Following Your Own Weird: A Conversation with Stephen Silha


In November, filmmaker Stephen Silha appeared at UnionDocs for a screening of Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, which he co-directed with Eric Slade. A pioneer of American avant-garde cinema, a poet of the San Francisco Renaissance, and an early member of LGBT organizations the Radical Faeries and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Broughton was a sui generis countercultural figure. Big Joy is a celebratory portrait of his life and work.

Following the screening, Silha spoke with UnionDocs about the process behind the film’s production.

Stephen Silha: We started by interviewing people, because a lot of the people we wanted to interview were in their 90s. We ended up doing 37 interviews. We knew that the scene where James Broughton leaves his wife to be with his soul mate was probably going to be the pivotal scene, but we weren’t really sure about the rest of the film. We weren’t sure how much of the early part of the story to tell. I think when I started the project I thought it would be more weighted toward the Radical Faeries, and the latter part of his life, because that was when I knew him.

UD: Why did you decide to focus less on your story?

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SS: When we did the research I discovered the whole San Francisco renaissance story, which has never been told really deeply. Nobody’s ever made a documentary about the post-war period in SF when all these artists came together and started doing multidisciplinary stuff. In a way James Broughton was multimedia before the term existed. That seemed to be really important.

We wanted to make a documentary, but we also had his 23 experimental films and we wanted to quote from those. We wanted to make it a documentary that’s not just a biopic but some kind of an inspirational story that could engage people. At the beginning of the film, when it talks about his visitation from the angel Herme, it goes into an abstract animated sequence that invites you right from the beginning to go into your own poetic space.

We ended up using what we thought was really essential to the story, or to the narrative of his life, and trying to throw in some things that were a little bit weird and that were our own. His admonition to filmmakers to follow your own weird—”don’t make the film anyone else can make, make the film only you can make”—was an inspiration to us. We always had the goal of making a film that wasn’t too repetitive or self-referential, like a lot of documentaries are. I considered myself cinematically illiterate when we started this project. I’ve enjoyed films and watched films, but I hadn’t really studied them. So I started watching lots and lots of documentaries. I found that many of them were repetitive. It irritated me when I was told something after I’d already witnessed it. It was important to me to do the film in a way that wasn’t even 90 minutes. Our goal was 80 minutes. It ended up being 82. I also wanted not to tell the viewer what to think, but to let the viewer make his or her own decision about if he an asshole for leaving his wife or what does it take to follow your muse.

UD Pills : The viewer is left with two different versions of Broughton.

Order SS: He really became Big Joy after he met Joel. My experience of him was as a very joyful person. But I learned about his earlier depression and going into therapy when I did my research. That felt like a really important thing to include. In fact several people have told me their favorite thing about the film was that he was depressed and that he was able to manifest joy because it helped them think, “maybe my life won’t be as bad as it feels right now.” I’ve heard that from a lot of younger people

UD: Can you talk about balancing those highs and lows in the film?

SS: It comes partly from his work. One of his poems has a line about “yes and no singing together,” and so we tried to say the things that were able to make him have this expansive big joy life.

UD: You mentioned in one of the Kickstarter videos that you were interested in organizing fun screenings. How have those been going?

Pills Pills SS: Pretty well. His 100th birthday was last Sunday. I was in Cork, Ireland at a festival that was honoring him with a retrospective of his films. In Modesto they had a screening  at the state theater where they read poetry and showed one of his films, Testament (1974), that had been shot partially in Modesto. In Atlanta they did an event with music and song and poetry readings. I don’t think they showed any films. It was just a  celebration of James Broughton. One of my visions was that people would choose to have a Big Joy weekend where they would show Big Joy on Friday night and show Broughton’s films on Saturday and maybe have a dance on Saturday night and then have local poets and filmmakers whose work might be resonant with Broughton’s do their performances on Sunday. No one has done that yet.

UD: Why was it important for you to have more than just a traditional theater showing?

SS: We always saw this as a multimedia project. We’re hoping to republish a bunch of his books. We did do a book of the poetry from the film, which is a fun thing, because in the film we only have time to quote stanzas from his poems, but in this book we were able to publish the whole things. We also started our website 3 years before the film came out and started engaging people and created a bunch of Broughton fans before the movie came out. We had fundraisers. We went to Portland, Seattle, Port Townshend and New York, and brought people together. We would put books of James Broughton poetry out and say: pick up a book and read a poem. People were so surprised that they found something that they could read and could have fun with and understand. They started looking for his books and buying his books on Amazon. Some people bought his films. We started a Facebook page and a Twitter feed. We have over 1000 followers on Twitter. We have almost 2000 on the Facebook page. All of that, plus we put out newsletters four times a year, doing profiles on the people we interviewed or the people we were working with, our musicians and animators. Making people feel like they were part of the project. That’s why it was relatively easy to do three Kickstarter projects and have them be successful.

UD: Why relatively easy?

SS: Kickstarter is like a political campaign, you really have to be on it every day. The first Kickstarter campaign we did I knew maybe 75 or 80 percent of the people who contributed. The second campaign I knew less than 50 percent. The same with the third. Its really important to get people so excited about it that they tell their friends to contribute. We did it partly by telling people what was going on as we were doing it. Our newsletter is kind of a chronicle of what was going on as we were doing the film and all of our newsletters are archived on our website so you can actually go back and look at the whole story as we developed it. Then the KS campaigns engaged new people. We tried to stay in touch with them afterwards and encourage them to tell their friends about it. The FB page has been really fun. A lot of people have added their comments to it or found quotes that they think are Broughton-like even though they might not be Broughton. We also found people who knew him or who were his film students as a result of doing all the social media.

UD: Now that the film is done, what happens next?

SS: We want to encourage people to do their own little films for each other. We already have a YouTube James Broughton cinema page where we also have some of our content, little pieces from the film. Also we had a video poetry contest a couple of years ago to see who could make the best film of a James Broughton poem. That was pretty fun. I think we have some ideas of doing more of that, making more videos of Broughton poems

UD: What is your dream for the film?

SS: I want people to say it was an eye-opening experience, that it inspired them to do something that they hadn’t thought they could do but really wanted to. I’d like to have a whole generation of people who say I changed my life after I saw this film. I went into my own weird and made a film and wrote a book or got a new job because my current job isn’t what I really care about but that it really has that kind of impact. We’re also selling it to colleges and universities, which should help give it legs.

UD: Can we talk about creating a curriculum for the film?

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SS: We are working with people at the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as the San Francisco Film Society, to develop a curriculum that’s fun and engaging and can work at different levels. For example, even though the film might not be appropriate for younger children, some of his poetry like his High Kukus would be really great for an exercise for young poets to try and put together kuku haikus like James Broughton wrote. We’re also hoping that part of the curriculum will be how you make your own film, how you make your own poetry and publish it so that it becomes more about creative expression and less about learning about some dead gay poet.

UD: You are the co-founder of Journalism that Matters

SS: JTM is a think-tank on the future of journalism. We’ve been trying to figure out how to do journalism that matters in this new networked world, and how you support yourself doing it. How do you tell stories that give multiple perspectives? One thing we tried to do in Big Joy was show the perspective of his wife, the perspective of people who knew him a long time ago, the perspective of  people who never met him but who were inspired by him. So that was definitely in the back of my mind as we were making the film: how do we tell the story in such a way that it’s not going to feel too stale ten years from now, and that’s more interactive than the average documentary. Likewise the idea of Journalism That Matters is that the future of journalism is less lecture and more conversation.

UD: Where do you see documentaries fitting into all of that?

SS: That’s a really good question because there’s an interesting discussion going on between narrative filmmakers and documentary filmmakers about what is truth; what is a documentary. Are you telling a bigger truth if you are telling a story in a narrative way that’s not actually journalistically true? In some ways we do that in Big Joy, we play with images that aren’t necessarily in the exact order that they happened in his life. We are playing with the non-linear way of looking at his life. One reviewer said it was confusing that we did that. Most people haven’t been confused. It was important for me to put the dates in again because I wanted to show, for example, that his funeral parade happened 26 years before he died. We may not make it that clear that it was his funeral parade, but it does say in memory of or something like that on one of the banners which appears at the beginning of the film and the end of the film.

UD: How did your experiences making this film relate to that question of sustainable journalism? How reliable can Kickstarter and grants be for new filmmakers?

SS: It depends if the work you want to create fits into the mission of the foundations. This one wasn’t really very fundable by foundations, because most of them are about feeding starving children or environmental issues or community change, things like that. I tried to say this film was a social justice film from the inside out in my pitch to foundations but they didn’t see it. They hadn’t seen the film of course at the time. I would have liked to have had more money up front to do research. I ended up kind of funding that myself. Whether or not people in foundations would have been interested in funding this story about an unknown, dead poet was questionable, but I did try. I applied to lots of foundations. The only ones that really funded us were the ones that knew about James Broughton, like the Horizons Foundation in San Francisco, which is an LGBT-related foundation and the ones who I knew or who personally knew James Broughton . Other than the California Counsel for the Humanities and 4culture, which is a King County arts foundation in the Seattle area, where I live, most of it ended up coming from individuals or their foundations. There are organizations that are thinking about sustainability such as the IFP. I was really fortunate to be part of the Independent Filmmaker Projects documentary labs for first-time filmmakers. They have created a master class in post-production, marketing, and distribution that they offer to ten doc filmmakers and ten narrative filmmakers every year. It’s very competitive to get in, but if you do, it it’s a huge leg up, and you get introduced to potential partners in the creative process but also potential funders.  There are other organizations like Fledgling Fund, who are doing some interesting research on what actually makes a film have social impact. We’re still forging a new path. I don’t think that there’s a road map yet. But there are people who are figuring out how to do it. It’s very important. I’d love to brainstorm about that and be part of a conversation about that. One of the things I love about film festivals is that you get to meet other filmmakers. Filmmaking is a fairly solitary activity and it shouldn’t be. There’s this competition for funding, but there’s the theory that when you have two restaurants on a corner, both do better.

Most foundations will say we don’t fund film, we don’t fund media, it’s too expensive. It’s not anymore. At that time you would have to produce a 16mm film, but the fact that its not expensive is one thing that makes it much more possible for anybody to make a documentary. Buckminster Fuller used to say that the future of education was everybody making documentaries. I like the fact that that’s starting to happen and that there are some people who are curating them and saying these are worth watching. We’re in the transition from this journalism that’s all about black-and-white to a much more nuanced, bigger view of how to tell the story. It’s interesting that most of the innovation in government is happening on the local level and those stories aren’t being told very much by the national media.

UD: It sounds like overall this Big Joy project has left you optimistic.

SS: My biggest disappointment is that we haven’t pulled in younger people to see the film. I mean people under 30. I made this film for younger people because I wanted to show these pieces of history and its been kind of surprising to me that we haven’t done a better job of pulling them in. We looked at this idea of creating a Big Joy movement. That has yet to really pick up the way that Rocky Horror did, or something like that, but it’s still conceivable

UD: What have you learned from how it hasn’t happened?

SS: I guess that people need to engage with the material and then they get excited. Getting people into the seats is really important and filmmakers don’t usually think about that. There are so many great films that don’t get seen. Talk to me in a year I feel like I’m very much in the early stages of learning about that.