Jacob Burckhardt is a second generation observer of New York life. His father, Rudy Burckhardt photographed and made narrative films during the '50s and '60s of city life and his New York School artist friends. In '84, Jacob made a fiction film about his bohemian life in Brooklyn casting the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Beat novelist William S. Burroughs in small parts, as well as a young neighborhood thespian named Vincent D'Onofrio as a mugger. Burckhardt had lived in Red Hook from '73 to '80, long before the Fairway moved in, and thought it seemed ripe for filming. Now, his lo-fi, autobiographical movie is getting a DVD release and in honor, the Two Boots Pioneer Theater in the East Village will be screening It Don't Pay To Be an Honest Citizen! on Tuesday at 7 p.m. followed by a beer and pizza reception. Gothamist recently corresponded with Burckhardt about his experience shooting on the mean streets of Brooklyn in the early '80s and why pigeons are the best kind of New Yorkers.
Do you feel like your filmmaking style was influenced by your father’s photography?
I would say my filmmaking style was influenced by his filmmaking style. Work fast, don’t let your collaborators get bored. All you need to make a movie is a camera and some film. There’s a lot of inspiration in what’s happening in the streets around you. Don’t be judgmental, just appreciate it.
How did you cast most of the people in your film? Most of them seem to have an unstudied, naturalistic, “folks from the neighborhood” quality.
There were few people in the movie who were “professional” actors. William and Allen weren’t trained at all, but had incredible presence. I held quite a few auditions for the main part, and Reed Bye was the least professional and the most real. He is a poet--I think this is the only dramatic role he has ever done (I still don’t know if he was acting or just being). A lot of the small roles were guys I knew from around the neighborhood or friends who I thought looked good in the part. The ferocious greasy spoon counterman is Rackstraw Downes, a well known painter. I think the guy who said the title line “It don’t pay to be an honest citizen!” might have been a friend of the actual muggers.
Was the story of a young filmmaker getting mugged and trying to use neighborhood justice to get back his stuff based on personal experiences?
It is almost completely based on personal experience. One evening in 1978 while I was living in Red Hook I stopped at a cash machine on the way home late at night. Two kids followed me home and mugged me in my doorway. The cops caught them almost by accident. And so on. As the days went by and events unfolded, I was somewhat scared of course, but at the same time I realized that I was encountering a whole world that I had only read about, and some of the things people were saying to me were pretty funny, and I started to write it all down, and it became a short story (unpublished) and later this film. Most of the better lines, including the title of the movie, were actually said to me.
How did you end up casting Ginsberg and Burroughs in your film?
I was telling a filmmaker friend of mine that for the Mafia boss I needed someone who is old and physically not very strong but psychically totally dominating, like William Burroughs. He said, why not ask him? I could think of no good answer to that, and got in touch with Burroughs, and he was interested. He did the part perfectly, except for his Midwestern accent. An unknown (at the time) actor named Vincent D’Onofrio was a bartender at the Ritz, a club that has since turned into Webster Hall, and somebody I knew who worked there put us together and he tried out for the lead part. He wasn’t right for it--too big and tough looking--but he was a good actor so I asked him to play one of the muggers.
What other kinds of projects have you been working on lately?
After this one I made another feature called Landlord Blues. Then it became apparent that as budgets get bigger and bigger, fundraising and business become larger and larger parts of filmmaking. So I went back to making shorter movies, some I like to call “poetic documentaries” for want of a better term, and a series of comedy collaborations with Royston Scott, the latest of which is Tomorrow Always Comes, which has its own website, www.tomorrowalwayscomes.com. On June 15 I will be doing a show at Roulette involving live mixed sound and music with 16mm (Not video!) projections.
Where's your favorite place to see a movie in the city?
In the old days I used to like places like the Selwyn on 42nd street where they would show first run movies, unadvertised, at reduced prices. There was an amazing dialogue between the audience and the film. I remember seeing 48 Hours there, and most of the guys in the audience were young black men, and whenever Eddie Murphy sassed Nick Nolte they roared. There’s a similar spirit at Anthology Film Archives--not the rowdiness, but the engagement. People go to those odd or exotic films because they want to get involved with them.
Which New Yorker do you most admire?
The pigeons, because nothing fazes them.
For more information on the DVD of It Doesn't Pay To Be an Honest Citizen contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Pictured: the director in '84, courtesy of Jacob Burckhardt.