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Making a Film Inside William Burroughs' Secretive Bunker on the Bowery

In Uncle Howard, Aaron Brookner embarks on a mission to reclaim the lost negative of his uncle's famed doc on William Burroughs with the help of Jim Jarmusch and other New York icons.
January 31, 2016, 2:00pm

Howard Brookner and William Burroughs during the shoot of 'Burroughs: The Movie'

Film stills courtesy of Aaron Brookner

Director Howard Brookner is the eponymous figure at the center of Uncle Howard, a feature-length documentary that premiered this week at Sundance. In the 1980s, Brookner was involved with New York-based filmmakers like Jim Jarmusch, Tom DiCillo, Sara Driver, and Spike Lee, a group that would later became known as the godfathers of American indie. Their films, informed by the free spirit of French New Wave, were delivered raw and real like a slice of New York pie with a big piece of hair stuck on it.


Brookner was arguably the light to first shine brightest. In 1983, he made a celebrated and authorized documentary on William S. Burroughs, featuring Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and Francis Bacon. In 1987, Brookner put his camera essaying skills to work on Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars, a documentary that followed avant-garde artist Robert Wilson's attempt to organize an epic, 12-hour opera for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games only for the show to be cancelled at the last minute. Then when Brookner veered into scripted feature films, he persuaded Madonna and Matt Dillon to star in his Roaring 20s tribute Bloodhounds of Broadway.

Tragically, Brookner died a victim of the AIDS epidemic before he was able to see Bloodhounds premiere at Cannes in 1989. When Brookner passed, his films seemed to die with him. The Burroughs documentary went out of distribution and the Wilson film was considered lost.

Enter the director's nephew, Aaron Brookner. He was seven years old when his uncle died, but having been invited to the set of Bloodhounds, he knew that he wanted to follow in his uncle's footsteps and be a filmmaker.

Twenty-five years later, Aaron has picked up his kin's creative torch for a project that also restores Howard's legacy. In Uncle Howard, Aaron documents his own mission to reclaim the lost negative of the Burroughs feature, supposedly buried deep in "the bunker," as the Junkie writer's former apartment on the Bowery is known. Legend has it that the bunker is guarded like Fort Knox and hasn't been entered in decades. When he finally gained access, Aaron found a massive, untouched archive of stuff left by both Burroughs and his uncle. The director talked to VICE about exploring this time capsule alongside Jim Jarmusch, as well as how the documentary serves as not just a requiem for his family, but also New York's creative spirit of yesteryear.

VICE: Howard is a mythical, larger-than-life figure to you, but for most people who see the doc William S. Burroughs is the larger-than-life figure. What sort of influence did the pair have on you?
Aaron Brookner: I thing it's a very interesting intergenerational story like that because Burroughs was a larger-than-life figure for Howard and for Jim [Jarmusch], Sara [Driver], and Tom [DiCillo], who are also in the film. And then that generation has become so influential on my generation. I grew up idolizing all those filmmakers. What's interesting about the moment when Howard was making [ Burroughs: The Movie] is that you have Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Terry Southern living amongst NYU students and the punk rockers of the Lower East Side.

You struggled to get into the bunker, but when you did you found all your uncle's film rolls. It's almost as if you're time traveling.
There is a great line in the Burroughs doc my uncle made where Burroughs talks about time traveling. He says it's not possible, but if it were, he would only do it as an observer. Going into the bunker was like time travel. I couldn't touch anything but suddenly I was plummeted into this whole other planet, especially with the nature of [my documentary] footage being so kind of free and loose. It was really important to channel that experience that I was going through into one that could be shared by the audience. Part of the joy of watching this film is the trip down that rabbit hole at the other end of the looking glass.


What did it feel like walking into the bunker?
I was totally overwhelmed. The inside hasn't changed; there are spice racks in the kitchen and the spices on them are dated 1978. There is a handgun in Burroughs' dresser; there are Howard's film rolls with literally 30 years of dust on it. It was really powerful. When Jim Jarmusch came by, he felt it too and was like, "Woah, this is really intense."

Jim Jarmusch and Aaron Brookner at the bunker

How did the stories of Jim, Sara, and Tom help you understand the time and your uncle?
I think to see it in the movie, the bunker is just a space. It's a bunker; there are no windows. But when you're in there, it's so crazy because the Bowery is so loud—there are huge trucks going by there all the time—but the bunker is completely silent. It is completely hermetic and meditative.

I remember Jim telling me this story about when James Grauerholz [Burroughs' biographer and literary executor of his estate] went away to Kansas, he left Jim and Howard in charge of Burroughs for the weekend. They were just going to pop by for a little while, but ended up drinking Great Wall of China vodka and taking some strange drugs. At some point, Burroughs took out his handgun and started to fire into an iron box. Of course the bullets started ricocheting off of it, and then off the bunker's walls. Jim said he had to get going, and when he went outside he thought only a few hours had passed, but an entire day had and morning traffic was passing down the Bowery. This story really resonated because it showed the relationship that they had with Burroughs and also how removed Burroughs and the space were from everyday life.


What was it like revisiting the era when New York was dealing with the AIDS epidemic?
It was really important to me to show how it was happening on the ground and take [the audience] through Howard's experience of AIDS. Howard's partner Brad [Gooch] told me that at one point they thought that a virus was coming in through the air ducts in the night clubs. Burroughs was talking about a potentially deadly virus that could be administered by the government, done deliberately to the community. There was so much noise and so much hysteria and disinformation, so I wanted to show the kind of whirl of different perspectives.

Also, when Howard came of age, artistically and socially, in the late 70s, it's such a moment of freedom. It was the first generation where homosexuality was open, when there was the second wave of feminism, and all sorts of arts were mixing together. Plus, there was a decrepit downtown New York that was dirt cheap. Howard had a loft on Prince and Bowery that cost $100 a month. To a certain type of person, it was a utopia in a way. Then suddenly there's this thing that comes in, that starts bringing fear, that starts bringing outside, right-wing forces who [publicly oppose] their lifestyle. I really wanted to show the audience how AIDs started to directly, negatively affect the way this beautiful artistic movement had been going.

Do you see this film as your way of keeping Howard's memory alive?
Well, I wanted the opportunity to bring back his films so that people could see them. The Burroughs film obviously wasn't known, nor do we know too much about the Wilson film. And Bloodhounds had been forgotten in some way, so I wanted to shine a light on that. More important to me, though: I wanted to conjure something of Howard's spirit, his openness, the joie de vivre , the way he lived his life, the risks he took to make his art.

Uncle Howard is currently screening at Sundance. For more on the documentary, visit the movie's website here.

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