Q&A with 'Uncle Howard' Director Aaron Brookner
Following our review of Uncle Howard we talk to the film’s director, Aaron Brookner about the emotional complexity in making the film, the generation lost to the AIDS/HIV epidemic and solidifying his Uncle’s legacy.
Q. When did you first realise this was a story that needed to be told?
While I was attempting to rescue Howard [Brookner’s] film works I also had an urge to rescue his legacy somehow. I had first started talking with Howard’s inner circle around Burroughs: The Movie - Brad Gooch, James Grauerholz, John Giorno, Jim Jarmusch, Sara Driver, and Tom DiCillo - because we all wanted to find a missing clean print or negative. It struck me how rich in detail, exciting and fresh everyone’s’ memories were of Howard and especially that time. Meanwhile the actual recovery of that film and Howard’s other works began to become something of a strange adventure in its own right. I thought I could put all these pieces together at that point and tell a story about who Howard was, what he did, why he was so important to me, and the journey of recovering film and memory.
Q. Is your priority remembering your Uncle as an artist or to highlight the dark days of pre-treatment AIDS?
Howard was very much an artist of his time - bold and cutting edge - and my priority was always telling his story. A significant part of his and so many others’ story was that they would end up suffering from an awful plague and many of them did not survive. They should have, but they were persecuted against.
Q. The film seems incredibly valuable to those who now (perhaps) see HIV treatment as a given, and is a beautiful tribute to those who died too soon. Was this part of your plan?
I thought if I could tell Howard’s story truthfully and give a sense of his life and times I could also then comment on the larger epidemic from a personal perspective. Howard was not alone. He was part of an entire community and a movement. I personally found it very powerful when watching his 33rd birthday party tape with Brad Gooch, and Brad realizing aloud he lost almost 100 hundred friends - like everyone he knew - many of them were really bold artists challenging and re-shaping culture. It’s mind-boggling to think of living that situation in your 30s and it’s important to remember those who were lost.
Q. This must have been an incredibly emotional journey for you, how important was it to you to gain assistance from Howard’s friends and acquaintances in addition to you being able to retell your own experiences with him?
Everyone being so keen to reconnect with Howard via memory and making this film was absolutely vital. No one person knew the same Howard, he seemed to live many different lives in one, yet he was always himself which is remarkable. The willingness of his friends to open up also encouraged me to explore my own emotional and also very personal journey in the film - which wasn’t something I was necessarily comfortable doing at first. Howard’s friends, family and everyone who worked on this film also really kept the film going, no one more than the film’s producer, Paula Vaccaro, because beyond the emotionality of it this was also a very challenging film to make.
Q. There appears to be a direct line between Howard’s work and your own, what is your preference, documentary filmmaking or drama?
Taking a page from Sara Driver’s line in the film, I’m interested in finding new ways to tell stories on film. I never saw Uncle Howard as a documentary per se, but just a story that I was telling on film. Having said that I’m probably more inclined towards fiction filmmaking - my next film is fiction, an adaptation of Darryl Pinckney’s novel Black Deutschland.
Q. The scenes in the bunker are particularly moving, can you describe what this place means to you?
The film’s editor, Masahiro Hirakubo’s favourite cut in the film was from my entering the Bunker for the first time to the bunker scene in Burroughs: The Movie because it was a 30 year cut! As you see, the location was pretty much identical. All that changed was time. It was probably the closest thing to time travel I’ll ever experience. I got a real sense of being with Howard and Burroughs, toiling with the same film cans in the same very creative space as they had. I was very happy Jim Jarmusch could come down and be there with me. It had been 30 years for him since he had been there. He was very moved by the experience as well. That was a profound afternoon.
Q. Do you think you would have followed a career in filmmaking without the influence of Howard?
My father was, and is, a big movie buff so I’m sure I would have been interested in film. But pursing it as a career I’m not sure. I was equally interested in painting and sculpture growing up, so I might have just pursued fine arts without Howard’s influence.