Shortly after the release of the acclaimed Oscar-winning Days of Heaven in 1978 its director, Terence Malick, whose previous film Badlands was equally respected by critics, moved to Paris and disappeared from public view. He returned to the chair 20 years later to make the star-studded The Thin Red Line.
It is always a curious occurrence when a respected director exiles themselves from the film world and returns many moons later as an industry Lazarus. Curiouser still if they come back with a doozie.
Australian director Jim Sharman made five feature films between 1972 and 1981, one which became an extraordinary international hit — a grungy, twisted musical in some ways more a movement than a film. It was The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975).
Now, in 2012, Sharman does the time warp again, returning to the film medium after three decades away from the camera, time largely spent working in opera and theatre. He’s not however fond of the word “film” — “there hasn’t been film in a camera for a long time,” he says — and his new production will not be coming to a cinema near you.
Andy X is a strikingly bold 40-minute musical about the life, death and legacy of Andy Warhol, shot with a beautiful, retina piercing hypercolour palette. It was released globally last week online and is available to download or stream for US$6.99. It is a roaringly distinct work and — excuse the poor choice of words — there isn’t a dead minute in it.
But don’t get too excited about a return to the cinema for Sharman. He told Cinetology he has no such plans during an interview in which we discussed making and releasing Andy X and, of course, the legend of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
It’s certainly been a very, very long time between drinks. Returning after 30 years to make another film — that’s a pretty big gap.
Yes, although I wonder whether this is actually a film. It’s as much a portrait as anything else. During that time I’ve been mostly working in theatre, opera and doing other things. There was a confluence of influences that came together on this.
Could you describe some of the inspirations behind Andy X and what your intentions were with making it?
There are many influences in there, from installation art to cabaret to portraits and verse. I have worked across many different mediums and want to describe what it is that makes a particular medium special. For instance if I was making a conventional film I would not use verse, as we’ve used here, and perhaps not direct addresses to the camera. It’s quite an intimate experience watching it online, on a different kind of screen.
Even if you regard Andy X as a very unconventional film, did you have any trepidation about returning to the screen format after so many years?
None whatsoever. One thing that interests me is engaging with the future and it does seem to me that this is the art form of this century. It is evolving; this is just the early stages of it. I felt a strong desire to introduce some ideas about Warhol to a new generation — with the voice of a new generation, as part of something that is evolving and emerging. We still don’t really have the terminology for it. I said Andy X is like a portrait; another person who saw it described it as a ‘screen seance’ which we kind of picked up on. The word “film” is often used even though there hasn’t been film in a camera for a long time. The film medium will not go away but I think film will be seen as a great medium of the last century. This is the beginning of something new.
In some ways I was disappointed that there wasn’t more of Andy X. Did you ever contemplate making a feature length version of the film?
The length of Andy X is I think the length it wants to be. If you’re looking at it with probably a more practical eye you would not pick 40 minutes for the length of the running time. Conventional wisdom says it might be 30 minutes or 50 minutes for television, something like that. Everybody decided a film should be 90 minutes or two hours long because of distributors and popcorn sales, and that soon became law. But there are no laws online. Also, online you are able to view many films that have disappeared. Those kind of things all went into my thinking. It took about a year to evolve but was shot very quickly, due to limited resources, but I rather hope it didn’t look like that.
It looks great. The hyper colour aesthetics are bright, sharp and stunning. You can see how much the technology has changed since the days of the The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Such a contrast.
I worked very closely with Bonnie Elliott, the cinematographer and Justin Nardella, the designer. It was his first film as production designer and he’s only about 23. We always endeavoured to find a particular way into Warhol’s world without imitating it. The last shot, for example, is like a Warhol. We wanted to not imitate but nonetheless give it something in the power of Warhol’s use of colour and also in the stillness of it, which I think is quite unusual.
In the past when I have interviewed filmmakers who are especially famous for a particular film, some of them have said that they became disenfranchised that people view their career with mostly one production in mind. What are your thoughts?
I got over that a long time ago. (laughing)
Many years ago!
It’s understandable, isn’t it, in the sense that it’s not everyday people get to speak to the director of a film as extraordinarily influential as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So you can see why people feel its necessary to ask you about it.
I have no problem answering questions about it. I think sometimes the planets collide and something happens that absolutely just captures something. It’s to do with the people involved, the zeitgeist and all that stuff. It was one of those events.
Before the days when The Rocky Horror Picture Show was playing, did you have an inkling that what you were working on would become so influential?
No. It began as a stage work in London and when we did it we were looking forward to a three week season in the theatre upstairs. The equivalent of the smaller theatre at the Malthouse.
Was it fair to say that the success of Rocky Horror blew you away?
Not completely, because I always sensed that we were doing something a little bit special. Although no one could have predicted what happened, I always had some kind of instinct that something might. If that isn’t too vague.
Sometimes there is a disparity between what a filmmaker is best known for and what they personally regard as their best work. Where do you sit on that? What are you most proud of?
I don’t really think like that. I see everything I have done as an evolution and there are certain moments where all the ideas come together, something combusts and people become really engaged with it. I’ve seen that happen with many things, on a larger and smaller scale. Some of the things I’ve done now seem to be fairly conventional. Some of those early musicals, Rocky Horror most notably, at the time weren’t mainstream. They were actually adventurous but ended up becoming part of the mainstream. Sometimes when one achieves originality it is because of the framework, the frame of reference, is coming from outside the box rather than inside.
Andy Warhol is an iconic figure in modern art, yet he’s been surprisingly under-exposed in cinema. Was making a film specifically about him part of your motivation?
We were very conscious of the fact that there have been no films about Andy Warhol. There have been documentaries and there have been films about people around Andy Warhol who were, in terms of melodrama, more conventionally engaging such as Valerie Solanas in I Shot Andy Warhol. It has always been supporting roles, with Andy pushed to one side. I thought there was an opportunity for something else. Stephen (Sewell, co-writer) came into it from the point of view of the extraordinary situation of Warhol’s death. In the last year of his life Warhol painted 94 versions of the Last Supper, checked into hospital for a routine operation and then died because the nurse fell asleep reading the bible.
Now that the internet has opened new doors, with plenty of new possibilities, does that mean Jim Sharman might return as a filmmaker?
No. We will see how Andy X plays online. It is an adventure and there is an element of experiment and finding out. In my career I am open to adventure and I think I always have been. I would like to pursue this not just for myself but for some of the people who have been around Andy X and to give them the opportunity to take flight. That’s what I would see happening in the foreseeable future. This is a starting point, not an end point.
As we touched on before, 30 years in between drinks is a long time. Did you intentionally hang up your cape as a filmmaker all those years ago or did other elements such as funding come into play?
The kind of things I want to do don’t necessarily fit into an industry product format, so in a sense maybe it was no accident that this came about. With the commercial demands and also the scale of operation, it’s always struck me that it seemed so crazy that you need an entire army to create an image. Now you don’t.
I read in one interview that you once said you wouldn’t mind The Rocky Horror Picture Show being remade, but that it would take courage to do so. Can you elaborate on that?
There are two issues. The only way to remake Rocky Horror is to make it utterly different. However, there is a big audience out there who want it to be the same. I don’t know how you navigate those two ideas. There have been many plans but we are yet to see any come to fruition. Personally I would love to see it but we haven’t yet and I don’t know if we will.
During the last federal election there was an amusing video floating around on Youtube called Tony Abbott’s Time Warp. Did you happen to see it?
I didn’t. But it was always a political song. It’s a jump to the left and a step to the right. Put your hands on your hips. You bring your knees in tight. But it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane. Let’s do the time warp again! One of the reasons the film has survived is because it responds to repeat viewings. There are many many layers. On the surface it’s kind of a comic strip but there are a lot of other ideas floating around for those who want to look for them. I think only in that way is there a possible connection with Andy X. Both films are open to numerous interpretations.