If you were to make a list of all the filmmakers who had forever changed the face of cinema, how many would rate a mention? Ten? Twenty? Who would they be? Surely names like Fellini, Kubrick and Scorsese would come to mind immediately, but anyone who has mixed in circles of true film aficionados or attended film school would know to include Paul Morrissey.
While certainly not as famous, commercially successful or arguably even as talented as those he shares history with, Morrissey was the archetype of the 70s New York underground filmmaker — he was the brains behind avant-garde artist Andy Warhol’s foray into filmmaking.
Most will know of Warhol’s reputation as the “absent artist”, famous for his casual approach to art. Warhol owned a camera that he pointed at something, pushed the button and walked away. The film reel would run its length and whatever transpired in front of the lens was Warhol’s film. Warhol’s most famous work, The Chelsea Girls, consisted of three and a half hours of the goings on in the famous Chelsea Hotel and the “superstars” who occupied it. The film’s initial length was seven hours, however it was Morrissey’s idea to run two reels side by side on two screens, one without its soundtrack, which became the form for which the film is famous.
Morrissey was then only a new recruit to the Factory — Warhol’s art studio and family of artists — yet he could see in Warhol’s careless filmmaking ideas that could be brought to full fruition. Morrissey quickly became more involved in the films being produced in the Factory, and after Warhol was shot and wounded in 1968, Morrissey took full management control over everything happening in the Factory except art sales. He wrote and directed groundbreaking films such as Flesh, Trash, Women in Revolt, and Heat — all of which are popularly knows as “Andy Warhol films” due to Morrissey using Warhol’s name to promote them.
Focusing on the lowlifes, the pimps, drug-addicts and trannies of the New York underworld, Morrissey’s films showed a world that was new to audiences. The films were completely improvised using young non-actors, and contained stoic aimless plots that reflected these character’s lives. Morrissey brought a wholly new style of filmmaking to the screen — until that point, improvisation was seen as only a rehearsal tool. While John Cassavetes was known as the pioneer of American cinema verite, his use of improvisation never reached the level Morrissey was brave enough to attempt. The result was something surreal — while the films are directionless in their narrative they manage hold the viewer’s attention like passing a car wreck and have an acidic effect on one’s memory. Whether you love them or hate them, Morrissey’s films hold an earned place in the history of cinema.
You used a lot of improvisation in your work, how would your use of improvisation differ in your early work to later films such as Flesh For Frankenstein?
After Heat (1972) I never improvised again. Everything afterwards was written. I loved doing the improvising, it was so very easy and took up so little time and it went so well. I had sort of evolved into that improvised way of doing things, and doing experiments before that with performers. My experiments were basic and primitive technically but what I was doing was seeing what performance can do if you cast directly on personality, just tell them what they should talk about and what they should do, and then tell them to do it. I’ve never seen anyone who worked like that before or since. But when I went into Frankenstein in Italy I had a crew of forty or fifty people who were there in the morning and it was this big thing, so the responsibly to improvise now inhibits [the actors] to a degree. The less obligation you put on people the more they give you back in acting. I think that’s true even in the bigger expensive films — not that there’re any good expensive films anymore — but the more a director puts the ball in the court in the actor, the better results he gets back. I always know when I’m hearing about a fraud or a phoney director when I hear they’re “working with the actors”. No good director works with the actors. They can’t be actors. It’s the actors’ responsibility to do what they do. The kind of improvisation that I did, all I know is that I’d never heard of it before and I’ve never heard of it since. And I’ve seen improvisation done in so-called American independent movies and I think it’s horrible. It’s dopey, acting-class people getting mad and screaming at each other or repeating their lines over and over again. “You want a cup of coffee? A cup of coffee? I’ll get you a cup of coffee. Oh ok, a cup of coffee!” It’s been passed off for the last thirty years as some sort of great art coming from the school of Cassavetes where you get drunk and holler at your friends and get upset. I always hated that.
Andy Warhol has been described as the “absent artist” to what degree where you absent in your filmmaking projects?
During the experiments he tried to aim the camera and follow the little action that was taking place but he had nothing to bring to the party as they say. He didn’t have ideas, he was unbelievably limited — he was basically disabled. I was never absent from the process. I was in control of every second of it, except for the actors to come up with their own performance or dialogue. You can’t make a movie and be absent.
But to what extent did stand back from the process, and not interfere?
You don’t interfere with the performers, but I’d suggest what they talk about and give them lines they could use if they wanted, but they always gave me better things than I gave them. Sometimes they would use what I gave them.
What was your impression of Andy Warhol’s films when you first saw them?
Andy never made films. He owned a camera and asked people what should be done with it and somebody would suggest something and then that would be done. He didn’t make them; he let footage go through the camera according to what somebody else said. He just presented other people’s ideas. He was incapable of any kind of story or idea or original thought, so he just pushed the button and maybe it would be ridiculous enough that somebody would think it was art.
Your early films tend to focus on the degeneration of the world. Did you tell stories about the world as you saw it then, or what you saw the world turning into?
I think I was truthfully telling stories about the way people were in that period. I was just being truthful to how they were. When they made films later about the period — or even during the period — they always imagined these drug-taking kids were doing it because they were so high-minded and they were against to war in Vietnam and totally phoney shit like that. They took drugs because they were stupid, selfish, irresponsible, and any people who conduct themselves like that are subjects for humour. I think anyone who takes drugs — now the whole world has taken on this so-called establishment lifestyle of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll — they’re kind of foolish, now more than ever. I saw it in an early stage; I saw it as some foolish thing kids did. Little did I know that the whole world would jump on the bandwagon and people would raise their kids to be that kind of empty, nothing, stupid people.
It has been widely publicised that you were the conservative of the group in the Factory, and that you have never taken a drug in your life. How was it working in an environment where a lot of people around you took drugs?
I knew people were taking them around me, who basically had a self-destructive bend, and they wanted to be outlaws and degenerates and they enjoyed being outsiders. It’s hard to believe that all over the world now young people take drugs just to be part of the pack — not to be outsiders. They just have to be part of the acceptable MTV audience.
Do you think your films are primarily social criticism?
No, not at all. I think they’re entertaining films about funny people, interesting people, people who you come away from the film and enjoyed meeting in that little story. To me that’s a film, where you meet likable people no matter how stupid or foolish their behaviour is with their dopey drugs and their sex and crap. I found them human because it was happening to young people then because they were stupid and bought into it. Now life seems like an impossible story to tell. What is the future in America? Nothing. To make good stories you have to base it on the life of the times and the people of your times. If life is trash and the people are trash, then the only movie you can make is one saying how trashy it is. And you can’t go on saying that, because it’s like one note. If people are not nice, if they have no standards, if they’re not interesting, there is no movie to make or no story to tell. And no people to tell it with. [laughs]