We open our series Fact Maverick: Three Films From Lionel Rogosin, a filmmaker that John Cassavettes called, “ the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” The series begins with Rogosin’s debut feature ON THE BOWERY this Friday, a re-discovered classic on par with the likes of I AM CUBA, THE EXILES, KILLER OF SHEEP and ARAYA. No wonder that all these releases come to us from the amazing Milestone Films.
Wonderful local filmmaker and musician Barbara Ireland wrote us this week to let us know that she worked for Lionel Rogosin while she was in school. We asked her to write up a little about her time working with the maverick filmmaker. Below you’ll find a recounting of her experience.
When I read that the Northwest Film Forum would be screening three films by Lionel Rogosin from April 29th to May 12th, memories immediately flooded back to me of the year I worked with Lionel in New York City.
I was in my early-20s and was attending NYU, working towards my degree in Film Directing. Lionel hired me to help him with scriptwriting and some organizational work.
His ‘office’ was in his home. And his home was a room in the infamous Chelsea Hotel – yes, the same hotel where writer Dylan Thomas died of alcohol poisoning, and Sid Vicious’ girlfriend, Nancy Spungen was found stabbed to death, among other intense events. (On the other hand, Arthur C. Clarke also penned “2001: A Space Odyssey” there, so that kind of balances things out).
On my first day of work, the elevator opened, and there was the famous Warhol drag queen, Holly Woodlawn – another Chelsea Hotel resident. We struck up a fun conversation, and I felt right at home.
Lionel opened the door, we chatted amiably for a bit, and then he handed me his new script and gave me my first task: To read a scene he was having trouble with, and give him suggestions on how to make it work. I think this was something of a test, to see if I would be able to handle the work, and also how much I knew about story structure and other aspects of screenwriting. A rather intimidating first task, but since I reviewed scripts all the time at NYU, I just pretended it was another student script, and got to work.
However, as I began reading, I realized it was a comedy script. I found this rather curious since Rogosin was known for his harsh, gritty documentaries. And then came the clichés and stereotyped female characters. It was a strange predicament to be in, since the more I read, the more I disliked the script! But I took the risk and gave (mostly) honest feedback – all the while, silently praying he would go back to documentary filmmaking – and that he wouldn’t boot me right back out the door for not loving his new work. Thankfully I passed the first test.
Over the months, Lionel and I came to know each other quite well. I would go there twice a week to help him organize personal papers and write letters for him. The majority of the time however, was spent working on his script – which was mercifully not the comedy one. This script was about a subject he was deeply passionate about: the life of the artist, Paul Gauguin. He really put his heart into that project, and it would have made an amazing film, but unfortunately it was never produced.
Lionel was a bit of a curmudgeon, and a bit of a chauvinist – including not letting me order what I wanted when he’d take me to a restaurant. (He thought he knew better what I wanted to eat – so old fashioned!). He infuriated me on several occasions and I know there were times I frustrated the hell out of him.
However, to learn more about film history from Lionel was a unique and amazing experience. He was extremely knowledgeable about film, and told great stories about his film shoots and the heyday of the famous Bleecker Street Cinema in NYC, which he founded. I especially loved discussing with him the classic European directors whom we both had a mutual admiration for – and he got obvious pleasure from pointing out the directors who I was not familiar with, and how much I still had to learn. I was privy to intriguing conversations he’d have on the phone with friends like Milos Forman (director of ‘Amadeus,’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’). And while it irritated me at the time, I know it was with fondness that he referred to me as his ‘little belly dancer,’ as that style of costume was reflected in my everyday clothes. (I think he also secretly hoped I’d belly dance for him sometime).
One of our favorite subjects of discussion was the Spanish director, Luis Buñuel. Lionel was reading Buñuel’s amazing autobiography, ‘My Last Sigh’ at the time, and ended up giving his copy to me – somewhat reluctantly, but that just showed me how special a gift it was because he really didn’t want to part with it. Once I began reading it, I understood why. It is one hell of an incredible, artistic book. I truly cherished it – so much so, that when I was mugged in Greenwich Village, they tried to take my bag from me. But I refused to let go of it, so I was dragged down the street in the curb, screaming, my clothes and skin getting ripped and muddied. The only thing in my bag was $5 and that book. There was no way I was going to give up my prized possession!
Near the end of my employment with Lionel, I realized just how much he trusted me and valued our friendship: For months he had been talking about his storage locker in midtown Manhattan. He seemed to have an urgent need to visit it and sort through everything in there, but the whole idea overwhelmed him, and there was talk of ‘dusty memories.’ Although he was hesitant to let anyone into his personal life too deeply, he finally asked me to go with him – “as his assistant” – and help sort through it all.
Amidst the old chairs and lamps and filing cabinets, there were, for anyone with a love of film, absolute gems: old metal cases holding the reels of his famous films, half-written scripts stained with coffee, and tons of great ideas written on scraps of paper that would fly out of notebooks like flakes of snow; correspondence with famous filmmakers, and press clippings about him and his work from major publications… all surrounded by an awesome collection of film books. As he saw my excitement and felt my pride in him and his work, his guard began to come down. He pulled out childhood photos and started laughing and telling wonderful personal stories about his family life. He appeared lighter and more relaxed that day than I had ever seen him.
I lost touch with Lionel when I graduated, and just learned that he died in 2000. He definitely left his mark though, and I’m extremely grateful for the unique experience of knowing this maverick director and man.
Barbara Ireland is a Seattle musician and filmmaker. On June 1st, the NWFF will be hosting a screening party to coincide with the release of her first DVD of collected shorts, ‘From Dreams To Delirium.’