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Tribeca: 'Big Joy' Filmmakers Celebrate the Life of Artist James Broughton (Q&A)

Big Joy - P - 2013
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

Using rare, archival footage and interviews with Broughton's friends and family, co-directors Stephen Silha and Eric Slade explore the life of one of the most influential artists to come out of the San Francisco Renaissance.

NEW YORK -- James Broughton's mantra was "follow your own weird."

Years before Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg or William S. Burroughs were starting the Beat Movement, artists like Broughton were already pushing the boundaries of art and literature during the post-war San Francisco Renaissance. 

In Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton, co-directors Stephen Silha, Eric Slade and Dawn Logsdon take a celebratory approach towards the exploration of Broughton's life and work, which include such influential films as The Pleasure Garden (1953) and The Bed (1968).

Through rare, archival footage and interviews with Broughton's friends and family members, including his last partner Joel Singer, his ex-wife Suzanna Hart, and son Orion Broughton, the film paints an intimate portrait of a man whose joyful artistic life was matched only by his complicated personal one, including a relationship with famed film critic, Pauline Kael.

After world premiering at this year's South by Southwest film festival and winning the Grand Jury Award for best documentary feature at the Florida Film Festival, the filmmakers brought it to this year's Tribeca Film Festival where Silha, a former journalist with the Christian Science Monitor, and Slade spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about the making of the award-winning documentary. 

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The Hollywood Reporter: Stephen, you knew James Broughton during the later part of his life, correct?

Stephen Silha: Yeah, I knew James for the last ten years of his life. We became good friends. He became a mentor to me. The first time I went over to his house for dinner, he was working on this book, which was his memoir Coming Unbuttoned, and he said that I hate prose. And I said, 'You know, as a journalist, I’d been writing prose all my life. If you help me with poetry, I’ll help you with prose.' I was just kind of kidding, but it actually turned out that we had this relationship where we would read our drafts to each other and talk about the creative process.

THR: Was he an influence on you prior to meeting him? Was this somebody you followed growing up?

Silha: I met him through his films when I encountered them at the Museum of Modern Art ten years exactly before I met him.

THR: What prompted the actual idea of making a documentary on his life?

Silha: James died in 1999, and I had in the back of my head this idea about writing a book. I was a print journalist, and I actually started doing research. I interviewed [Broughton's artistic partner] Kermit Sheets on tape before he died. I was planning to interview Pauline Kael the next year and then she died before I got to it. But I was thinking, I have to do something about Broughton. Six years after he died, I was talking to Mark Thompson who was a good friend of Broughton's, and he said it’s got to be a film. I had seen Eric’s documentary about Harry Hay called Hope Along the Wind and I really liked the way he used archival footage. So we got together for coffee in Portland and he said he’d be willing to work on it as long as he didn't have to raise any money. (laughs)

THR: The film is full of rare archival footage of Broughton's work. How challenging was the research?

Eric Slade: One of the things that was difficult about the film is that there’s very little on camera of James speaking. Through our research, we discovered his journals. He journaled every day of his life. There are cases and cases of journals at Kent State University where his archives are. So we went back there a couple times and read through them. [His life] was laid out very bare, very raw, in those journals. Not intended to be seen by the public.

THR: There were certainly parts of Broughton that were very complicated, especially with his romantic relationships. You make it a point in the film to say his daughters refused to be interviewed, yet his son and ex-wife agreed to speak. How difficult it was to get people to talk on camera about him?

Silha: It wasn’t hard to get most people to talk about him at all. We did 37 interviews and we only used about 21 in the film. But his daughters actually ended up helping us even though they didn’t want to be interviewed. And as a journalist, I wanted to show the complexity of this guy. So I wanted to say that the daughters didn’t want to be interviewed. But I asked his younger daughter if she was willing to ask her mother, Suzanna Hart, if she would be interviewed and she said OK. Suzanna has pre-Alzheimer’s, so it was a challenging interview. Maybe the most challenging interviews were with her and their son, Orion.

Slade: Suzanna obviously loved James. He was a really positive part of her life. So I think that really comes through. You see the pain of their separation. It was such a big part of her life, which is why I think she was willing to talk.

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THR: Although you didn't interview her personally, you do have Pauline Kael on tape in the film. Where did that tape come from?

Silha: Fortunately, our friend Robin White had done a radio documentary about James in the mid ‘90s and he was willing to let us use those interviews. As far as we know, that’s the only interview anybody did with Pauline where she talked about James. We had several Holy Grails we were looking for for the film. One was finding a picture of James and Pauline together, which we never did. We don't know if any even exist.

THR: What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?

Silha: One surprise was this whole San Francisco Renaissance and how important he was to that period. You could argue that San Francisco was more important to American literature of the ‘40s and ‘50s than New York or other creative epicenters. Of course, everybody knows about the Beat Movement, but James and his friends and this kind of multi-disciplinary springboard of creativity that came after the war created the soil that the Beat Movement grew out of.

THR: The film is certainly a celebratory look at Broughton, but Stephen, as a journalist, how did you balance the want to be respectful with the need to be objective and show the sides of Broughton that were a little too close to the bone?

Silha: Well, the theme of Broughton's "follow your own weird" leaving collateral damage is one that I thought was important. He was very serious about the English language. He loved the fact that the word "weird" came from a Celtic root that means fate or personal destiny. So when he says "follow your own weird," he meant be as close to your core as you can be and be on your creative edge simultaneously.

Slade: We wanted to show that the path of trying to be true to your artistic self and trying to follow what’s true to you is important and difficult and isn’t always pretty. We wanted to leave some warts in.

THR: Stephen, you were present when Broughton passed away. What was that scene like? Who else was there?

Silha: I was present at his death at his home, which was another reason why I wanted to make the film. To show that you can have a death that is somewhat conscious and somewhat joyful. It was actually just [Broughton's partner] Joel Singer, one other close friend, Malcolm Dorn, and myself. He died of congestive heart failure, but he knew he was dying. He was drinking champagne and his last words were praise and thanks and "more bubbly, please."

Slade: To me, just the way he dealt with death in his work and in his life has been a sort of liberation for me. I think I’ve always been afraid of death, you know, and I think we all are, but the idea that there’s another way to go ... Broughton says in the film, "At last, I’ll be able to dance with the angels." You know, it’s like that.

Silha: James asked that his ashes be spread in three places: Santiago de Compostela in Spain, which is sacred to Saint James and where he visited when he lived in Europe in the ‘50s; the Ganges River in India, because it’s the sacred place of the dead; and Machu Picchu, because that’s the holy place that he never got in his physical life. He has a gravestone in Port Townsend Cemetery in Washington.

THR: If Broughton saw the film, what do you think he'd say?

Slade: I think he would like it. He would see right away that we played with things a little bit and that not every scene is in the right order. We tried to stay pretty true. I think he would love that we took his work and made our own work out of it. 

Silha: Yeah, I think he’d be dancing. We really want this film to be a catalyst for creativity in people who see it. Hopefully it will inspire people to write poetry, to make films, to express themselves, express their weird in various ways.

'Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton' made its world premiere at the 2013 South by Southwest Film festival. The film was part of the Feature Documentary programming at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.

E-mail: Joshua.Stecker@thr.com; Twitter: @joshuastecker