Aaron Brookner's new documentary 'Uncle Howard' goes back in time to William Burroughs’ bunker on the Lower East Side, a rich, hidden archive of New York’s 80s art scene
Outside of Nazi Germany, arguably the most famous bunker in modern history is the one that belonged to William Burroughs. Located off The Bowery on the Lower East Side of New York, it was a go-to den for junkies, writers, beatniks and later on adoring fans. Owned by poet and artist John Giorno, it still houses many of Burroughs possessions (who died in 1997) some of which remains untouched for decades, like a museum. It was here that filmmaker and director of the documentary Uncle Howard, Aaron Brookner, sought to learn more about his uncle, Howard Brookner, who was the director of 1983 feature documentary on the beat writer, Burroughs, as well as the Robert Wilson and the Civil Wars documentary and the feature film, Bloodhounds of Broadway, the latter of which starring Madonna and Matt Dillon.
Howard died in 1989 after contracting Aids and after having discussions with family friends such as Jim Jarmusch (who was the sound recorder on the original Burroughs film and acts as executive producer on Uncle Howard), Aaron began work to track down the original film and restore it. In doing so he discovered his uncle had his own archive in the bunker and soon set about telling the story of his dearly loved and departed relative through such discovered footage, which includes original outtakes from the Burroughs film, video diaries, rehearsal footage, plentiful footage of an almost unrecognisable New York and an artistic community alive with vibrancy, featuring unearthed footage of everyone from Patti Smith to Allen Ginsberg. Here he talks through his explorations in the bunker and learning about his uncle and the now-changed city he lived in.
You clearly have a lot of love for your uncle, as captured in the film, but when did that manifest into wanting to make a film about him?
Aaron Brookner: I was always interested in his story but when I started looking for this Burroughs film, I started looking for anything we could find out about it, a negative or a print and coming across lots of different things along the way. I found a box of Howard’s stuff in my Grandma’s wardrobe and came across items he had left behind like home videos, some of which had him and me in it that I hadn’t seen. There was also a letter he had written to my grandparents, saying it’s not too bad to live a short life as long as you do what you want with it and that he’ll live on in the films he has made. So that was a catalyst for me wanting to recover his films but also for wanting to do something for him around the memory aspect of that letter.
What was your personal introduction to the world of William Burroughs?
Aaron Brookner: I knew his face from a very early age because of this big Burroughs marquee poster that was in the guest room at my grandparents’ house where I would sleep, so he was another face of the family. Then I started watching Howard’s film on Burroughs as a teenager and got to know Burroughs that way, through Howard. So it was a very familial way of getting to know Burroughs, which actually turned out to be quite accurate when I would talk to the people who really knew Burroughs. One of the best descriptions I read of him was, “he was like the grandfather that wouldn’t judge you”. I mean nobody in the room was weirder than Burroughs.
“One of the best descriptions I read of him was, ‘he was like the grandfather that wouldn’t judge you’. I mean nobody in the room was weirder than Burroughs.” - Aaron Brookner
Tell us about entering the bunker, what is it like?
Aaron Brookner: First of all you have to hear it. The Bowery is one of the loudest streets in New York. Then you walk in there and because the bunker used to be a YMCA swimming pool and locker room, the walls are really thick concrete, so it’s completely quiet – it’s super unsettling, in a good way. Immediately when you walk in there, the sound and the fact that nothing has been touched - there’s spices on the spice rack dated 1978, there’s a handgun still in his dresser, his hat is still hung on a hook on the wall – it’s a really intense experience. There’s a lot of energy left in that space. Then I get to the film cans and there are 30 years of dust and you get the sense, the tactile nature of it all, that people were here, ideas were shared here and something was made here. The physicality of it and the sounds of it are very profound. I was very overwhelmed and I had seen this place many times in the movie but it was very extreme to be put into there. There’s a scene in the film where I walk by the chairs and I wipe my eye because I was totally overwhelmed, I really was. Jim Jarmusch hadn’t been down there since he made the film with Howard, he spent a lot of time there hanging out with Howard and Burroughs, getting into some shenanigans – we were both really freaked out. It was intense.
What did you discover down there in regards to your uncle’s archive?
Aaron Brookner: It was massive. Cans and cans of film. We hear a lot about the late 70s and early 80s New York City and you hear people say it's this real melting point across art forms but it's always talked about, and suddenly this film footage puts you right there in that space, it's the closest thing to time travel that I could imagine because it was documentary film filmed very freely but also with a filmmakers eye – it wasn't random. Film was expensive, there was a reason he was recording what he was recording. It was a very focused immersive look into this world around Burroughs, where all these platforms were mixing. The Nova Convention in 1978 (a three-day convention to honour Burroughs’ return to the U.S) was this massive event that everyone remembered but no one had seen. It turned out Howard had a camera crew of four documenting this whole event, which really puts the whole thing into perspective. It was a whole weekend event centred around William Burroughs with Patti Smith and Phillip Glass and Laurie Anderson, all these performers – Ginsberg was honouring Burroughs – and the crowds were packed, people lining up around the block, teenagers and twenty-year-olds. You can really see the important influence that this man had on the youth and the arts and the counter culture. As Jim Jarmusch says in the movie, “it really was a wealth of history” and there are an astounding number of ideas and moments captured in that footage.
The city of New York itself is a bit of a supporting character in the film, isn’t it?
Aaron Brookner: I think it was very much related and connected to the general emotion of Howard wanting to tell his story. For years I would walk past St Vincent's Hospital – and Howard was there when he was sick, near the end – and even though it was a darker memory it was still a memory of Howard and what he went through, so I think when I saw that being taken down it was like “whoa”, it really struck me that things don't last forever and there was nothing that could be done to stop developers. It did become this kind of metaphor in a way, like of popping open a film can, bringing back and salvaging this old New York that was there 30 years ago.
“I don't want to make light of heroin at all, but from what I gather it was pretty readily around in that circle and I don't think for everyone it was this strung out scenario.” - Aaron Brookner
He died when you were still very young. Were you told how he died?
Aaron Brookner: I knew he was sick but I didn't really get it. I was then told that he had died and I asked how and they told me brain failure. Which even to my eight or nine-year-old mind at the time didn't quite make sense, I’d never heard of anyone dying from brain failure. Howard was in many senses a larger than life character to me and then he just disappeared in this cloud of mystery. It wasn't until a few years later that my Dad took me to see Philadelphia and didn't tell me why, he just really wanted to take me to see this movie and then towards the end as the credits were rolling, I understood, Howard was gay, he died of AIDS. That's how it was explained to me, through a movie.
Was it strange finding out he was a drug-user too?
Aaron Brookner: Some people talked about it and I spoke to the writer Brad Gooch writer off camera before I was doing this project and he said, “ah, yeah Howard had this drug thing with Burroughs”, and Brad wasn't so fond of Howard's Burroughs years in a lot of ways. Howard did go to some rough places with addiction but to be honest, nobody else knew that and in the same year that Howard is supposedly scoring dope on the Lower East Side and shooting it in the bunker, there are photos of him with me as a tiny kid and he looks perfectly healthy. He doesn't look like the Trainspotting version of what we think of as a junkie at all. It was very much a downtown drug at the time. I don't want to make light of heroin at all, but from what I gather it was pretty readily around in that circle and I don't think for everyone it was this strung out scenario.
What did you learn about your uncle from making this film?
Aaron Brookner: I think given the blitz of that era in the 70s and 80s in New York, it's easy to not think about how hard people worked and it was great to see how serious Howard took filmmaking, how hard he worked at it and how much he enjoyed his work, he was really alive in between takes, behind the camera, putting forward this great energy as a director. The way he was not judgmental and he was easy with people and made a genuine connection with them so that they would be at their best when the camera was rolling was fantastic to get to experience. There was so many moments when I’ve been making or studying film over the years and thinking, “oh it would be great if Howard were around, I could ask him how he would do something”. Through making this film I was able to see it, I could hear it and I really was very fortunate to access that. He worked very hard. When I was young I used to think that him being buried on his 35th birthday was like, “oh, he was quite old” but now I really realise that's not old and that he did a lot, he made two really complex feature documentaries and this big Hollywood feature film in a very short time. When you start to see the outtakes, including rehearsal tapes he shot on video in his loft with Madonna and Mat Dillon, for Bloodhounds and Broadway, you can see his energy – he didn't waste a moment, that was really inspiring.
Uncle Howard is in UK cinemas from December 16. You can watch the trailer above or via YouTube.