The Thrill Without The Tropes: An Interview Of Screenwriter Isa Mazzei & Actor Madeline Brewer On The Occasion Of Cam's Premiere On Netflix

text by Summer Bowie

portraits by Remy Holwick

film stills courtesy of Divide/Conquer


For anyone who has painstakingly worked to build and curate their Instagram page, only to have it disabled unexpectedly, you know just how devastating the loss can be. For those whose accounts have been hacked, the consequences can be much worse. Thus is the case for Alice (played by Madeline Brewer), a young and ambitious camgirl on the rise, who is relentlessly creating new shows and characters to improve her ranking on freegirls.live, a fictional camming site, designed and created specifically for the film. When Alice’s account is hacked and hijacked by someone with an uncanny resemblance, she is forced to outwit her doppelgänger while watching her own identity, both online and irl, degrade rapidly. Aside from the psychic thrill that the narrative provides, this film offers a refreshing subversion to the standard tropes that come from the sexy, horror genre. From the ways that sex work is represented in the film, to the ways that the screenwriter, Isa Mazzei and director, Daniel Goldhaber challenge the standard director-authorship, this film provides a wealth of new templates to consider that are seemingly radical, yet unsurprisingly, quite logical. In Mazzei and Goldhaber’s Cam, the hyper-indulgent and semi-private world of camming is given life in a way that is instantly translatable by the genre. A surreal, thrill ride that seeps into your unconscious mind and humanizes the very real people that hitherto have been unjustly stigmatized by the film and media industry at large.

SUMMER BOWIE: Isa, you wrote a film that is in many ways inspired by your own experience as a camgirl, but you chose to write a fictional, horror narrative. What drew you to the genre for this project?

ISA MAZZEI: First, I love genre, so that makes sense (laughs). But also, I felt like it was really important for me to bring audiences inside Alice’s experiences...and I think that genre is a really great tool for sharing subversive ideas in a way that’s really commercial and digestible. So to have an audience empathize with a sex worker and have them rooting for her to return to sex work… while there’s also so much adrenaline, and so much color, and so much action, and you’re on the edge of your seat –– I feel like that was the most effective way that I knew how to really bring audiences into that.

BOWIE: It seems the more horrific the daily news cycle becomes, the more obsessed we as a society become with horror films. What do we find so cathartic about it, and do we ever really exorcise the demons?

MAZZEI: I feel like horror can be really cathartic – absolutely – and I also think horror can be a way to communicate important ideas while still feeling like escapism, and that’s what I think is so cool about it. I don’t think anyone watches Cam and walks out going “Wow, I just watched something really political, and I just watched something really subversive.” I think those things happen on a subconscious level. I think that in a literal sense, Cam is a really fun, exciting movie that brings you into this really colorful, thrilling world for ninety minutes...and the work that it does that I think is really important is kind of on a more subconscious level than that. I think all horror can be used that way, and I think a lot of genre films do that work, and I think that’s why I love them so much. Because again, they’re kind of this way where you feel like you’re escaping from the real world, you feel like you’re in the fantasy space that is very cathartic, full of adrenaline...but actually they can communicate some really important ideas.

 
 

BOWIE: And there’s something really nice about this film and it’s approach to the genre, because I feel like horror in particular has a very rich, misogynist history, and to approach it from this perspective where you’re telling the story of a woman that is not a damsel in distress being chased by a monster is a really nice way to approach the genre.

MAZZEI: Thank you.

MADELINE BREWER: I think that’s what I found so refreshing about watching and doing the film. I’m a big slasher fan, but every situation in a slasher movie is like a young woman...with her boobs hanging out unnecessarily being chased by a much larger man, and that whole visual is just so tired to me now that I have a movie like Cam in my life. There are other ways to tell stories about women in a horror genre without that thing where the ‘slut’ always dies first. This movie still gives you the thrill without any of the tropes.

BOWIE: Madeline, how did you get a hold of the script, and did you initially see yourself playing the role, because I know a lot of reps won’t even show actors a script like this?

BREWER: Yeah, I talked to Danny and Isa about how there were some difficulties with them getting the script out, because not only actors, but actors reps have to be on board with the whole idea. My manager had said something to me like, “Hey, I have this script..I don’t know..it’s about a camgirl. Just have a look, see what you feel.” I read it and I immediately was frightened of it, because I was just like...I don’t know if I can do justice to a story like this, playing three characters. But I was stoked to play a camgirl.

BOWIE: The role demands a certain vulnerability and I understand that the on-set crew was predominantly female. How would you say that affected the vibe on set?

BREWER: Oh my god, we could not have done this I don’t think––I know personally, and I know plenty of actors that would back me up––that in this kind of situation, where you are physically and emotionally vulnerable, where you are literally and figuratively naked, you have to be in a safe environment, in which you are free to explore and express, and take yourself to another level. I’ve been on sets where women have felt uncomfortable because some random...I don’t know...crew member ogled them in a way that maybe would make them feel uncomfortable. I think that whole situation was just a non-factor for me because there were so many women, and I feel comfortable around women. But also the fact that there was a crew that….they knew what they were getting themselves into, they knew the story that they were telling, so if they weren’t supportive of that, then they would not have been there. It was already like a litmus test that everyone had passed. They were there and willing to be supportive of whatever had to go down to make this film, and a lot of that was me not being clothed.

BOWIE: Isa, you undoubtedly directed yourself in the past as a camgirl. What made you feel confident that Daniel Goldhaber was the right director to bring your script to life?

MAZZEI: I mean, a lot of things. The main thing is that he listens to me. And I think, you know, it’s easy to look back and say we’ve been collaborating for ten years, I trust him and his shot. You know, in the past I had hired him to shoot porn for me, and direct some videos that I had made, but at the end of the day the most important thing about him is that he listens to me. When I said, you know, “this is how she would hold her body in this scene,” it was kind of this three-way collaboration. She already knew those things, and I knew those things, and to have a director that would just kind of say, “Okay, I trust you and I’m not going to force anything onto the scene or onto the character that you’re telling me is not real or valid.” From day one of collaborating on the script, Danny always deferred to my judgement calls, especially on representation of the female body and performative femininity, and performative sexuality; all of those.

BOWIE: And the two of you share equal credit for the film. Was this a decision that the two of you made from the beginning, or did it happen somewhere along the way?

MAZZEI: That happened along the way. Initially, I was just writing it and he was going to direct it. But it became pretty clear in the beginning of the collaboration that we were building the story together, we were building the world together. We were discussing things like how we were going to shoot scenes while I was still writing them, and while we were still workshopping them. I had a lot of opinions and insight on the actors that I wanted, and the crew that we wanted, and what kind of DP I wanted, and how we wanted to include as many women as possible on set, and all of these decisions. So, it became pretty clear that it was something we were making together. We always like to say it’s like 100% his movie and 100% my movie, and there’s no way to tease apart the ownership more than that. It’s a shared vision, it’s been a shared vision, and that’s what we decided.

BOWIE: The platform used in the film, freegirls.live, so closely resembles that of any social media platform with live capabilities that the basic act of camming is actual pretty familiar to most people. Madeline, did you have any personal experience with going live and juggling your attention between the performance and a live stream of comments and requests?

BREWER: The act of being live online and responding to a livestream of comments was totally new to me, I had never experienced anything like that before. I mean also what we were doing was synced up and I knew what they were going to say, and then the responses and everything. But it’s quick paced, very live and interactive and I watched a lot of cams in preparation in our pre-production time, and even during shoots to get kind of a refresher. I had a few camgirls that I liked in particular for their little quirks and nuances, so I watched them and how they interact. The things they say and what kind of inside jokes they have with their room, and their guys and all of that. It was something that I was totally unfamiliar with in that aspect, but what I was familiar with was that kind of performative identity that we all have online, and that feeling of always showing your best self, and the most ‘attractive,’ for lack of a better word, part of you to your internet following. The more time I spend on the internet, the more I learn about it. For example, someone I know who knows Kim Kardashian; all of her candid shots are completely staged. Everything she does is a business, and it’s all so perfectly cultivated and curated. This film in general has made me look a lot more at how I present myself online, and even whatever level of transparency I think I do have. I’ll never be totally transparent because the only people I reserve that for are my mother and my closest friends.

BOWIE: I read that Pink Narcissus was a major inspiration for the set of Alice’s room. That film has such a great tension between intimate vulnerability and performative indulgence. It’s more peep show than porn. Why have we seen so many films about strippers, porn stars and prostitutes, but never anything about peep shows or camming? Is it just too gray an area?

MAZZEI: One of the draws of camming in general is that there is this gray area between: Are they a performer? Or are you actually getting to know the real person? There’s definitely this line that a lot of performers walk, where a lot of them don’t say, “This is my cam room,” they’ll say “This is my bedroom.” And maybe it will be their real bedroom. I worked out of my real bedroom for a long time before I built my own “pink” room that I had. There’s an appeal to that, because unlike a stripper, where you know you’re getting a performance, you know that you’re at their place of work...when you’re watching a camgirl, there is this blurring of a fantasy where you feel exactly that – you feel like maybe you’re seeing into their real life a little bit. I would often work six to eight hour shifts. I would put dinner on, I would drink coffee, I would be getting up to go to the bathroom...my roommate’s dog would wander through on my camera feed. There’s a level of reality to it that I think is really appealing, and that builds this level of personal intimacy. This is often found in any type of sex work but is especially highlighted in camming. So, for the Pink Room, we drew a lot of inspiration from that, and for me it was just important to build a space where we could not only show that Alice has a curated space that she works from – this kind of fever dream fantasy space – but also to kind of contrast this space to her real life. Because what I found when I was working, and what sex workers are often not credited with enough, is how much they dedicate their craft...how calculated and dedicated they can be. So Alice has this space that is intensely curated, very much thought out and decorated with all of her props and all the things she might possibly need. Then she has her house – and her house is not even unpacked, it’s still in boxes, it’s messy, there’s takeout food. She is giving everything to this space and, as I had mentioned, this craft. And that’s a side of sex work that I wanted to show, and I wanted to be really clear in this visual juxtaposition of this really curated space and then this kind of sloppy, still expensive, but not quite so deliberate space that she exists in outside of her work.

BOWIE: Madeline, as you were following several camgirls, what were the characters that you were drawn to? What was it about a specific camgirl? Can you give an example of one that you felt was really honing the craft?

BREWER: There were aspects of some camgirls that I would watch that would take on the persona of a little more girly...or there was a sweetness, or an innocence to them that I felt when I watched, which was totally part of an act…I believe...I don’t know, but there was a lot of quirkiness to them that I really enjoyed. It felt very human, and I guess that is what is attractive about cam – you feel like you’re watching a real person. I feel like as a performer myself - and for these camgirls as performers - we’re constantly highlighting things about our personalities that we want to make a little bit louder or exaggerating them, and then not including too much of the things we don’t want other people to see. It’s all there, it’s all underneath, whereas someone like the camgirls that I related to when I was playing Lola II, who were purely so enigmatic, and so unobtainable seemingly, that I wanted to model Lola II after, but without losing the fact that it’s based on Alice. I watched a lot of cam. I watched these girls day and night and just...the best word is “stole” from them what performative things they were putting in their shows that I felt fit Lola I or II, I just kind of stole them.

BOWIE: And I’m sure that’s a process for other camgirls. Isa, maybe you can speak to that. Do other cam girls watch each other and get ideas? Is it a very interactive evolution?

MAZZEI: Oh absolutely! There’s varying degrees of that: There are girls who draw a lot of inspiration for each other, there are girls who accuse each other of stealing their show ideas. I know when I was working there was one girl who claimed that she had copyrighted a certain type of show and that if you performed it, you would get in trouble. There was also sharing ideas, or saying “I have this really cool idea for a show that you should do because you’re also really good at this type of thing,” and even collaboration between girls is really cool because there’s a lot of creativity there. Where I would work with a model, maybe a non-nude model, and I was definitely a very nude, very sexual model, and so us coming together creatively to figure out what type of show combines my style with her style, and how we highlight each other in the best way possible, while we maintain our own boundaries and the types of shows that we like to do. It’s a really interesting thing that happens and there’s so much sharing and inspiration there….there’s so many camgirls doing so many types of things, it’s quite mind blowing.

BOWIE: In addition to playing a wide range of characters, camgirls encounter an equally wide array of fans and benefactors. It seems that navigating this landscape safely and with dignity is almost an olympian feat. In your experience, Isa, do most camgirls have to learn how to do this alone, without any guidance?

MAZZEI: I think some girls are really integrated into cam girl communities and some girls aren’t. I think an important thing to remember is that every girl that’s camming is camming from a laptop or a computer somewhere in the world, so it’s not this thing when you’re in a sort of club with all your fellow dancers around you. It can be really isolating, it can be really hard. The only camgirls that I knew were the ones that I met through Twitter and I would fly to see them. I was recognized once in a coffee shop by another girl that cammed, who approached me and said, “Hey I cam too!” but that’s the only encounter in real life where I’ve actually met someone who lived in my hometown who did it. For the most part you’re pretty on your own, and I think that girls can choose to be really into these communities; they can choose to live together, they can choose to share and get advice from each other, and they can also choose to work in isolation and do their own thing. I think there’s a wide variety of that. When it comes to men, another misconception I think is that all the tippers on the site are middle-aged divorced men. I think if you look at just my fans, most of them were men...I had a couple women viewers, and a couple non-binary viewers. For the most part they were men but I also had a wide spectrum: I had married men, I had single men in their twenties, I had, like, fuckin’ hot men, I had men that worked in porn, men that were in their sixties or seventies who really didn’t know how to use the internet. You know, different levels of income, different levels of employment, interest, and I think that’s what’s cool about camming. A cam site is a place where all these different types of viewers in general can really find a person that they genuinely connect with.

BOWIE: I want to talk about the casting a bit. For any Paul Thomas Anderson fan, Melora Walters is a god among actors, and in this film, the two of you have a very tenuous relationship that is delicate and subtle. What was it like to play her daughter?

BREWER: To be on set with her was such a gift in itself, and hanging out a little bit. She’s such a pro, but she’s also so open to conversation and to how we both interpreted our relationship. I know that on Isa and Danny’s side, she had a lot of feelings and input about the script and her lines.

MAZZEI: Yeah, I mean, Melora was awesome. She came in right away...I was very much writing a mother from the perspective of a daughter. What I was so grateful to Melora for was that she literally would come in every day and be like “I wrote this line. I rewrote this line. I rewrote this part. I want to see this happen.” And she really engaged with those discussions as a mother, saying things like, “I really sat down and thought about what it would be like if my daughter were doing cam and I found out this way.” I really was blown away by the perspective that she brought in and how well she did that, and how it was very natural for her to just embody this character. So, I found working with her a really cool process.

BOWIE: Madeline, you’ve now played several major roles in shows like Orange is the New Black, Black Mirror, and The Handmaid’s Tale. In the midst of the Brett Kavanaugh circus, we can see clearly why the dystopian present and women in bondage is currently such a recurring theme. What do you think of the protesters who have appeared in Washington in Handmaid costumes?

BREWER: The fact that the design that we wear every day when we go to work on this show–– we’re just actors and we work in Hollywood, and the fact that those designs that Ann Crabtree made from her heart and from her inspiration from Margaret Atwood’s book–– they’re being taken and used as a symbol of resistance, and there is truly no better life for them. It’s great that they’re on the show but the life of this symbol of women’s resistance and women’s refusal to sit down, and shut up, and let old white men make decisions for them; it’s the best possible life that your art can take on. A whole new life as a symbol.

BOWIE: Finally, Isa aside from the release of your first film on Netflix, your first book, CAMGIRL, is slated for release in November 2019. What can we expect from the book that wasn’t expressed in the film?

MAZZEI: I think that the book serves to work along with the film to kind of normalize and bring to light this subculture that not a lot of people are talking about. The book is really fun, it’s funny, it’s not at all like the movie. But I feel like often people come out of that film saying “Whoa, is that what it was really like, and where did the inspiration come from, what were your shows actually like?” So I think the book can serve to answer those questions, and also serve as another tool to reach more people, and raise people inside this world, and say that it’s just normal people doing this. It’s just another job that people have and it can be something that is not only a career but also really empowering to women. There’s this misconception that is predominantly held by men, but also can be held by women: that selling your body is somehow disempowering. Not to pretend that there aren’t victims. In the sex work industry there is often exploitation, but there is also a huge huge portion of the industry that is women reclaiming power over their bodies. I’ve been catcalled, I’ve been insulted, I’ve been abused, I’ve been sexually harassed for my entire life, and now I’m setting these boundaries, and I’m saying “Oh, you want to look at my body? You’re gonna pay me. You want to touch my body, you’re gonna pay me.” And that reclamation of power is an incredible tool for some women to heal and again, to build empires around themselves. So, I hope that the book can speak to that and just be another piece of the puzzle of trying to have people empathize with sex workers, look at sex workers a little differently, and I definitely think when they’re going in to vote, either to put someone in office or vote on legislation that does affect sex workers, they can look at it a little differently than they did before.

Cam is available now on Netflix.

All Or Nothing: A Conversation With The Legendary Artist, Writer And Cultural Survivalist Jack Walls

text and interview by Adam Lehrer

Getting to talk to your heroes is a double-edged sword. On one hand, there is a massive sense of glee and feeling of, “Damn I’m doing it” that arises in anticipation of the conversation. On the other hand, the recourse of the hero in question becoming an actual flawed human being stripped of the mystical powers that you have built up around them in your mind is a serious concern. That made it all the more gratifying to me that after talking to artist and writer Jack Walls, the man became both more human AND more mythic to me throughout the conversation.

Walls is known throughout the art world as many things. A poet. A creator of images. A romantic. The long-term boyfriend of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. A perennial outsider artist rebel. An icon.

He dreamed of being a writer and an artist since he was a South Chicago gang-affiliated youth in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, surely being one of the few men to look tough with an Oscar Wilde book in his hand. With a penchant for adventure, he joined the Navy in the ‘70s, settling in New York City after.

Walls became a slightly enigmatic downtown NYC staple as Mapplethorpe’s boyfriend in the ‘80s, often appearing in Mapplethorpe’s images clad in tight jeans and a tank top. After Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Walls embarked on a film career, studying at Chicago Filmmakers. He tried to get a Mapplethorpe biopic off the ground for years before being frustrated into stagnation in the ‘90s.

When Ryan McGinley, Dash Snow, and Dan Colen formulated a new downtown NYC rebel art scene in the late ‘90s, they all uniformly cited one artist as a massive influence: Jack Walls. The trio was hell bent on having Walls become a mentor of sorts to them, perhaps even a father figure, and eventually Walls relented. Through the process, an entirely new generation of art weirdoes found themselves interested in the work of Jack Walls. He was the subject of a solo exhibit at RARE this past summer, while another exhibition Paintings, Et Cetera opened up at Basilica in Hudson. Though Walls claims to have no interest in the “antiquated system” that is the art world, the art world is surely interested in him.

His writing is also getting more attention than ever. His poem The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn, an epic rumination on love, grief, and life after love, garnered near unanimous praise. Indeed, it’s a devastating read.

Few artists have been able to shift between visual art and the written word as seamlessly as Walls. When photographing him for this article in Gramercy Park, it’s clear as to why: the man oozes soul and poetry. Just sitting still, he gives off the presence of a man deep in profound contemplation. Walls and I were able to speak at length on, well, everything: his early impressions of literature, Mapplethorpe, Dash and crew, the art world, and the strength that can only be achieved through tremendous grief.

Now based in Hudson Valley, Walls is as active as ever.

ADAM LEHRER: When you went to the Navy, you took three books with you: the dictionary, the Bible, and Babel by Patti Smith. The dictionary and the Bible are, of course, important works for any aspiring writer, but what was it about Patti Smith’s book that made it the third essential book? How did it affect you as a writer?

JACK WALLS: I discovered Babel before I knew anything about Patti as a singer. I was listening to soul music. The punk thing was new. I was aware of Patti’s image, but I never listened to her. I saw that she had a book out, and I picked it up. Every time I would look back at a passage, it did something else. Right away, I knew that this was not something you read in one reading. It’s something that evolves. I thought it was interesting how she flipped language back on itself. I knew it was special. It was something that you can pick up and read starting anywhere—just like the Bible and the dictionary.

LEHRER: So you love words?

WALLS: Mm-hmm.

LEHRER: I think all artistically inclined people have one thing they’re sensitive to. Maybe a painter is sensitive to visuals. A musician is sensitive to sounds. Are you more sensitive to words than you are to visuals?

WALLS: No. I look at words as paintings. Any good writing is visual. Any good sentence paints a picture. Having said that, I spend a lot of time with photographers. [A lot of them] don’t read. Beyond that, they’re terrible spellers. Their whole thing is visual. I don’t know if that’s true of all photographers; no one’s today. But from my own personal experience, I can tell you. One of them was Robert. There are others that I’d rather not mention.

LEHRER: When you started reading heavily in Chicago—James Baldwin, Oscar Wilde—did literature fill a void that you were, up to that point, filling with gangs and that sort of lifestyle?

WALLS: I always knew how to draw and paint. They say God gives everyone a gift, and I took it for granted. The challenge for me was wanting to be a writer. When I was in seventh grade, I read Manchild in the Promised Land. I was obsessed with that book. Where I grew up, on the South Side of Chicago, wasn’t [that different] from Harlem, though Harlem was much more gritty. Even though it was tough, it was still sugarcoated in the way Claude Brown wrote Manchild in the Promised Land. It made me want to go to New York. It made me want to be a writer. It made me want to try heroin. I thought that I would have a better chance at success as a writer than as a painter. The tools were minimal—a pencil and a piece of paper. If you were big time, you would have a typewriter. To be a painter and an artist, you would need a whole arsenal of utilities. It’s a lot to carry around. Having said that, even as I was trying to make myself into a writer, I had sketchbooks. I was always doodling. I always had the reputation of being a good drawer. When I was in the military and in gangs, people would always say, “You draw so good.”

LEHRER: You describe yourself as a romantic, or being invested in romanticism. Especially from a certain time period, there’s a romantic vision of a writer. I always think of William S. Burroughs with a hashpipe sitting in a nice bed somewhere. Did you have a romantic vision of being a writer?

WALLS: Oh, yeah. I didn’t join the Navy because I was patriotic. I joined the Navy because I wanted to see the world. By that time, I had stumbled across Genet. Before I joined the Navy, I was going to the gay bars on the North Side. There were always these soldiers coming from Great Lakes, which was the naval base outside of Chicago. That sparked my imagination.

LEHRER: So, you were thirsting for experience more than anything, and hoping to filter that into your writing?

WALLS: I knew that in order for me to write, I had to go out and have adventures. I was joining the navy to write about it later. At that point, before the Navy, what was my experience? West Side Story? That was done already. Especially by the time I joined the Navy in the late ‘70s, the narrative of growing up in the inner city and being a gangbanger—that was uninteresting.

LEHRER: I read your interview with Ryan McGinley in Vice some years back. You said that gang life had a romanticism to it. Do you still feel that way? Maybe it was romantic when you were involved with it, but now hearing about what’s happening on the South Side of Chicago, there doesn’t seem to be anything romantic about it.

WALLS: Back then, we were still basically living in the 1930s. We were fashioning ourselves off Bonnie and Clyde. We were mimicking Humphrey Bogart, John Dillinger, James Cagney. We even dressed like that. I look back at it now as play-acting. These kids today are play-acting, but they’re play-acting Scarface. These guys go to Iraq, and they come back to gangbang. They learn how to gangbang in that war with real weapons. So it’s a real difference. People are not so naïve. It’s hard to romanticize people flying planes into the World Trade Center. There’s nothing romantic about that at all.

LEHRER: When you got out of the Navy, were you already making art and/or writing, or did you kind of start when you met Robert?

WALLS: I was always doing it. But I was doing it because it was what I did. I didn’t go to art school. Some people move to Manhattan specifically to start hanging out in galleries. I wasn’t overtly thinking like that. I got real jobs. I worked as an usher in a movie theatre. I tried to be a waiter. Then, I ended up as an office clerk for a car company. That’s what I was doing when I met Robert.

LEHRER: When you met him, did you know he was a famous photographer, or were you just attracted to him?

WALLS: It comes back to Babel. In Babel, one of the first pictures is of this guy holding up what I thought was a string. It was a self-portrait of Robert pushing the plunger to take the picture. I didn’t realize that was him when I met him. I was living with Robert for several months [when I realized it was him]. I went to St. Mark’s Bookstore, and they had reissued Babel. I picked it up, and when I opened the book, the picture of the guy with the string was Robert. This book… This guy—I carried it around with me for my entire military career. I didn’t put two and two together until we had known each other for about a year. And I was like, “Babe, that’s you.”


"Grief and romanticism is the same thing. If you can romanticize grief, I don’t want to say you hit the jackpot, but you really have something. What are you going to do, wallow in it?"


LEHRER: That’s amazing.

WALLS: I think experiences happen to you for a reason. And then there’s the simple fact that I’m here. Why am I here? Robert died of AIDS; most of the people I know died of AIDS. Here I am at 58-years old, healthy as a horse for the most part. Is there some sort of plan? I didn’t have my first one-man show until I was 50. I was minding my own business when I met Ryan McGinley, Dan Colen, and Dash Snow. This was the late ‘90s. In the late ‘90s, the art world had shifted, especially the young art world. It was more independent films and Sundance. Sam Rockwell. Jeffrey Wright. The list goes on and on. The art world was wide open for Ryan and Dash.

LEHRER: Those guys turned out to be incredibly successful and influential. What did you find so exciting about them when you first met them?

WALLS: Nothing.

LEHRER: Haha, nothing?

WALLS: Dash was 17-years old. He was doing this graffiti thing. I thought he was going to get in trouble. He was always running from cops. That’s also when the point and shoot came out. Photography was getting easier. Everybody became a photographer, as evidenced by Instagram. Dan Colen had just got off at RISD. He was the only one that seemed to have a plan. The first painting he ever did, which we showed to me, said “JACK.” Just my name, and he had fake diamonds and all this stuff in it. His plan was to only make two paintings a year, but they were going to cost $20,000. He thought he could make $40,000 a year, and that would be it. I didn’t know it was going to take off the way it did. I remember when Ryan told me that he was going to have a show at the Whitney. I thought it was never going to happen.

LEHRER: Were they nuisances? Were they destined to have you as their mentor?

WALLS: I don’t know. I used to party with them. We would be hanging out in Cherry Tavern. It didn’t occur to me that I would be a mentor. It was more organic, I guess. Their pictures were so good; VICE became interested in them. Ryan became their photo editor. Dash was taking pictures and that’s when he was doing these photo-realism things.

LEHRER: I feel like people are so interested in Dash because of this lifestyle or this myth that he created around himself. People forget that there was a lot of emotion and a lot of politics in his work.

WALLS: Oh yeah. He used to drive me crazy. Everything was an inside joke. Dash got locked up in LA, so he had to do some time out there. Once you get locked up, the white people hang out with the white people, the black people hang out with the black people. Dash’s natural instinct is to hang out with black kids. He goes over to them, and they say, “Uh, you can’t do that.” He was a natural rebel. And that was a part of his charm. The kid didn’t give a fuck either, which is really important. I don’t give a fuck either.

LEHRER: It was almost like a rejection of the art world, but then it became almost the status quo in the art world.

WALLS: It was not aimed at trying to impress people in the art world. That’s what it has to be. It has to be like: “Fuck you.” When I was with Robert, I saw how the art world worked. He wanted to be this “artist person.” But I actually saw the politics and mechanizations of the art world. And then Jean-Michel—poor thing. His approach to the art world was all attitude and spirit, and the art world fell at his feet.

LEHRER: You’re one of the few guys who was a part of the 1980s art world—Basquiat, Keith Harring, Robert—and the next big wave—with Dash, Dan, and those guys. Do you worry that that epic downtown scene is becoming impossible in the city now?

WALLS: Oh, it’s terrible now. We were living in the center of the universe. Now, the center of the universe is the Internet. That’s what it all boils down to. I think it’s a good tool to use to get a point across and show art. But some people want to take pictures of food all day long, or take pictures of cats.

LEHRER: I wanted to talk to you about the screenplay you wrote—Somebody’s Sins—about Robert’s early years. I know it got scrapped, but given the enduring influence he’s had, do you think you would revisit it?

WALLS: It’s being revisited right now.

LEHRER: No shit? That’s fantastic.

WALLS: I wrote that in the ‘90s. I was trying to get it picked up by Hollywood. When I first met Ryan, it was lying around, and he read it in one sitting. So that’s what I was doing in the ‘90s, writing about Robert’s early years before he became famous. But it didn’t happen. And 9/11 happened, which kickstarted me into doing paintings and making things to show.

LEHRER: After the movie didn’t come through, and you were in that period of stagnation, were you disappointed about the project, or was it deeper than that?

WALLS: What I learned from that was that any contract can be broken. In Hollywood and in New York, everybody signed on the dotted line, and it just didn’t happen. It was written about in the press and everything. I have a scrapbook of this shit. They tried to resuscitate that thing a bunch of times. About three years ago, I rewrote it. In this version, Robert is dead by page 30. When he dies, we’re already a half hour into the movie. Then, it covers Ryan McGinley and Dash Snow—they come into it. And I stopped at 64 pages. I left it open-ended. I wouldn’t call it a documentary. It’s a piece of art.

LEHRER: You have always been pretty interested in cinema, even before you went to the Chicago Filmmakers to study?

WALLS: How could you not? I grew up watching the Golden Age of film—Bette Davis, Joan Crawford. Those people know how to act. There was none of this Keanu Reeves bullshit. That’s not acting. These are personalities saying words. They lead these scandalous lives, they drink blood or whatever, and then they go make movies.

LEHRER: There are some great actors out there—Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender. And Sean Baker just made Tangerine. He wanted to make that movie so badly that he filmed it all on his iPhone. I feel like now is an excellent time for your movie ideas to come to life because there are so many people getting them made.

WALLS: Absolutely. Hollywood is like the art world. It’s an antiquated system. I have friends around my age that are trying to make films. They’re always going around looking for money. They look ridiculous. On top of that, you don’t really need money. All you need is energy and half a brain. You can figure it out. If you have a computer, you can do just about anything. If people stop spending so much time watching porn on their computers, maybe they could get something done.

LEHRER: Did you ever have trouble identifying as an “artist?”

WALLS: Don’t get me wrong; I worked real jobs. The artist thing came later. I didn’t even start considering myself an artist until those kids—Dash, Ryan, and Dan—started getting all this press and talking about me like, “Artist/writer Jack Walls was a really big influence on them.” To this very day, whenever someone introduces me as an artist, the stress kicks in. When someone comes up to me and asks, “What do you do?” I say, “My name is Jack Walls. Google it.” They’re asking to be entertained. Are you kidding me? Then, there’s the other side. There are people who want to always talk about what they’re doing. “Oh, I work in small construction pieces, and then there’s this collage.” Fucking shut up. I’d rather hang out with musicians. You just hand them a guitar. They actually do something.

LEHRER: Patti Smith came out with Just Kids. I’m assuming you read it.

WALLS: Oh, of course. I had my “Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn” show, and she came. She gave me the first signed copy hot off the press.

LEHRER: What was it like to read about Robert from the perspective of a woman who loved him before Robert really knew who he was?

WALLS: She is a really good writer, but I’ve heard those stories. I heard them from her; I heard them from him. It was nice to open her book.

LEHRER: I read an interview of you in Hillbilly Magazine, and you said there was a part of you that hated the art world. Do you still hate the art world?

WALLS: It is what it is. The whole thing is really smoke and mirrors. It’s maybe the same twenty people that are trying to control things from the top. Then there’s everybody else. I am what I am, but I’m still not a mainstream artist. I’m still on the outside, basically. I was never really accepted by the art world. I wanted to be left alone for the most part. Some people in the art world are really good people. But here’s the thing: Ryan and Dan became everything in the art world that I was trying to avoid.

LEHRER: You mean an art star, basically?

WALLS: Yeah.

LEHRER: You have such a loyal support base. There are artists out there who love your work so much. So you were able to infiltrate that world.

WALLS: It wasn’t intentional.

LEHRER: Are you content these days with where your career and your life have taken you?

WALLS: I’m open to having shows. I want to show. I want people to like my art and buy my art. I really do enjoy the art world in that I’m happy for the young people that are coming up now. They’re trying to change the game. The kids now in their mid-20s, they have so many inspirations around them—whether it’s me, Ryan, Dash, Warhol. You could even go back and study Renoir or Van Gogh. It’s all laid out. It’s there for the taking.

LEHRER: I want to talk to you about “The Ebony Prick of the White Rose’s Thorn.” I love the line in there, “I dream so much of you that I might never reawaken, et cetera.” You have suffered tremendous loss throughout your life. Is it easier for you to work through grief, or does grief just floor you?

WALLS: Grief and romanticism is the same thing. If you can romanticize grief, I don’t want to say you hit the jackpot, but you really have something. What are you going to do, wallow in it? Just accept it. Actually, like it. It’s emotional to grieve. You don’t get to experience it all the time. I took a friend with me to the [Dash Snow show at the] Brandt Foundation, a new friend that I’ve only been seeing for a couple of months. We go for a drink afterwards, and we’re in this bar. All of a sudden, he bursts out crying. I’m like, “What’s the matter with you?” He says, “Jack, I was so moved today.” The whole theme was a lot about grief. Grief is when it gets you. I try to be a badass sometimes. I try to say I’m not even thinking about that shit. It’s when it gets you. My father died in May of 2001. I didn’t grieve that until about ten years later. It’s going to get you at some point.

LEHRER: Was it about unresolved issues, or just because that’s how it happened?

WALLS: I couldn’t go there. I didn’t even go to the funeral. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go home. This might just be me, but you can’t be a normal person and expect to be an artist at the same time. For me, it’s all or nothing.


Jack Walls' The Ebony Prick of The White Rose's Thorn can be purchased here. Follow Jack Walls on Instagram (@hifibangalore). Text and interview by Adam Lehrer. Photographs by Scout MacEachron. Follow Autre on Instagram: @AUTREMAGAZINE