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Coming of Age While Dying: Henry Corra on Farewell to Hollywood

Henry Corra and Regina Nicholson in Farewell to Hollywood

In the late ‘70s, Henry Corra was attending Franconia College, a small experimental liberal arts school in New Hampshire. While there, he and his classmates watched a film called Grey Gardens. Immediately upon graduation, with a smoking-hot performing arts degree in hand, he made his way to New York City and made a beeline to the offices of Albert and David Maysles, the directors of this film that had galvanized him. He told them he wanted to work for them. They promptly hired him.

The first time I met Henry was in 2008 at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA). As the producer of her first film Wild Blue Yonder, he was there accompanying Celia Maysles, She had made a love letter of sorts to her father, David – Henry’s mentor – who had died suddenly of a heart attack when Celia was still a child. (I interviewed her about the film here.)

In Kosovo last August at the international documentary and short film festival DokuFest, we programmed Corra’s latest feature Farewell to Hollywood, created with 17-year-old Regina Nicholson, aka Reggie, whose dying wish was to direct a movie. When we meet her in Farewell to Hollywood, Reggie has been diagnosed with terminal cancer and ensconced in a fragile and very volatile relationship with her mother and father. She’s also been born and raised in a town where the looming Hollywood sign beams down dreams to all Los Angeles inhabitants one way or another, and is caught up in her own dream of making a film before she dies.

Together, Corra and Nicholson create a searingly brave and beautiful portrait of her last year of life. During the course of filming, Reggie turns 18, enabling her to make decisions on her own. This involves moving out of her parents’ house and into a small bungalow in Pasadena with Henry to carry on their creative work together. As she weakens, he becomes her main caretaker, her best friend, and her lifeline. And then she is gone.

After last year’s devastatingly emotional screening for a Kosovo audience made up of young men and women very close to Reggie’s age, Corra was handed a giant cut out sign that described our DokuFest 2014 theme – “Change, Don’t Hide.” The sign was secured to a long boom pole with a camera attached to it – a Change-cam, if you will. The tall and lanky Corra proceeded to practically run down the main boulevard of town holding it aloft as I and some other people scurried to catch up. Just as I remembered from meeting him years before, the man’s energy is manic, fully engaged, accompanied by lots of laughter and exclamatory remarks. At 58 years of age, he’s still got the wonderment of a small child discovering things for the first time. Particularly when he’s around young people, his imagination and inspiration ignite and go into overdrive.

The film carries on a method of work that Corra has come to call Living Cinema. “Someone suggested I come up with a name for what I do so that’s what I came up with. A film like Farewell to Hollywood is so full of tragedy and deep and intimate empathy and confluence, it asks the viewer not just to be sympathetic – a lot of films ask for that. Sympathy has a kind of etiquette to it, a politeness, something we can deal with. But to ask for true empathy and to ask for so much of it as we do in this film can be devastating for some. We realized we really did have to pace out the pain.”

Corra runs a commercial production house out of a Grand Street loft in downtown Manhattan where he and a small team of producers work on branding campaigns for big-money clients. His film work could not be more antithetical to the big business of high-end advertising, but somehow, according to Corra, being in the midst of Manhattan is still elemental for him as a working artist and filmmaker.

The following conversation took place this past September on a New York-Berlin Skype connection. This film haunted me many months after seeing it, as did the reaction of the young viewers we showed it to in Kosovo, one young future filmmaker stating to Henry that Reggie would forever be his muse. Farewell has garnered not a small amount of controversy. No US festival programmed it, although it did well in Europe, winning some prizes, critical accolades and a theatrical engagement in Poland. It will have a limited theatrical run through distributor International Film Circuit in New York starting February 25 – Reggie’s birthday. It will open in LA on March 13, followed by a rollout to 30 cities across the US throughout the winter and early spring of this year.

Henry Corra: It’s so crazy here in New York City. I feel like I’ve created a battleship, heading across from England to Normandy and I’m like 15 miles off the coast and there’s not even enough sea space to turn the battleship around at this point. So I have to keep Corra Films going forever right here in Manhattan until I drop dead. It seems to be my only choice. All of us get to the point in our lives when we start to think about what Plan B would be. I don’t know what else I could do. You got out of New York but you kept your creative life alive. I have such a big ship; I don’t know how I would do that.

I mean, I don’t have the fame or the fortune that someone like Damien Hirst or Cindy Sherman or Robert Longo does. I’ve been to all of their lofts and we all have these mini-companies that support these multifaceted efforts constantly in motion. You need a lot of people for that and support and space. You also need, oddly enough, to still be in Manhattan. It can work elsewhere, don’t get me wrong, but it doesn’t work the same in Brooklyn. Being in the center of Manhattan, this literal crossroads, you have your finger on the pulse of this beautiful, creative flux of the city. When you move your studio out to Bushwick or someplace, you lose something of that. You can move to Prishtina [the capital of Kosovo] or you can move to Bushwick and it’s pretty much the same. [laughter]

Filmmaker: Berlin and various other places I travel to that are supposed to be representative of some sort of creative hub also seem like outposts, of a sort, to New York City. But it’s more feasible, let’s say, for some of us to make and do creative things while stationed in outposts.

Corra: When I lived in LA for two years doing Farewell to Hollywood, I did get the feeling of what it’s like to have a lifestyle. I realized that we don’t do lifestyle in New York City. We don’t have quality of life. Everything is kind of collapsed in on itself. I don’t know if I could have stayed forever but this idea of having a car, not having people constantly in your face, going for hikes, whatever — I found it amazing.

Filmmaker: In watching all your films and this energy that emanates from them – much of it is the energy of New York City. I’m thinking particularly of Frames, this odd biopic of sorts you and Charlene Rule did on filmmaker Grahame Weinbren. In the film, writer Amy Taubin says of Weinbren, “He’s always embedding underlying messages about what he’s doing. There are times when he almost pushes it to the limit.” This is a good description of how I perceive your work, a kind of pressure-cooker creativity in its pace and timbre. It has its own particular sense of humor, as well. In your work with Reggie in Farewell, even though it’s obvious her time is limited, because you are in LA, there was this sense of space and breadth, time to take more in.

Corra: Yes, even with this urgency we were dealing with, there was always this laidback Southern California vibe. And, of course, because she was sick, we needed to take it slow, to slow down the creative process. It couldn’t be manic. It just couldn’t be. We had to be very patient. It was all about patience.

Filmmaker: I don’t know how much you follow ongoing discussions about documentary, the same ones that have been going on, seemingly, since time immemorial. Mostly, the discussions center on construction, about what might, in the visual language of a film, connote documentary versus something one might want to go ahead and call nonfiction, or cinematic nonfiction if one is especially impressed by it.

Corra: I don’t.

Filmmaker: No, I didn’t think so. But intuitively, you’ve always been playing with this kind of constructing and de-constructing within a nonfiction context, a constant process that plays out within the same film. You seem to have this commitment to keeping in this “making of” aspect, almost as if you go out of your way to show that the thing is not meant to be a seamless process.

Corra: Listen, I’m just trying to go deeper. The vérité training I got from the Maysles didn’t go deep enough for me. It stayed in the third person. The films I make undulate and vacillate between first and third person. That’s a huge part of my style of filmmaking. You’re never quite sure whether it’s an observational thing or a subjective thing. In all of my films, to a greater or lesser degree, that is in play. Ultimately, I felt like with straight vérité, I couldn’t go as deep as I wanted to. I couldn’t reveal enough if I always had this observational stance, pretending I wasn’t there, refusing to reveal myself.

David Maysles was arriving at that at the end of his career. He influenced me greatly. I was 30 years old when he was making his Blue Yonder, an autobiographical film. That’s how the film George came about [Corra’s 2000 film about his autistic son]. After making the film about Christo called Umbrellas – and it’s a beautifully constructed film, I’m proud of it – when I think about all the time we spent concealing or playing with this idea that we weren’t really there, it just seems really silly. It was so limiting.

When you abandon that construct, it’s very freeing. The Maysles did it in Grey Gardens. It was a huge breakthrough. They also did it in Gimme Shelter. In that film, co-director and editor Charlotte Zwerin came up with the idea of direct engagement because, for her, this was a push towards more narrative clarity. Grey Gardens is a very interesting film because I think Albert and David were torn between hiding themselves and not hiding themselves. When David starts to talk to Edie, that’s a real turning point in their sensibility as filmmakers. It was when I started to make George that I started to foreground myself in my own films.

Filmmaker: You have this uncanny ability to connect with people – any kind of person. This leads me to a discussion about Reggie’s mother in Farewell to Hollywood. She becomes a really bizarre foil for everything that’s going on between you and Reggie. She’s obviously hugely envious of the way in which you have so easily insinuated yourself into Reggie’s life even though it was her idea in the first place. There would have been many filmmakers that would have stayed as far away from her parents as possible. But to see them already embarking upon their self-involved grieving process while their child is still standing right in front of them, still needing them to parent her, is heart-rending.

Corra: One of the things that you have to understand is that you enter these things with the best of intentions and with love and compassion in your heart. I know it’s not cool to use those words, but it’s true. I had enormous empathy and compassion for this family. I was almost blinded by it in the beginning. I needed to be blinded by it. In the beginning, everything was very positive and everyone was excited. It was only in hindsight, when you see how things unfold, that these other questions come up. I mean, I didn’t walk in and think to myself, “Wow, there is some very difficult stuff going on in this household. I’m going to have to do some fancy footwork to get around that.” But that’s the way I entered the movie – straight into that household. That was the door in. You don’t have to plot out the complexities of what’s likely to happen because they happen on their own. I just never ever realize how complex it will become.

The various reactions from viewers, critics, what-have-you, particularly the negative ones, have been interesting to read and listen to, of course. Ultimately, I’ve decided it’s a good sign. Paradoxical responses to your work are good. Otherwise, you’re just Steven Spielberg. Sometimes, it’s upsetting to me but I also realize that that’s what continues to make it interesting. You cannot control people’s interpretations of your work or of your intentions. For me, the work and the intention are very similar. Perhaps many filmmakers feel that this fading back and allowing things to happen will enable them to get more “real” stuff on film. Sometimes fading back is the right way to go. But more often than not, it’s about this deep connection to my characters. It’s by leaning in in a very genuine, respectful and honest way that allows me to get the things that are important to me.

Filmmaker: What is it about making documentaries that attracts you? Or for that matter, why choose film at all instead of another medium with which to express yourself?

Corra: It’s not about fiction versus nonfiction for me. I worked almost exclusively from a stance of improvisation when I was attending art school. My brother, Tom, was a very well known cellist who was also enmeshed in this whole improvisational school of making music. [A brilliant musician, Tom Corra died at the age of 44 of cancer in 1998.] A major aspect of what I do as a filmmaker is performative, improvising with reality and making artwork out of it. When I saw Grey Gardens, I did not perceive it as a documentary. It was a film like no other I had ever seen. It had an energy, a beauty, an oddness, an unpredictability and a magic to it that I’d never seen in a movie before. I didn’t know you could make movies like that.

What Albert and David recognized in me very early on, although I don’t think we ever really discussed it, is that who I am as a person and my understanding of the nuances of body language and how people relate to one another, especially while being filmed, made me into a great non-interviewer. One of the first things David noticed about me was that as soon as I had a camera and a person in front of that camera, things happened that didn’t normally happen. It became very intimate very quickly and very compelling without this sort of demand that things be “magical.” I am really good with people and I feel like when I work with them it’s like real-life performance art. You have to create things to feel safe and that includes having structure, or else you’re just going to be flopping around like a fish on the dock.

Filmmaker: What was the length of time between meeting Reggie, deciding to do a film together and her final days?

Corra: We were together full-time for exactly one year and nine months, except for two banishments that lasted between three to four weeks each. There were also the times when I would have to go out of town to shoot a commercial. But I would return to Los Angeles, not New York, during that time.

Filmmaker: What were you going through in those absences, away from her?

Corra: There are two levels on which to talk about what you’re bringing up. The first were my personal feelings and the other is what I felt I needed to do as an artist. They always work in tandem, but particularly here. Every movie I’ve ever made, every protagonist I’ve ever worked with – and none more so than with Reggie – I go through a process of total identification, as close as I can get. That’s how it works. She and I were like two peas in a pod creatively. She called us “soulmates of the arts.” The making of the movie was synonymous with life.

When we first met and I heard her story and her mother asked me if I was interested in working with her, Reggie pulled me aside and said to me, “You know I’m going to die,” and I told her that yes, I knew that. She asked me, “Are you going to be okay with that? Can I be really be up front with you about my feelings about the fact that I’m going to die?” I told her that of course she could. She told me that she thought that was good because she couldn’t do that with her parents, with the people at her church, or even with her friends because everyone wanted her to “Beat it!” She understood where that was coming from but she felt that in order for us to make an honest film together, she needed for us to have this pact. When I wasn’t able to be in LA, we texted constantly. You see some of it in the film. That connection was more about this idea that she needed me as a touchstone to have permission to die. For me, that became one of the greatest honors and obligations, as well as an enormous source of anxiety and pain, more than I’ve ever felt in my life. As long as we were talking, everything was okay.

Under no other circumstances would I have spent almost two years of my life, spent my own money, and been totally available to do this. I was not only in love with her, but with our idea of making this film about one’s coming-of-age as one is dying. On paper, to take a look at these two people coming together and doing what we did, believe me, I understand why an eyebrow or two would be raised.

Filmmaker: And these banishments that you suffered – can you describe that?

Corra: As we show in the film, her father thought our relationship was inappropriate. Reggie only wanted to make the movie and she only wanted her parents to be happy about it. She makes the point very clearly that it was meant to be all positive, but that over the course of those two years, this film meant everything to her. But I was very civilly asked to step back twice by her mom and dad. I did. And then I was invited back in.

Filmmaker: Didn’t Al and David have similar issues with Little Edie and Big Edie – this “Go away, now come back, go away, now come closer”?

Corra: You know, the Maysles believed that nonfiction storytelling about ordinary people was going to replace – or be on a par with – Hollywood films, like the ones with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. They really believed that cinéma vérité was going to be the new Hollywood movie, that it would “transform Hollywood!” Later on – and this was especially true of David – they became more associated with artists. Larry Rivers was one of David’s best friends, and there was Christo, a whole litany of contemporary artists they hung out with. Where the true potential lay in their work was that they weren’t films or documentaries. They were these works of art – works of art that happened to be films.

Filmmaker: We had a long discussion about Cindy Sherman and her enormous impact on you as an artist who uses film or video to make work, as she is an artist that uses still photography to create her art – that the tools or materials an artist is using don’t necessarily define the medium in which he or she is working.

Corra: I’ll tell you what else is influencing me personally right now in a really big way and that’s Sheila Heti’s pseudo-nonfiction book called How Should a Person Be? She wrote a novel but used real people. It’s an amazing switchback. It’s a gorgeous book that’s full of personal revelations, autobiography, an improvisation in how she works with her friends and then re-contextualizes everything. This book is having more of an influence on me right now more than any movie that I can think of.

Something like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood has always had an impact on me. He attained a sublime literary quality to nonfiction. It’s such a great achievement. Norman Mailer did that to a lesser degree in Executioner’s Song, an amazing book but that one didn’t affect me the same way. Anything by Flannery O’Connor makes me wish I could create those feelings in a movie. This has nothing whatsoever to do with what I do, but the film Mulholland Drive is one of the most important movies of my life. That and Grey Gardens. There’s something about Lynch’s film that every time I go back to it, it literally devastates me for days and days and days. I find something new in it every time. I love to watch Terrence Malick films and lose myself inside them. They’re sumptuous and they’re fleeting. I like the way that things happen around the edges of the frame, the way he uses dialogue. I sometimes wish for this kind of inspiration when I work on my own films, but never quite attain that quality. I think my next film or project will be this idea you and I talked about inspired by my daughter and her friends. What is it like to be a young person in New York City searching for love in the digital age?

If it’s not something about the art of being human, conflict with yourself or others – I don’t know. That seems to be the core of a project for me. I wouldn’t be able to figure out how to work on something unless I have that. I need to find that character or a couple of characters that I can be as close to in my own way on a par with the closeness I had with Reggie, or with my son and daughter in George, characters I can create art with. What it boils down to is a desire to try and find a deep connection with another human being, the difficulties of that, sometimes the impossibilities of it. And yet, it can happen.

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