Richard Dewey and Timothy Marrinan were not the first to be seduced by “Urban Light,” the patch of lamps installed at the front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that emanate a soft glow that cuts through the cool night sky in the city. However, in spending some time already with its architect Chris Burden, who had turned his attention to reshaping industrial artifacts into evocative structures expressing the human creativity needed to forge them after making waves as a death-defying performance artist during the ‘70s, the filmmakers were compelled to do something that few would even consider – embarking on a career overview of a radical artist who resisted linearity in his work at all costs.
This isn’t to say that Dewey and Marrinan’s “Burden” isn’t deeply true to the intentions of its subject, placing as much, if not more, importance on the reaction to Burden’s art as the Los Angeles-based multi-disciplinarian did himself by allowing his associates and admirers in the art world to share their experiences of being there during various points of creation as you see it for yourself. Infamous pieces such as “Match Piece,” his 1972 experiment where he flicked lit matches at his then-wife, or his later sculptures such as “Metropolis II,” a city in miniature where cars zoom around frenetically which also resides at LACMA, are given equal consideration without driving towards firm conclusions, giving the film the tantalizing hook of interpreting how Burden’s reactions to his own work propelled his own evolution as an artist as Dewey and Marrinan follow him from scrapping together attention-grabbing performance pieces to finding refuge at a majestic workshop in the hills of Topanga Canyon, where he collects discarded railroad tracks and other urban ephemera waiting for the spirit to move him to use it.
Though Burden passed away two years ago, just as Dewey and Marrinan were wrapping up filming on their doc, he couldn’t have found a stronger way to compliment the legacy he left behind by continuing to intrigue and inspire than this film about his life and on the eve of the film’s release, Dewey and Marrinan spoke of the responsibility they felt in creating what unexpectedly became a posthumous portrait of the artist, as well as finding the perfect musical accompaniment for Burden’s mischief-making and how they took their cues from Burden on how to present his work.
Timothy Marrinan: We actually first got to know Chris because we interviewed Chris for an art magazine, Whitewall, which Rich and I worked together on. Then after that, we actually made a short film just following the buildup to the creation of one of [Chris’] sculptures, a piece called “Beamdrop Antwerp,” and on the back of that, we approached Chris about doing a larger project looking more broadly at his life and work. Getting to know Chris leading up to the feature [during the making of the short] was pretty essential to making the film because it gave us time to get to know Chris, for him to trust us and to find a good way of working together, so it built up over time.
I seem to recall you mentioning during a Q & A that before filming you compiled a list of 11 or 12 pieces to build a film around. How did you structure this around them?
Richard Dewey: Yeah, we isolated pieces that we thought were both important to his career and that had a different element to them [from each other]. Some of the performances like “Bedpiece,” which isn’t one of those, had endurance to them or a danger element, and as far as the performances go, we worked with pieces where [we knew we could talk to] someone who was there and could give a really great first-hand account. In a similar vein, with the sculptures, we had people that worked on “Urban Light” or “Metropolis” with [Chris], so it was really about picking pieces that spanned his career that each said something different about his work or his process.
Timothy Marrinan: We wanted to explore the art, and the ideas and motivation behind it, the motivation, so that was really the starting point and as Rich says, we started with a handful of pieces that we thought were really important in different ways, but then it was about picking ones that were important transition points for him where he was moving in a new direction or points where it intersected with aspects of his personal life – that’s certainly true of his performance pieces. We wanted to give a sense of who Chris was as a person, where those ideas were coming from and what he was like, but the starting point for everything was his artwork and that was true also not only in the structure of the film, but the design of the film. We wanted to build off his aesthetic rather than going in some very different direction.
Timothy Marrinan: That actually came directly from Chris’ ideas about art. As you see in the film, we talk about his early interest in sculpture [when] he was studying under minimalist professors and he was interested in distilling things down to their essence. He decided the essence of sculpture was movement because to look at a 3D object as opposed to a 2D image, you needed to move in the space in order to explore it. So with his early artwork, he ended up taking that to its limit – [where he was] the movement or the action, becoming the art, and for the sculptures, we wanted to build off his idea and be able to show those in an immersive way with a moving camera, so [we’re often] circling the piece or going up high above it to really be able to show all aspects of it.
Richard Dewey: We also always wanted to present Chris’ full body of work and give equal treatment to the sculptures as we did to the performances. Tim and I didn’t want to weigh in with our own opinion, but just give an objective presentation of this unbelievable career and this unbelievable, really fascinating person and how those evolved over time and really let the arc and the personality speak for itself.
Timothy Marrinan: And the retrospective part of looking back at the sculpture works was something at the start we had a good sense of what we wanted to explore, but the part that evolved more as it went on was the later works because those larger-scale sculptures take shape over many years – and [Chris] would often work on a few things at one time and it would be unclear what one is going to come to the forefront and be exhibited next. So it became a combination of when he makes a [creative] breakthrough on [a piece] or when an institution might have a space and time for it, so the second half of the film took shape more as we were making the film.
There’s a wondrous feeling you get from the film when you visit his studio in Topanga Canyon – was that what the experience was actually like?
Richard Dewey: Yeah, it was. It was wondrous, exciting. It was a real joy getting to talk to Chris and hearing what he was thinking about and working on and what was next on the horizon for him. He was always very generous with his time and he was just a really interesting guy. It was fun to hear what he was thinking about, both on the art front and just other things he was interested in. He had a plane hanging from the inside of the studio and sometimes you’d just get on a 20-minute conversation about aviation.
Timothy Marrinan: Yeah, quite a lot came from him, but then there was a lot of digging with the help of our archival producers to find additional material to really bring those early periods of his career to life and explore some of those ideas he was thinking of at the time. There’s a good bit of stuff in the film that hasn’t been seen before. We found the video recording of his piece “Doomed,” where he’s lying under the sheet of glass for several days, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. Early interviews with Chris were from different places, so it was a bit of a mixture.
The interview with Regis Philbin seems like a particularly important building block – what was it like to find that?
Timothy Marrinan: That was something Chris had actually, which I think was recorded from TV when it was first on. It was fun to see, firstly, just with Regis there, it’s so of its time and just the clothes they’re wearing, it brings the ’70s to life in a nice way, but also it’s really interesting because you see in that interview [Chris] is on a mainstream TV show, but talking about performance art that he was doing at that time that was out there, and you see Regis being quite skeptical to begin with, but maybe gaining a bit of understanding of Chris as the interview goes on. So that was a really nice find, and in general with the archival material, we found that rather than just using Chris today to comment on his earlier work, finding those interviews where he’s actually closer to that time period, making those works and grappling with the ideas of some of those pieces was a nice way to make the time period a bit more immediate rather than something that we’re just looking back at a long time ago.
You have quite evocative music in the film, specifically several appropriately mischievous Andrew Bird tracks. How did he become such a part of this?
Timothy Marrinan: I’ve been a big fan of Andrew Bird for many years before the film and he had an album called “Echo Locations Canyon,” which was recorded in an outdoor field recording style, which really felt connected to the rustic feeling that Topanga had, so that was where the idea came about that maybe Andrew Bird’s music might work well for the film. Actually, our editor Aaron Wickenden had worked with Andrew previously on some other projects, so there was a personal connection there and we met with Andrew and showed him parts of the film and he went away and composed some new stuff, which felt like a perfect fit. So it was a real joy to be able to work with him as well as Roger Goula, a composer in London who composed original stuff for the film.
Richard Dewey: We had to completely rethink the story.
Timothy Marrinan: His illness and passing away was obviously something we could never have anticipated when we started the film. It was a big shock and obviously tragic. He was very vital and had a lot of ideas and a lot of stuff he was still working on, so it was a really sad thing, but if anything, it made us even more determined to make a film that would do justice to his life and his body of work because he’s lived a very interesting life, so we were just determined to share that with people in the right way.
Richard Dewey: A lot of the feedback [to the film] has been really positive in the sense of “Hey, I knew this guy did the performances, but I had no idea he was doing that stuff in L.A.” or vice versa or I’d never heard of this guy and he’s really interesting, so it’s been a real joy in some small way to be able to help spread his work and his life to a broader audience.
“Burden” is now open in New York at the Metrograph and in Cleveland at the Cleveland Cinematheque. It expands on May 12th into limited release, including at the NuArt in Los Angeles. A full list of theaters and dates is here.