“…Much More Truthful and Much More Alienated than Anything I Would Produce Myself”: Jonathan Lethem on Fred Barney Taylor’s Lethem
Last week I was very much looking forward to talking with friend Jonathan Lethem about the new film Lethem, directed by Fred Barney Taylor, which screens at the Metrograph on Sunday, September 17, with the author in attendance. Before that happened though, we both received the news that Michael Friedman had died. A beloved friend and collaborator, Friedman co-founded The Civilians, a theater company where I’m an associate artist. He also wrote the score and lyrics for the musical adaptation of Fortress of Solitude, Lethem’s 2003 novel. Fortress of Solitude tells the story of Lethem’s childhood on Dean Street in Brooklyn during the ’70s, and music is an integral part of his story. Friedman was, as Oskar Eustis, the Artistic Director of the Public Theater, so rightly put it, “a miracle of a human being,” and losing him is a devastation.
I spoke with Lethem by phone, calling him at his current home in California from my own apartment in Brooklyn — on Dean Street, actually. (“Well, that’s just some crazy-ass shit right there, Lambert,” he said when he learned of my new address.) Naturally, we began by talking about Michael and how much he meant to us.
Lethem: It’s just so brutal.
Filmmaker: Unbearably brutal. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack to Fortress on repeat.
Lethem: Honestly, one of the greatest things that ever came to me in my life as a writer was that he made that. It was an object of total wonder to me, a transcendent result.
Filmmaker: How did it come about?
Lethem: [Director] Daniel Aukin had fallen in love with the book and had this vision of it as musical theater, which wasn’t what he ordinarily worked on. But he knew Michael’s work. He said, “I’m coming to you with this ridiculous idea for your book, and please hear me out. I have someone in mind.” It was Daniel’s vision that Michael should be brought together with it. There was another important collaborator — the book writer Itamar Moses — but it was always unmistakable that Michael was the genius. We were all there: me with my source material, Daniel as producer/director, and Itamar as the book writer, as if camped around a fire — around the genius of Michael’s invention. It was him, you know? That was his show. It was totally his.
Filmmaker: It’s a beautiful pairing, I think, because his interest in collaboration and in other forms of artistic expression is not dissimilar to yours.
Lethem: The first thing I said to [my wife] Amy when she came down and told me was, “I loved him so.”
Filmmaker: So did I.
Lethem: It was crazy how much he meant to me. I was with him in Dallas when [Fortress] opened. That was a great experience.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the movie. You are the subject of Fortress of Solitude, and you are the subject of Lethem, but one is a fictionalized character that you wrote and the other is actually you up there for an audience to look at. It was interesting to me that the first thing you said to me when I emailed you was, “That’s a strange topic for an interview.” Why do you think it’s strange?
Lethem: Well, the whole thing is strange. It’s not even that the interview is where the strangeness begins, but more the position of being the subject of an actual film. Fred, interestingly, and I think admirably, doesn’t like the term “documentary” for what he makes. He calls it “ film.” With something like The Fortress of Solitude, where, however much I am identified with it and I volunteered myself to be identified with it, there are also all these displacements and disguises. That’s so different from this experience of being tracked for six or seven years by Fred’s camera. It’s not my voice that’s organizing that material. It’s just, I think, a very strange position for me. I normally play at self-revelation or confession, and I withhold and I shape and I dangle different ideas about myself, or I refract them differently. It feels to me like I am conjuring up a different person every time I play at using a direct first person in an essay. Like the person who is playing me in the essay about The Searchers, the first essay in The Disappointment Artist, is a different one than the Jonathan Lethem that’s playing the narrator of the 33 1/3rd book about The Talking Heads. I can’t always say exactly why they are different but it seems to me the projects command a different fictional me, even when it’s meant to be autobiographical. What Fred’s doing is taking pictures of me and then coming up with his own fictionalization, and it’s simultaneously much more truthful and much more alienated than anything I would produce myself.
Filmmaker: Do you know if that’s part of his reason for not wanting to call it a documentary? That he is acknowledging the fiction of it?
Lethem: I don’t think he would say that. Maybe I’ll ask him that on Sunday night. I think he just doesn’t like the contextual ethos of the world of documentaries. There is something fictional about it, for sure — the way he uses this magpie gesture of throwing in a clip of The Searchers or They Live. It’s like he’s made a lens or a prism that you can turn, and I’m glinting there trapped inside the prism. That’s what it feels like to me.
Filmmaker: How did you meet Fred?
Lethem: We met because he pulled me in to a previous film he had made about Samuel Delaney, which is called The Polymath. I love Chip Delaney, and I am so powerfully influenced by his work. Actually it’s funny because in this film there’s an aside that’s a piece of Fred self-reference because he caught me talking about how excited I was that my blurb is now on the front jacket of the paperback edition of Dahlgren. It’s Fred dropping a little clue about the trail that led him to me. Fred identified with me as a New Yorker in certain ways. He kind of declared his interest in making a film about me because I was in New York and because he identified with me as a New Yorker. I agreed to do it and then almost immediately moved to California, which made his task really, really difficult but also condemned him to the subject of my ambivalence about that change and also about how to account for it. One of the things I do in the film several times is sort of try to talk in a way that looks like I’m trying to manage my own perplexity. I’m doing it by projecting. I’m acting as though other people are finding it difficult to accept that I’m leaving New York City. So I’m constantly sort of holding people’s hands and saying, “Here’s why it’s ok,” or, “It makes sense for my art.” It’s actually me coping. Trying to manage it in real time.
Filmmaker: You just mentioned They Live, which is a film I love and you wrote a book about.
Lethem: One of my really dear friends Sean Howe was trying to launch a cult film answer to the BFI series of monographs — you know, those kind of posh one-film one-writer monographs that the BFI did — which are really neat, handsome books, and there are some great ones, like the Greil Marcus book on The Manchurian Candidate. But they tend to be very canonical films, and Sean wanted to do the same thing for sub-canonical, let’s say, or dissident-canonical cinema. He was more or less adamant that I be part of this and that I’d help him launch it by picking a movie and writing about it. I’m a great joiner, it turns out. I didn’t really know this about myself. I have a lot of trouble hearing about a game like that — everybody’s going to pick a movie and write about it — and not immediately visualizing what I would do. It almost becomes compulsive that I say yes. So I agreed because I love Sean, and it was a fun sport. And then I spent two years watching They Live and trying to figure out what I thought of it.
Filmmaker: How many times do you think you watched it?
Lethem: You know, with the way you can look at films digitally, especially if they’re on your own hard drive, it’s really hard to say how many times I’ve watched the film. I probably sat and watched it beginning to end about 15 or 20 times in my life at this point, and I know that I’ve done it ritually or redundantly because I’ve wanted to show it to other people. So I’ll sit and watch it beginning to end with another person. But when I was writing about it I wasn’t doing that, I was just bearing down on certain scenes — you know, I might watch a 30-second sequence 40 times in the week or the month that I was writing about that sequence. When you add up all the moments spent watching portions of They Live it just sort of dissolves into a mist.
Filmmaker: The last time I watched it was when I was in Baltimore visiting friends and we had been following the Brexit news. We suddenly wanted to watch They Live. Unfortunately it’s prophetic.
Lethem: I mean, the really super simple thing to say is, “It holds up.” It just holds up. The weird thing personally, and this was also true for me writing about The Talking Heads in Fear of Music for the 33 1/3rd series, is that I can still do it with pleasure. It’s actually not disappointing or awkward or doesn’t make me impatient to sit with someone and watch They Live now. I’ll still do it from time to time. And I can still play that record. It turns out that repetition isn’t always a route to extinguishing the power or the value in something. You can kind of pass through the other side.
Filmmaker: You’ve just set yourself up for what we’re going to do next time I see you. I want to hear the Lethem live narration.
Lethem: We’ll do that. The thing about They Live is that I wrote it as though it were a commentary track, which is a form that really fascinates me. The commentary track sort of turns a film into a novel because you’re hearing the thoughts that are going on underneath the surfaces. I always feel like it’s some sort of under-utilized artistic form. There’s something that came along recently that really blew my mind. There’s a version of a pretty much forgotten horror film called Terror of Frankenstein that somebody made a fictional director’s commentary track on which reveals all kinds of murders and things that happen during the making of the film. It’s a collaboration between Rodney Ascher and Tim Kirk. Rodney Ascher is the guy who made Room 237 — that kind of overthinking analysis of Kubrick’s The Shining.
Filmmaker: I liked that film. I love all the zooming in on tiny things.
Lethem: I thought it was fantastic. I felt like people were afraid that it was designed for mocking the theorists, but I kind of believed all of them. I sort of thought that everything that they were reading was in the film even though they’re rival interpretations but somewhere in that nest of rival interpretations is a super energized hyper-interpreted version of The Shining that’s even better than Kubrick could possibly have intended to produce.
Filmmaker: Right. How could you not like that, when people are paying that kind of attention to your film?
Filmmaker: In Fred’s film you talk about a number of influential films and filmmakers. I would love to hear about some of them, how you feel they have influenced you, and which ones have been the most important to you.
Lethem: I didn’t begin as thinking of novels as the only form, or the highest form. In fact I didn’t think about novels at all. I wanted to make paintings because my dad made paintings. Then I wanted to make comic books. And then I wanted to make films very badly. And I did make some animated films when I was a teenager. But precisely at that moment that I realized how much it was a collaborative form and how selfish and impatient a collaborator I was. I kind of veered away from making film because I saw the extraordinary amount of dependence you would have on actors or cinematographers or other kinds of support, and then I ended up writing stories and novels. I’m unbelievably lucky to have made a life doing so, but it isn’t because I see it as the higher form, or even my correct form, or that I feel that the influence of the novels that matter to me matter more than the influence of a Bob Dylan or Orson Welles. The nourishment I get from the films I love is a central vibration to me. I always have felt that it’s about call and response. It’s about being in a space oriented towards other humans and other art objects. For me it’s not like my novel among novels, it’s my novel among the artworks that sing to me. I really can never stop thinking about the films and filmmakers that mean so much to me. What’s interesting to me is that some of them I find ways to engage with in my writing directly. I spent three years writing Girl in a Landscape under the spell of, or in the sensation of, replying to John Ford. And then it wasn’t quite enough, I needed to somehow pin this experience in time and space again with that essay about The Searchers. Something about the formalism of Hitchcock and Ford gets into my work really directly. There’s a strong Hitchcock motif in Chronic City. It’s a re-working of Vertigo in a certain sense. Then there are other filmmakers who I just feel this enormous amount of responsiveness to but it doesn’t go anywhere, I’m just a fan. Preston Sturges, and Nicholas Ray. They make me feel alive and that enters my work. I think about Nicholas Ray constantly.
Filmmaker: What specifically about him do you think about constantly?
Lethem: Well, I mean, The Lusty Men and Bigger Than Life, there’s some kind of emotional drivenness in them that I find inexhaustible. I can always go back to them. I guess I’m guilty of liking art about artists. My dad’s a painter, and before I even knew what I was going to do, I already had an exaggerated commitment to the life position, or the life situation, of the artist, and a lot of Ray’s protagonists are images of the torment and desire of the creative person and what their fate is in a family or a society. I think that’s something that makes them mean a tremendous amount to me. Someone like the Bogart figure in In a Lonely Place. That might be my favorite movie in the whole world. On some days it’s my favorite movie in the world.
Filmmaker: You say in the film that loss is a recurring theme for you.
Lethem: I like that Fred caught that moment. The turn in thinking about my work was, and this goes back to Fortress of Solitude, why not risk total humiliation, and why not put all the secret stuff on the outside and wear it like a super-hero wears his underwear on the outside of his clothes. So when I say that thing about loss in the film, it’s good — it’s like one of those my-underwear-is-on-the-outside-of-my-clothes moments.
Filmmaker: Isn’t that the brave thing that an artist can do? Wear their underwear on the outside?
Lethem: Yes, but I think there are people who prefer my work before I got so blatant about having these feelings.
Filmmaker: I guess that squishy-center is a place in an artist that I often want to see.
Lethem: Well, what’s funny is that I think offering your vulnerability has two definite results and they don’t reconcile. One is that a lot of people want to take care of you and love you for it and the other is a lot of people want to tell you you’re pathetic and really hate you for it. Because you’ve made them feel embarrassed or uncomfortable or like you’re being personal when they wanted to be on a different footing. It’s like you stood too close to them at a party.
Filmmaker: I think that’s exactly right.
Lethem: The simplest thing to say is that I have no choice. I find myself in my relation to the books and my experience of the books becoming different and becoming obvious and becoming obvious to myself, and that’s just an absolutely helpless procedure.
Filmmaker: Do you care about your writing being adapted for film?
Lethem: Because I love film I can’t help but be generally turned on by the possibility. Interesting filmmakers come into my life and start talking to me. I’m like the most optioned, least filmed novelist ever.
Lethem: I don’t know what the real record would be, but let’s just say this: for being so totally unfilmed as I am, I’m absurdly, extensively optioned. I’ve published ten novels at this point and eight of the 10 have had significant development histories. Gun, With Occasional Music has had four different life spans — four completely different creators who optioned it, wrote screenplays, tried to make it, and then it petered out. As She Climbed Across The Table has had three different development lives. So I have a mountain of unfilmed scripts in a closet.
Filmmaker: Welcome to the film industry.
Lethem: I just think of it in biological terms. It’s like an undersea creature that you would see in a documentary, you know, “… and then it lays a thousand eggs on the ocean floor and 982 of these are gobbled up by predators, but three reach adulthood.” I just figure that’s what they do. They fail to make things. It would drive me absolutely insane. I would be unable to function in an atmosphere where my creative desires were just stomped on constantly. But I can stand being at the adjacency to it that I’m in because, well, for one thing I’m not spending my creative desire there, I’m just watching other people do it. The fact that they’re doing it with my books, it can be disappointing, it can be fascinating, it can be entrancing, but it usually results in my being paid something, which is ok. And it often has resulted in my gaining some really amazing companions in my life. People that I feel allied with. I’ve made extraordinary friendships, I mean one is in the film, Hampton Fancher.
Filmmaker: I was just getting to him.
Lethem: He optioned Gun With Occasional Music, my first published book. He was the second of the filmmakers to try to work with that book — the first person to try to make that book into a movie was Alan Pakula.
Filmmaker: All The Presidents Men.
Lethem: Yes. It was his property, and then he had this spectacular tragic death on the Long Island Expressway where a load on a car ahead of him came through his windshield. Terrible story. But Hampton was the next person to work with that book. I was 17 when Blade Runner came out. I was already claiming to myself to be the biggest Philip K. Dick fan walking the earth. I cared so much. I was conflicted actually about Blade Runner when I first saw it because of the things that it did and didn’t get right in its relation to the book. Also, Dick died the year it came out. So it just felt really weird. But then I figured out how mighty a film it was. I saw it a few more times, and then the director’s cut came out and it was so much more persuasive to me. By the time I was conceiving and writing Gun With Occasional Music, it was one of my totemic influences. Hampton was the guy who ushered Dick’s novel to the screen. He wrote the first screenplay. He has a deep and integral relationship to that film. He was interested in my book and was doing this really interesting work with it. He was changing it a lot. He was changing it as much or more than he changed Dick’s original. I was enthralled by this process. He was wanting to talk to me about it as he did it, which isn’t always the case — sometimes the screenwriter is very embarrassed, or the director is very embarrassed, in relation to the literary original. They feel that they have to apologize, or disguise the fact that they’re transforming the book in adaptation. More and more it became clear to me that the two mediums are so different and that actually dutiful films of books are usually very uncinematic and boring. And that what I wanted, if I wanted anything, was to see my book become like the lodestone or the launching pad for some other kind of artwork. I didn’t want to see The Cider House Rules or The Shipping News. I wanted to see Howard Hawks make To Have and Have Not. Just throw out 90% of my book and make a great Humphrey Bogart movie or see a Blade Runner kind of result, something that I couldn’t have imagined. Hampton was on that kind of a path, but he was also very open with me about it and wanted to talk to me about it quite a lot. It was an amusing reciprocity because he would write things that were only tangentially connected to my book and then he would puzzle at them and ask me what I thought as if I’d originated the image. At one point in our conversation he was talking about a part of my novel that reminded him of something else and he couldn’t figure out what it was, and I said, “Hampton, it’s Blade Runner.”
Filmmaker: Well, this is what I love.
Lethem: Because I was influenced by it when I was writing the book, so we were in this magical solipsistic, I guess it could be called a circle jerk.
Filmmaker: Okay. I was going to say I enjoyed that closing-of-the-loop, but we can go with circle jerk.
Lethem: I’ve become normalized to the condition of talking to filmmakers, talking to screenwriters, looking at drafts or treatments or even having conversations about casting and knowing somehow that there will never ever be a film. That’s my life, and it has been for 25 years.
Filmmaker: What happened to Hampton’s adaptation?
Lethem: He had some close calls. As so often is the case there was an interesting actor attached here or there and that might have spurred all the money flowing but then the person did something else. I mean, you know, there’s so many different ways for a film to not get made.
Filmmaker: I know. I’ve tried them all.
Lethem: I’ve watched them all. Somewhere there’s a multiplex on an alternate earth with a David Cronenberg version of As She Climbed Across The Table, which incidentally would have had a Bruce Wagner screenplay, there’s a Darren Aronofsky version of Fortress of Solitude, a Josh Marston version of Fortress of Solitude. There’s the Hampton version of Gun With Occasional Music, or the Alan Pakula version. Even more esoteric, but it was a possibility at one point, Leos Carax would have made a version of Girl in Landscape set in the Palestinian territories. He was going to transpose it back to earth and turn the settlers into Jews and the aliens into Palestinians. I had a fascinating, totally bizarre long lunch with Leos about what he wanted to do with Girl in Landscape and then I think I disappointed him not wanting to write it myself. Of course this was a stupid, stupid mistake, I should have jumped at that chance to write a movie for Leos Carax. So, somewhere there is an alternate reality multiplex where all of these projects were fulfilled and we can go and see them.
Filmmaker: There is nothing I would rather do.
Lethem: Oh! And David Lynch. A David Lynch version of Amnesia Moon.
Filmmaker: Wow. To watch all of those films. Amazing. If it’s a multiplex, I am going to buy one ticket and sneak from theater to theater. That would be the best thing ever. When Fred’s film screens on Sunday, will that be the first time that you see it with an audience — where people are watching a film about you?
Lethem: Absolutely. I haven’t spent a lot of time on that visualization that you’re inviting. I’ll get through it somehow. I like to go alone to the woodshed and make something and not have anybody else’s opinions reach my ears, but I’m a very social person and I compensate. I don’t really like airports and I get sick of repeating myself, but I’m not a shy author. I like book tours in the sense of meeting people who read my books, and I often have a lot in common with the people who like my books, and they’re cool people to meet. I’m not a misanthropic person at all.
Filmmaker: When I came to hear you read last year there was that Trump supporter who asserted that he was soul mates with you, does that concern you at all?
Lethem: That was an insane moment. In a perverse way you collect the insane moments in a life of what can sometimes be very innocuous. You know, public appearances by authors are not the most scintillating things to participate in, even if you’re the author. So, I’ll always remember that Trump supporter declaring that I was his beacon or whatever it was he declared. But that was also just an insane moment. It was weeks before the election and now we know it was creeping out of the edges of our reality, that this darkness, this perversity, or nihilism, wasn’t going to be denied, right? So, he was telling us something.
Lethem: He was coming to that reading to tell us that even at your absolutely ordinary preaching-to-the-choir-Jonathan-Lethem-doing-a-reading-in-Brooklyn-evening, this can happen. We should’ve gotten the memo. Well, we were destined to get the memo, a couple weeks later.