Paul Morrissey hates so-called “independent” cinema. He hates being lumped into that genre, even though he could be seen as a pioneer of the current small-scale indie film format. In 1965, at age 27, the budding filmmaker began collaborating with Andy Warhol on film projects; by 1967, the films released by the Warhol Factory bore his imprint, as Warhol’s previously static, unabridged productions now featured actual editing, basic camera trickery (quick cuts, close-ups, panning) and vivacious, naturalistic dialogue. After Warhol’s notorious shooting by “SCUM Manifesto” author Valerie Solanas in 1968, his involvement in the Factory’s films–which, according to Morrissey and several other sources, was mostly primitive visual ideas and occasional camera operating–diminished significantly. He served only as financier/producer/presenter on Morrissey’s controversial “Flesh/Trash/Heat” trilogy (released between 1968 and 1972) and Morrissey’s two intentionally trashy horror spoofs released in 1973 (“Flesh for Frankenstein” and “Blood for Dracula.”)
Morrissey’s films were shot quickly, with minimal instruction from either Morrissey or Warhol, and populated with eccentric non-actors (Morrissey hates the concept of “acting class.”) Transsexuals–a demographic previously unrepresented on the screen–were cast as actual women. Morrissey was very accepting of transsexuals; he never ridiculed them–though he wasn’t afraid to show their characters behaving outlandishly–and, in films like “Flesh,” “Trash,” and “Women in Revolt,” he consistently brought out the humanity of performers like Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn.
The imagery in Morrissey’s films tends to contradict his personal viewpoints. Morrissey was–and is–an unapologetic conservative and devout Catholic: he hated hippies, the sexually liberated, drug users, rock music enthusiasts (his scorn for the latter was no doubt exacerbated when he agreed, purely for business purposes, to manage The Velvet Underground). His films are full of these types, but though the “toilet” culture he attempted to mirror in his films disgusted him, he adored the actors he cast–no matter how different their lifestyle and politics–and he still refuses to see his films as political or even that incensed; to him, they are realistic comedies. Though some of them are filled with simulated fellatio, masturbation with inanimate objects, attempted rapes and extended shots of full frontal nudity, Morrissey doesn’t see his films as provocative either; he calls them “silly.” Morrissey hates pretentious, art house cinema–even though his own films have some of the same characteristics (raw and rambling dialogue, shaky camerawork, a documentary-like approach to the characters). He prefers the rules and discipline and self-censorship of the pre-1960s Hollywood and British studio productions (he reportedly admires Carol Reed and Elia Kazan). His films are supposed to be tongue-in-cheek, yet realistically portraying a culture that simultaneously amuses and saddens him. He hates dramas about degradation, because they fail to see the idiocy in their subjects’ self-destructive behavior.
After parting entirely from Warhol–whom he still resents for taking so much of the credit for his films–Morrissey made a botched attempt at a more collaborative, mainstream production (the critically savaged Dudley Moore and Peter Cook-penned Sherlock Holmes spoof “The Hound of the Baskervilles”) in 1978. By the 1980s, Morrissey had slipped back into his raison d’etre: subtly, if bitterly, mocking the countercultures of his day. With the exception of “Mixed Blood,” a comedy about New York City gang warfare, all of his 1980s films (“Madame Wang’s,” a campy 1981 comedy about an East German who can’t assimilate to LA’s drug and punk rock-laden culture; “Forty Deuce,” the 1982 adaptation of Alan Bowne’s play about Times Square gigolos, starring Kevin Bacon; “Beethoven’s Nephew,” an uncharacteristically laugh-free 1985 drama about the composer’s secretly savage nature; and “Spike of Bensonhurst,” a lighthearted 1988 romp about an up-and-coming boxer) are not on Netflix and difficult to find. His comedies are alternately preachy and (in this day and age) emphatically un-P.C., but they all reflect Morrissey’s unflinching independence, his contrarianism, his fierceness.
Morrissey can still be as grouchy as he looks in the photos above. He yelled at me, to my delight, a great many times during my phone interview with him a few weeks ago, and because his memory is fading a little bit, it was difficult to get in-depth answers about every film. (I will follow this interview up with an analysis of Morrissey’s harder-to-find films in about a month, after I’ve watched a handful that are only available for screening at the Museum of Modern Art.) But it’s clear that the fire has not gone out, and that there may still be a few films left in him (his last one was “News From Nowhere,” presented at Lincoln Center last year but not released since).
Sam Weisberg: I just watched the first three short films you made, “All Aboard the Dreamland Choo-Choo,” “Like Sleep” and “About Face” [from 1964-5, included on the DVD for “Heat”] and in the commentary track you said that you don’t like movies that delve into the inner lives of characters, that are really confessional. You prefer getting at their exterior and having that tell the whole story.
Paul Morrissey: Well, that’s the history of Hollywood until the independent trash of the last fifty, sixty years took it over. The studios knew what they were doing and they didn’t make that kind of vomity movie, these pathetic—what do they call them? Independent, independent, independent—it had to be misery and suffering. The curse of the last fifty years or more has been this hideous, pathetic thing called acting class. I think that’s just totally awful, phony, worthless, unwatchable garbage.
SW: But some of the Warhol films I saw, the collaborations—
PM: Why are they Warhol films, you stupid son of a bitch?! Why are they HIS films! Why do you call them Warhol films?!
SW: You directed it, I just meant that it has his—
PM: I produced it, I wrote it, I casted it, I edited it, I photographed it. I did EVERYTHING!
SW: I just meant that time period.
PM: Don’t say “Warhol films” when you talk about my films! Are you so stupid, you talk to people like that? I have to live through this for fifty years. Everything I did, it’s Warhol this, or he did them with me. Forget it. He was incompetent, anorexic, illiterate, autistic, Asperger’s—he never did a thing in his entire life. He sort of walked through it as a zombie and that paid off in the long run. But I just cannot take that shitty reference. What were you gonna say, if you can get past that?
SW: In spite of what you said about not liking movies that are “confessional,” it seems that in “Trash,” “Flesh” and “Heat,” a lot of the characters are revealing their inner self, they’re very confessional—
PM: They’re not revealing their inner self. You’re talking like one of these acting class dopes.
SW: I meant that those films could be construed as independent, because it’s a static frame and—
PM: What do you mean they could be construed as independent? I made them independently of anybody on the planet! I’m the only one in the history of motion pictures in 100 years that did eve-ry-thing, OK? So maybe they could be considered independent. I’m in the [same] class as that shit that’s been going for fifty years? No, I don’t think so. All they were doing is following idiot acting class suggestions. I hope you can ask questions a little cleverer than that.
SW: I’m just wondering why you’re down on the indie movement if you yourself were a pioneer of—
PM: There was no movement! I was not part of a movement, I. Made. My. Own. Films. They. Were. Not. Part. Of. Any. Movement. You’re incapable of understanding that, aren’t you? I have to be in a category. First I’m in “Andy Warhol films,” then I’m an “independent.” I like good films that are worth watching, OK?
SW: I was really interested in “Women in Revolt” because I know it’s making fun of Women’s Lib, or at least Women’s Lib at the time, and—
PM: That’s more ridiculous now than ever. It was Not. About. Women’s. Lib. You want me to be in a category with all these pieces of junk that have been floating around, you want to put me in a category politically and independently and Warhol-ly.
SW: No, I’m blown away, because I’ve read interviews with you where you’ve said that you’re politically conservative, that you were disheartened by a lot of the debauchery going on in the late 1960s, early 1970s—
PM: I wasn’t horrified by it, I thought it was idiotic and funny, OK? It was silly. The people doing it were ridiculous, and in my movies they’re likable and foolish and entertaining. Crime against humanity, because they don’t have a political statement sticker, I guess, but that’s the way reviewers want to write [about it].
SW: Was it difficult to hang around with that crowd if you—
PM: I didn’t hang around with them! Jesus Christ! I see the way your mind works and I don’t find it too enjoyable to hear these questions. “Women in Revolt” is a wonderful film, it’s one of my favorites. The people in it are wonderful and it’s a very entertaining film and I really like it a lot, OK? And it’s not political.
SW: So how did you come up with the idea for “Chelsea Girls,” to do the split screen, and run two reels at the same time?
PM: That’s a long story, I don’t have time to go into it. But I thought of the double reels, and the way the scenes were done. I told the people what to talk about, and cast them, and put them together. There were many, many other sections that I wanted to throw out and this is what I kept.
SW: Obviously you were working with film in those days, and in “Flesh” and “I, a Man,” there are a lot of jump cuts and whirring noises. How did you get those effects with the technology available?
PM: You turn the camera on and you turn it off. You turn it on and you turn it off. And then you edit what you think is salvageable. “I, a Man” was made in one day, mostly one night.
SW: That was the only movie I saw where Valerie Solanas appeared. What was it like to work with her? I know you weren’t a fan of “I Shot Andy Warhol…”
PM: Oh, that was a piece of shit, too, but it doesn’t matter. She worked on the film, that was it. I didn’t hang out with her.
SW: So you weren’t really friends with the cast?
PM: I was nice to them. They were nice people. I only met Valerie a few times.
SW: I watched “I Miss Sonia Henie” [movie shot during the 1971 Belgrade Film Festival, in which Morrissey and several other directors were each assigned to make a short film, with the title line included] and—
PM: What is that?
SW: It was with six other directors, some of them were Yugoslavian—
PM: And I’m part of that?
SW: Yeah, Buck Henry and Miloš Forman did one and—
PM: Oh, that was done for a few minutes at a film festival somewhere in Hungary, or something.
SW: What was that experience like, shooting an assignment film at—
PM: There’s no “experience.” I just do it. I know what I’m doing.
SW: What was your exact work on some of these films that Andy is credited with even after your collaboration started, like “Bike Boy”—
PM: I made them, OK? I produced them, I casted them, I got the camera—even though poor Andy had to operate the camera, he didn’t know what the hell he was doing. He had no balance, no visual sense whatsoever. “Bike Boy” wasn’t bad.
SW: That film is really hard to find. I am just curious about some of the other hard-to-find films that he’s credited with, but that you–
PM: I know he’s credited with them! Don’t you think I know that?! That’s the scum that writes about independent movies, especially if they don’t give a shit. They’d rather write about any movie connected with Lady Gaga or O.J. Simpson, or anyone that [helps them sell] that cheap journalistic newspaper shit.
SW: What movies do you like, that are out there right now?
PM: The greatest thing that happened to motion pictures happened about 18 years ago, called Turner Classic Movies. As the years go by, they’re filling it up with a lot of trash from the ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s. But all the magnificent ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s movies, some of them are the greatest thing that happened to the twentieth century. Without TCM, they’d rot away, they’d be dead now. I don’t know if there’s anything out there worth watching. I like a series on TV called “Hardcore Pawn,” about a pawn shop in Detroit. I think it’s the only good thing I’ve seen on Reality TV, which is all so fake. The man that runs [the shop] with his son and daughter is extraordinary. You can’t go to a movie anymore and see interesting people.
SW: You have said in interviews that you’d be in favor of some censorship of certain films.
PM: I think censorship is very good.
SW: Of what kinds of material?
PM: Scum, filth, garbage, shit. Common sense would tell you what that is, but now [people] go through civil rights shit and say “We can do it! We can do it! We can do anything we want!” Well, who’s gonna watch that shit anyway? Let them do what they want. The greatest movies were made in the twentieth century with common sense censorship.
SW: But some of your early movies are quite graphic, with lots of full frontal nudity.
PM: Yes, but they’re funny. They’re showing how stupid that whole world is. It was then, it’s even worse now.
SW: Did you eventually become disenchanted with making those kinds of movies, since you found the lifestyle you were depicting so stupid?
PM: No, why should I be disenchanted with movies that I made and that I liked? Disenchanted. My God. You sound like you’re writing this up for a garbage political institution or something.
SW: But there is political content in your films, at least in “Women in Revolt” and “Trash.”
PM: You can only exist by typing up something about political content and Women’s Lib and blah blah blah. You can’t go and enjoy a movie. You have to see something you can type up about it. You want to see something political, or some censorship problem or civil rights shit.
SW: I was just curious about your point of view because there are a few parts in your films that definitely have a political bent.
PM: To you they do, but I don’t think of them as such. Politics is beneath garbage. It was a garbage can world, and it’s worse now with Comrade and Mrs. Obama running the planet with Valerie Jarrett. The three of them will be there for the next thirty, forty years, as long as they want. The twenty-first century is over, it’s totally over. And movies have been over for a long time.
SW: What do you think of Mitt Romney?
PM: I think he’s wonderful. He doesn’t stand a chance. He’s a good Christian, he’s a fine man, he’s a successful man. He has six children and eighteen grandchildren. He’s hated by the liberal toilet, Communist-worshipping, Christian-hating filth that’s behind Mr. and Mrs. Comrade Obama. Is that good enough? You just want to talk about politics, I guess. Don’t you have any interest in movies, even if they’re not political?
SW: Yes. The next one I was going to ask about isn’t political at all. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” was your first film with a semi-big budget, right?
PM: No, it was a tiny, tiny budget. And it wasn’t my movie. I got into it thinking that it could be something. But I got to know the two people involved [Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, who co-wrote with Morrissey], and they hadn’t written a thing. They wrote some garbage and they wanted to photograph it. One guy wrote one section, the other guy wrote another and I wrote, like, one section. It’s the only film I’m connected with that I don’t think was very good.
SW: What was it like to work with Dudley Moore and Peter Cook?
PM: What do you mean, what was it like?! I’m supposed to come up with some sort of shitty, psychological thing? Next question.
SW: Then you went on to “Madame Wang’s,” and I’m wondering how you got the idea for the guy from Communist Germany to be so disgusted with America, and with the punk scene in particular.
PM: It’s not a hard idea to come up with it, is it? It’s so obvious. Again, you want a psychological thing. Watch the movie. Whatever you think of the movie, that’s my psychology.
SW: Why wasn’t the movie distributed in the US?
PM: Because it wasn’t commercial enough. So I just held it back. I did a little distribution myself.
SW: There’s a few films of yours that I can’t find at all, like “The Armchair Hacker”—
PM: What? I don’t know what you’re talking about. There’s no such thing in the world. I’d never make a movie with an idiot title like that.
SW: That’s what’s listed on imdb.com.
PM: Oh, so it must be true? I tell you that there’s no truth to it and you say “It’s on the list”? I have never heard of such a stupid title. Keep going. [NOTE: the film is not mentioned in Morrissey’s 1993 biography by Maurice Yacowar, so it was likely directed by a different Paul Morrissey.]
SW: “Beethoven’s Nephew” [shot in 1985, released briefly in 1988] was a very different style for you, not as tongue-in-cheek—
PM: No, it wasn’t. It was ninety-five percent based on reality, which people didn’t care about. It had been denied to the public for 200 years.
SW: Why did you think Beethoven was such a bad guy?
PM: He was a million times worse than the person in the movie. The story of him and the nephew was true. The nephew that he tortured put two guns to his own head, one on each side, to kill himself. Beethoven, when he’d go in the street—he was less than five feet tall and covered with syphilis, rotting away, he was a disgusting alcoholic—when he’d go in the street, the kids would throw rocks at him. He was a miserable, hideous person. He wrote diaries that were suppressed for 200 years. They came out just when I was making the movie, but I’d read parts of them already, they’d been translated from German. The movie was the story of a very pathetic person who happened to write very good music.
SW: Did you want to do a harsher portrait of him initially?
PM: No, I did what I wanted to do. I had total control.
SW: Do you like his music at least?
PM: Some of it, not all of it. The last few years, when he thought he had some sort of legal control over the nephew, who moved out…that’s when he wrote his best music.
SW: What’s your favorite music these days?
PM: Mozart, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff. It hasn’t changed. What, I’m gonna throw the great music down the toilet and replace it with drug addict rock n’ roll filth shit, sex around the clock?
SW: Since you don’t like rock music, was it difficult to manage the Velvet Underground?
PM: I discovered them, I managed them, I put Nico in them, I had to deal with them. I had to produce their first record. It wasn’t easy. They were stupid and didn’t know what they were doing. And after their first record, I don’t think they ever made a tune you could pay attention or listen to. They just had to go out and get their picture taken.
SW: Getting back to your films, another movie I couldn’t find anywhere was “San Diego Surf”—
PM: It was never distributed [NOTE: it was released for the first time by the Andy Warhol Foundation to the Museum of Modern Art, which will screen the movie in October 2012. Morrissey’s “The Loves of Ondine” (1968) is available for screening at MoMA, while Morrissey’s early short films, “Civilization and Its Discontents” and “Mary Martin Does It,” can be screened at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Aside from “News From Nowhere,” “L’Amour” (1973), the last Warhol factory film in which Warhol himself shot some of the scenes; the 2005 documentary “Verushcka: A Life for the Camera”; and several Warhol shorts from 1966 and 1967 that Morrissey had input on, are virtually impossible to find. All others in Morrissey’s repertoire can be found via Netflix, YouTube, foreign DVD import sites and Amazon.com]. I made that in San Diego right after “Lonesome Cowboys” [in 1968]. I used some of the same people. Instead of making it in two days like “Lonesome Cowboys,” we stayed there about three weeks. [Morrissey stepped away from the phone for a few minutes, and when he returned he was temporarily confused about who I was and that we’d been speaking. Once the interview continued, he was significantly calmer].
SW: I know that you’re pretty religious. What aspects of Christianity do you want to see more of in American films?
PM: American culture has been run by the Soviet Union for the past sixty, seventy years, and it gets worse and worse and worse. It has nothing to do with Christianity anymore, that’s for sure. The Catholics have lost control of people. It’s a very sad world we live in, and I think the only adequate stories in movies and plays are the humorist ones about how awful the world is, especially the United States. They want the toilet, they want the garbage, they want the drugs, they want to have sex around the clock with their kids, and that’s the world.
SW: I read an interview with you where you said that when you were younger, you wanted to be a Jewish comedian. Which one in particular?
PM: I’ve always thought that there are so many very, very good Jewish comedians.
SW: Who is your favorite? Jackie Mason?
PM: Well, he could be funny, but he was sort of unhappy. The Marx Brothers were funny.
SW: Did you ever aspire to be anything else besides a filmmaker? I know you worked in insurance for awhile…
PM: I worked in insurance for a year or two, but I just wanted to make my own movies and I started to do it. The production companies had their formulas, you had to do this and that. I did it all and I did it very easily. I didn’t go from six in the morning until six at night. I did it for two to three hours, at most, in an afternoon on a weekend. My filming was very simple. I loaded the camera, I moved the camera, I did the set-up, I did the lighting. I did everything, but the performers, they did their thing. I gave them little stories to tell, that’s all.
SW: So why did Warhol’s name wind up on so many of them?
PM: He produced them, that was all. He paid the bill at the laboratory and that was all.
SW: Why did you usually cast transsexuals to play women?
PM: No one else on the planet was using them in stories, and they still aren’t. I’m the only one that ever used them, and I never used them to play female impersonators. They played women in my stories. They were funny to me, they were interesting and different. I loved them and found parts for them.
SW: Did you get along with all the cast even though their lifestyle was so different?
PM: They were all wonderful, nice people. I cast them because they had character and personality.
SW: Why do you think so many of your films were about drugs and debauchery?
PM: I wanted to make movies about the toilets people lived in. I thought they were interesting stories about people in that time and place.
SW: In some of your films, you make fun of various popular trends like punk rock, drug use, Women’s Lib. How did some of the performers in your films, who were enthusiasts of these trends, react to the material?
PM: I didn’t use stupid people who thought like that. They were wonderful. They enjoyed being in the movie. They were from modern times, and modern life is absurd. It’s called comedy. It’s being realistic. It’s not these phony dramas that are made. The comedies usually last and don’t age, while the serious stuff ages very badly.