When Tamar Halpern arrived in New York earlier this week for the east coast debut of “Llyn Foulkes: One Man Band,” the documentary she co-directed with Chris Quilty, she was greeted with a familiar refrain about the multimedia artist from California, known for his three-dimensional paintings where the time is taken to etch in perspective and his unique brand of music created with a device called The Machine, an amalgamation of multiple instruments, including the drum, bass, xylophone, bicycle horns and cowbells, that can be played as one. Or perhaps not known, as the case may be.
“I was just talking with a friend who’s a huge art collector and best friends with [the famed art dealer] Larry Gagosian, and [he brought up] Llyn Foulkes, and he said [Gagosian] never heard of him,” says Halpern. “It’s insane. These huge art people have no idea that there’s this genius amongst them.”
It’s an issue that they’ve faced time and again during their seven years making “One Man Band” and even in the time after, when after a successful bow at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, the film failed to find much footing on the festival circuit or a distributor. Still, the artist has his fans including Film Forum director Karen Cooper, whose daughter wrote an article about Foulkes in the ‘90s (hence the New York theatrical run of the film) and Brad Pitt, who has Foulkes’ painting “The Awakening” hanging up in one of homes, and if Halpern and Quilty have their way, “One Man Band” will create many more.
Taking on the challenge of capturing an artist who may be defined most by his desire to be unquantifiable, Halpern and Quilty put as much care as Foulkes does into one of his paintings in examining piece by piece an extraordinary career largely relegated to the shadows because of his fierce independence. That meant following Foulkes as he completed “The Last Frontier,” a work eight years in the making due to both the iconoclast’s exacting eye and a near-crippling sense of self-doubt when it comes to finalizing his art. “One Man Band” not only speaks volumes about the man through his process, but weaves in his history as a contemporary of Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles who literally carved out his own path, continually reinventing himself from a painter of atmospheric rock portraits to darkly amusing bloody heads.
As Halpern and Quilty take New York this week with “One Man Band,” they spoke about their triumphant return to the city after a trip with Foulkes changed the trajectory of their film, what it was like for Halpern to discover such a treasure living right next door and how difficult it’s been to get the film in front of audiences.
How did you actually first meet Llyn?
Tamar Halpern: He was a neighbor of mine downtown and he was just such a fascinating character I wrote a part for him in this feature [“Your Name Here”] where he played the grandfather of a 15-year old boy who was trying to start a band. The film is improvised, even though there was a plot and subplots and everybody knew where each theme had to go. It worked really well for Llyn because he got to tell real stories in the film to this young kid who was playing his grandson about the troubles of having a band and how it’s easier to be a one-man band. And he was hilarious.
Chris Quilty: I was Tamar’s sound guy on several of her films, including that one. Llyn just had a small part in it, but I was just really enamored with him and thought what a great documentary subject he would be. I had that in my head for a while and it wasn’t until a little bit later that Tamar called me up and said, let’s do it.
Obviously, this film covers a number of years. Did you know what you were getting into from the get go?
Chris Quilty: We actually started doing a short film that was very specific. It was of [Llyn] finishing his giant painting “The Lost Frontier,” which would show on a loop at his New York opening for that painting. After we finished that 20-minute short, we decided there’s a lot more here, let’s just keep following him and see what happens.
Tamar Halpern: We weren’t 100% sure. We had just spent four months in the studio with him as the pressure built for him to finish this painting and we thought that was an interesting subject — he had had this long, long career of making paintings but somehow had gotten stuck on [“The Lost Frontier”]. We thought that’s an interesting film, finishing this painting and what’s important about it, why did he hold onto it and what does it feel like to let it go?
Then we assumed that his art opening in New York would be well-attended because learning about Llyn and his artwork we thought, this masterpiece being unveiled would be the darling of Chelsea. It was a fluke that we decided to even follow him [to the opening] because we had done the film, but we thought “Just in case…,” and it was such a shock. I made a big mistake. I invited about 15 or 20 friends to the opening and they make up most of the people you see in that scene. I didn’t know no one was going to show up. That was a big lesson learned as a documentary filmmaker. Don’t invite your friends to stuff you’re filming because it can really skew what you’re seeing.
Chris Quilty: It was such an almost non-event. We looked at the footage later on and for a while, thought there’s nothing really here. It’s funny now because that’s such a pinnacle part of the movie.
Tamar Halpern: When we discovered no one’s in New York, we decided to really set up the audience to feel like New York will be great. Look at all this fame he’s had. Look at what a big deal he was in his twenties. Look at all these works of art he’s done. What a master — musically, artistically. Clearly, New York will mean success. We really wanted to make sure that by the time we got to New York, the audience had as much information as we did or, at least, to make assumptions that we had, which is he’s one of the greats and it will go well. The discovery of “The Bedroom Painting,” [which] he had actually been working on for close to two decades, had destroyed his marriage or it hadn’t saved his marriage – those were things that we discovered along the way and the slow build towards him getting his due, that’s how we experienced it. We had a lot of work to do to work on the structure of the film so that we could lay out the cards slowly but in really interesting ways of the things that we discovered about Lynn as they were presented to us.
Was it interesting to go from narrative filmmaking to documentary?
Tamar Halpern: I loved it because we could take our time. There was no pressure. It was just Chris and myself. I’ve shot all my features in three- or four-week schedules and it’s just been insane, back-breaking work, especially when you’re very independent and not very well funded. To have this film that continued because life continued and to be able to call Chris and say, “Hey, are you around in two weekends? I hear Llyn has X going on or Y going on” or “Dennis Hopper’s available to talk to us. Should we go do it?” was divine compared to narrative filmmaking.
Whenever Chris and I got very busy on our own project or work, we could come back to this, which was a real anchor for me personally. No matter what was going on in my professional life, whether I felt I was failing or flailing or just not getting the due I was hoping to get, I always had this film to go back to. It really allowed me to not feel badly about other failures in my career. Llyn himself exemplified that. If Llyn could go 50 years and not get his due then, my goodness, I could go another year or two as well, so he inspired me as a subject but also having that film as an anchor to keep me going as a filmmaker was incredibly valuable. I’m anchorless now, I’m afraid. I might have to go be an accountant now.
I hope not.
Tamar Halpern: Everybody should hope not because I’m terrible with numbers. [laughs]
Chris, since you specialize in sound as a sound mixer and a boom operator, was it interesting for you to capture Foulkes’ mega-instrument The Machine?
Chris Quilty: Yeah, here’s the thing about our film. It was as independent as you can get. It was just me, Tamar and a camera, and an editing system. Two or three actually. And as far as sound goes, I would often operate camera. Both of us shot, but mostly it would be me shooting and Tamar wrangling and asking questions and we didn’t have a sound man, so to speak. The nice thing about Llyn and his machine is he always had this recording system set up and often when we’d show him, we’d film him playing the instrument, but he also had that recording going so we would usually use that recording versus the sound on the camera. Sometimes the sound is very rough, but I actually like how raw it is. It makes the film a lot more unique.
Tamar Halpern: There is another interesting piece of news. Llyn released a soundtrack and it is delightful. He’s been recording his machine for 15 years and I worked with him many, many late nights going through piles and pile of unmarked CDs to pull 14 tracks. It is such a special collection of beautiful songs, some fast, some slow, some political, some about love lost and love comes to L.A. It’s really exciting. All proceeds will go to Llyn for the soundtrack, but the first copies will be available for sale in the Film Forum lobby [during our New York theatrical run], then I think we’ll probably end of having them at MOCA and the Hammer [Museum] as well in Los Angeles.
Have you had a particularly great experience with the film after hitting the road with it?
Tamar Halpern: We’re hoping we will because we’ve been surprised. We got into the L.A. Film Festival in competition, which was a huge honor. Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and MSN and Yahoo and all sorts of press happened because of two screenings where maybe 400 people saw the film, right? We thought “Oh goodness, wow,” and everybody said, “You’re going to get invited to all these festivals now and all this great stuff is going to happen.” Nothing happened.
It’s like we’re Llyn. We’ve been accused of mimicking Llyn’s process with our film because we took so long to make and it’s funny, in a way, I’ve been a little bit concerned that the curse of Llyn Foulkes has its shadow on our film. We’re being a one-man band in terms of how we’re getting the word out. I’m not sure if after we do New York and L.A. we’ll get some other invitations.
Chris Quilty: Ultimately, we’re hoping that it has a long life on VOD, Netflix, Amazon and all that kind of stuff because I think that’s really where people come out and see a movie like this.
Tamar Halpern: We’re going to figure that out, but we’re going to delay that because we really want to bring this film to museums and art schools around the country and abroad. That’s really where people could come together and see Llyn’s struggle and learn from it and relate to it, whether they’re art patrons, artists, faculty at art schools, or students who are planning to become artists. A friend of ours, Matt Gleason, who runs Coagula Art Journal, who’s in the film, said after he saw it, “Every art student on the planet should be required to see the film before they graduate.”