Interview with Filmmaker Andre Perkowski
Now Boarding The Nova Express
by Graham Rae
What do you get if you have an explosion in a randomly generated cinematic image factory that rains down vivid burning Technicolor debris far and wide across a chaotic illuminated background, mixing disparate voices and scenes in an obscenely kinetic cut-up narrative mosaic? Possibly the new, to-be-released-eventually, 10-years-in-the-making-and-making-and-making film of Nova Express by dedicated-cum-obsessed Burroughsian Andre Perkowski.
Nova Express uses found film, original footage, handmade collages, and audio recordings of Burroughs to chaotically construct a fascinating and bombastic and exciting full-length feature of WSB’s 1964 cut-up carnival burlesque and its terminal sewers, interminable conflicts, inter-and-intra-planetary crimes, Nova criminals, Nova police, Biologic Courts, Venusian sex practices, and drugs.
The Frankensteinian-creature feature’s avant-garde eyefuck methodology perfectly mirrors the source novel’s fractured collagenikov beauty and madness and strangeness, sewing together countless jumpcut sublime liminal and subliminal scatter-shots to proudly present a tapestry of unprecedented image-assault purity. Perkowski, the visual symphony conductor behind this demented intergalactic no-slowdown hoedown-showdown, explains why the Mainstream Flickershow Courts shouldn’t prosecute and persecute him for his crimes against their not-under-the-skinema.
Lights camera action…
Who exactly are you, how old are you and what films have you made before?
Hullo, internet. I’m Andre Perkowski — 33 years old, and looking like this after an all night editing session. I write peculiar books that remain unread as private therapy while attempting to spew music & sketch comedy for the enjoyment of others. Since 1995 I’ve somehow managed to churn out hundreds of short films and 8 or so features, with several stashed in closets for a rainy day’s nostalgic editing. The horrible proof can be glimpsed at youtube.com/terminalpictures and would be very helpful to those having trouble sleeping… at 22 I decided to make a trilogy of features based on the unfilmed screenplays and pulp novels of Edward D. Wood, Jr. I managed to pull off two, Devil Girls and The Vampire’s Tomb, before realizing this would be a silly way of starting a career. Since then I’ve shot the HK pastiche A Belly Full of Anger, a feature-length adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, and my endless garage band / monster movie manifesto flick, I Was a Teenage Beatnik And / Or Monster for the Literal Underground. Talk about obscure! Though Neil Innes (English writer/comic song performer — Graham) has advised me to get out of the basement and get to the ground floor at least, I remain underground enough to resemble a sickly, blind deep-sea fish with translucent flesh.
When and how did you come to Nova Express / WSB’s work in general, and what was it about it that appealed to you?
14 years old, browsing in a library — my eyes dart about, half-bored/half-nervous until I spied The Ticket That Exploded on a spine — what the? What does the title even mean? I snatched it up and flipped pages around at random, as word stew sapped my spinal fluid and turned me into jelly. Entranced, I kept flipping pages, gagging over descriptions of rectal mucous and thrilled by all this talk of tape recorders.
What made you decide you wanted to make a film of NE, and why do it as an experimental film using other people’s images? Budget? An aesthetic to fit in with WSB’s experimental one?
Grimy fade out to Chicago, 1999-2000 — locked up in a Hyde Park apartment I read and re-read the novel, distilling it down to some 40 page screenplay of sorts — I started cobbling together readings of sections from it set to random footage shot of screens, found in the trash, or dropped in randomly from public domain archives… just for reference and to help write and adapt it. The frustration of trying to even begin to package and shape this kind of writing into a conventional pulp narrative with B list actors and unknowns filled me with nervous terror until I realized what I already had was the filmmaking itself anyway. Those cut-up novels used other people’s science fiction, medical journals, moldy classics — whatever was at hand. So this technique taken literally with film and folded spindled and mutilated seems a suitable slant to take on the source, derived from similar mucking about. But it’s not just other people’s images, I’ve spewed out a few thousand collages, paintings, animations, on all manner of stocks — lots of live action inserts anyway, congealing across monitors and musty lofts… all that is fed in and forms a concoction of frenzied and frothing at the mouth, you can’t tell what’s old and what’s new — it all seems to fit anyway. He wasn’t lying about turning off soundtracks on TV shows and replacing them with your own.
When did you start making NE and when did/do you expect to finish?
I wrote the initial totally discarded screenplay in 1999-2000 and began cobbling together a strange 16mm / video half-hour version that was more of a guide to how I wanted the finished film to flow — I didn’t intend to use any of it, though most of that double and triple-projected footage winds up in The Last Words of Hassan Sabbah section of the film.
How long do you expect the film to run?
Three hours? Four hours? The current cut hovers around 3 hours. It has gotten so bloated, there’s no point trimming it down to some 90-minute thing that will never play theaters anyway. The more I circulate existing cuts, the more I keep turning up amazing material and unreleased recordings. I feel obligated to stitch them into this sick tapestry — I figure the tiny audience for this doesn’t matter if it goes on for days, they’ll watch it as long as the chemicals last. It does seem to organize itself into one hour episodes. Or you can just see it as a collection of dozens of short films and stand alone routines — it probably works better that way. Cut in at any intersection point, as the man said.
How many different versions of it do you have?
There are five major drafts of it floating around various discs, all radically different. Excerpts of some of the earlier versions might be interesting to throw onto an eventual DVD: different readers, different images, different music. Endlessly permutating images shuffled, fiddled, fucked, and filtered.
How do you choose the images to go into the film? Have you seen all the films used in it before?
Some sort of voodoo digital trance-dowsing process developed over many years of insomnia. After sacrificing the metaphorical chickens of taste and linear thinking, I flick randomly through the timeline watching a frame here and a frame there of a short or feature film, anything that catches my eye or gets me conceptually aroused I snip out and stick in a folder that keeps getting bigger and bigger. Finally I dump dozens of these clips into a timeline and cut through them once more for specific shots. Or I lay them randomly on already assembled soundtracks and sometimes they fit perfectly, even to the point of almost perfect lip sync. It’s eerie how often this happens and very appropriate to the material, so I work with these random events and massage them into the mass of pulsing material. I’ll then screen these super rough assemblies and jot down notes for images I think might help, or specific lines or words I think need illustrating. Back to archives and libraries to pull material that seems like it will help. This happens over and over again. Over many years. I’ll throw out entire sections when bored and start from scratch. This may be why it takes forever. Apparently I want to get it down to some sort of sickly sweet image meal that flows from screen to brain with nauseating ease. Am I there yet?
I’ve seen most of the trash SF and pulp movies I’ve used, which helps — but the industrials, educational films, etc I just flick around through.
Are the films used in the public domain? Have you gotten permission to use any of them? Will you need to get permission? Would it be affordable?
Yeah, I’ve tried to keep it down to public domain footage except the Burroughs material — it will be difficult enough sorting that out so I didn’t want to be haggling with some company for the rights to use half a second of footage of a man in a hat grimacing.
How many films / books / shows / whatever did you use material from in the film?
I lost track around 400 or so.
Any favorite passages in the book?
Hard to beat Last Words or the really lush sounding Subliminal Kid sections.
Anything you think works particularly well in the film?
The completely random lip sync in the Do-Rights section is hysterical, with the doughy suckup patient buttering up a croaker who responds with perfect timing. It cracked me up when I found it and continues to crack me up. Put me down for additional medication.
What made you decide to use words / dialogue other than Burroughs’ in the film?
I tried to keep it down to just WSB’s writing — though there are some snippets of Brion Gysin, a few of Burroughs’ radio cut-ups, and a handful of random lines from the educational films I was using concerning junk or virus. As usual the words themselves decided when they were going to be used — one useful coincidence happened when I was adding pictures to the cut-up radio sequence Burroughs did involving a news broadcast about LBJ having some sort of meeting with editorial cartoonists and denouncing “Red China.” Quite by accident the first footage pulled of LBJ happened to be a newsreel of that exact obscure meeting with editorial cartoonists — so I added a few lines of the material and used the silent footage of LBJ for that sequence.
What techniques do you use when experimenting / screwing around with the film for effect?
In addition to my spastic and random flicking / dowsing process, I do a lot of refilming material off grimy monitors and projections late at night with 16mm or Super-8 cameras, to get it grainier — zoom in on certain sections, use distorting angles, colored gels… I like to tape material in SVHS and then play it back on a VHS deck so the image is all garbled and distorts strangely. I then film that off the screen in 16mm or Super-8. When the film gets back I like unspooling it all on the floor to get it dirtier, or stick it in front of the A/C to pick up dust and cat hair. It’s fun to randomly highlight faces and eyes with paint or markers. I’m just glad I don’t edit film manually any more because my poor splicing ability would’ve resulted in the destruction of most of the film.
Collage scrapbooks and paintings comprise a big portion of the work as well — I’ve churned out hundreds of them for the film over the years, layering elements in, drawing, cutting, folding. I’ve become annoyingly enamored of copying and reprinting my collages and then spritzing water all over to melt and destroy the inkjet colors of the image — turns things green or purple, wipes out detail, and the random factor makes for amusing experimentation. I then take these fucked-over pics and continue drawing/collaging over them. When does it stop? It hasn’t. There’s always one more line to illustrate, one more idea that comes up. I replaced my world’s Gideon Bible with The Third Mind and the results are odiously apparent. Through a decade of hermetic cut-ups and crap-outs, I’ve become a pretentious child of Nova, a fucked-up Subliminal Kid. Hopefully my own idiosyncrasies haven’t gotten in the way too much — by concentrating on WSB’s voice and own words, it keeps El Hombre Invisible slightly in focus… through some of his most difficult material.
Major differences between your approach and WSB’s, aside from the obvious words/film one(s)?
I’m not a ghastly genius with a wide spectrum of shattering experiences to draw from for his work: I’m merely half-crazy with a handful of mildly hysterical experiences. I tried to keep a lot of my comedy style out of it, which would be extremely grating and cheesy — a perusal of the work on youtube.com/terminalpictures will tell you that if I didn’t, I would’ve really made something terrible. In this respect it was great that I kept it to his dialogue, makes things much less embarrassing.
Anything you wished you could have used but can’t?
The dozen hours of footage I need to raise money to get out of film labs: all that animation, retro junk spaceship models, insectoid critters, and noir-ed out live action footage that will make Nova Express sexier and sleeker still, slobbering acidic drool all over the stagnant stock footage symphonies some scenes are… there’s also rare Burroughs material untransferred in various archives that need to be in here. Some Ian Somerville readings. More WSB readings from Nova Express that I know exist and will end up in here sooner or later… one of the great things about these work in progress screenings are the friendly folks who turn up having all manner of Burroughsian oddities in a closet somewhere — Carl Weissner turned up the master tape of a 1968 recording featuring WSB reading a good dozen sequences that had temporary speech synthesized voiceovers in my film — it’s prime 60s unreleased Burroughs and I’m going to make sure it gets out on as an audio release as well. So many terrific things have turned up that some specialty label with decent taste can have a nice two disc set with liner notes for discrete perverts.
Pleased at the reception the film has had so far in its fragmentary screenings?
My favorite was asking a projectionist if he could make it louder and having him scream at me to get out and then he snarled a little and to show me what’s what, played Spanish flamenco music over the title sequence of the flick. I wonder what the audience filing in made of that… “interesting choice, uhhh a lyric counterpoint to the uhhh… oh, this is going to be terrible, isn’t it.”
Other than that it’s gone better than you would think, with reactions ranging from chemically glazed to effusive and flattering with few if any epileptic outbursts. More excerpts screened in crummy dives in obscure corners of the Earth in 2010, more later. Strange personalities added doing readings, look for your favorite and collect all twenty-three variations, kids!
The main benefit of the screenings have been meeting so many amazing characters who helped or encouraged in endlessly generous ways — Oliver Harris propped up my sporadically dispirited spirits with fresh leads and fine factualism, Jan Herman provided egg creams and an incredible early ’70s black-and-white video recording of Burroughs and Balch experimenting with projecting the “Bill and Tony” film onto themselves along with early TV cutups, Jürgen Ploog recorded many amazing readings as Benway and various pitch-shifted alien monstrosities… Barry Miles and James Grauerholz were really helpful and patient with my gibberish, Regina Weinreich set up a great screening… Proctor and Bergman of the Firesign Theatre enriched the shit out of this flick in so many ways, Anne Waldeman immediately agreed to let me use some delicious readings of a section of “The Soft Machine” — and so much morale was boosted by the shambling shapes lurking around RealityStudio…
Thanks again all… to anyone I haven’t met, any thoughts/ideas or recordings you might have vague knowledge about, do get in touch.
Did you shoot any of the film yourself, and if so what medium(s) did you use?
About 30% of it, I’d say. I used every medium I could get my dirty fingers on — video, 8mm, Super-8, 16mm, ancient Soviet filmstock, early ’80s black and white gun camera film used for recording kills, surplus shit of every stinking variety. I’ve shot tons of stopmotion animation, built crab guards, death dwarves, oven guards, Minraudian madness and more. Sadly hours and hours of this material sit in various labs awaiting payment and transfer to video. So the versions circulating around and screening have a lot more video or found footage placeholders — a decent variation anyway, and guarantees no two screenings or DVDs are alike as it stutters and snowballs along, all knowing, all organic, all “ugh.” All the time.
How/where did you find the WSB lookalike?
Yes, there seem to be quite a few strange ghostly stock footage creatures stooped over desks or ancient mixing boards and tape recorders with uncanny Burroughsian features. Most of them appeared by chance, only to have me shriek excitedly after a click of the play button. Lots of thin-lipped men in fedoras lurk in the swamps of stock footage. It was the golden age of the spectral creep.
What is the music on the soundtrack that sounds like industrial? You use any bands of friends or whatever? One again, any copyright problems anticipated?
Copyright infringement is your best entertainment value, as those fine folks in Negativland say. All the soundtrack noise and sludgy drone-churn is produced by Kristin Palker and myself in antiseptic laboratory conditions, usually looking very somber and morose. Unlike me, she actually can tell the difference between those white keys and the perplexing yet intriguing black ones. She makes it pretty and then I mess it up. We’ve worked on soundtracks together for the past 4 years, the debris is all over the Youtube account. One of the tracks was performed by a cat arrogantly sliding around a keyboard, jabbing keys that managed to work fine with the picture. I tried to keep it sinister, slow, and overwhelmingly insidious — not attracting too much attention to itself and letting Burroughs’ voice be the main element. I didn’t want to set his words to beats and make songs out of them. Actually I’m a total liar because Daddy Longlegs is set to a 20s platter of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.” Other than that, it’s a subtle drone along the lines of a Satanic air conditioner that goes on the blink sometimes.
What would be the best and worst reactions you could hope for to your film?
Would instantaneous bleeding from the eyes be too much to ask? A baffled expression would be fine. You can keep your mouth open, drooling slightly as your red eyes strain to make connections between the words and image that slip out of focus sometimes, or aren’t really there. But what’s really there? Don’t ask me, I still haven’t figured it all out.
Can you honestly say you understand the whole book? If not, has slow and patient rereading made it more clear to you? Anything seem particularly incomprehensible? This have any effect on your overall vision for the film in general?
Can anyone? Did Burroughs himself, who famously declared it “a not altogether successful book” or somesuch? Are we ready to eat pages of cut-up stew? The routines embedded within that hard-to-digest material are glorious gold though and Burroughs at his late 1950s to 1960s best — the dry, insect voice of control, calm and cantankerous all at once… hiding, revealing, lying, accusing.
What would a DVD extras section have?
Another hour of outtakes, alternate versions. Tons of never-before-released readings and tape experiments. A simple kit for plotting media insurrection on a modest budget, encased in environmentally unfriendly plastic.
Think you’ll be able to get a release, or will you put it out yourself somehow?
Screenings, sporadic spottings, furtive DVDs, online excerpts, the realities of having some early version relentlessly pirated — pick your poison and welcome to no-budget indie release. Maybe the reptilian respectability of Burroughs will allow this film to insinuate itself into a few dozen more festivals… wouldn’t you?
Did you feel a responsibility to put the film into some sort of more linear form than the book to help keep viewer interest?
I felt a responsibility to a set of dead fingers talking on typewritten manuscript pages — there’s so much going on that it can’t possibly be taken in one sitting without vomiting all on its own. Spreading it out into episodes or short films lets me really incorporate entire sections of the book that you really can’t collapse into some kinda dumb thing that aims for Blade Runner but lands more along the lines of Cyborg 3: The Recycler. If you want a cheesy action movie version of this, give me 40 million dollars and some spindly brother of a celebrity and we’re off to the repulsive races. This is Nova Express doled out in eyedroppers of image, little distilled lectures of academic psychedelia, 1970s PBS as controlled by a giant pulsating insect brain. More so, anyway.
If you could get this film shown during a hypothetical perfect time slot during mainstream TV, what slot would you go for and why?
Midnight for the whole thing all night over 4.5 hours of TV time or episodically to catch while flipping through channels, lingering for a moment and fighting off cobwebs of “what the fuck” curling tendrils into your brain.
What do you think the average non-WSB-aware viewer would take from the film?
A retinal disease and stinging migraine headache that pulses up and down the spine, stomach gurgling as small eggs burst hatching hundreds of hideous scorpions that take their time climbing up their non-WSB-aware throats. Serves them right. The right people will figure it out or make a note to try one day. It’s not for everybody. If it was, we’d wind up with Total Recall. “Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin, you GOT WHAT YOU WANT! GIVE DIS PEOPLE AAAAIIIR!”
If you could assassinate somebody using an image, who would it be and what would the image be?”
Anybody who butchers Philip K. Dick stories on the screen or actively prevents me from filming Valis.
You said you regard the film as being like a training film for the Nova police. Please explain a bit further.
I just took the often didactic, scientific lecture, crackpot quasi-educational tone some of the novel’s routines had and extended it on film in a form that suits it — it’d be a little stiff having actors rattling out the endless, dense, jargon-riddled dialogue without making massive cuts and rehearsing endlessly. At this budget level the results might have been utterly excruciating — whereas doing like a musty old educational film, you can incorporate more of the wordy dialogue in omniscient voiceover, illustrated with endless split-second schizoid cuts in and out of what passes for “continuity” in this film.
On another level the film collects a lot of WSB’s cut-up theory and presents it in a quasi-entertaining fashion that might encourage gullible kids into playing around with scissors, machines, and spark an interest in poking holes in the fabric of chance.
Any fave films or filmmakers you modeled your film on, experimental or otherwise?
Pretty much anyone who has ever done anything interesting — Working in the lab late one night, I rip out chunks of their filmmaker flesh and stitch it all together to make myself some sort of horrible pop culture Frankenstein… sent to some semblance of shambling life on obscure monitors around the world.
Of course when working with revoiced stock footage, it’s not possible to escape from the shadow of the Firesign Theatre — so I’m practically orgasmic over Proctor and Bergman making incredible appearances — Bergman in two relentless radio readings from 1967 and Proctor in a slew of freshly recorded readings in a bewildering array of guises that perfectly fits anything WSB never got around to recording. Proctor is the definitive god of voiceovers and is so damn good at all of the professors, hard-boiled cops, lunatic doctors, and sufferers of the Venusian Gook Rot… really note-perfect stuff. His take on “The Subliminal Kid” is beautiful…
Any fave WSB films, and why?
You just can’t beat the work he did with Antony Balch and it kills me that they didn’t manage to 1) finish Guerrilla Conditions 2) shoot that berserk Gysin-penned Naked Lunch screenplay or 3) keep making films through the 70s. Balch’s Secrets of Sex and Horror Hospital would’ve been glorious treats if he used those low budgets on Burroughs scripts. As is they have sly references and influences, but you wonder what he would’ve managed to come up with fusing his friendship with Burroughs with his long apprenticeship exhibiting and promoting drive-in exploitation films. I’m trying to continue that strain of work in my own clumsy way, fusing experimental concerns with a love of pulp and drive-in melodrama.
Think the film will play differently dependent on the sexual orientation of the viewer? Think you have to be gay to truly ‘get’ Burroughs?
Hmmm let me think about this one a bit, I’ve over-anxietized myself about that. Being boringly vanilla and hetero in the fetish department, I worry I lack the spark of mutant to understand it — but I’m enough of an outcast where the language just sings to me, whether it’s an anthem, lullaby, or a funeral march or all three I’m not sure.
Think WSB would have approved of the film, in light of his own experimentations with film?
A tightlipped expression, a few coughs, a mutter of “very interesting” before he changed the subject to talk about Bavarian blowguns or flesh-burning Amazonian piss-weasels or somesuch exotica. I hope in the end I managed to not embarrass his memory or make his old friends cringe.
Nova Express Excerpts on YouTube