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Beat On. William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

On the heels of the Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl, 25-year-old filmmaker Yony Leyser celebrates “Old Bull Lee” with his first feature documentary.

Yony Leyser


Budding filmmaker Yony Leyser was only 12 years old when Beatnik icon William S. Burroughs died in 1997, at the age of 83. Leyser grew up writing and performing in his hometown of Chicago and began experimenting with documentary filmmaking at the age of 16. Societal outsiders have always been of particular fascination to Leyser, and upon his first reading of Burroughs’ Naked Lunch in high school the young documentarian was blown away. Following his dismissal from art school, Leyser relocated to Lawrence, Kansas, where Burroughs’ lived and died, and began his investigation into the author.


Naked Lunch was a landmark publication in the history of American literature. The feverish ingenuity of the novel (for lack of a better word) grabbed conformist Fifties culture by the balls and intoxicated the art world with original phrases like “heavy metal” and “Steely Dan.” Burroughs’ seminal work, along with others such as Junkie and Queer, have been inspiring punk rockers, outsiders and first time readers long since their publication. In his first feature length film, Leyser combines interviews with famed Burroughs’ friends such as John Waters, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop, archival footage, and original animation to unveil the madman within.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


Tribeca: What spoke to you in your first reading of Naked Lunch that ignited your interest in Burroughs and led you to the making this film?


Yony Leyser: Well, I think it was one of the most incredible books ever written, and I discovered it in moving to the city [Chicago] from a kind of conservative, suburban existence when I was 15. I picked it up and it just blew me away. I couldn’t go through all the ways it blew me away. To name a few: its break away from traditional, linear, literary format; its ability to satirize control systems and authority; the way it portrayed sexuality; and then I found out it was written in the ‘50’s?! Really?


Tribeca: Your documentary Bill and Anna is a portrait of the relationship between a severely obese Palatine carpet cleaner and a crack-addicted prostitute. What inspired your infatuation with outsiders?


Yony Leyser: We see the same kind of people throughout our day, and throughout our life. Everyone is different, we meet interesting people, and then we have good friends. You know, there’s so many different dimensions of people that are either able to drop out, or rebel in certain ways, that I find really fascinating. I don’t want to exploit them and I don’t want to overly expose them if they don’t want to be exposed, but I want to detail what they’re doing to influence and educate us.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


Tribeca: Was it easy for you to begin this interviewing process? Were your subjects initially compliant and supportive of this documentary?


Yony Leyser: It’s not that easy; otherwise, people would have done it [already]. When I started this film. I didn’t know I was making THE Burroughs documentary. I got my hands on a camera and dived right into it. I think part of being a documentary filmmaker is interviewing people and being able to listen to what they’re saying, and then eventually I developed the technique of listening to not only what they’re saying but also what they’re not saying, which is really difficult. It took me about 50 interviews to develop that, before I even started interviewing the well-known people who are in the film. That was the most difficult thing for me.


And then, through [Burroughs'] friends introducing me to other friends, I was able to get the other interviews in a very DIY approach to the process. But I think all of the people in the film were really influenced by Burroughs, and were close friends, so I think they were really excited to talk about him.  All the footage was in people’s basements in wet boxes, never transferred, so it was really rewarding to be able to document that.


Tribeca: Who has access to Burroughs’ archives?


Yony Leyser: James Grauerholz [the bibliographer and literary executor of the estate of William S. Burroughs] has amazing archives, and keeps them in very good condition.


James Grauerholz and William Burroughs


Tribeca: Who had the footage of the meeting between Burroughs and Andy Warhol?


Yony Lesyer: That was Victor Bockris, who is a biographer and his friend from the Bunker, and at that time he wrote for The Soho News. So he had a celebrity column, and part of that column was just introducing celebrities to William Burroughs. So he introduced Mick Jagger to Burroughs, Joe Strummer, Warhol, and he would just bring them over for these dinners and record them.


Tribeca: How did you fund this project?

Yony Lesyer: In the beginning, I just started by myself, because I had no idea it would be such a big project and eventually we got some grants and some private funding and people in the film helped out. I think because this was my very first feature-length film, I had to build a rapport and prove to people that you can do it.


Tribeca: How involved was musician Patti Smith?


Yony Lesyer: She donated music, interviews, funding, and her daughter, Jesse Smith, also provided some of the music in the film. She’s a very talented lady too. Her band consists of her and Michael Campbell and they go under the name JJ and Bernard. It’s almost like Philip Glass style music, who [is someone] they also play with.


Patti Smith and William Burroughs

Tribeca: How did you come up with the stop motion animation you used to punctuate the archival and interview footage?


Yony Leyser: Yeah, that was the first time this particular animation has been used in a feature film and my friend Dillon Markey, who makes wire sculpture figures, created it. I directed the animation and he made the figures and it was a big set, and the Burroughs wire sculpture was a life-size figure. The stop-motion was about 12-19 frames per second. I wanted to have animation that lasts. It's not computer-generated animation, which keeps becoming outdated.


I feel like that wire sculpture animation could have been made when Burroughs was around because you have Stan Brakhage and Harry Smith and all those filmmakers who were experimenting with different techniques of animation, so I feel like this animation could be then or it could be 20 years from now. So we did that, and then there was a little bit of hand-drawn, mixed media by Aimee Goguen, but the wire-sculpture was Dillon Markey.

Tribeca: How did making this film, and delving deeper into the character of Burroughs, affect and influence you as an artist?


Yony Leyser: To me, it was like getting a master's degree or something. I was educated and learned so much, not only from Burroughs, but also from the influencers he influenced that are in the film. I learned so much from these icons. It was like getting a private lecture from them in every interview. I also learned so much about myself too during this project. It was very personal.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


Tribeca: How long did it take you from beginning to end?


Yony Leyser: 5 years. I started when I was 21.


Tribeca: You have had several run-ins with the authorities in your lifetime. Did you feel any connection between your struggle with the administration at your Art Schools and Burroughs’ encounters with the law?

Yony Leyser: I was stupid at art school. I knew what I wanted to critique, but I was stupid, I didn’t know how. Burroughs knew how, and so I realized that his was the better approach to do it in an artistic way. I learned how to do it from him.


Tribeca: It did take Burroughs a while to become a writer though.


Yony Leyser: You’re right. He started writing at 38.

Tribeca: His contemporaries, such as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, were so much younger. Speaking of which, have you seen Howl? We were wondering if you’d been doing any cross promo with this other current film about the Beat poets?


Yony Leryser: Yes. Oscilloscope Laborotories released Howl as well as A Man Within.


Burroughs and Ginsberg


Tribeca: So what do you think took Burroughs so long to get started as a writer?


Yony Lesyer: Well, he killed his wife and he says he wouldn’t have been a writer if he hadn’t killed her, so it was that which initially propelled him, but I think it was also his friends who were doing that. And he had troubles with addiction and he grew up in this environment where I don’t think the kind of writing he was interested in was available. Also I don’t think you can write a novel like Naked Lunch when you’re 19. But Ginsberg and Kerouac were able to do it at a younger age.


Burroughs went to Harvard, and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do. You know, he was growing marijuana and growing grapefruits, and I don’t think he really knew what he wanted to do. And he didn’t succeed. He couldn’t grow the marijuana; his grapefruit crop was a failure. He wasn’t that great in school, he didn’t finish medical school, so it took him a while to figure things out.


Tribeca: Do you think he was fascinated with death before he killed his wife?


Yony Lesyer: I think he was definitely interested in death before that. I think a lot of artists are.


Tribeca: What do you hope your modern audiences take away from this exploration into Burroughs?


Yony Leyser: I think they’ll probably pick up his books and his work and hopefully pick up the work of the people he influenced.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


Tribeca: Did the film already open in Lawrence, Kansas?

Yony Lesyer:
We played once in Kansas and we’re playing there again. The Kansas screening was amazing. James Grauerholz presented the film and the theater was filled with people who knew Burroughs. Around 1,400 people showed up, and half of them were his friends. It was great. I mean, everyone from his neighbors to people who had seen him buying cat food once, everyone had a story about him because it was a small town.


Tribeca: So Burroughs adopted Grauerholz, but was he also his lover?


Yony Lesyer: Grauerholz was briefly Burroughs' lover, but then that ended and he became his companion. I think Burroughs adopted Grauerholz because it was easier for the transfer of the estate.


Tribeca: Who was the most interesting interview?


Yony Leyser: It’s hard to say who. I tried to have a diverse group of people to interview and for different reasons. For instance, James Grauerholz’s interview was probably was closest to the truth because he knew Burroughs the best. John Waters was hilarious because he had me laughing and he was on every question. His was the shortest interview but I could use everything he said. Genesis Breyer P-Orridge added a lot of emotion and drama. I think everyone added a different facet, and I tried to have a diverse group of people, which I notice a lot of documentaries do not have, and I think because it took me so long and I was in so many different places interviewing I was able to do that.


Iggy Pop


Tribeca: Was Iggy Pop surprisingly normal?


Yony Lesyer: Yeah, he was awesome! He was just a dude living in Miami in this weird house with a river in the back. His house was filled with African art. One of the chairs was this African chair with two boobs coming out of the side. A Medusa with big breasts, he had a lot of that kind of stuff in his house.

Tribeca: What surprised you the most about Burroughs? I had no idea that "heavy metal" and "Steely Dan" were his creations.

Yony Leyser:
Steely Dan was actually a dildo in Naked Lunch. What was so cool about Burroughs was learning just how many people he influenced and how he influenced them. I was shocked about how troubled he was in his personal life. I thought someone who wrote Naked Lunch and created these seminal works would be revolutionary and free and he wasn’t. I learned something new about him every day.


Tribeca: How did that make you feel when you realized that about him?

Yony Lesyer:
It’s tough. It was difficult. You know, people often say, “He killed his wife. Why would you glamorize someone who killed their wife?” But a lot of geniuses were extremely troubled people and he was definitely a troubled genius. I don’t think anyone who is perfect has made great art.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within


Tribeca: It seems from your interviews that what attracted so many people to Burroughs was his ability to put his differences out there and, in doing so, let others know it was OK to be different.


Yony Lesyer: You’re totally right. I mean, think about growing up in the Fifties. At that time if you created a book like Naked Lunch, there was nothing behind you. No one lived their lives like that. It’s easy for us now to do what we want, especially living in New York City. Here you can do what you want. You can explore different things and you’re safe. It was really dangerous for people to do that back then and maybe that’s why Burroughs was so paranoid with his guns and everything.


Tribeca: So do you think that’s where the world’s fascination with Burroughs comes from? What do you think has made him so enduring?


Yony Leyser:
Yeah, he really stands the test of time. I think his books are selling better than ever now and are still influential. I mean, Howl just got made; On the Road is getting made now, which actually has a big cast. It’s a narrative directed by Walter Salles, and Viggo Mortensen is playing Burroughs, Kristen Stewart is also in it.


On the Road Film


Tribeca: What’s next for you?


Yony Lesyer: I’m making two documentaries which I can’t talk about yet, and then I’m also releasing a photo book of outsiders which should be available in the fall.


Tribeca: What are the plans for the film’s opening in New York this week?

Yony Leyser:
Man Within is playing at IFC starting Wednesday, and Wednesday, Thursday and Friday we are having special guests from the film do the Q and As with me, including Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and writer Eileen Myles, Regina Weinrich, Saturday Night Live producer and music producer Hal Willner, and some other special guests from the film.

Tribeca: Is it opening other places too?


Yony Lesyer: In the next 30 days it’s opening around the country in most major cities.


William S. Burroughs: A Man Within

William S. Burrough: A Man Within opens at the IFC Center on Wednesday, November 17. Find tickets.

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