As is often the case, Bill Daniel is on the road. Crossing West Texas, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker and “confirmed tramp” has his ’65 Chevy pointed toward Miami, where he will screen his latest film, Sonic Orphans, a collection of lost-and-found clips of six bands, including the Beatles and Sonic Youth, on Jan. 25 at Churchill’s. Daniel also plans to show Who is Bozo Texino?, his “mostly-factual cinematic account of the epic search and unlikely discovery of hobohemia’s most legendary boxcar artist”, on Jan. 24 (venue tba). Earlier today, Daniel was kind enough to pull off to the side of the road to talk to me about his films, his preference for the shovel over the keyboard, and the end of American life as we know it.
You make films, you do photography, you wrote a book — when people ask you what you do, what do you tell them?
A lot of times I’ll just say filmmaker, or photographer. I do all kinds of stuff, but really I’m just an artist. But you know, I get pulled over a lot, because I drive like a beater old van, and, you know, sleep in it. So when a cop pulls you over, they always ask, “What do you do?” And if you say “artist”, then they search your van. Then they’re really pissed off. So I’m not really that comfortable with the word “artist”. I generally always did construction work, and things like that to make money, so I can easily tell you something respectable like “laborer”.
So, I took a chance the other day and called Blockbuster to see if they carried Bozo Texino.
My movies are not at Blockbuster [laughing]. My movies are not at Netflix. I’m definitely an underground artist, for sure, in the DIY tradition.
You’re underground, but you’ve received plenty of art world accolades, including a Guggenheim fellowship in 2008. How have you made your name?
Basically by this kind of ground-level work. I’ve always kept my distance from the art world, or maybe they’ve kept their distance from me. But I do gallery shows occasionally. I’m working at something at the MOCA in L.A. right now, and Bozo Texino is actually going to be shown at the freaking Museum of Modern Art in New York next month.
I’m stoked on that stuff, but what’s really most important to me is doing shows outside of the official world, in clubs or DIY spaces. That’s really a lot more rewarding and important to me. You know, when I was a kid, I didn’t go to museums or galleries. The first place I was exposed to experimental film or radical politics or a world of ideas in general was at punk clubs. So I’ve always held that experience in a high regard and put a high value on getting my work out in the world for some kid who wouldn’t go to a museum.
Here in Miami, Churchill’s fits that description. How did you end up scheduling the Sonic Orphans screening there?
In the case of Churchill’s, it’s a legendary punk club. You really can’t not know of Churchill’s. Through Erick Lyle and the network, you know about these legendary places like Churchill’s. I just called them up and said, “Hey, I have a film.”
For those who haven’t heard of it, can you describe Bozo Texino?
It’s essentially a documentary, but it’s definitely under the heading of personal documentary or underground documentary. It started out as a Super 8 film. I started shooting and riding trains back in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. I was really into the train graffiti – they’re called “monikers” — and so I thought I would make a short Super 8 film about it. But I just kept shooting and shooting, and the idea kept growing. Then I started shooting 16 mm and riding trains. You know, it took 16 years to finish. What can I say? It was really hard. It really became something that was part of my life. It wasn’t like, “I have this, and it’s going to look like this, and I’ll be done with it next year.” I didn’t know if I’d ever finish it. It was really kinda traumatic, having something that you wanted to finish but didn’t feel finishable.
I didn’t live full time on the trains. I’d go out for a couple of weeks, or a month, or a couple of months at a time. But I always had a job, I always had a place. So you know, I traveled the roads, but I always had a home somewhere.
It’s really a personal film. People will use the word “director”, and I’m like, wow, the word “director” isn’t even in my vocabulary — because you do all of it. You conceive it, you make it, you design it, you edit it, you shoot it, you silk screen the posters. Part of being a filmmaker, for me, is burning screens and pushing ink onto posters. That’s part of it. You know, DIY or die.
Again, the film has screened at a lot of festivals and received praise in high places.
It’s really had a well-traveled life as a film, high and low. Mainly it’s gotten out just by touring, like what I’m doing now, driving around with a projector and a PA and a screen in the van. Just driving through towns, setting up, showing, and going.
But it’s shown at a few galleries and festivals. I’m really not crazy about festivals. I don’t think they’re necessarily a great place to watch films. When I finished this film, I very consciously wanted it to be seen and known about in the underground first. I wanted the kids to see it first, and the curators to hear about it later. … I was like, I want to go to the anarchist house first [before the festivals] because that’s the culture I feel the closest to, and that aspect of culture is in a lot of ways more important than the festivals and the magazines and the curators and the critics.
What’s Sonic Orphans about?
It’s a show I put together and toured with this summer. It’s a collection of films, a reel of kinda random lost and found clips. They’re all on 16 mm. They’re all the original object. Most of them don’t have any copies. The show’s really about this idea of lost media and basically getting together and experiencing live cinema collectively. To experience these bits of motion picture, you have to be in the room with them. You can’t be on the internet or watch them on your iPhone.
Two of the films are mine, a Sonic Youth film and a Butthole Surfers film that I shot way back in the day. But all the other films have some sort of lost-and-found story. The Beatles footage I literally found in a can on a shelf in a lab that was going out of business. We were told we could basically clean out the place, and, lo and behold, there was this can of film that happened to be sitting there since 1965.
Is it coveted footage? Has anyone come knocking on your door for it?
No. Hopefully nobody will. … It definitely has archival, historic value, for sure. It’s raw footage. There’s no sound. It could be outtakes. If someone’s making a documentary about the Beatles, or a news segment, these are not really the money shots. A lot of the footage is unedited. It’s about the ability to see material from the past that you wouldn’t be able to see otherwise. … You didn’t ever get to see the Beatles smoking cigarettes in the middle of their press conference, because they cut that out because, in 1965, you can’t see pop stars smoking cigarettes.
As an act of preservation, Sonic Orphans seems to be in line with much of your work, which uses old machines to cover old-fashioned subjects. Do you spurn modern technology?
I’m kinda an old-fashioned guy. I really like old technology. You know, I drive a ’65 Chevy van that’s really charming but really simple to work on, and I enjoy working on it. You know, I still shoot film, and I still use old film cameras. I really enjoy them. I love printing photographs. And I don’t enjoy working on a computer. Computers are awesome. They’re really powerful tools, but I don’t enjoy working on them. And I absolutely love working on machine machines, like film cameras. So if you’re doing your work, and you have a choice to work on something that gives you pleasure, or something that you dread – like a keyboard. Seriously, I absolutely dread working on a keyboard. I hate it. I would rather dig a ditch. Seriously, I like shovels and hammers better than keyboards. So I do spurn modern technology as much as possible. That said, I finished Bozo Texino on Final Cut Pro, and it’s a digital movie, not a 16 mm movie. And it really helped the film a lot. So I was able to use the benefits of the digital technology.
I read somewhere you are working on a project about hippie house boat culture. What’s that about?
It’s also this ongoing project, 10 or 12 years and counting. It’s called Sunset Scavenger, and it’s kinda about the end of the technological world. It has to do a little bit with peak oil, the fact that we are coming to an end of the age of cheap petroleum. But in a lot of ways it has to do with this nostalgia that I have for simpler times, a more primitive, more direct way of living.
The house boat community that was in Sausalito, next to San Francisco, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, was really appealing to me. These crazy kids were just living on boats that they made literally out of junk. … These kinda neo-primitive or back-to-the-land way of living is really appealing to me for lots of reasons. For one, it’s because I think that’s where we’re headed as a civilization or as a species. We’re not going to be flying around in jetpacks and Maglev trains. The future is going to look a lot more like the past. There will be small farms, people will have to grow their own food, people will not be able to travel as easily. All the things that cheap fuel makes possible are diminishing. In a sense, it’s kinda terrifying to be going backwards. But it’s kinda appealing in a way, because, yeah, I’d love to live in a simple house that I built myself, or on a boat.
So you welcome that kind of future?
Like it or not, here it comes. It’s here. It’s happening now. In Florida, the banking fiasco and real estate bubble is just another aspect of this contracting economy.
You said in an interview that you like to explore the lives of people who are pushing the limits of freedom in America. Do you put yourself in that category?
I’m definitely drawn to the free. I feel very much like an American artist, like, “Don’t tread on me”. If I’m going to build a house on a boat, whatever, let me. I’m not really a Libertarian, but I think the literature and the history and the culture of this country is really rich with examples of people living in ways that express their freedom. Like hobos and tramps and the literature of that. You know, Jack London. The Beatniks of the ‘50s, you know, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, had a huge impression on me. And then, the punks. Another expresson of freedom where you don’t need a corporate record deal to be a band, and you don’t need to play in an arena. You’re part of a network of other freedom-loving individuals, and the country’s yours.
What group exemplifies those values today? A lot of people would say the punk thing has died out.
“Punk” is a word that means not just a music scene, but an ethos. But, yeah, you know, it’s definitely time for another revolution. That’s for sure.
Check out this clip from Who Is Bozo Texino?, and stay tuned for an update on the Jan. 24 Miami screening.