Interviewed by Kaye Telle
“Back in 2005, when I was 21 years old, I got my hands on a nice video camera and decided to make a documentary about William S. Burroughs. When I started making a documentary about William S. Burroughs, I had no idea it would turn into THE documentary about him.”
—Filmmaker Yony Leyser
Yony Leyser is the director of William S. Burroughs: A Man Within, which debuted at The Slamdance Film Festival earlier this year. The documentary features rare, previously unseen footage of Burroughs as well as a soundtrack by members of The Patti Smith Group and Sonic Youth. There are interviews with both groups as well as with Iggy Pop, Genesis P-Orridge, Jello Biafra, Laurie Anderson, David Cronenberg, Gus Van Sant, John Waters, and more.
Leyser’s diligence and personality resulted in a snowball effect that provided the support of those in Burroughs’ circle. The D.I.Y ethic of Leyser and the perfect storm of six degrees of separation culminated in an impressive cast of characters creating an interesting and insightful film about the iconic Burroughs’ personal and public life.
Popshifter: Your previous work in the film Bill & Anna and the photo exhibit Daily Life Sucks focused on subjects some might call “freaks.” It puts you in a similar club as David Lynch or John Waters in a way. You’ve said you are fascinated with outsiders. Why do you think that is?
Yony Leyser: I think both Lynch and Waters are freaky themselves. And I guess so am I. However, the word freak or outsider can be defined in many different ways.
I think corporate criminals are much bigger freaks than punks or trannys or any of that stuff. I think the “weirdos” or “freaks” that you are talking about should be what’s normal. What we are really talking about is people who break away from conformity. And we need more of that—so much more. There is nothing freaky about that. I think blindly subscribing to the ideals of the “normals” is what is really freaky
Popshifter: You were kicked out of two art schools and have been painted as a bit of a rebel at college. Were you that way in high school?
Yony Leyser: I got kicked out of high school, too. My headmaster kicked me out for swearing at him. Luckily he left the following semester. The woman who took over was awesome, and let me have the diploma.
However, the first time I was kicked out of school was in second grade. I guess I didn’t fit in, but I’m lucky I didn’t. I can only imagine what kind of a heinous life I would have.
Popshifter: James Grauerholz helped you with this film. He said, “When I saw that it was more than a collegiate dream, I joined forces with him.” Explain how he decided to help you and get you in touch with the people in the film. How do you think he knew you would be the one to follow through with this film where so many others have failed? And why have many others failed?
Yony Leyser: I did not contact one agent or have any special connections, so I did it by basically asking around. I started interviewing [Burroughs'] friends in Lawrence, and everyone introduced me to everyone else. William Burroughs is one of these figures that many people would like to make a film about. I guess I just did my research and went for it head on, in a fully independent way.
Popshifter: Did you end up using any of the abandoned film projects of others in the film? If so, by whom?
Yony Leyser: I use a lot of never before seen home movies from many people that they had sitting around their houses, including Sonic Youth’s material, Tom Peschio’s, and others.
Popshifter: What are your favorite documentaries? Favorite five films in general?
Yony Leyser: I like so much. The ones that come to mind are ones I have recently watched: Paris is Burning, The Weather Underground, Marjoe, The Gleaners and I, The Eyes of Tammy Faye.
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