Back to selection

Come to the Sound of My Voice: Laurie Anderson Talks Heart of a Dog

Laurie Anderson (Photo by Henny Garfunkel)

I remember when you started hearing that voice everywhere. Melodious, precisely phrased yet awkward in its pauses, the electronic approximation of the human voice, whether sampled, altered, or pitch-shifted, and triggered by the pound sign, or, now, simply a “Hey, Siri,” has lured human dialogue into an uncanny valley of meaning since the 1970s. And, after Kraftwerk, certainly, but long before AutoTune, 808s & Heartbreak and the Gregory Brothers there was Laurie Anderson, whose vocoderized voice forced us to try and make sense of it all. Anderson, a performance artist and composer whose early work included a piece where she played her violin atop a block of melting ice, became, in the ’80s, an unlikely pop star when her single “O Superman,” released on the tiny One Ten Records label, hit the Top 10 in Britain. “Ah, ah, ah” — her voice, looped — was the rhythmic instrument underneath; on top, Anderson recited in that eerie voice answering machine messages, in-flight homilies and disquieting odes to parental authority. “And when justice is gone, there’s always force. And when force is gone, there’s always Mom. Hi, Mom!.”

In the 34 years since “O Superman,” Anderson has remained a major artist while retaining — and embodying within her work — a kind of paradoxical modesty. She’s tackled big themes in full evening operas with titles like United States, and collaborated with major pop stars, but her work has never felt of the machine — just, often, about it.

Anderson is referred to above as a “composer” and “performance artist,” but “filmmaker” should have been in there, too, because some form of moving image media has accompanied so much of her work. Yet her new documentary, Heart of a Dog, still counts as something of a surprise; as she explains in our conversation below, it’s the first of her film work without its viewing context considered as part of its artistic intent. In other words, you can watch it in theater (Abramorama is releasing this fall), or on HBO (beginning in 2016), or on your iPad (via HBO GO or, later, through all the usual platforms).

The bigger surprise about Heart of a Dog, though, is not the film’s existence, nor its quality (it’s beautiful in the simplest and most direct of ways, and inspiringly inquisitive), but simply the sound of Anderson’s voice heard throughout. There’s no electronic alteration, no sampling. As she explains, it’s recorded dry, with no filter, and it’s mixed to sound as if it’s coming from the midpoint of your brain. That makes this essay film, with its voiceover set against bits of charmingly smudgy animation, unusually intimate in feel; Anderson’s very personal journey becomes a personal one for you, too.

That journey includes memories of Anderson’s mother, the NSA and a contemplation of the post-9/11 security state; Wittgenstein and Kierkegaard; finding pure love in dreams; the deception of the storyteller; her childhood days spent in a burn unit; and the death of sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark. But these are all triggered by one defining event: the death of Lolabelle, the rat terrier Anderson shared with her husband, Lou Reed. Anderson’s eulogy for and memories of Lolabelle — a “worker dog,” and, as her YouTube clips attest, an accomplished pianist — offers a dreamlike thread leading to this kind of summarizing work that Anderson quips might have been called instead Love and Death.

Needless to say, dog lovers will love, and, most likely, find themselves wracked by this movie. But as its rapturous reception at every major festival this fall — it played Telluride, Venice, Toronto and New York — demonstrates, Anderson’s philosophy of life should touch even those allergic to the canine slobber. It’s a major work by an artist who has some of the answers but all of the questions. I spoke to Anderson at her downtown New York workspace just a couple of weeks before Venice. While Will, another terrier, padded around, Anderson made me coffee and chatted with an assistant about the tweaks to the mix they’d do later that day, and how late they could push their DCP shipping deadline. After a few moments, I turned on the recorder, but almost wanted to leave it off, as you’ll read below.

I  loved your movie, and I loved it in a way that made me not want to talk to you about it. Okay, we don’t have to say a thing. We can talk about something else.

It’s a revealing film. Watching it, you feel as if you are part of a private conversation. But I guess, since this is an interview, we should try and talk about it. Ah, that’s interesting. You know, I have not done very much talking about this film at all, so I don’t have my rap down. [Laughs] But it was a very weird process making it. It was basically two years late and four times as long as I’d been asked to do. It was supposed to be a personal essay film, part of a series.

For Arte, French television, right? And it was supposed to be about your philosophy of life? Oh, yeah, I told them I really didn’t want to make something about that. But it turns out that it is my philosophy about life now, strangely, you know? I had started it, and then I stopped it for a little over a year and then came back to it. I was working on several different things at once, so it was sort of off and on. It was a really nice way to do it because, having given up being in a rush or thinking about deadlines, different things would occur to me. I’d be like, “I’m a year late, I might as well be two years late. And I’ll do some more animation today.” And so, [the film] is a visual grab bag of iPhone [footage] and animation stuff. But it started out with a pretty different agenda. Of course, one of my favorite film gods is Chris Marker. He’s always on the back of my mind.

It’s funny to think of this as your first film, because you’ve worked in film your whole career. Your performances have usually involved projections. Yes, but I have never made a “film film,” you know? I’ve made a couple of things that were standalone. There was a concert film, Home of the Brave, in the ’80s. There was a film I did for Expo in ’92 about Carmen. And then I made another one in ’05 for Expo in Japan, Hidden Inside Mountains. That was very much like a big painting. So the things that I do — painting and stories and music and animation — all kind of come together for me in this film, and it never really occurred to me to do that before.

Given that this is a “film film,” did you think about its presentation in a different way? Well, that it can be in a theater and I’m not there. That’s the main thing, that it doesn’t have a context. Even the film for Japan, the context was “outside, very big, sculpture.” So this is just something you can see in a theater or on your laptop. You don’t have to think of the context. It’s just a standalone thing. That’s what makes it different.

And then there’s the absence of your live presence. Yet I wondered, after I saw this film, whether you’d do a live version. You easily could. I mean, it came from live versions. It came from some of the stories that were in a performance called Happiness and one called Delusion and one called Dirtay! They weren’t originally going to be in this, but I thought, “I have all of these stories that relate to some of the things I’m talking about in this film, so I’ll just throw them in.” Those were stories that had no visuals in them; they were from a series of solo performances I did that were really about leaving a whole lot of room for the audience to use their imaginations.

You said in one of your other interviews, “I sometimes panic having to say the same thing every night.” Oh, yeah.

The film, of course, does that for you. Yes, it solves it completely. You only have to do it once. You know, I’m not an actress, so I don’t have the skills that an actor does. I have friends in Broadway plays who know how to protect themselves, who know what the limits are, the borders between the character and themselves. But often, I’m using the word “I,” and I really mean “I.” [I’m describing] something I saw, and I’m not using it in a metaphorical way.

This film has more “I” than your other work. I’m glad you say that because I’m often accused of being an autobiographical artist, and I don’t think of myself that way. I think of myself as a narrator who goes, “Let’s look over there.” That’s what I kind of do. And this [film] was a change in terms of that, I guess. I inserted the “I” and meant it more.

I was struck by how, at the beginning of the film, you had the dream about giving birth to your dog. It was like you went there immediately — confronting the “pet as surrogate child” argument. Yeah, I did. [Laughs] I didn’t have a kid, couldn’t go there. A dog was the best we could do. That’s okay. But people would be like, “Oh god, that’s their kid.” Raising their eyebrows, making fun, which is fine — it is a little bit silly. But in the end, if I have to choose, I do love people more than animals…. Well, I love both. Why would I have to choose? It’s a stupid “‘Would you rather be blind or deaf’” kind of question. We get to live in a world with both animals and people.

So the process of putting the film together, was it a back-and-forth process, between the visuals and the stories? Or did you start with text? It started mostly with stories about my dog. And then I tended to use, in this film, a lot of loops and things that don’t define exactly what I’m talking about.

Loops? Visual loops. Especially in the Bardo section, there are things that you see once and then they start repeating: close-ups of people, close-ups of things, very repetitive shots of telephone poles and trees. [The film] is like a love song to trees, too — they’re all over the place in this film! But the loops, back to our sort of mutual background at The Kitchen, that was a place where loops were almost invented. They were very much about the hypnosis [artists] were working with in those days, in terms of sound and image. I think for many people it was a response to the quick cutting stuff that was happening at the time. As [edits] got quicker and quicker, we got slower and slower and more meditative. So, [the images of] phosphenes — those were actually shadows of a little drone camera from a studio shoot that I did. I looped a lot of those shadows and [I] overlaid them and turned them into the sort of things that you see when you close your eyes — or at least the closest thing to that, because what you see when you close your eyes is one of those things that you actually can’t film. Of course, one of the subtexts of the film is blindness.

Also, I tried to juxtapose what a surveillance camera sees with a dog’s vision, to play with the idea of, “Is this what a dog is seeing or a machine?” The visual undercurrents, I wanted them to be a little bit ambiguous once in a while about who was seeing this stuff, [so that] you could even close your eyes and hear the story and that would be “seeing” something. I tried to leave a lot of room for people’s imaginations. Forget abstraction, you can say the word “dog” in a song or a show and every single person will have a different dog springing to mind: an old one, there’s a cute little one and this one is vicious and that one is just a generic thing standing there. Everything’s loaded with everyone’s visual history, and I love that. So I tried to keep the film very descriptive and discursive and shaggy-dog style, so that everybody’s dog could come to their mind as well. And, I mean, there are a few dog stand-ins for Lolabelle.

Yes, I saw that in the credits. I found them just really by mistake. I was in California and I thought, “I’m going to go out there and shoot something at [Green Gulch]. We were in a café, on our way up to the place, and there was a dog who looked a lot like Lolabelle. I said [to the owners], “Hey, we’re doing this little shoot. Do you think your dog could come along and maybe be in a shot or two?” And [the couple] said, “Yeah, sure.” And I said, “You mean you can come now?” “Yeah, why not?” I said, “We’re also shooting tomorrow and the next day.” And they said, “That’d be fine.” I’m like, “Oh, this is California. [Laughs] I love it.” So we shot with Archie.

Was that the walking sequence with the buzzards overhead? Yeah, he was a rat terrier. He had a very different head structure, but he was a rat. My friends who know Lolabelle were very offended that I used stand-ins for her: “That’s not Lolabelle.” But we wanted to use more than photographs, and to try to have a little bit of what it was like for her to be there. And so we had a stand-in or two. [My friends] haven’t forgiven me because they got very attached to Lolabelle, too.

All the footage of Lolabelle in Heart of a Dog is the iPhone footage, correct? Was there other footage of her you had to draw from? Well, there’s a million iPhone [videos] of her playing the piano, and there’s lots of photographs of her by photographers and by me and by Lou. We shot her her whole life, but often, we’re in [the footage] and they’re too home-movie-like. There are a million shots of Lou and me on the beach playing with Lolabelle, but that’s not this movie. I wanted people to insert themselves into this, to not make it a home movie.

I loved the part where you talk about dogs having different voices. Robin O’Hara and I have had three dogs, but I never really thought about them like that. Yeah, the breed has a kind of general voice, a general accent, let’s say. Terriers, I mean, they’re cops, basically, you know? They’re protectors. That’s their duty. Will [Anderson’s current dog] does the same thing. Any new room, he’s like, checking the perimeters, scouting it out. He’s got a bodyguard kind of attitude toward things. That’s his job. He loves working on stages. Lola, too. They both did because it has a very clear perimeter. A lot of people are doing stuff very busily on that perimeter — laying cables and putting up lights that are going up and down. On tours we took her onto, Lolabelle would keep patrolling the edges of that perimeter. She just loved the stage because it was a very clear, important area. And then, people would be down at her level, pulling cables apart, and that was the maximum amount of fun for her. [Terriers] just love that kind of thing. They’re working dogs, so they really need to do things. They’re not lap dogs. They’re not fun dogs. Yesterday, [Will] was at a rehearsal for this show that we’re going to do at the [Park Avenue] Armory. He just comes to life when he is part of a thing that we’re doing. [Lolabelle] was the same.

When did some of the other story and material, like the detailed family recollections, enter the project? In the middle of [production], my brother sent over this box of home movies, and he said, “Could you transfer these?” I said, “I’m really busy doing this film. I can’t do this for you right now.” He said, “Just do a few.” And so I did a few, and I found the [footage] of the island, my brothers, my mother and the stroller. I called my twin brothers and told them I found this footage. “Do you remember when I almost drowned you?” And they said, “Oh, yeah. We remember that.” [Laughs] They remembered it very well — being frozen and afraid. But they don’t remember so much what I remembered, which was my mother’s reaction. She didn’t say, “You almost drowned your brothers.” She didn’t go into that. She said something very kind to me, which was extraordinary, because she was a very distant person. My brothers said, “Are you going to put that in the movie?” And I said, “I think so because I had forgotten it.” This is a film about forgetting things, and here I’m in the middle of the movie and I’d forgotten that, and it was actually a kind of missing piece that I’d been looking for.

You know, my mother was not one of those “mom moms” that I always wanted to have. For example, I haven’t thought about this for a long time either, but my sister and I used to come running home from school. We’d run in, make peanut butter sandwiches, pour glasses of milk. Then, we’d run back out, then we’d run back in and go, “Look what Mom made for us!” [Laughs] I mean, we really wanted to have that kind of mom, who would think ahead to do that. So, we learned to do things for ourselves. And [my family] was a lot of kids, so we also had the advantage of being in a group and helping each other. So in a lot of ways, this is a film about her, you know? I find it kind of odd that there’s so much [storytelling] in the human history of fathers and sons and conflict and that kind of thing and not so much about mothers and daughters. And there are a lot of us, mothers and daughters. That was not my goal in making this at all, but then, when I looked at it at the end, I went, “Oh, this is about my dog, but it’s just as much about my mother.” And love. If I were Woody Allen, I would call it Love and Death. That’s what it’s about.

Is it the first time you talked this directly about your mom? I’m trying to remember other pieces of yours. I have written a couple of short stories she was in and, “O Superman,” she was starring in that song, in a certain way. “Hold me, mom,” you know? I mean, she was standing in for authority. She was very interested in authority.

In what way? She trusted it, you know, and a lot more than I do. And ceremony. So her deathbed speech — the reason I put it second [in Heart of a Dog] is because this is also a film about stories and language, and that was language shattering. As you’re dying and things are shutting down, language is falling into a million pieces, and so, in her hospital room, she was kind of standing up to a microphone and giving a speech. Like, “Thank you for coming, everyone. It’s been just wonderful to be here.” She was very formal in that way. Then, it would fall apart, and she would see the animals in her hospital room and start talking to them, and then she’d be back to the microphone. We were all eight kids around her and she’s giving this speech. I was like, “I am watching the language ripping apart. This is amazing.” So I put the birth and the death things together at the very beginning to say, “This is kind of where I’m going with this.” But that was the best speech I’ve ever heard in my life. It tore my heart out. I learned so much about her and her pride of being in the world and being able to speak well. Also, she was an animal lover. She was a horsewoman, a lover of dogs and a really wonderful athlete as well. That’s her dog at the end of the film, her Dalmatian, Tony, who is running toward you in old movie land.

Could you discuss the score, and its relationship to your narration? First of all, there was going to be no music. I showed it to some people and they said, “That’s radical. No music? Just the voice?” It was really hardcore. But then, because I’m a musician, I thought, “It isn’t going to hurt if I try it. I can always throw it away.” And so, I did [the score] very, very quickly, in like a week and a half. I just threw it in and kind of went, “Oh, I kind of like that,” because it stays like it does in my performances as a sort of bubbling thing. It’s very underscored. I [originally] tried adding beats, but as soon as I added them, it looked like a music video. It was a disaster. Then Dan [Janvey, producer] said, “Try using strings only.” And I saw how most films have string scores, because it allows your eyes to be very rhythmic. You can look around the screen. The cuts aren’t emphasized by any kind of beat structure. And I love that kind of polyrhythm that you get into when your eyes are doing the rhythm and your ears are doing the kind of sonic, melodic stuff. So that was a revelation. I was kind of learning as I went.

Let’s talk about the sound. I know that you’re an audiophile. Yeah, the 5.1 was nice. And it was very satisfying to make a spatial thing once in a while. It’s mixed so that the voice tries to get between and right behind your eyes. I’m trying to find some way to identify with you as the viewer in which you begin to accept that what “I” means is “me.” That the “I” isn’t any longer a story that somebody else is telling [you], but you’re kind of, in a way, identifying with that voice because it never leaves you. It never shuts up the whole time. I thought, how can I identify with the person who’s going to be looking at this and make it a personal experience for them, temporarily, just the way that you might identify with the “I” in a novel? It’s the same exact thing: for 77 minutes, it becomes your point of view. And you get to see things that way because there are things in [the film] that aren’t statements. They’re more like questions. It’s not a very definitive movie; it’s full of questions. What is this? Where are we going? What does that mean? And so, because they’re unanswered, I’m hoping that that’s another reason that it’s more of a collaboration with [the viewer] because they’re kind of going, “I wonder what that answer is? I wonder what I think about that, because I’m not being told? I’m kind of asking the question myself.” See, it’s challenging, in that way. I mean, that’s how I made it. I don’t know how people experience it.

Just on a technical level, in the mix, how were you able to be so precise about where the voice lands spatially? It’s just totally dry, zero reverb front and center and absolutely no effects on it whatsoever, nothing.

Wow. No filter? Nothing, absolutely nothing. It was just a little tiny bit of EQ, which in the end, I took off. So it’s really nothing on it. The vocal was set, and the frequencies were adjusted so that it would read as a completely simple voice. Nothing at all fancy. And then, the other stuff kind of moved around it just a very little bit. When I did the score, I was at the Rauschenberg Foundation, and I just looked at the film and played violin along with it. We used some of that and then maybe four or five things from old records. And then we put other kinds of sounds that I could make in the sort of mix studio I had at the Rauschenberg Foundation. And then, all of this [other] sound was foleyed; it was basically me at a desk, pretty much doing like—[Picks up objects and moves them]. We put tons of filters on that stuff because I’m a filter queen. You know, I have a million filters that I use in shows, and I used all of those to make those foley things sound like something. But it’s really just me tapping on a desk.

The foley work was at the Rauschenberg Foundation, too? No, the foley stuff, I did after the music. I thought, “Okay, I put a little music in, but I’m going to give it this other layer. It’d be nice if there was a helicopter there. But none of it was sound that I recorded for [the film]. It was all stuff I threw in.

So the effects work is all homemade foleys? Yeah. Well, not the helicopters, but they’re just from out here [motions toward the window]. I would just go out with a Zoom mic. So this film is extremely homemade. I just did it downstairs in my studio.

There’s a lot of dialogue now about audience and attention in this fractured media world, where a film is seen on an iPad or a phone. But I think that can be very, very focused as well. I mean, it depends on the film. When I see something on my iPad, with headphones, I can be totally glued to it. I don’t have to see it on a big screen at all. But I don’t try to be nostalgic because then I would just cry all the time. It would just be like, “I remember when people got in lines to get the new Dylan record, and now they’re in lines to get the new Apple phone.” They’re not in lines for culture anymore. They’re not in lines for a movie because, for one thing, you can watch it on your iPhone and that’s really kind of great. I love that. I’ve seen some great movies on my iPhone. But I do love good sound, so making a 5.1 mix for this movie was really fun.

You said earlier that you want people to take on the film’s questions as their own. As someone who has gone through the death of an aging dog, that sequence of Lolabelle’s death felt incredibly raw to me, even though our first dog died 10 years ago. I was struck by the process of Lolabelle’s death, the days you and Lou spent with her as she was dying. Everyone does their own version. It’s never easy to do that one, you know, and it also kind of comes out of the blue, even though you have an old dog. It’s hard to think ahead because you’re very involved with your dog. And [to think about it] another way, I mean, I learned how to be old from my dog. She just slowed down. She kind of went, “Okay, I’m going to chill out now. I’m not going to try, really. I’m going to walk over there, and now I’m going to go like this.” It was like, “Oh, so that’s how you do it? Great. You just relax a little bit more.”

© 2019 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF