Esther Robinson, A Walk Into The Sea: Danny Williams And The Warhol Factory
Esther Robinson has an effusive passion for cinema that is infectious, and has led her to dedicate her career to helping artists and filmmakers. She studied film and television at NYU’s Tisch School for the Arts, and at the age of only 24 produced Alive TV, a television show for PBS about alternative and experimental film. In 1998, she started Wavelength Releasing, a company established to explore new ways to make, distribute and show movies, which was responsible for the first fully digital film release as well as the groundbreaking, multi-platform release of The Last Broadcast (1999). In 1999, Robinson became the Director of Film/Video and Performing Arts at the Creative Capital Foundation (the grant-giving body housed in the same offices as the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts), a post she held until 2006.
One day at work, a chance mention of her uncle, Danny Williams, lead Robinson to discover that the Warhol Foundation held a number of shorts films he had made in the 1960s while he was Warhol’s lover — and just before he disappeared, believed drowned. After seeing Williams’ films, Robinson was compelled to make A Walk Into the Sea: Danny Williams and the Warhol Factory, a personal documentary that examines Williams’ life and dealings with the members of Warhol’s Factory clique. Robinson’s film sheds new light on the familiar subject of Warholiana with her affectionate and revealing portrait of Williams, a gifted filmmaker and troubled soul who Warhol used and then got bored of. Robinson, an experienced producer, claims she will not direct again in the near future, which is sad given the obvious talent for documentary filmmaking that she shows in this, her debut feature.
Filmmaker spoke to Robinson about Warhol’s continuing influence, spending high school dressed as Edie Sedgwick, and how Stranger Than Paradise changed her life.
Filmmaker: How much was Danny Williams talked about in your family?
Robinson: I think every family has this thing that no one talks about. I literally never heard my grandmother talk about him, but in my her house there was a bookshelf that was filled with books like The Velvet Underground [laughs], these crazy punk books that at 13 you think, “This is a badass book!” Inside the books, there’d be things she’d underlined, like “No!” or “Wrong!” I knew that my grandmother basically thought that Andy Warhol killed my uncle (in that elusive “What does kill mean?” way). I knew that there was question around his disappearance: “Was it suicide? Was he gone? Was he alive?” I knew it was elicit [to talk about him]. I was a punk kid in Minneapolis, and when my friends were dressing up like punks in the ’80s, it was far more horrifying to my parents to dress like Edie Sedgwick than to have a mohawk. [laughs] So I dressed like Edie Sedgwick for all of high school.
Filmmaker: And you were fully aware of the resonance?
Robinson: Oh yeah, but I didn’t explore the resonance. You take for granted that you don’t ask, but it doesn’t mean that you don’t read every book scouring for information, scour every photo album trying to understand. That’s what I wanted my movie to do, to replicate that feeling of searching and constant re-evaluation that we all do in life. Documentaries have a tendency to have this fixed perspective to prove a point, and to me the point is that it’s very fluid, that memory is very fluid.
Filmmaker: The starting point for the documentary was a visit your grandmother made to the offices you were working in, which you shared with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
Robinson: While I was showing her around, she started talking about Danny. That was the first time I had ever heard her even mention his name. She started saying, “My son lived with Andy Warhol and his mother. He was his boyfriend,” stuff that was shocking in any context, especially because my grandmother’s feelings about him being gay were quite conflicted and here she was bragging about it. This staff member was walking by and heard the name, it triggered something in her memory about the archives, and she put me in touch with the archivist for the Warhol films. I called her — no, actually I waited.
Filmmaker: Why did you wait?
Robinson: When you start the journey of asking the questions no one’s ever asked, it’s the hardest thing. It’s impossible to even recreate or describe, it’s just inertia. When Danny disappeared, my family tried to contact Warhol and No one answered. In fact, people were mean. I probably internalized that fear of rejection, and I didn’t want to bump up against that. But I called Callie [Angel, the archivist], and she just said, “I’ve been trying to find your family for seven years. I have all your uncle’s films.”
Filmmaker: How soon after that did you decide that you wanted to make a film about Danny? Had you been considering directing anyway?
Robinson: Here’s the thing: I’m a producer, and I’m a savvy producer. If you find 20 films that your uncle made in the Warhol Factory in 1965, who’s supposed to direct that movie? You have to direct it. The story only makes sense with you at the center, or you in the search role. We interviewed my grandmother for a year, but it wasn’t until I saw Danny’s films that I had to make the movie. When I saw Danny films, it’s impossible to describe… I love them, I love them like a person. They’re so singular, they really have this very specific cinema vision. His directorial sensibility is really idiosyncratic, and I was elated by it, and that immediate connection to the work meant that I needed to know what happened. I had to know what happened, and that became the fuel for making it. Movies are like that — they get you deep.
Filmmaker: I like that you adopted a style of filmmaking that allowed us to see your progression towards greater understanding of what happened.
Robinson: To me, part of the act of loving Danny was allowing him to own whatever ending he had made for himself, and I was as interested in what had happened to him as I was interested in the idea of how complexity gets reduced to fact. When you read most of the Warhol books, they’re pretty catty and always trying to prove [one of] two things: Warhol was the greatest artist genius that America has ever produced, or he was the man responsible for killing Edie and all these kids, and both of those things aren’t the truth to me. They’re about myth.
Filmmaker: Of the Factory interviewees, Paul Morrissey comes across very badly and is dismissive of Danny Williams, whereas John Cale was not only a kind but surprisingly insightful. What was the emotional impact of interviewing these people, both as a director and Danny’s relative?
Robinson: It was hard, painful. I think your first instincts when someone [like Paul Morrissey] is really denying someone’s existence is to feel like they’re doing that to hurt that person or you, but the truth is that all those people are good people and all they’re trying to do is maintain their equilibrium in a pretty big sea of egos. [laughs] I came to understand that [people’s] greatest protection to that larger force of Andy was a really strong artistic practice. So for people like John, who went in as a known artist and left as a known artist, they actually loved their time and can remember a really wide range of feelings, but for people for whose work became highly identified with Andy Warhol, it was much more difficult. A lot of these people’s work is really extraordinary and it’s unknown and it will take a long for history to parse out.
Filmmaker: How many of the people you interviewed from the Factory crowd did you show Danny’s movies to? Were you able to let them see the films before speaking to them?
Robinson: I showed them to them while I was talking to them. I brought a little [DVD] player and would screen them to them, and I would do it halfway or three quarters of the way through the interview because I wanted to know what they remembered before I showed them. I wanted [the interviewees] to give me a sense of them, but also everyone was so accustomed to talking about Andy that you had to let them talk about Andy for a while, to let it out. Shannon [Kennedy, the editor] was incredibly good at finding those stories that made it feel like verité, that had an urgency to it. We’d also said as a rule that anything we’d heard before, we didn’t want in the movie. I wanted to feel like not only were we discovering what happened to Danny, but we were discovering new things and new sides about what happened [in the Factory], and to those people.
Filmmaker: By the end of the film, how strongly did you relate to Danny?
Robinson: I love this kid… I’m tearing up. I count going to the Berlin Film Festival to screen his films as one of the greatest moments of my life. This is somebody that didn’t exist, a 26-year-old kid that made movies for six months. These are crazy sketches full of promise and I’m just so proud of that promise, but there’s a tender sadness when the promise isn’t realized. I think it’s heartbreaking. I never found anyone from that last year and a half [of his life] that loved him, that knew him like a best friend or a lover. It’s shocking to me. My husband at one point said, “You’re going to spend your whole lifetime learning about Danny Williams, but the movie has to end!” It’s true, a lot of the things that are hard when you make a movie become part of your life. Danny is a part of my life.
Filmmaker: What’s your favorite Bob Dylan album?
Robinson: I like the really early electrified one, that’s the only one I really like. Yeah, Blonde on Blonde. My husband will laugh and laugh — he loves Bob Dylan. I love that Todd Haynes movie [I’m Not There] so much. It makes me so happy. It’s so fucked up and wrong in some ways, but I loved every second. I was like, “Yay for the failure! Yay!”
Filmmaker: What’s the most embarrassing movie you’ve watched the whole of on a plane?
Robinson: I’ve watched so many bad movies on planes I can’t even distinguish them, and the worst part is that I cry at all of them, even if I hate them. So I try to watch the movie without headphones and guess everything that’s going to happen next. It’s really annoying to my seatmate, but it’s the way I survive it. There was this terrible one in which the girl who played Lolita [Leelee Sobieski] dies. It’s clear within the first 10 minutes: there’s the rich guy and [she’s] a poor kid, and you just look at her and go, “She’s gonna die.” I watched that movie. [laughs]
Filmmaker: There’s a rule in movies where if anybody coughs, they’re a goner.
Robinson: She does cough, she does cough!
Filmmaker: What’s your best piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Robinson: Be true to a vision that you cultivate yourself. I think right now there’s this cult of product and people are very drawn to the idea of having made a movie. But the truth is that for most of your life you’re just making movies, so you have to love the process or you’re doomed. And I feel like there’s not enough bravery anymore. I think people should ask more of themselves when they make movies.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Robinson: Probably The Red Balloon. My parents relentlessly pulled it out on 16mm and showed it at every one of my birthday parties from four on. But the first movie that changed my life was a double feature of Blood Simple and Stranger Than Paradise when I was 15 years old. There’s this moment in Stranger Than Paradise where it goes to black in between scenes, and I remember sitting in this black theater thinking, “Holy fuck! You can do that?! You can just go to black?!” It literally changed my life. I went to NYU because of sitting in the black in Stranger Than Paradise. Cinema talks to me like a person and it’s as seductive and joy-inducing and as angry. There’s movies that I dislike that I can get apoplectic about, but I love this thing, this endeavor, this crazy madness.