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Conversation: Uncharted Waters

With her first documentary, A Walk into the Sea, director Esther Robinson exhumes the legacy of her late uncle Danny Williams, while offering a fresh take on Andy Warhol’s Factory.
by Jesse Ashlock

Esther Robinson never knew her uncle, Danny Williams, a largely forgotten figure from the heyday of Andy Warhol's Factory who vanished mysteriously in 1966, at age 27, during a visit home to his family in New England. But his peculiar place in her family's history and his association with Warhol had piqued her curiosity since childhood. "I think every family has the person that no one talks about, but everyone knows about," she says. She was struck, too, by Williams' absence from official accounts of the Factory, and decided to set about finding out more by making a documentary about him—or more accurately, about how people remembered him.

Not surprisingly, different people recalled different things. These included both family members and Factory denizens such as Paul Morrissey, Brigid Berlin, Billy Name, and Gerard Malanga, as well as the Velvet Underground's John Cale and the legendary documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, for whom Williams had once edited. But Robinson got an unexpected gift when her grandmother Nadia, Williams' mother and a central figure in the documentary, visited her at her office at Creative Capital, an arts nonprofit housed at the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Arts. A staffer overheard a casual conversation about the relationship between Williams and Warhol and encouraged her to get in touch with curator Callie Angell, a Warhol historian who had uncovered a treasure trove some years before: a collection of experimental 16mm films shot by a mysterious Factory associate named Danny Williams. "It was so fated it's ridiculous," says Robinson.


Williams' rhythmic, chiaroscuro snapshots of Factory life featuring the likes of Warhol, Edie Sedgwick, and the Velvet Underground became the aesthetic and emotional heart of Robinson's lovely, personal A Walk into the Sea. The film's title proves as ambiguous as its subject, alternately describing a possible account of Williams' disappearance, his stylized approach to filmmaking, and the mysteries of collective memory. Winner of the Teddy award at last year's Berlin Film Festival and the NY Loves Film award at the Tribeca Film Festival, the film opens Friday at Cinema Village in New York. Robinson spoke recently about her family, the legacy of the Factory, and how we construct memories.


How long did it take?

Six years. Six long years, baby! Nothing’s more horrifing than actually realizing how long things take. With filmmaking, everone says, “If I knew what this would take, I would never have done it.” I think that’s true. You have to keep this miraculous faith. Part of it is your commitment to the film overrides being reasonable. I don’t think we’re a reasonable lot, filmmakers. I think we’re hopeful, and dogged.

I produced for a really long time, and I have a lot of great friends who are directors, and I feel like I owe them all an apology. I have never done anything so harrowing and terrifying in my life. My health suffered. But it’s your heart, right? If your movie matters to you, it’s not simple.

Was the coincidence that put you in touch with Callie Angell the decisive moment that pushed you to do the film?


When we found out about Danny’s films, obviously that was the first moment, but it took us a year and a half before we saw the films. In that time, I worked closely with my Adam Cohen, my Director of Photography, about what the film would look like and how it would feel, and we started shooting my grandmother. I’ve been a producer before, so I have good instincts, and I knew it was a good idea, but during that year, I have to say I was pretty ambivalent.


But the minute I saw those movies, it became imperative. It was urgent. I’ve spent my entire life in experimental films, and I love this work, I champion this work, and I know from my personal experience how much of a person is in that work. So when I saw Danny’s films, I thought that even though this person died before I was born, I really understood what he was trying to do, and I loved it. I felt like I’d met him, and what happened to him became a burning question for me. How did my family not know about these movies? How were they almost lost? What happened?


Growing up, what would your family members say about Danny Williams?


I knew that something had happened, that there was confusion about what had happened. I knew that if you mentioned the name Andy Warhol, everyone would get really uptight. I was a punk rock kid growing up in Minneapolis, and all my friends had mohawks, and all I did was dress like Edie Sedgwick because that freaked out my folks more than any purple mohawk ever would. Then I went to film school, and everyone got all freaked out again. I didn’t know that much, but I knew enough to be attracted to him. Imagine you go to your grandmother’s house, and one bookshelf is a good six feet of Warhol/Factory/Velvet Underground books. If you opened them up, it would literally fall to a page, with “Wrong!” or a question mark or “Research this!” So my grandmother was actively involved in trying to find out what happened.


Besides Danny’s films, your grandmother is the element it’s most difficult to imagine the film existing without. She’s an uncanny screen presence because she’s so lucid, and seems so broad-minded.


She was. Partly, that’s because she and I were great friends. But someone can be a really difficult parent and be the world’s awesomest grandparent. What was so hard about making this documentary was recognizing the failings of someone I really loved. It became this really interesting question about how to be true to who my grandmother was now, the person I knew and I loved, but also be true to the person she was to Danny, which played a huge part in what happened to him.


Did you have that sense of engaging with Danny’s legacy by inhabiting the New York that he lived in?


Oh my God, yes! I have these weird attachments to physical things, and even watching Todd Haynes’ film, the ’65 section with Cate Blanchett, I know all the other characters.


You must have anticipated that one of the big themes would be contested memory, but how did you prepare yourself for the acrimony of the various Factory associates’ recollections?


These people are Danny to me. Imagine you’re in your 20s, this hot, vital, sexy time in your life, in which you probably create more than you do at any other time in your life. And imagine that everything you did in your 20s was ascribed to Andy Warhol. Then, for the rest of your life, you’re 70 years old, and people are still trying to talk to you about Andy Warhol. This is incredibly difficult thing. This is a pressure cooker of really extreme emotional proportions. I came to understand that if Danny were alive, he would have suffered the same pressures.


As a filmmaker, you have to make decisions about your relationship with people. And I think there’s a lot of exploitation in film, especially with the Warhol Factory material. All these books and films, for the most part, fall into two giant tributaries of thought. One is that Andy Warhol is the greatest genius who ever lived, the other is that Andy Warhol is the killer of Edie Sedgwick and all the beautiful young things. And people’s lives and thoughts and experiences get mashed into those two theses. If someone you love gets mashed into somone else’s thesis, they become distorted, and it’s painful to you. So I took the experience of my family, of my grandmother writing “wrong!” in the margins so hard there’s an indentation in the page, and I decided I wanted anyone in my film to be recognizable to themselves and their family. I knew inherently that meant we would have contradiction, because no one agrees. But I decided I would let people say their truths.


Was that simple? No. I had to do a lot of deep breathing.


There’s a search for a center in the film. How did you deal with that centerlessness, knowing it was something you were unlikely to resolve?


I never felt like there wasn’t a center, because I had his work. And I really believe in art. I believe that the legacy that our culture will be its artistic output. I don’t actually like movies that assert fixed truths. I think they’re false.


So the way I dealt with not knowing was by embracing it. Early on, when we were shopping the film around, I was with a big broadcaster who said, “So, are you going to hire a private investigator?” That was the moment I knew I was on a solo path. That was not my interest. I don’t need to know what happened to Danny, and I came to view the choices he made in those last hours as his own. You want someone to have this agency, because people are alive in choice. I can’t make him alive, but I can give his films a context, and I can give him the right to own multiple paths.


How did you arrive at your aesthetic choices, like the choice to shoot tight or the soft focus?


The aesthetics of the film cannot be divorced from the work of (DOP) Adam Cohen. I wanted Adam because in his work, you always get the sense that the past is very present, and wanted to capture the face as a landscape, the sense of time passing and being haunted. There was also the idea of translating the physical process of looking through photo albums and letters, and trying to reconcile them with what you know. This process of flipping pages, of looking at one photo or three photos, of zooming in on a detail, this searching, has a blurriness. I find the Ken Burns zoom one of the most offensive things in filmmaking, because nobody looks at a photograph like that in real life. Nobody zooms in, no, you move left and right, you’re thinking, you’re looking and then you’re not looking, you’re acclimating and you’re reaching for things. I feel like documentary is really lax in its realtionship to tangible artifacts and materials, so I wanted my film to more clearly represent that process.


There's something confrontational about that exploration of the face as a landscape.


I wanted you to really meet these people, to make your own emotional decisions about what they were saying and who they were. You’re confronted with your ideas of who they were in the past. Every one of my characters is introduced by their iconic self in black-and-white in Danny's material, and that’s deliberate. I want the viewer to force themselves out of thinking of these people as experts, or as something other than people. They’re human beings, and this is the cost, and they’re trying, for better or for worse, and they succeed or they don’t succeed. I was hoping to be able to make a movie that could accommodate new truths.


Part of the downside of a lot of documentaries, particularly Warhol documentaries, is that they assert these claims and positions which time will not bear out. Like Warhol himself, for example—OK, so he’s really famous right now. Is he Sarah Bernhardt-famous? Nobody knows who she is, and she was the most famous actor of her time. Is he Mozart-famous? You kind of have to relinquish the idea that you know these things right now. Your film is in a context, and I was very cognizant of that context,. And I’m going to have the audacity to make a movie about something that was this chronicled, I wanted to bring something new to it.


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