How a Legendary William S. Burroughs Documentary Was Lost… and Found 30 Years Later

In 1983, the New York Film Festival screened Burroughs: The Movie, a feature-length documentary about William S. Burroughs — the first such film made about (and with the cooperation of) the legendary author, an expansion of a thesis film by an NYU filmmaker named Howard Brookner (with the help of classmates Jim Jarmusch and Tom DiCillo). Tonight, 31 years later, the NYFF will host a revival screening of that film, which had all but vanished in the intervening years. The film itself is fascinating, but what happened off-screen is even more remarkable, the story of an important document’s disappearance and rediscovery by a young man dedicated to saving it. That young man is Aaron Brookner, nephew of Burroughs director Howard, who spoke to me recently about the picture’s peculiar journey — and his own.

Howard Brookner initially conceived the film as “a 15, 20 minute portrait of Burroughs — a documentary portrait to get his degree,” according to Aaron. It began as a weekend shoot in Colorado circa 1978, with only Brookner and Jarmusch on the crew, “Howard doing camera, Jim doing sound mostly but occasionally swapping if the camera got too heavy, you know it was really just a few students!” Back in New York, they added Tom DiCillo (later cinematographer for Jarmusch’s early films, and director of several of his own, including Living in Oblivion) as cinematographer, just in time to shoot the Nova Convention late that year. That multimedia event brought together musicians, artists, and authors to honor Burroughs; Brookner’s footage is the only extant film of that event.

“By this point,” Aaron told me, “it was becoming much bigger than a little portrait piece on Burroughs for his thesis. So he turned in something to get his degree — because he did get his degree, I guess, he did graduate — but he kept going. It became much bigger.” Brookner continued shooting, with a shifting crew, in bits and pieces over about five years; he edited a short version for the BBC, which provided completion funds to finish the movie and get it ready for its NYFF premiere — and a subsequent theatrical release.

Still image from "Burroughs: The Movie"

“What was interesting is that Howard owned the movie, with his company, and he and Burroughs basically self-distributed it,” Aaron says. “So they were going around all of 1984, all over the US. It played in 40 cities, every major American city. Howard would go speak, and Burroughs would give a reading. They actually toured around with the movie. And it ran for crazy amounts of time!” But after that initial run through the US and Europe and a brief VHS release, the movie essentially disappeared — partially because Howard owned the copyright, not a conventional distributor. After his untimely death in 1989, just before his 35th birthday, there was no one to look after the movie, to preserve it and keep it in circulation. Copies of that out-of-print VHS go for $50 or more on Amazon and eBay. Poor-quality dupes would turn up on YouTube. But that was about the only way to see it, until Aaron started poking through his uncle’s archives.

He started out talking with Howard’s friends, business partners, and collaborators. He called the National Archives and the copyright office. He tracked down prints from around the world, beat up from age, missing scenes, with subtitles burned into the frame. He finally caught a break when he discovered that the BBC had shipped Howard’s original materials back to New York, and the filmmaker had stashed them in Burroughs’ “bunker,” a sparse writing and living space on the Bowery (which is explored in the film). “So I ended up getting all his original material, which were 192 original negative roles,” Aaron says, “but I had everything except what I was looking for — the actual cut negative of the movie! It was lifted out, and still not there. So I had 30 hours of everything he shot, except what he used to put the movie together.”

Finally, Aaron tracked down the partner of a deceased investor in the film, who told Aaron he was positive they’d deposited a print at the Museum of Modern Art. “So I called up — I mean, this was after a year, all over the place, all over the world — I call up MoMA: ‘I’m looking for a movie, maybe you have it, I don’t know.’ ‘What’s it called?’ ‘Burroughs, by Howard Brookner, was made in 1983.’ ‘Oh, let me check.’ They come back, ‘Oh yes! We have a copy!’ I was like, are you kidding me?”

Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs in "Burroughs: The Movie"

But Aaron is thankful for the scavenger hunt that led him to that nearby destination. “Had it been that easy, I wouldn’t have found all this other stuff, I never would’ve found this entire archive,” he explains. And to his relief, the copy at MoMA was “a brand new print, beautiful, untouched 16mm print, in color, and then I realized, now I have it, how do I get the money I need to do the remastering?” For that, he turned to Kickstarter, where 283 backers raised over $20,000 to get the film into shape for its return to the New York Film Festival.

It was certainly worth the effort. The film captures “Bill” enjoying his living legend status, doing readings at clubs and theaters in his rich, rolling baritone, even donning a Dr. Benway’s coat and stethoscope to participate in a dramatization of a gory scene from Naked Lunch. That’s all fun, but Brookner also gets a glimpse of the rage lurking just beneath the man’s elegant exterior, and the pain — the horrifying story of his first marriage (“William Tell” tale and all) and the death of his adult son (interviewed in the film), a sad end to a problematic relationship. And Burroughs goes back home, showing Brookner where he grew up and sitting down with his brother, who lambasts him for the profanity in Naked Lunch (which he “pitched” halfway in). It’s a telling moment, where the particular way Burroughs looks away tells us all we need to know about his childhood, and why he had to escape it.

So it’s an important document of a vital artist, and hats off to Brookner for his international detective work to bring it back to the public eye. It will play some theatrical and festival engagements, in the US and around the world, in the coming months (including a week at New York’s Anthology Film Archive, starting November 14) before a DVD and Blu-ray release via the Criterion Collection next year, with much of that material from the Brookner archives included as supplements. And even better, the search for this film has inspired Aaron in a more direct way. “When I started to search for the Burroughs movie, the story around the film — and then around Howard — became so interesting that I started creating a film around that called Uncle Howard… Because everywhere I was looking for the movie, I was finding something else, which was piecing a story together.”

Burroughs: The Movie screens tonight at the New York Film Festival.