Portrait of the Artist as A (Young) Filmmaker
Wired (Japan), 1995
New Wave artist Robert Longo emerged with a bang 15 years ago. His larger-than-life drawings of figures mysteriously frozen in frantic action and his frieze-like constructions riveted artworld attention. He was simultaneously making little known live works--elegantly theatrical tableaux that transformed dancers and opera singers into sculpture. He has also directed music videos; Arena Brains, a 34-minute film for Elektra/Asylum Records; and This'll Kill Ya, the premier episode for the HBO series "Tales From the Crypt." His first feature film, Johnny Mnemonic, also marks the feature film debut of cyberpunk auteur and long-time Longo collaborator William Gibson. The film is currently set for international release this summer.
Robert Atkins: Have you been making art lately or has Johnny Mnemonic totally consumed your life?
Robert Longo: I have a big retrospective up in Tokyo right now; it's a smaller version of my 1989 show at the L.A. County Museum of Art. After the movie was shot I also made the "Johnny" paintings. Doing the movie felt like being encased in lead. Every day I had to make creative decisions; but I was always drawing and doodling. It drove me out of my fucking mind. When it was over last year I wanted to work with something that was more free. They kept a stage hanger open for me to paint for two months after filming was over. I did huge paintings like hallucinations. They were shown in Toronto and they'll go to Paris.
A: Where is your Tokyo retrospective?
L: At Isitan [Department Store]. It's very cool. The gallery is in the top floor of a shopping mall.
A: How has the response been? Do Japanese viewers relate to your interest in violence and spectacle? Or is it too foreign?
L: I'm interested in Japan as an audience, but I'm not interested in the art collectors there. The handful that buy contemporary American art don't really get it or care, it's more of an investment for them I think. I'm more interested in the kids who rip us off. I got a call from a Japanese band who wants an image for an album cover--I think they're called Big Tit.
A: What about the reviews? What did the critics think?
L: The great thing was I couldn't read the reviews in Japanese! Good, bad, I didn't have to get stressed out about it. The show is packed and the thing that's made people come is that I made a movie with Takeshi [Kitano]. He had this accident and couldn't get to the opening so he sent this humongous flower arrangement with his name on it and more people were looking at the flowers than the show. Nobody in America equals his popularity. He's on TV ten times a week He does this great comedy-variety show and then he directs bad guy movies and acts in them. Like Edward G. Robinson or Clint Eastwood. He's great.
A: Do you think some Japanese will be pissed off that you made a movie where the bad guys are all yakuza, Japanese gangsters?
L: The yakuza were the first people helping after the Kobe earthquake. Their image is shining; we're not going to dirty that. Besides, they're not bad guys in the movies, just the security branch of a large corporation. We actually had a sort of yakuza approval through connections. They supplied us with exactly the right kind of tattoos we needed, etcetera.
A: When will the movie be released?
L: June 2nd in the U.S., on April 15th in Japan. They have something called Golden Week.
A: It's called JM in Japan? Not Johnny Mnemonic?
L: That's right.
A: Is that a Pret à Porter [2001 author's note: Robert Altman's 1995 film] problem? Nobody would be able to pronounce it?
L: Just keeping the English-language title Johnny Mnemonic was a hard fight. Not only pronunciation, but everyone in Hollywood wants dat-dat, dat-dat. Two words or syllables. Hard Wired is what they wanted to call it. Then I made the mistake of saying that there's this Johnny curse. Name me a good movie with Johnny in the title.
A: Okay. There's Johnny Belinda.
L: I never thought of that! But there's also Johnny Guitar, Johnny Handsome, Johnny Dangerous--they suck.
A: They do have that certain B-movie aura.
L: I'd say C-movie--some of them. Anyway, Tri-Star got so hot about Keanu [Reeves] and the movie they decided to make it a summer movie, which scares the shit out of me. It will be going up against the new Batman. It's taken me a while to understand the--I hate to use this word--interface between me and TriStar and not get totally suicidal. I always realized that I'd have to make tons of compromises to make this movie. I fought hard not to have titles at the front of the movies. TriStar wanted to have a scrawl at the front and William and I freaked out...
A: A scrawl?
L: Like in Blade Runner and Star Wars: "In the 21st century, blah blah blah." You know the movies aren't long enough to explain everything. So I freaked out about it and then I realized that William could write it and it became the coolest thing. It's an evocation and there's one at the end, too. It's his words that got me to do the movie in the first place. It's like poetry. As for opening the movie in Japan, it's business, it's contractual. This is the biggest time of the year to open a movie there so they're going to open it in more theaters than The Terminator.
A: "They" being TriStar and Sony?
L: No--GaGa, the distributors. This is a mutant movie in the way it became a studio picture. It started out as an independent project for $1.5 million and that fell through. The next thing you know I'm talking to Carolco about a $10-15 million movie and that falls apart. This leads me to the next stage where I'm having an argument with a guy who wants to make it for $20 million and I want to make it for $10 million. We got close to making the movie for $1.5 million as a real dark, arty movie in Seattle. Instead these guys Peter Hoffman and Staffan Arneburg raised the initial funds for the movie by selling a pre-sale deal in Cannes with Dolph Lundgren. Takeshi being in the movie sold Japan and a lot of Asia. So he and Dolph brought in a lot of money to start the thing up and Val [Kilmer, who was originally cast as Johnny] brought in some money and William and I brought in money, too. We actually made a pitch at Cannes in1993. And once it kicked in it moved fast. But the journey began back in '89.
A: So where did the budget steeplechase end?
L: With the $26 million version. You're getting lots of fascinating information, huh?
A: Yeah. So how'd you get into film? I've seen some of your music videos and your short film for Elektra, Arena Brains. It was the best evocation of the Reagan-era art boom I've seen.
L: It's inherent in my work. It's part of the investigation. I did an opera in Salzburg for the festival, which is basically the early version of the way Johnny Mnemonic looks. We're talking about a huge fucking opera, which I'm re-staging in Frankfurt this year. It's a Mozart opera he wrote when he was 16 called Lucio Silla and it looks like Johnny! Not every scene, but it's got a similar palette. I'm excited about it. But in terms of spectacle, meditations on power, social symbols and personal metaphors are always part of my work. Even in 1979 it was part of the plan: "make movies." I organized my art as the center of my life and then on the flanks are the movies, theater work, and if I ever get a chance, the music.
A: Are you a musician? I see your guitar in the corner.
L: Yeah, I did the music for Arena Brains. I'm not great, but I can squeak out a few ditties. The movie thing is far more serious.
A: You never made avant-garde shorts? Murky, 8 mm, non-narrative films?
L: Oh yeah. I made little movies. When I was a student at Buffalo there was Visual Studies Workshop nearby. I worked for Paul Sharits, I sat in on Hollis Frampton's classes and ended up working for them. I did some pieces with video but it was so hard to get equipment. There was such a bureaucracy. The irony was that when I got to New York I couldn't rent the equipment so I ended up drawing. The unavailability of technology made me go back to traditional media. In Buffalo I made structural, arty shorts. I once tied a camera to a bicycle pedal for a 10 minute movie, I made a two-video-monitor piece about catching, but I never worked with actors.
A: When was your first chance to do that?
L: I made the performance pieces instead. I didn't want to make rock videos but I finally realized that was the way to learn how to make a movie. I did rock videos for bands I liked and learned how to communicate in that medium and made allies. I was making videos that weren't illustrating the music and after about ten of them, I quit.
A: Are you one of those always-travelling, American artists like Philip Glass or Robert Wilson who get more support in Europe than in the U.S.?
L: Sure. My economic base is in Europe. For two-and-a-half years I lived in Paris. This American collector friend told me that she thought the reason I don't have an American collector base is that Americans find me too American. They prefer to buy...
A: Cy Twombly?
L: That's a perfect fucking example. An American living in Italy and aspiring to...
L: Yeah. Twombly's paintings are extraordinary but I think that the classical myth around them is equally interesting.
A: Tell me about your relationship with William Gibson. I know you've collaborated before.
L: He wrote a text for a theater piece I did in L.A. called Dream Jumbo, which is the name of the Japanese lottery. And also for another theater piece called Killing Angels. As well as a text for a couple of catalogues. I give him art.
A: Did you want to do Johnny Mnemonic after reading the story?
L: No. First I read Neuromancer and was blown away by it. I picked up the phone and called Bill. I'd had this failure getting a movie off the ground that Richard Price wrote called Steel Angels. I'd just finished making Arena Brains and the president of Elektra Records said he wanted to give me the chance to make a movie and said he'd get me a million-and-a-half bucks. He wanted Elektra to get into the movie world and Arena Brains was their first project. But it was a short. I said to [producer] Victoria Hamburg that I wanted to do something by Gibson and she said, "What about a short story?" So we started looking and Johnny had a beginning, a middle and an end....It's also a building block of his writing world. In Neuromancer there's a character who talks about Johnny.
A: I read the story after reading the screenplay and was surprised how skeletal and abstract it is. There are none of the references to an AIDS-like plague, the Net, virtual reality...
L: We tried to pack as much as we could into it. The AIDS metaphor is one of those things. When I lived in Paris I ran [prescription] drugs back to New York for people who needed drugs they couldn't get. We also tried to create a world of color in the casting. It's not a completely white world, or a male world. Even though there aren't a lot of women in the movie they're really strange and central. Johnny hires a woman body guard; a woman is a head of a corporation.
A: It struck me as less a futuristic movie than as an allegory of the present: Epidemic guns and violence, a plague-like disease.
L: We're already nostalgic for the future. It already happened. The future will be Terminator. We'll develop new technologies, build new machines, but we won't treat each other better. Machines will have artificial intelligence, we'll instill them with human values, and then they'll kill us.
A: Which filmmakers do you especially admire?
L: The movies I watched to make this were Alphaville, Touch of Evil, Brazil and Blade Runner. Blade Runner was what we couldn't do, but wanted to in spirit. Keanu's character stands right up there next to Rutger Hauer's. Also any Kubrick film. I ripped off people left and right when I got stuck. From the art world, too.
A: Will they know it when they see it?
L: I don't think so. I worked with this great production designer, Nilo Rodis. He knew my work, so he was constantly referring to it, the way I was referring to William's writing.
A: You also had people look at art books?
L: Nam June Paik, Caravaggio, Vermeer, Damien Hurst. I sent my studio up to Toronto. I wanted to open them up to a collision of references or stimulus, rather than to pastiche or collage it together.
A: Is the movie an overload--like the promo reel you did to raise money in Cannes?
L: No. But there are those moments when Johnny has those attacks in his head. They're an overload. Yeah.
A: It reminds me of Michael Stipe's hallucinations or memories in Arena Brains. You worked with your wife the actress Barbara Sukowa in the movie. How was that?
L: It's funny; the producer wanted my wife to be in the movie and I didn't.
A: Why not?
L: It was my first movie and it didn't seem like her kind of movie. But she always talked a lot about it to William and me. We spent lots of late nights sitting around the pool at the Chateau Marmont with Barbara telling us what was wrong with the script. She's a great actress. We'll go through customs and the customs guy who recognizes her is pissed off because I'm making a movie and she's not...She's off the map as an actress.
A: You have three kids?
L: The older two are Barbara's and we had one. But they're all very much mine. When I met her I wasn't so interested in having children. Making them is easy but raising them is hard. They're like my barometer for this movie. I don't have to be as cool as I used to. I just have to go in my 16 year old's bedroom and look at his magazines. (He smokes too much pot.) Her younger one whose seven makes it so I get to buy toys all the time. I buy like ten and keep them all here and give them to him one by one. He tries to steal the comix my older one and I are reading--like Image comix. They have great drawings.
A: Are you settled in New York now?
L: Yeah it's home base. The kids go to school here. Barbara's doing two movies this summer so we'll go away and I'll be Mr. Mom.
A: Are you making art at the moment?
L: My most recent gig is to do a series of drawings of Mercedes. After the guns they'll be the next thing. Warhol started the series and I'm going to finish it. I want to do Japanese and German cars and travel a show of it in the US; maybe starting in Detroit.
A: Do you have new film projects cooking or is your neck on the block til Johnny Mnemonic comes out?
L: I'm getting a script a day sent to me. It's like I'm the new girl in school and they're trying to see if I'm willing to put out.
A: Are you?
L: Well, within that corporate interface. (Laughter) There's a project William and I have talked about. Do you know Luc Sante's Low Life? It's a journalistic drama about New York in the 1880s and how everything was so fucked up. It's the opposite of The Age of Innocence, that Better Homes and Gardens of the past. This is about immigrants on the Lower East Side. We figured if you can fake the future, you can fake the past.
A: Have you read The Alienist? It's a kind of period Silence of the Lambs.
L: It's corny, didn't you think? I understand my work as an American development of theater in the Bowery--bring on the elephants! Right by where CBGB's is now was McCloskey's Suicide Parlor where people would kill themselves. There really was a guy named Mickey Finn. And bars on South St. where you'd be robbed in the bathroom then a trap door would drop you into the river. I'm not a big reader. I'm dyslexic. It's gotta be really happening to keep my attention.
A: How about Gore Vidal's historical novels?
L: I loved Burr. Is Vidal considered a good writer?
A: Yeah. But lots of people probably consider him a better essayist than a novelist.
L: The only essays I've read that I thought were really great were Norman Mailer's. A collector friend had a dinner to introduce us and there was a really funny moment. I knew he was going to say he didn't know my art. So I said I'd never read any of his books, but, now that we've met, I will.
A: Are you working on film projects with people besides Gibson?
L: I love Henry Rollins and Keanu Reeves.
A: Were you friends with them before the movie?
L: Henry yes, Keanu no. I met him at the Chateau Marmont while he was shooting Speed. I wanted him to do Johnny, so William flew down from Vancouver the next day. It was spooky. Suddenly there was Johnny. One of the biggest decisions in the movie was whether to cut off his sideburns or not. We cut them off, then I told him to try on Johnny's suit. He comes out of the bathroom and it blew us away to see this guy we'd been talking about since 1989. He loses weight subtly during the movie as he gets more stressed out. He did a wonderful job. I think he's going to be a great actor. Anyway, the project I'm working on with Henry is called Madman. It's based on a comic book by the same company that owned The Mask.
A: Are you still friends with your former collaborators Eric Bogosian and Richard Price? Can you imagine working with them again?
L: Of course. But what's different is that they got pulled up by Scorsese and Oliver Stone. Nobody helped me. I was real depressed about it. Eric did Talk Radio for Oliver Stone and Scorsese adopted Richard; now he's this huge screenwriter. I was supposed to have dinner the other day with Eric but my baby was sick and he said he'd just done this movie with Steven Segall!
A: Well you made a movie with Dolph Lundgren.
L: But it wasn't a Dolph Lundgren movie.
A: Which is more dangerous--technology or violence?
L: Technology. Next question?
A: Let's talk about virtual reality and how it was represented in the movie.
L: It's better than in the script you read. I was specific about what I wanted, so it was hard. But I was fortunate that we had three people doing the cyberspace effects so it doesn't have a generic look. We decided that the technology had to be casual. Cyberspace couldn't be people on acid. It had to be workmanlike; everything had to have a reason to be there. So you get these episodes: Cyberspace as wakeup call at the beginning of the movie. The next time you see it is the upload [into Johnny's head]. Then him looking for data by tracing the phonecall over the Net. And then the last one is Johnny hacking his own head.
A: Have you played with the VR gloves and goggles?
L: Yeah, it's so boring. All that tech shit is. I just started using a powerbook the other day. I'm going to need slaves to input all the data. I can see how addicting power books are. But they're only successful because they gave unimaginative people things to do on airplanes.