Interviews

INTERVIEW: AMOS POE AND THE NO-WAVE CINEMA

By • Apr 7th, 2011 •

Share This:

The pre-disco era in Manhattan’s Lower East Side saw the rise of punk bands. At the same time, smaller film formats like 16mm and Super 8mm gave Lower East Side underground film-makers like Jim Jarmusch, Beth B, and Amos Poe a canvas, a voice. Their films, part of the “no-wave movement” had an almost “reach into the screen and touch it” guerilla, punk style, placing mood and texture above technical polish. I had the pleasure of speaking with Mr. Poe about the no-wave movement and his career.

GLENN ANDREIEV (GA): What was the no wave cinema movement?

AMOS POE (AP): I came to New York as an untrained filmmaker. I didn’t go to film school. I had a Nizo Super 8mm camera, which I think I still have somewhere. I shot with that for many years. I was making these kind of music videos, usually to a song and the song would inspire me to create a visual story or some quasi-narrative. Then I would edit the film on this little super 8 editing thing and bring it to the Millennium Film Workshop on 4th street. On Friday nights they had open screenings for a handful of people. Then I would go for the next film, and I would do that constantly. The Millennium came from the experimental filmmaking 1960’s approach, you know, like Stan Brakhage and Michael Snow, and I liked some of that experimental film-making but thinking more towards narrative film-making. Then I got a 16mm camera and started hanging out at clubs more, so by 1975 I was shooting more bands and more of my own stuff, so it was getting more expensive. Ivan Kral and I shot a lot of footage, so we decided to edit it all together and we came up with The Blank Generation, and Night Lunch.

(Note: The Blank Generation is a rare you-are-there look at the beginnings of punk bands such as The Ramones, Blondie, The Talking Heads and Tuff Darts.)

AP: I wanted to do something that approximated the French Nouvelle Vague movement in New York. I had this attitude then that I didn’t know how to make a film, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me, which was kind of like the aesthetic of punk in a way. So, I figured if I couldn’t make a film, I could make a film movement, predicated on the idea of “do it yourself,” and if I could do a feature film for let’s say, under $4,000 in black and white reversal, and get other people to make films like that, maybe we could start a movement. I put an ad in the Village Voice for actors and crew and made Unmade Beds, which was a remake of Breathless, maybe not a remake like the Jim McBride (and Richard Gere) film, but more like a philosophical or theoretical remake in the post modern sense. Unmade Beds started the whole ball rolling. It was like the French New Wave, but we couldn’t call it the French New Wave, so we called it the No Wave. And that played into the punk aesthetic

GA: A $ 4,000 feature shot on 16mm? Every penny must have gone into film stock and processing.

AP: …and for some food and cabs. You think of people who could work for free, locations you could get for nothing. I cut the negative myself. It was a low budget film, a lot of people still do that The technology (where an hour of Video tape costs $5) has caught up to that thinking. You could do a lot of sound sampling on a tape. I wanted to repeat certain sounds and use it as an aural wallpaper, played at different levels and frequencies, and I was thinking, wow, it would be great to see the sound, but now with Pro-Tools you can, but back then, you had to record and re-record. I always liked using stuff (audio and visual materials) that people threw away – where they would say “That’s no good because it’s all echo-y and shit,” and I would think, “Hey, that will work!” So, I think things have changed. They’re much better now.

GA: I remember working with Super 8mm sound, which always sounded raw, like an answering machine at best.

AP: Pro8mm in Los Angeles has these Russian Super 8mm cameras where they changed the film gate inside around so you now have Wide-Screen Super 8mm. They take any stock you want and put it to Super 8. You buy it from them, give it back to them, they process it, transfer it to whatever digital format you want and then you can edit it on whatever editing software you have. The only thing is, you can’t do pre-production sound because the cameras are loud, like sewing machines.

GA: Let’s talk about, Alphabet City, a feature film about that really rough area of the Lower East Side, shot in 35mm (in 1984).

AP: It was my first film in 35mm with a real crew. One day my Line Producer said we have to start interviewing Script Supervisors. I was like “Oh, okay.” I was too embarrassed to ask “What the fuck is a script supervisor?”. I had already met Martin Scorsese and Francis Coppola. I called Scorsese, and said “What the fuck is a Script Supervisor?”, and Scorsese was like (in a Scorsese-like voice)” Well, basically the Script Supervisor is your best friend on the set. The Script Supervisor memorizes the whole script so they are somebody who reminds you what is going on in the film. You couldn’t make a film without a Script Supervisor.” Then Francis said “A Script Supervisor is like your wife on the set, tells you what to do, and you don’t do it.” So when I interviewed Script Supervisors I was interviewing for a best friend and a wife. I lucked out, we hired a great Script Supervisor. Alphabet City was a learning curve. It was supposed to be black and white. My favorite film at the time was The Battle of Algiers, so I wanted to make a Battle of Algiers in the Lower East Side. When the executive producers found out I wanted to shoot black and white, they flipped out. I showed the film this week in my class. I’ve seen the film only twice since we finished it. I used to hate the score mainly because Niles Rogers was hired on the film before I knew there was a film going on, so he wasn’t my choice. I thought his music not right, too disco-y. But now I see it, I think it’s great. I was lucky – it was shot a month before Alphabet City was shut down (by the police) with Operation Pressure-Point and cleaned up.

GA: I remember those days of shooting in super 8mm. Sending the little cartridge of super 8 film out to be processed, then kind of biting your nails waiting for the film to come back, and wondering “Oh, did the shot come out right? Did I have enough light? Was the focus right?”

AP: I didn’t give a shit. Ever see Poor Little Rich Girl by Andy Warhol? Andy had a 16mm Auricon (a metal camera used mostly by news crews). The first half hour is really interesting because the camera just sits on Edie Sedgewick, who is talking, all crazy and neurotic. She’s talking, and the whole first half hour of the film is out of focus because they didn’t have the lens mounted on the camera right. But the second half of the film is in focus, and it’s fantastic! You’re watching it, and straining, asking “Where are my glasses” then you are so relieved when the film goes into focus. Your eyes were almost adjusted to the out of focus image, and your brain is making focus out of something out of focus. Andy didn’t believe in editing because – who could make the decision to keep a scene in or throw it out. Kind of like with Blank Generation. I was going into CBGB’s with a silent camera shooting rock bands and who the fuck is doing that? You might as well shoot stills. People there saw me shoot and would say “Why are you shooting that band silent? Are you out of your mind? If you add sound it will be out of sync!” I think that adds to the success of Blank Generation. If it was in sync, it would just be a documentary. People would say “Next week, I’ll get you a sound 16mm camera, and I’m thinking “What am I going to do? Shoot the 20th performance of the Ramones or be the first? I mean the whole No-Wave movement was something like Rube Goldberg, like Godard, with a Warhol approach, making the mistakes work. The polished professional is boring compared to the insane amateur.

GA: That reminds me, I just saw again Kurosawa’s Yojimb o- during the opening credits we only see back of Toshiro Mifune’s head. Some people still consider that a flaw – you are looking at the back of this head – trying to look around it, the see the star’s face! The so-called “flaw” is drawing you in – back then that was going against the idea of Hollywood formula. Now so many people do that. What are you up to now?

AP: I am trying to do a series with Debbie Harry based on Alphaville, where she plays the Lemmy Caution character. You know, flip the genders around because we feel we are back into that zeitgeist right now. Things are kind of “Alphavillian”, because we are living in some really weird times right now. And there’s a script I’m trying to do in Italy, a narrative film.

GA: I guess with filmmaking tools being more accessible now, more people, especially kids, would know film lingo, like “jump-cut”-

AP: That’s good! So now, you have to learn how to make a jump cut edgier, because jump cuts have become part of our visual language. We’ve all seen so much imagery, that our brains are desensitized to many things, and for Hollywood films it has become boring. For example, if you’re shooting two people talking at a table like us, you wonder “where do you put the camera?” We’ve seen so many scenes of people talking at a table, so now it puts pressure on the writer because you have to make it interesting so that the boring quality of the shot, which we’ve seen a million times, now forces the dialog to be so interesting. You still want to take things to the edge. You wonder, how do I make it poetic? I’m becoming fascinated by Japanese films, because every decade or so you discover something new, that you are like “Holy shit- I never seen that film!” I’m teaching a class right now called Media Mavericks and I wanted to bring in guest speakers, so I bought in Salman Rushdie, and he said “There have been so many books written, and so many books in my library I have yet to read, that if I never bought another book for the rest of my life, and never left that room, I still couldn’t get through all the books I wanted to read.” The question is – if there are so many great books out there, why write another book? And why make another film? There are so many films I haven’t seen.

GA: In the 70’s I was learning the film genres, like film noir for example. There were so many films I wanted to catch up to. Films like Kiss Me Deadly were only on TV at 3 am on a school night or played at a theatre like Theatre 80 on St Marks Place in Manhattan. It became an event – traveling to the city, getting to the theatre, seeing it, then going home- a day event! Now you can download Kiss Me Deadly!

AP: Once I was watching Turner Classic Movies all weekend from Friday night to Monday morning. TCM was my last addiction so I had to get rid of my TV. There’s only so much time, only so much absorption, so the technology has the movies all at your fingertips. It gives you another form of ADD, because your attention is kind of cracked a bit. You can now project from an I Phone. I was walking with a friend, and she was projecting a film from her I Phone as we walked. We started watching Repulsion. She projected it on the street, on the subway wall, on people.
GA: Quite different from years ago where you needed skills just to show a film, hooking up feed and take-up projector reels, bulbs burning out, etc. Now, with a netbook, let’s say, you can show your film in full color and sound in the backseat of a car! Is the event of showing films missing?

AP: It’s just so different that it’s hard to compare. New technology makes a thing more available and democratic, that’s for sure. For the history of humankind the technology creates a more democratic thing, makes things more available. I was talking to Jim Jarmush about presently shooting super 16mm film and cutting on a Steenbeck (16mm editing table). Where do you find a Steenbeck? I just did a music video in Super 8mm and it was so much fun. It’s like, I have a friend in Switzerland who is a musician and he collects synthesizers from all the way back to the1940’s, so his loft is like a synthesizer museum. I saw the change coming. The 20th century was the film century and the 21st century is the digital century.

Amos Poe teaches writing for the screen & experimental film production at NYU. His website www.amospoe.com, offers a link to his background, the screenplays and his films.

Tagged as:
Share This Article: Digg it | del.icio.us | Google | StumbleUpon | Technorati

3 Responses »

  1. I remember a particularly sunny afternoon I spent sitting in publicist Rene Furst’s New York penthouse interviewing both Amos Poe and Vincent Spano on the subject of their new film ALPHABET CITY. Amos was a total film buff even then, he told me the opening scene in the film was an homage to Godard’s CONTEMPT…his view was unique and exciting , I for one was already hooked on believing this was going to be a great film, at that point in walks the studly Vincent Spano complete with leather jacket with the manners of a choir boy, what was not to like about this entire project I asked himself….the screening took place that evening and the reviews were decidely mixed…I have not seen this film since but having read this Glenn I am going to dig out my copy and watch it again…..Amos Poe is now one of my faebook friends so I should keep up with his projects a bit more than I have…..good work Glenn

  2. […] doesn’t include any artists of color. Skin color that is.For Films in Review, Glenn Andreiev interviews Amos Poe about the No Wave filmmaking movement.For CinemaScope, Tom McCormack has a nice write up on the films of Jesse McLean.Bob Moricz makes me […]

  3. http://counterfeitjustice.blogspot.com/2011/05/amos-poes-reputation-as-nice-guy-is-in.html

Leave a Comment

(Comments are moderated and will be approved at FIR's discretion, please allow time to be displayed)