Matt Wolf, Wild Combination: A Portrait Of Arthur Russell
Some people age more quickly than others, and Matt Wolf – both in person and in his work – displays a confidence and maturity that belie his tender years. Twenty-six-year-old Wolf was born and raised in San Jose, California, and spent much of his teenage years watching movies. He won a full-tuition fellowship to study film at NYU, where he made a number of shorts including Smalltown Boys (2003), an experimental biopic about AIDS activist David Wojanorawicz. During this period, he also interned for and became friends with documentarian Sandi DuBowski, the director of Trembling Before G-d. He currently produces short films for both the New York Times and the Sundance Channel.
Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell, Wolf’s highly assured debut feature, is a biographical documentary about Russell, the late cello-playing disco pioneer and avante garde musician whose work was relatively unknown during his lifetime but now, 15 years after his death from AIDS, has attained cult status. Initially conceived as an experimental response to Russell’s music, Wolf’s film evolved into an exploration of Russell’s life as well as his work when the director met Tom Lee, Russell’s lover, and Chuck and Emily Russell, his parents. Though it has the usual music doc tropes of archival footage and talking head interviews, Wild Combination distinguishes itself both by its selective focus and Wolf’s use of experimental techniques. Rather than being exhaustive and heavily fact-based, Wolf dwells on people’s emotional response to Russell and his music, and complements songs with imaginative images that at times blur the line between fiction and reality.
Filmmaker spoke to Wolf about his distinctive documentary approach, his plan to eat his way through Queens, and working in a gay coffee shop run by heroin addicts.
Filmmaker: From what I’ve read, you were interested in Arthur Russell before you ever heard his music.
Wolf: Yeah, a friend had described Arthur as this gay disco auteur who wore farmer plaid shirts and would ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth listening to mixes of his own cassettes and that image really intrigued me. I wanted to make a film around that image more or less, but then I heard his music shortly after and then became really obsessively involved in listening to it. I think I just started getting a sense of imagery that I was responding to that would relate to the music, and I always had this sense that I wanted this imagery that I was associating with the music to have a somewhat narrative component that I was immediately compelled to explore Arthur’s biography.
Filmmaker: So how did your initial conception of an experimental response to the music evolve into a biographical documentary?
Wolf: Well, I think the first aspects of it were meeting Tom Lee, Arthur’s boyfriend. He still lives in the same apartment that he and Arthur once shared in the East Village, next door to Allen Ginsberg and above Richard Hell. When I had the idea to do an experimental project, I found Tom’s contact information online and I reached out to tell him what my idea was. Months later when I heard from him, I went to visit him in that apartment and I was just really inspired by Tom and I knew that there was a really substantial biographical dimension that could be explored, that there was emotional substance not only in the music but in Arthur’s story. So Tom started introducing me to a few other people from Arthur’s life and the next people who really intrigued me were his parents, who still lived in his childhood home in Oskaloosa, Iowa. As I started talking to these people, I knew it was necessary for there to be a full-fledged narrative, for the film to take on a documentary approach and tell a story.
Filmmaker: Did you initially plan it as a feature or a short?
Wolf: Well, to be honest, the original idea that I had was that I’d make as series of chapters that would each correspond to a different thematic or topical element of Arthur’s music or story and that those short pieces could be experienced non-linearly on a DVD or in some sort of gallery situation. But I realized that it would be more effective to evoke the emotional resonance in Arthur’s story by just telling a linear, full-length story.
Filmmaker: How did you gain the trust of your interviewees? People tend to be very guarded initially.
Wolf: I think the biggest concern I would have about being in a documentary about somebody I was close to or cared deeply about is that this thing that I was invested in, that I opened myself up to, would never be completed, which I would feel like was a real violation. I tried to inspire confidence in the people in Arthur’s life, [saying] that my intentions were serious, that I was determined to complete my project. In terms of building trust, I really think it’s the result of developing a long term relationship with people and communicating with them more than once before interviewing them and really having a shared context or a real relationship to build upon within a conversation on camera. In a posthumous documentary where you interview people, the arc of the story that happens within an interview is always the same because it’s going to peak when the person that they’re speaking about died, and you’re going to have bring the person back in the process of that interview. I realized while making the film that a film that centers on someone’s death needs to help the audience feel a sense of catharsis and experiencing that in interviews helped me envision the overall structure of the film.
Filmmaker: The film really doesn’t try to be an exhaustive biographical documentary, but is much more focused and measured.
Wolf: I was pretty conscious of some of the traps of music documentaries, where there’s an overemphasis on musical lore, where minutiae and details related to musical production. There are a lot of interesting and significant anecdotes that are not in the film [because] I just really chose to focus on Arthur’s boyfriend, Tom, and his parents, Chuck and Emily. I think the biggest creative decision I made that prevents it from being a definitive or encyclopedic biography is that I really narrowed the focus of the amount of characters in the film because I wanted each character to feel recognisable and that you understood who they were when they were speaking and their frame of reference and the facet of Arthur’s life or career that they represented or had a perspective on.
Filmmaker: A huge part of any biographical documentary is the archive footage, but for a more obscure figure like Russell I presume that finding that footage wasn’t easy.
Wolf: There’s not that much stuff and I think that was always my concern, that I wouldn’t really be able to flesh out this film because there was a no material of Arthur. There is material of Arthur and I think the scarcity of it makes it kind of even more special, but also that restraint or limitation became productive for me and forced me to create a more unique visual language to deal with that lack of Arthur. And I think that lack of Arthur characterizes the film, in certain ways. I was structuring certain scenes around dream archival footage that I didn’t know if I would find or not.
Filmmaker: How much digging did you have to do to find archive footage?
Wolf: A lot. The archival research process was as sustained and long-term as the entire filmmaking process. We were finding key clips three weeks before locking the picture that generated new scenes in the film, and we were finding stuff at the beginning of the process that was guiding the overall structure of the film, so the archival stuff was just a tremendous aspect of the project.
Filmmaker: I think something makes the film so strong is that the parts of the film which are not interview or archival footage don’t feel like filler at all, but a true component of the film. Presumably that all goes back to that emotional response to Russell’s music.
Wolf: Yeah, and I think my starting point was the visual language, it wasn’t an afterthought that complemented the story. I think a tendency I’ve seen in a lot of documentary filmmaking – and in a lot of filmmaking in general – is decorative use of visual material in collage-like montages. In this film, I was concerned about not being decorative or collage-y. I wanted the visual material in the film to push the story forward and to develop and illustrate ideas that were being explored and to build upon each other to form a larger vocabulary that emphasized and augmented Arthur’s music. I wanted the visuals to have a narrative quality to them, but still in an experimental vein. We shot these re-enactments that are more like evocative recreations or experimental dramatizations, where you don’t see actors’ faces. We used Arthur’s real clothes, and we shot in outmoded VHS or Super 8 negative and gave a real texture and materiality to the quasi-narrative [sequences] that we were augmenting the story with.
Filmmaker: I thought it was really interesting and effective how those recreated segments blurred with actual archive footage, because you intentionally shot them on similar formats.
Wolf: There’s an integration between fake archival material we shot and real archival material that at times makes it indecipherable which is which. Audiences have sometimes been a little confused about that, but to me it’s about representation and using representational techniques – I’m not concerned about the ethical polemics of that. Some bloggers have mentioned that, but I’m like, “Whatever…” It’s a story, we know Arthur’s not around. It’s filmmaking. I think of the film as an arthouse film, not necessarily a documentary in the traditional sense, and the discrepancy between narrative and documentary feels really blurry and irrelevant in relation to this particular film.
Filmmaker: Given that this began as an experimental film and morphed into a documentary, which of those two styles of filmmaking do you now feel more allied to?
Wolf: I’m now interested in making feature films. It’s been powerful to see the way feature films can be deployed to the world and also to get a sense of how audiences respond to emotionally effective storytelling and how that experience in the feature length impacts on people in a unique way. I want to continue making feature films and I now do identify much more strongly as a documentary director. I love conducting interviews and I think that’s one of my real strengths as a director, but that being said I’m not interested in taking conventional approaches to documentaries. Constructing a unique and strongly realized visual form will always be a central concern for me, fiction or non-fiction.
Filmmaker: How influenced were you by your time working with Sandi DuBowski?
Wolf: I was Sandi’s intern in college and we became really good friends. Sandi gave me incredible friendship and advice throughout the process [of making the film]. I think something I learned is that there’s never too many questions to be asked: I never regret asking any of the questions that I’ve asked, and I’ve learned so much from other people, and that we’re not reinventing the wheel. Sandi was always a really huge source of advice and wisdom that I was lucky enough to have in my life. We have a food club together, the Queens Food Caravan – I should give that a plug. We go to restaurants in Queens with big groups for less than $20. Our goal is to ear our way through Queens. That’s Sandi’s and my personal project, you could say.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Wolf: Bambi, but my first double feature, which I remember very fondly, was The Little Mermaid and Troop Beverly Hills with Shelly Long. It was the latest I’d ever stayed out. In high school, I didn’t have that many friends and I was a bit of an outsider and went to the movies by myself every weekend. I think the experience of going to the movies from a very early age became a big priority for me.
Filmmaker: What’s the worst (or weirdest) job you’ve ever had?
Wolf: In junior high, I worked as a spokesperson for Yoo-hoo, handing out free samples of Yoo-hoo and evangelizing about its nutritional value. (Apparently it has more vitamins than milk, so it’s more healthy.) I got 80 cans of Yoo-hoo in addition to my measly paycheck. Also in high school, I worked in the only gay coffee shop in the San Jose area. It was really cool, it was in this old abandoned bank but the owners were heroin addicts and would shoot up in the vault. I was 15, and paychecks were bouncing and checks to vendors were bouncing and I would serve decaf coffee because we couldn’t pay the bills to pay for the coffee deliveries. That was another cool job I had.
Filmmaker: Finally, if the world ended tomorrow, what (if anything) would you be sad about that you hadn’t achieved?
Wolf: I think being an old person. I really feel like and identify with senior citizens. Just my sensibility sometimes feels really senior citizen, and I think on some level I really look forward to understanding what it’s like to be an old person. Sometimes I really feel like a 70-year-old deep down inside and I think I would regret never really knowing what it’s like to have that much life experience and that much earned crankiness. I haven’t earned any of the crankiness that I have.