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Director Aaron Brookner on Uncle Howard

Documentary Uncle Howard unearths the unsung work of Director Howard Brookner who died in 1989 whilst working on what would be his breakthrough Hollywood feature, Bloodhounds of Broadway. Here, his nephew Aaron Brookner talks about the process of bringing his late uncle’s work to light…

What was the starting point for you in creating Uncle Howard?

AB: I have images of myself and my uncle. I guess that was the trigger, the back-story. But what really made me want to do the movie was something I found in my grandmother’s guest room wardrobe. She had about three drawers filled with Howard’s stuff and I would look at it sometimes over the years. Then in 2011 I was looking for some Burroughs: The Movie paperwork and while looking more carefully I came upon a notebook. A simple 25-cent notebook with Woolworth’s price sticker still on the front. It was a hundred-page notebook that flips open and when I opened it up there were only two pages written, the rest was blank. It was Howard’s handwriting: “Dear Mom and Dad,” it started, and it was Howard’s letter to his parents, my grandparents, to be read after he is dead.

I read it with tears in my eyes. I was feeling the texture in the paper, the markings made by the ballpoint pen. And maybe because of this tactile quality I got the real sense of him having sat down to write this. What he says is: he is 33 years old, he is not going to live much longer and he has lived his life exactly as he wanted to. And it’s genuine. He has done with it everything that he wants and he is saying, death is bad for you, the living; death is not so bad for the dying, as long as you do what you want with your life. It really made me stop and think: “wow, to be able to say that at that age…” I mean – because we were close to the same age at this point – if I died tomorrow, or knew I was going to die, I couldn’t say I have done everything I wanted to do. There is so much more I want to do.

For me that opened it up because it was a shift from the personal mythology and knowledge of Howard that I had as his nephew, to something beyond. Seeing Howard as a real person who led an incredible life, beyond the stories and the imagination that I had known. I felt I had to follow it.

You said in the film that he was like a hero or a myth for you. Why?

AB: I think when you are a child everything is so big. When you are a child and you look up to people, you really look up to them; they are these larger than life figures. Then as you get older, you catch up to them and you start to see your parents, for example, as people. But in this case I loved Howard so much, I looked up to him so much and he died when I was seven. So it’s frozen in time, in that space.

So throughout your childhood you saw him as a filmmaker and he used a camera all of the time?

AB: He always had a camera; he had one of the early VHS video cameras glued to him all the time. What’s interesting about the camera is the connection to memory. I am not saying I would have forgotten Howard – or those memories – but the act of taking a picture or video is changing you, it’s changing your surroundings, it’s concentrating you on this moment. He literally captured these moments, and he also gave me the camera to film. So him having the camera there and showing me the camera also made these moments much bigger than they might have been without a camera.

Now you have a telephone, which works like a camera. Everybody is filming themselves today.

AB: Yes, we are used to it now, so things become a bit less meaningful. But back then it was a big thing: “What is this machine? Wow! A movie camera?” My great grandmother Sarah says it with big admiration. “Am I going to be in THE MOVIES?” she says. And those big, noisy cameras, with all those cables were hard to figure out. They were complex. I guess it might have been what it was like having a TV set for the first time…

And you were one of the characters in this situation…

AB: Yeah, and then learning things about the family later on, I see another side to it, which is that Howard was very unique in my family. Having a camera is a great way to distance yourself. You are an observer of this scene as well as being a participant. For whatever reason, Howard and I gravitated to each other, so in a lot of the videos, it’s the family in the background – kind of drifting off with me, you know, filming me on the deck out by the lake doing stuff. There is a lot of one-on-one interaction between us in the home movies. That reminded me of that bond so clearly.


Do you think that there is an objective – a target for the film, a mission?

AB: You have a guy here who was able to gain the trust of William Burroughs. He was also able to understand the complexities of Burroughs’s ideas and his writing, to turn him into a pretty mainstream film subject. He was also able to navigate the drug scene, the fine art world and jet-set around the world with Robert Wilson, Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. He’s the same guy who could go into Hollywood, at 33 years old, having never made a fiction film and get the biggest stars and a studio behind his first film. The ability to navigate these different worlds is incredible to me.

Recently we have discovered a lot of information and great films missing since the AIDS epidemic. But when we think about what was lost with AIDS, we don’t always think about what kind of art was lost because of it. A filmmaker like Howard, who could do all these things, what would he have done next? It could have gone anywhere, no longer fringe because he had a studio behind him and Madonna and Jennifer Grey and all these mainstream people wanting to work with him. That’s why I think Howard’s path as a filmmaker is really interesting because it goes into this idea of how the AIDS epidemic really hurt us artistically. Imagine if Howard Brookner was one of the big filmmakers, doing whatever he wanted now. If Robert Mapplethorpe was a mainstream artist. If Keith Haring was a mainstream artist. How far along would we be, artistically and culturally?

How did you want to show the idea of death?

AB: I would say that there are two things in the movie related to that. The first one is that I felt it was very important to tap into what the experience of death was like for me, as a child. It was stripped away of any knowledge of death, any knowledge of disease, any knowledge of AIDS. Everything felt great and normal and we are all together at the New Year’s party. After that there was a void, there was something missing. To me, that’s what death through a child’s eyes really was.

I wanted to get across in the movie how the AIDS epidemic kind of came and crept in. It was a storm and you didn’t know what exactly was going on. I remember talking to Brad Gooch and he said at some point they thought that it was coming in through the air ducts in the clubs. You have a guy like Burroughs in 1978 saying that the government uses injectable viruses on people all the time, internationally, so why couldn’t they do it here? It was important for me to take us through the experience of what that was like. It’s not clear exactly when he has it or doesn’t have it. Even that chilling moment when he is on the phone talking about this purple bruise he may or may not have on his toe. And how it may or may not be negative. We just don’t really know; it was so early. I think going into that uneasiness and creating in the film a sense of where exactly is this going? Where is this leading to? I wanted to get inside Howard’s head and the character’s head who lived this.

What do you think about the things that he had to tell his family that he was: he wanted to be a filmmaker, then he was gay, then he had AIDS.

AB: I think it’s a tremendous testament to his will of life, which he understood at a very early age. Burroughs had this concept of time as a resource and time runs out – so you better use your resources to their max while you are here. None of Howard’s three films were normal or traditional; it was just him, entering this idea, entering this concept and figuring it out around him in a very entrepreneurial way. He made three very complicated feature films before the age of 35. It’s very hard to do. I think it’s very inspirational.

Today the art and film scenes in New York are very different from the ones shown in the film. What do you think new generations of young filmmakers and artists might learn from the film, from this generation or from Howard in particular?

AB: I hope it is about the potential we all have to do anything. I mean, it’s going to take a lot of work – whatever you are going to do – you have to be ready for that, and ready to stand up to your parents, stand up to the status quo. But whatever you want to create, you can do. We understand it now.

In the 70s, the idea of making a film about William Burroughs, starring Burroughs, was impossible. But Howard dreamt it up. Howard saw that it was possible. He gathered his friends who were committed to making movies and using film as a language to tell their own story, and they did it. I feel a part of that myself, because I’m a generation behind my uncle’s and Jim Jarmusch. I was inspired by them.

At the beginning of this process – as much as I wanted to make a film about my uncle – I didn’t know how it would transpire, and many, many times it seemed utterly impossible. All the facets of gathering up or trying to find his stuff: would I be able to find it? How do I get the money to transfer 16mm negs and sync it up? How do I justify following this idea around the world and meeting people to talk about my uncle? I just put my head down and just kept fighting through it, surrounded myself with great, hardworking people, and then suddenly it came upon me that: “oh, yeah, you have got a movie here.” So I feel very much that there’s a direct link of having been inspired by my uncle and his peers to make a movie in the way that only I could. It worked for me, so I am hoping that this film passes that on.

Q: How did you avoid getting too emotional in the cut?

AB: Once you start to get that feeling – you have a little tightness in your chest or in your eyes – you get it and you can move on from that. I didn’t want to end up wallowing; it wouldn’t be accurate of Howard and his story. There was as much laughter as there were tears towards the end for Howard. One of the things that he was actually happiest about was that at the end he still had his sense of humor. He had this quote that was pasted onto the refrigerator, which was, “there is so much beauty in the world, that’s what got me into trouble in the first place.” Or things like “I am going to put the fun back in funeral.” He kept this sense of humor, or referred to himself as Dr. Strangelove, you know. It’s a delicate balance, but it’s a very Howard balance. And I needed it to be true to that.

What did you learn about your uncle as a director while making UH?

AB: The best part about discovering the early audiotapes was that I could hear how he did it; the sound rolls more than the camera and I could hear him, his directions. It was like school and I could hear how he handled Burroughs, how he worked it. And the overarching thing that Howard had as a tool was that he was always having a lot of fun. He really enjoyed it. He loved making films, he loved the process of it, he love the absurdities that went along with it, the perplexing questions and he brought all that into his work. So for me, everything after that was like, what’s the most fun way I can approach this scene? Even filming with James Grauerholz in the Burroughs house. What would be the most fun thing to do here? How could we make this interesting? Let’s set him up where he was with Burroughs 30-something years ago, with this empty chair on the same porch and kind of recreate it, trace it and then get into the story like that. That was how Howard did it, so I was tapping into that. I was very aware of that.

Uncle Howard is showing from December 16. To watch a trailer and book tickets head here.

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