how did you get David Johansen to render A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief at the end of the film? It is one of the most gripping episodes.
I wish I had seen this a week ago. It is playing now at the Music Box in Chicago, but only until December 1st, and given work commitments I will probably miss it. Drat. I’ve seen the news reports about the film, and I would very much like to see it.
Which leads to my question. Many people are not going to have an opportunity to see it in the theater. What are the plans for an appearance on cable, or for selling a DVD version?
A second question. I read about some woman claiming that she was Arthur’s wife, and complaining bitterly about the way “the Mormons” handled Arthur’s funeral and final affairs (I forget the specific allegations). What happened there? Was it that she really was his wife, but it took time to verify her claims and that she wasn’t just a crazy fan? Presumably she wasn’t actually living with him, I take it.
Do you feel that your project–in terms of both the Mormon subject matter of the movie and the attention it has brought to your own Mormonism–contributes to or is symptomatic of a larger “normalization” of Mormonism in American culture? Mormons are commonplace in business and politics by now, but until recently were still seen as curiosities in the arts. (The phrase “perversely exotic” appeared in a review of a Mormon visual artists’s gallery show not too long ago.) Certainly the seeming incongruity in Kane’s story has its own initial appeal, but do you feel that that perception of incongruity extended to you as a filmmaker as well — or are there enough Mormons in “the business” that your own religious affiliation is no longer a novelty?
Just out of curiosity, how did you view the Village Voice review. They critiqued you for not knowing enough about the punk movement. It seemed pretty elitist – as if one could only write about things vaguely related to the movement if one was an expert in the movement. It reminded me of some of the more distasteful tendencies among Jazz snobs. You mentioned in one interview that many punks were asking questions in some of your Q&A sessions. I’m wondering if they expressed that kind of elitist music snobbery or if they were more supportive.
In your post-screening Q and A sessions, what kinds of questions do the punk fans typically ask and what kinds of questions does the Mormon crowd typically ask?
You’ve mentioned that your next film is centered on the world of high school debate. Could you say more about this project? Is it a documentary or a narrative film?
How difficult was it to both be a personal friend of Kane and simultaneously be crafting a engaging story about him? I would think that the events chronicled at the end of the movie, particularly, would create an enormous tension between the roles of friend and documentarian.
I just want to say congrats. I’ve heard good things about the film from friends as well as reviews I’ve read, and I’m excited to see it.
Re: the Village Voice review — Robert Christgau is constitutionally incapable of refraining from lording his knowledge of rock over any and all comers. Not surprising for a guy who labels himself “The Dean of American Rock Critics.” I hope Greg wears it as a badge of honor that Christgau even deigned to mention the film.
On a Coolness Scale of 1 to 10 where 1 equals Really Cool and 10 Equals The Coolest Ever, how cool was it to interview Stephen Patrick Morrissey?
Yeah, the interview of Morrissey was quite the rarity wasn’t it?
I’m curious about your next project. I’ve heard it is on High School debate clubs. Has the huge success opened up new job opportunities? How has it changed your life career wise. (I’ll not ask the crass question of what margins you get on the film)
Oh, and thank you for a truly lovely cinematic experience. I saw Doll at a special screening in Provo, and the feeling afterward was like a testimony meeting gone aright for once. The audience was unified and uplifted. We were glad for the Church, glad for music, glad for life and for little sad-eyed eccentrics everywhere. Also, the sense that God is indeed aware of the sparrow that falls was overwhelming. I saw a lumberjacky fellow wiping tears from his eyes and got the impression he hadnâ€™t done that in a while. That they were probably tears of laughter and grief and that gratitude that feels like grief is evidence of a balanced and profound little masterpiece that should be mandatory viewing in cultural halls across the country.
Although there is much discussion in the film about Kane’s estrangement from David Johansen, there is precious little information about the cause of the estrangement, aside from vague notions of jealousy, rumors, and a cryptic reference to a argument in a Florida trailer park. Could you give us more details on what exactly triggered the longlasting enmity between the bandmates?
I was surprised (and thrilled!) that you were able to get access to people like Chrissie Hynde and Mick Jones and Iggy Pop for comment on Kane and the Dolls. I’m curious who else you approached, and what kind of responses you got. In particular, did you approach Malcolm McLaren, Todd Rundgren, or Richard Hell, or others who were connected with the band at one point? Any rock critics?
Have you had any feedback on the finished product from Morrissey and David Johansen, specifically, but also from the other NYD, stars, and icons?
I’m curious what their reaction to the overall piece might be. How they might view it compared with other band documentaries (since it seems to escape that genre, but still be forced into comparisons). And whether they expected the heavy religious overtones when they were giving interviews. (Clearly some did, repeatedly commenting on religion… but it seemed like Iggy Pop, say, might not have seen the Mormon-ness of the film coming).
1. I think I remember you saying that loneliness was one of the themes of the movie and that Kane helped you realize how easy it is to overlook people. Why didnâ€™t you overlook him when so many others did?
2. One thing I loved about this film was Kaneâ€™s honesty. The opening line says so much about who he is. How did that scene play with Mormons vs. non-Mormons? It is uncommon for active Mormons to describe past transgressions as fond memories. Do you think that irony was lost on the non-Mormon audience?
3. Did Arthur have any concerns about facing old temptations at the reunion? At one point, he is describing the crowds of people who used to sleep outside of the hotel room and you ask him something like, â€œDo you think it will be like that again?â€? And his response is something to the effect of â€œIt should be.â€? Did he see a relationship between the groupies and illicit sex, alcohol and drugs?
Now that you’ve been recently called as a bishop how will you balance your filmmaking career with your new church responsibilities?
And how will the examples of the bishops in the film and the experience you had making it influence your approach to your new calling?
There’s an old question regarding working as an artist, approximately summarized by whether it’s best to wait to work until one is inspired by a good idea, or work until one is inspired. How did New York Doll fall out along a continuum between these two? Did the narrative unfold in front of you as naturally as it seemed to on the screen, or did it require some teasing out?
Given the relatively recent upswing of documentary films as an accepted art formâ€”not only in their prominence, popularity, and profitability, but in their artistic quality and inventivenessâ€”Iâ€™d be interested to hear what you think about documentary filmmaking as a genre, and especially, your take on the influence of contemporary feature films and directors on documentary filmmakers like yourself. For example, in your documentary work do you consciously try to incorporate (or avoid) the narrative and cinematic conventions and tropes being employed by contemporary fiction filmmakers? What do you think of Herzogâ€™s quasi-documentary films, which always seem to blur the boundaries between the two genres and raise provocative questions about the essence of each (as, for instance, in â€œLessons of Darkness,â€? when his otherwise journalistic reportage of Desert Storm destruction is ironically undercut, without comment or justification, by overt distortions of temporal and historical facts). Etc.
I was intrigued and a little puzzled by the photographic choices you (or your cinematographer) employed in â€œNew York Dolls.â€? Why, for example, were almost all the shots of Arthur low resolution handi-cam takes, over-exposed or low color saturated images, etc.â€”even in the easily controlled and lighted interior spaces used during some of the more formal interviewsâ€”while the interview shots of Morrissey were of studio quality? Why so many cropped head shots, seemingly arbitrary camera angles, etc. In short, what aesthetic principles were guiding your photographic decisions?
In the wake of his conversion, Arthur must have indulged in many moments of self-reflection about the reasons why his life took the many fascinating and storybook turns it did. Did he ever discuss such reflections with you? Did he personally see a divinely influenced trajectory to his lifeâ€”not just his introduction and conversion to LDS beliefs, but his pre-religious life as well? And was the â€œPoor Wayfaring Man of Griefâ€? rendition by David Johansen recorded at Arthurâ€™s funeral? If not, how did he (or you, or whoever) persuade him to do it?
I thought your film was a stunningly beautiful portrait, not only of Arthur Kane, but of his friends, acquaintances, and fellow musicians. Thank you.
Greg: On your appearance on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, you played a portion of David Johansen’s rendering of “Come Come Ye Saints.” Can I download the whole recording anywhere, or will it be on the DVD release?
Any thoughts you’de care to share with us about the many LDS feature films recently released? Have any of your fellow LDS directors communicated with you about LDS filmmaking in general, or about “New York Doll” in particular? Have any of you talked about collaborating on a project? It would be interesting, at the very least, to get some of you together and hear what you have to say both about film as art and about the future of LDS filmmaking.
I’m going to close comments and prepare the questions for Greg Whiteley. When he posts his answers, that thread will be open for more discussion.