Aaron Brookner was born in Greenwich Village, New York City. He studied film at Vassar College, and began his filmmaking career by assisting in the production of Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) and Rebecca Miller’s Personal Velocity (2002). In 2004, he directed the short documentary The Black Cowboys, which was awarded the Audience Award at the Rochester International Film Festival. From 2005 to 2009, he worked extensively with the legendary writer Budd Schulberg on a documentary about his life. In November 2010, he shot, in London, UK, his first long feature The Silver Goat. Released in 2012, it was the first film in the world created exclusively for the iPad. It was downloaded in 22 countries in three days. He has also directed music videos and worked on commercials. He is currently developing a long feature documentary, Smash the Control Machine: Howard Brookner and The Western Lands, about the life of his filmmaker uncle, who died of AIDS in 1989. He has also embarked on the preservation of his uncle’s archive and the re-release of Burroughs: The Movie (1983), the first long feature documentary made about (and with) William S. Burroughs by Howard Brookner, with directors Jim Jarmusch working on sound and Tom DiCillo camera. The film has been out-of-print for more than two decades, and it will be offered as a Kickstarter project starting in December 2012. He currently lives in London. In the following interview, completed by email on 19 November 2012, Brookner discusses some of his decisions behind The Silver Goat.
The Silver Goat celebrates many firsts. It is your first full-length feature, the first film released exclusively for the iPad, and the first to premiere on a Routemaster bus. What moved you to make a film for the iPad?
I think that, for many making a film on a very low budget, you are fortunate to barely eek it out, as we did. But then the exorbitant costs of applying to film festivals, printing DVD screeners, and the puzzle of how to reach an audience hit you. They become daunting, and are often unanticipated with a first film. Some people talk about a 50/50 scenario these days where you need to spend 50% of your budget in making the film and 50% in reaching out to audiences. We did not anticipate this when the film was done, but saw an opportunity with the iPad: here is a great device for watching films, is owned all over the world, and plays one consistent format. (Dealing with delivering PAL, NTSC, and all the different HD formats out there can really do in your brain and your wallet). Also we liked the idea of making a film as an app, because essentially it is a digital bonus DVD, but it can grow. It is a seed on someone’s mobile device and to stay in touch with our audience has also proved great.
What are some of the challenges of making a film for the iPad?
Not knowing if my viewers are wearing a proper set of headphones to enjoy all the finer details of our sound design!
The Silver Goat is quite different in both theme and content from your earlier work, including the award-winning short film The Black Cowboys. Formally, it is often reminiscent of a play. Did you have that in mind in your writing?
I did. This is connected. After The Black Cowboys, I was doing some videos and other small projects, but from 2005 to 2009, I was mainly making an ill-fated feature documentary on the novelist and screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who wrote the films On the Waterfront and A Face in the Crowd, and the books What Makes Sammy Run? and The Harder They Fall. Budd believed that the style of your work should be dictated by the subject matter. I think that rubbed off on me. And so a film about theatre people I intended to stylise like a play.
What inspired the film?
What drew me to Budd Schulberg was the chance to examine the life and work of an iconic writer, and also his character. In many of Schulberg’s works, he deals with the theme of success and a particularly American obsession with achieving it at all costs, and it was interesting for me to see up close what the effects of his fame and success had on those immediately around him. Subconsciously being in his world must have influenced this film, but it wasn’t only my experience with Schulberg. For a while there, it seemed I was encountering many Sir Rowlands, Lydia, and Benjamin types. I wanted to tell a story about characters I knew along my way as a young filmmaker, starting off and seeing many people struggling to be who they want to be, to do what they want to do.
The titular goat offers an interesting metaphor. Benjamin rightly points out to Lydia that it moves steadily, but fails to remark that it is a domesticated animal. What led you to focus on the goat?
For a fairly simple animal, a goat offers many a metaphor – all of which seemed to fit. Also, our executive merchandising team thought up the idea of selling silver goat necklaces. They are the same team behind Star Wars lunch boxes and action figures. There’s a factory of these little necklace goats just waiting to be shipped out, perfect for the Holidays. So if you want one…
What led you to shoot with a 5D still camera and in black-and-white?
Black-and-white because I wanted to create an atmosphere that was removed from everyday reality, was theatrical, and also sort of “classic” as it seemed to fit the themes. 5D of course for its ultra-indie favourable cost to quality ratio, but more so because I wanted to work with a very talented filmmaker and director of photography Martin Hampton who is a whizz with that camera.
The film makes extensive use of close-ups. Tell us about your decisions.
The story is very much a meditation on three main characters. We get so close to them as to hear their rambling thoughts. I wanted to be physically very close to them as well. And close-ups, when juxtaposed with wider shots and sparse framing, serve to intensify a character’s isolation. Getting this across was also important to the story.
The Silver Goat oscillates between spoken dialogue and interior monologues. What moved you to narrate it in this way?
To me, the three main characters are very self-conscious, and very self-conscious people often imagine or even think of themselves as a character in their own book, or movie, or play – as are the cases of Sir Rowland, Lydia, and Benjamin. They get so caught up in their own worlds that it’s as if they are performing in it, not just living it. For me, it was important that the main characters’ own fairly neurotic points of view move along the story for the audience, as they do in their own theatrical and insecure realities. It’s about going through their lives within the confines of their own head spaces.
The film involves numerous scenes of tea drinking. Did your experiences as an American film director and scriptwriter inform your understanding of British culture and your creation of Ben?
My understanding of British culture prior to leaving America pretty much extended to its superb history of music and a lot of clichés around tea. But I’ve come to really appreciate tea and also the electric kettle, which you don’t often find in America, and which makes making tea really a cinch. Because who wants to wait for a whistling kettle? So I wanted to get this in. As for Benjamin, well living here, especially being from America where everything is and needs to be always new, I did become acutely aware of the long, long history behind British culture, and specifically London culture. It hits you in the face. When I first moved, I would walk or drive around the city and always be looking out, not just up. Where New York is tall, London is wide. There for you, but also sort of distanced. It’s impressive and also intimidating. I think there’s definitely a bit of that gaze in Benjamin, in the beginning anyway. However, his view of British Culture becomes very myopic. I think he sees everything in terms of his own personal gain. That can be pretty American, or maybe just true of many men in general.
What are some of the challenges of working as a filmmaker in London and in the shooting of this film?
London is filled with talented filmmakers whose hearts are in doing work that they believe in. It’s really inspiring. Not having any funding from the official sources of film funding was definitely a challenge as London is, as everyone knows, very expensive. Had I known the difference in parking rates between west London and east, I would have never set this story in Notting Hill/Chelsea.
The film gestures towards so many works of literature, and I wondered if you had George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891) in mind, particularly in the creation of Ben.
That’s an interesting comparison I had never thought of.
Do you believe in lucky breaks?
Definitely not. In Tom Waits’ Orphans, he sings “luck is when opportunity meets with preparation.” Maybe that is the closest thing.
Ben’s idea for a play is unoriginal, but we only get criticisms of and never direct access to his writing. Was this decision deliberate?
Yes it was. I don’t think Benjamin spends all that much time writing, at least not once he meets Lydia. I think he gets too close to his own idea of success for his own good, and it consumes him. He would get farther if he was consumed instead by his writing.
Is Benjamin right in thinking that successful writers have lost perspective or is he unnecessarily pessimistic? Did Lydia marry only a less successful clone of her father?
I do not think Benjamin is right, but I also think Benjamin is in no position to judge or make such assertions of this matter anyway. To me he is a guy who maybe sort of sees things right, but tends to get in his own way and lets it manifest all wrong. In some ways, Benjamin kind of gets a few things right about Sir Rowland, like his insecurity and his vindictiveness, but he makes it about himself and his writing, two of his greatest obsessions. His ideas get all convoluted in the process and he comes to these reactionary conclusions that are very general, pessimistic, and ultimately pointless. Why is he even thinking these thoughts instead of focusing on becoming a better writer? It’s his big flaw. As far as Lydia is concerned, well there might be something to that. Though Benjamin is still young. He could become a more successful writer, and/or a much better or worse person. Either way, I hope Lydia will one day get out of there and find refuge working on an organic English countryside farm, or something else quiet and full of fresh air.
In the film, you play Joseph Blankship. What attracted you to this character?
We were looking for a thirtyish writer who could do an American accent. After a few unsatisfactory auditions, our casting director turned to me. Joseph was supposed to be shy, kind of everything Benjamin was not, but with a similar by-line. I don’t like being on camera. I thought this could work in my favour.
What, in your view, separates Joseph from Sir Roland and Ben?
Joseph doesn’t have his guard up. It keeps him open and, while maybe this makes him a good writer, it can also expose him to being taken advantage of. I hope it is unclear if Sir Rowland really likes his writing or if he just plucks Joseph to be a thorn in Benjamin’s side, to maybe drive him away from his daughter. Sir Rowland and Benjamin definitely understand there is a game, and how to play it. Joseph doesn’t get this yet. He might soon.
Do you see scriptwriters as being combinations of Sir Roland, Joseph, and Ben?
I wouldn’t be so precise with scriptwriters. They could be any type of people, who in this case just happen to be that. I see them as representing three different but overlapping stages of success.
Are they affected and pressured by innovations in publishing in the same ways as novelists, for instance?
I hadn’t thought of that. All three seem to adhere quite readily to the status quo. Maybe they should wise up to the innovations for all their own good.
The film is ambiguously marketed as a dark comedy and light drama, and its resolution is decidedly unclear. Do you feel sympathetic towards Benjamin by the film’s end?
A fun part of hearing responses from those who have seen the film and cared to comment is how people’s opinions of who the protagonist is, that is, who they are sympathetic towards, really varies. Their reasons are generally interesting as well. With regards to Benjamin, I think Tom Colley did a great job. I mean all the cast was great, and great to work with, but Tom really had a tough task with Benjamin because on the outside he’s a hard guy to like. It’s a credit to Tom that I do think he extracted the right amount of sympathy towards his character. Besides that, Tom is English and I think his American accent was fantastic.
What are you working on now?
I had an uncle, Howard Brookner, who inspired me to make movies. He was an excellent filmmaker and really up and coming when he died of AIDS. He was only thirty-four, but he had made three films, the last being Bloodhounds of Broadway starring Madonna, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Grey and Rutger Hauer which came out after his death in 1989; preceded by a feature documentary on Robert Wilson in 1986; and the first being a cult classic documentary on the writer William S. Burroughs, called Burroughs: The Movie, winner at the 1983 New York Film Festival. This film is absolutely brilliant and has been out-of-print for many years. The actual print was missing until I found it after about a year of looking. In the process, I discovered that my uncle had left behind an incredible film archive from his five years filming with Burroughs and all his friends like Allen Ginsberg and Francis Bacon (from 1978 to 1983). He also filmed a lot of video throughout his life in the 1980s: home movies and all the rehearsals and behind the scenes of his final movie; and a pretty chilling video diary too. So my next project is twofold. I am restoring and re-releasing Burroughs: The Movie, to coincide with Burroughs’ 100th birthday anniversary in February 2014. And I am making a documentary on my uncle Howard’s brief but very remarkable life and times using his own extensive archive and filming with his closest family and friends. In many ways, his story personifies that of the transformation of downtown NYC from the late 1970s to the end of the 1980s: rich terrain of art, romance, drugs, sex, the fight against AIDS, and the counter-culture battle against Reagan extremism¾all through a very personal lens. The title is Smash the Control Machine: Howard Brookner and the Western Lands.
Thank-you so much for this fascinating film, and best of luck with your future endeavours!
Thank you, Tom.
Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow, and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing and Oscar Wilde.