THE DRUNKARD'S LAMENT
I had read about a lost early cinema adaptation and wanted to create a film close to the time when people were more freaked out about what a creep Heathcliff was. As I was researching, I came across early negative reviews of the novel. By the time she died at age 30, Emily Brontë had been writing poetry and speculative historical fiction for over 20 years. Most of those writings have been lost, and she left relatively few personal letters. Unlike Emily, Branwell wrote letters constantly, and his descent can be traced from the promising brilliant artist of the family to the broke, alcoholic and opium-addict who was sick so often that no one noticed when he contracted tuberculosis.
As I read his letters, I became interested in what he must have thought of his sistersí surprising fame. I used his letters as a scaffold to build the film aroundótaking liberties with his words to allow for the many hours Branwell spent in pubs and bumming off people, which would never have been committed to paper. He has generally been portrayed as the loser brother to three brilliant sisters. But what if his brilliance was in a kind of charmed performance for the local drunks? I mean, why did people continually give him money, alcohol and drugs? Why did a wealthy woman risk her estate and children to have an affair with her sonís tutor? Obviously sexism played a large part in his being considered a genius when at least two of his sisters were actual geniuses, but even so there must have been something. The story of the husband who wanted him dead for sleeping with his wife was a good start. I wanted to bring some of that strange charm and brilliance of Branwell to a revisionist adaptation of Wuthering Heights.
We worked with Negativland Film Labs to create a handmade 16mm film emulsion that we painted onto acetate stock. We experimented with different chemistries, stocks, temperatures and even which sides of the film to paint on. Not all of the experiments were purposeful. This presented enormous challenges when shooting a quasi-narrative. The film was roughly rated between 2-10 ASA so had to shoot in bright sunlight with a Bolex lens that could open to an f 0.95 aperture that I had to borrow repeatedly from the film department cage at Pratt Institute where I work. I was asked and sometimes wondered myself why I didnít just film on Kodak 16mm and then drag the print through some gravelly mud. But I really liked the idea that some of the footage could fail. And some did actually, necessitating annoying reshoots. I thought that would keep us close to this idea of lost cinema, since we didnít get to choose which films were destroyed in which ways over the years.
We cast performance artist Linda Montano as Hindley the drunkard brother. Since she had spent a year roped to Taiwanese performance artist Tehching Hsieh and chanted on video about the suicide of her ex-husband with an acupunctured-head, I figured she could bring something extraordinary to the role. For Heathcliff I cast a South African philosopher-hippie turned tech entrepreneur and fellow Park Slope parent who I met in my sonís Kindergarten class. Murray looks like a 19th-Century ship captain and I knew he could play a villainous yet somehow charming fin-de-siècle reprobate! For Cathy Linton I cast Isabella Pinheiro who stole the show in her two minutes of my film Chums from Across the Void. For the widow, I cast the lead from my first feature Interkosmos, Nandini Khaund. On film she has the same amazing presence that she has in real life and is such a fun human to work with. I cast my wife Cat Mazza and baby Cosmina as the wife and daughter who harrass Branwell with their constant need for milk. My son Franz plays the doomed Linton Heathcliff and for Branwell I cast video artist Paul Tarragó whose voice brings some kind of sad magic to the loser brother that history only mocks.
And, of course, there is the music. I knew I wanted a musical soundtrack created by Colleen Burke. She along with Jim Becker wrote the music for my films Interkosmos and La Trinchera Luminosa del Presidente Gonzalo. Most recently we collaborated on the final film of my Inner Trotsky Child trilogy. What I love about working with her is that I can send her links, books and vinyl albums of the music Iím excited about. She translates the vibe that I think I want into the songs and brings together musicians like Jim White (The Dirty Three), Sally Timms (The Mekons), Michael James and Munaf Rayani (Explosions in the Sky) to create this strange revisionist musical. Itís all brought together by sound designer Jesse Stiles who spends most of time dragging his Carnegie Mellon students to abandoned mines around Pittsburgh for underground electronic music extravaganzas. For over two years I have been shooting, traveling, editing, building miniatures, reshooting, panicking, working with sound designers and musicians and actors, painting, blow-drying film, getting a Bolex fixed, calling 16mm film gurus for advice and planning my retirement from film. I am happy to launch the film into the Earthís atmosphere.