Boasting sensational titles like Nude on the Moon, Bad Girls Go to Hell, and Keyholes Are for Peeping, New York City-born director Doris Wishman became the queen of sexploitation filmmaking during the 1960s and ‘70s — one of the only women creating movies in the softcore subgenre that played the grindhouse theaters in cities across America. A self-taught writer and director, Wishman became famous for her nudist camp romps and melodramatic B-film aesthetic, which won her the title of the “Female Ed Wood.” Unconventional editing choices, including cutaways to paintings and ashtrays, overdubbed dialogue, gratuitous violence and nudity, and the exploitation of innocent women aplenty, a Doris Wishman film is titillating, odd, and endearing at the same time. Her films exist on their own terms.
For the past 20 years, Doris Wishman biographer Michael Bowen has been amassing material from Doris’ life and prolific career for a forthcoming book about the sexploitation goddess. Wishman’s films are set to screen at New York City’s Film Forum June 3 to June 16 in the series Genre is a Woman — celebrating the women film directors who brought their own subversive perspective and style to genre cinema. Bowen, who co-produced Wishman’s 2007 film Each Time I Kill, will introduce the beloved Bad Girls Go to Hell and Wishman’s horror film A Night to Dismember on Saturday, June 4.
Flavorwire recently spoke to Bowen about the wild market of sexploitation cinema during Wishman’s heyday, the making of Wishman’s transgender semi-documentary Let Me Die a Woman, and what it was like to make sex films for a woman amongst men.
Flavorwire: How did you first meet Doris, and what exactly interested you about her films?
Michael Bowen: I had been something of a film buff going back to when I was a kid and in the 1990s when I was living around Boston. I was going to all the repertory theaters and worked in one, so I could go to the movies for free. All the things that showed at repertory theaters then were just beginning to emerge on videotape. Video culture had just come along. Art films, independent American films, and to some extent subcultural films . . . they were few and far between. There was a little mom and pop punk rock record and weird video store near Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I just wandered in there looking for different things. They had a collection of videotapes from Something Weird Video.
Something Weird is great — such a gateway.
Mike Vraney [the company’s founder] had the sense to design very coherent-looking packaging and campaigns, so they stood out on the shelf. I’m looking at the titles, and going, ‘Wow! I didn’t know about this stuff!’ I grabbed various things, and one of them was a film with a great title, Bad Girls Go to Hell. I came home and worked my way through the stack to that film. I stuck it in my VCR and started to watch it. Within five minutes, maybe, I said to myself, ‘Who the hell made this movie?’ It was the most inside-out, counterintuitive movie I’d ever seen. It clearly wasn’t just a ‘bad’ movie. It was speaking in a fundamentally different language. Everything you are not supposed to do is being done here, yet it all kind of hangs together in a coherent style. Ironically, very soon thereafter — I mean, within weeks — I got the schedule for Harvard Film Archive, at Harvard University. They put together a program of a few films by Doris Wishman. They invited her to come up, and she agreed, which is weird for her, because she wasn’t particularly interested in non-paying publicity.
I went to the screening, and there she was. They said, ‘Any questions?’ I just started asking her questions. I managed to find a couple more of her films on the shelves at that video store. I thought they were fascinating, and I contrived an opportunity to interview her, even though I was at that time at Brown University, and I was not studying cinema officially in any way. I met her for a brunch, and we talked and traded phone numbers. When I met her, she was the most fun, delightful, and energetic person. She could also be a real pain in the ass, in a good way. She didn’t mind getting into an argument with you if she had certain principles. She had her own curious way of doing certain things. But never anything that was the least bit destructive, or most importantly, nothing sort of self-centered about her. Very frank, but always joking. A really sly sense of humor. I just liked her. I decided I’d like to start to research her career. This was in the mid-90s. I became friendly with her, and started to gather information, interviewing her, and she was very generous with her time. But she was not the sort of interview subject that most interviewers or biographers probably value, because she wasn’t particularly detail-oriented and claimed to not remember very much and loved obfuscating when it came to some things. I would fly down to Florida once a year, take her out for Chinese food, and do more interviews with her, and endlessly trying to sort of revisit topics, hoping she’d tell me something new, or actually answer certain questions frankly. In the end, she was very forthcoming.
I got it into my head to try to screen her films in other places, knowing there were prints. We were in Germany. The Cinémathèque Française got a couple of prints from me. The film showed in New Zealand. We had her in Boston, Los Angeles, and in Austin at the great Alamo Drafthouse. Everybody was super generous, and audiences were really warm. They really loved it. I realized after the first screening that it was a bad idea to let her watch the movies with the audience, because people would start laughing, and she didn’t understand why. There were always a couple of immature people who think it is Mystery Science Theater time. Most people, and I’m among them, would see this really charming, naive movie. You just start laughing at certain things; they were really funny and charming. Doris would go, ‘Michael, what the hell are they laughing at?’ I quickly lied and told her that a lot of these young people smoke marijuana, and they were just stoned.
Doris experienced some loss in her life. Her husband died. But particularly, her mom died when she was young, which must have been difficult for her. Did she ever speak about her mother and how that might have shaped her thoughts about femininity, women, or even her ability to make these kinds of movies?
I asked Doris early on, ‘Gee, what do you think the images in your films say about sexuality, or your sexuality?’ And she’s like, ‘What do you mean? I just thought of a crazy idea, and I made a movie.’ Her mother did die when she was five or six years old. She would have said that she sorely grieved over the loss of her mother. She had a stepmother that she disliked. She called her a “wicked witch.” I don’t know if Doris herself had anything profound to say about the fact that she lost her mother. The only thing she did say — she was Jewish, her family was Jewish — was that she was raised with really no religion. She was basically agnostic. Maybe one way to answer your question about her mother’s loss is that she was bonded to her older sister Pearl at the hip. It was really Pearl who became her mother surrogate. Through most of her life, except for the two times she was married, which she would have told you were both unsuccessful in many ways, she was living with Pearl, or living near her. Doris had actually helped raise her niece when she was born. She was sort of a nanny for her, so that was sort of her family. The story, which she told endlessly, about how distraught she was when Jack, her first husband, died, and how she needed something to get her mind off her grief, so she made movies is only true to a certain extent. I think Doris started to make movies more because she had a lot of energy and had worked in the film distribution business starting in the late 1940s. She liked the film world and figured that she could make some money if she made a movie. She wanted to make that her vocation. She was interested in it.
And she studied acting?
That may be bullshit, to be honest with you. She told people she studied acting, and she probably did. It took me a long time to figure out the name of the school, because she actually gave people the wrong name. She did, in fact, hang out at the Group Theatre — I think mostly because at that age she was just looking for a boyfriend. I tried to ask her what productions she was in, and she didn’t really have anything to say. She was more of a hanger-on and admired it.
I also read that she was the film booker, and it was for her cousin, Max Rosenberg, who was working as a distributor for indie and exploitation films. How instrumental was Max in getting Doris’ movies off the ground?
Not at all. They had almost no affinity for one another, from childhood. Doris used to say that her family couldn’t believe that she went to work for him. But she needed a job, and she hadn’t settled into any kind of solid profession. She was already in her 30s. She worked for Max through the late ‘40s, and then in the early ‘50s she disappears from the pages of the Film Daily Yearbook. It is so weird to see her name listed “Film Booker.” His company was called Classic Pictures, and they handled a mixture of imports and exploitation. It was a very eclectic company. I think his company is frequently mischaracterized as a distributor of exploitation. But Max did handle a couple of Dwain Esper films, who was a hybrid producer/director. It’s not that he exactly directed films. Sometimes he bought them, and then he made these compilation films, which he would buy footage and shoot footage, and throw them together. According to the lore, they were always changing shape, because he would recut them, repackage them, retitle them a little bit, and put them out again.
How was Doris received amongst all these men making sexploitation movies? What’s her relation, if any, to the 40 Thieves group of filmmakers?
They were older than she was, but she was older than most people know. In other words, she was already in her 40s when she made her first film, so she wasn’t a kid. But she wasn’t quite old enough to have been a part of that scene. She didn’t have much to do with that world.
These guys [speaking of sexploitation filmmakers in general], to my knowledge, had no critical sensibility. They didn’t give a damn about the quality of anybody’s product. And they didn’t have any reason to really know one another, except maybe they would bump into each other at the film lab. There was also a small pool of talent in the ‘60s working on sexploitation films. They would go from one filmmaker’s project to another. But there was no place for them to actually form any sort of community. I have asked people, in my own research, ‘Were you aware?’ ‘Sure, I heard the name.’ Often the distributors would handle the film by this one and that one, but they didn’t really know one another. They were pretty much off just doing their own thing. Doris knew Radley Metzger fairly well, because he was just getting started shortly after she had established her reputation making nudist films. She liked Radley. Dave Friedman knew Doris, because he knew everybody, and he traveled around.
I feel like Dave was different, and maybe slightly more progressive than some of those other guys . . . ?
Dave was a super nice guy. He was the first person I ever interviewed about Doris. I don’t think he said this intending it to be a critical per se — and given his generation, he didn’t intend for it to be sexist — but he said, ‘Well, I was kind of surprised. She just seemed like this little Jewish housewife, and you didn’t expect her to be making movies.’ She was deeply offended when he said “housewife.” She never actually was a housewife.
Yeah, she always worked.
My gut answer is that nobody really cared that a woman was making these films in that industry. Nobody was like, ‘This is really outrageous’ or ‘These movies are no good.’ I just think she was a novelty, given the sensibilities of that generation and the type of banter and attitudes that typified gender relations at that time.
Doris was a real flirt. She liked guys more than women. She distrusted women to a certain extent, I would say. And she liked being in the company of men. I don’t mean in an erotic way, but she loved the game of fooling around. She would always cut you down, make some joke. She charmed a lot of people. I don’t want that to sound like it has any negative connotation, like she conned them. You just liked her. All of these guys, the important people she had contact with, weren’t other filmmakers. It’s the guys who run the film labs, the editing facilities, and the guys you buy raw stock from, the distributors. These are the people you really had contact with if you were a low-budget, independent producer or director. People who had contact with her generally liked Doris and considered her a friend. When you’d ask them what they thought, they’d say: ‘She made movies like anybody else, and we gave her the same services. She paid us like anybody else. She was just a customer.’
When the New York Appeals court ruled that nudism could be exhibited in theaters, did these movies wind up in every theater or was porn still predominate? Was Doris one of just a few filmmakers making these nudist films?
I don’t think most people — average, middle-class people — went to see them, but maybe more adventurous people. They didn’t just show in urban areas, although probably around urban areas. Anything that would make money, they would watch them wherever they could book it successfully. If they thought it could make money, they wouldn’t get too much pushback from the communities. Doris’ first movie, Hideout in the Sun, played everywhere, all over the country. It was clearly very financially successful compared to other films, where there aren’t nearly as many ads. I used that as an index for how successful it was.
Most people joked about it [speaking of nudist films]. There was some sort of extra erotic kick to see breasts walking around as opposed to seeing them in a photograph in Playboy magazine. But it really wasn’t all that much different from that experience. It was basically verboten to show full-frontal nudity in these films. All you saw were breasts and butts. That was the only thing the censor board would pass. And that was their interpretation of the law, by the way, because there is nothing in the law that said you couldn’t. They said, “Nudity within the context of a nudist camp was not considered to be obscene. It is a valid philosophy of health and fitness, and blah, blah, blah.” That underwrote the nudist magazines, that were much more widespread and more important than nudist films. That is really what the precedent was — the magazines. A producer/distributor named Walter Bibo produced a film called Garden of Eden, which is the first color nudist film. But as our old buddy Dave Friedman would have told you, they made nudist films back in ’30s, and the roadshow people would take them around.
These guys were tapping a market that was very divided and up to the individual state censors. There was no MPAA and no unified national front for the most part. How did Doris handle the distribution of these movies? Who did she deal with?
New York constituted its own discreet film world that had nothing to do with Hollywood, except that there were distribution offices for all the major Hollywood studios here. The so-called “home office” or corporate office of every major Hollywood studio was in midtown Manhattan, not in Hollywood. Martin Scorsese’s first film was distributed by Joseph Brenner, who was a sexploitation distributor.
People sometimes mischaracterized these guys — Sam Lake, Jerry Balsam, who distributed a lot of Doris’ films. [William] Mishkin is a particular case, because he almost invented sexploitation. But most of these guys didn’t care. They weren’t trying to be sex film distributors. Those were the films that were available and would make money. If you brought them a good film, and they actually could outbid some more prestigious art film distributor and get it, they would be very happy to have a good film. They’d end up by default dealing with this end of the bargain.
By the time the nudist films fad solidified and died out, certain venues had started to butter their bread by programming these films as regularly as they could. Let’s say Doris’ distributor Jerry Balsam — the company was J. E. R. Pictures — makes a deal with Doris to be the national distributor. He is going to get a certain percentage from that. He is not actually going to book that film into Atlanta, Georgia, St. Petersburg, Florida, or into Waco, Texas. He is going to call a region sub-distributor and say, ‘I’ll give you the rights for your territory for this amount of money.’ The sub-distributor would put up the money either for a dupe negative or for prints, depending on what their need is. With these films, the market was so small they basically got one or two prints — and the print would be sent off, and that was it. You were done with it. They paid you for, like, a seven-year license or something. You never had any idea where it played; you never got any more money. That was the nature of the business. There was no real way to police it if you were in New York. How the hell are you going to tell what drive-in in Washington State was playing it? There was no way to check. You had to subscribe to every newspaper in America and check the ads. There was a certain amount of crooked, underhanded business going on, but I don’t want to typify the industry that way. These people were pretty smart, and they were all in it to try to make some money. Their mutual greed policed the industry.
Doris had access to a host of distributors, and she would have just walked into their office and said, ‘I got a film.’ Of course, there was no way to exhibit it except to actually take the distributor to a screening room and show them the movie. When they sold things internationally, they just sent them a still set. They bought the film based on the poster and still set. It was very prohibitive to ship a print abroad, cost-wise.
Doris self-financed her own films. She never had backers outside of her sister’s [and brother-in-law’s] money. Doris had to keep living hand-to-mouth through her whole career, rolling the proceeds from one film into the next. If something really bottomed out, which happened cyclically with her, she was in a tough spot. She would have to start hustling credit. I don’t mean that in a negative way, because the labs readily offered you credit. They charge you interest. People agreed to do it, because she was very likable.
Were women excited to shoot films with Doris, because she was a woman or was it unusual for these actresses to get raunchy in front of another woman?
I’ve only contacted and interviewed a limited number of women who worked with Doris. I’ve interviewed many more women who worked with [sexploitation director] Joe Sarno, and a couple of them sloshed over into Doris’ world. The women who were in these movies were basically working at commercial photo studios and camera clubs, so they are working as nude or semi-nude models. And maybe they were go-go dancers. They’re pretty close to women who work at strip joints now. Even today, I think if you said to a stripper, ‘Guess what, there’s a new strip club, and a woman owns it.’ I think her first question will be, ‘Yeah, but do they make any money there?’ That was the world that Doris was working in. Hardly any of them who worked with Doris were or aspired to be actresses. They were almost all universally models working in the vaguely sub-rosa world of the early ’60s.
But Doris was pretty unusual for that time. She was one of the only women making these movies, so I wondered about it from that perspective.
I’ve called up people who worked with Doris and were in her films. They told me on more than one occasion, ‘Yeah, you know, I vaguely remember.’ And I would be like, ‘So this 4’10”, 50-year-old lady who was directing you in a sex film, that was so normal for you?’ They didn’t care. And by the ’70s, everyone was stoned. Memories are very limited about it.
The performers who came to populate the center of both ’60s and ‘70s exploitation were a little self-oriented, although I wouldn’t say selfish. They thought they were going to be movie stars and had no sense of the fact that they were acting in this movie that cost $12 to make. But in a sort of cagey way, they thought of themselves as film stars. They paid almost no attention to the filmmaking process. That having been said, with Doris it was such a chaotic process, so they probably had no idea what the hell they were doing. They never, for instance, saw a script. There were no scripts.
What was Doris like on set? I find her so charming in one video interview I watched. She seems so shy about making these kinds of movies.
She was very nuts-and-bolts and down-to-business. You’d show up, and she’d say, ‘Let’s go to work.’ Time was money, and she probably only had the camera for the day, because she rented it. Plus, she is paying Chuck [longtime cinematographer C. Davis Smith], or the couple of other people who operated for her. She had very little money. I very much doubt she ever started working at 6am in the morning, or anything like professional productions do. I have a funny feeling you got over there at 9:30am or 10am, and you went until dinnertime. It was very meat-and-potatoes. In speaking with Chuck, he was very clear that you had no idea what you were shooting. Doris showed up, told you get the camera, and get the lights, which were always, like, two lights. Maybe it was going to shoot at her apartment, which is where a lot of the films were shot. She had this location, and she was going to use it, because it was free. Chuck wouldn’t even know what actress was going to be there or what situations. Doris would basically just start giving people direction. Okay, so you’re the star: ‘Ok, Alison, you go over, and sit on the couch. Ok, now look bored.’ Chuck ran a cassette tape on one of the Chesty Morgan sets one time, as a reference of some sort, and it is mayhem. Chuck would say, ‘Doris? Am I supposed to be shooting now?’ Doris would say, ‘Just wait, just wait, just wait. Ok Alison, look bored.’ Then she would probably go, ‘You’re not looking bored enough.’ And then the poor actress, model, whatever would try to figure out what the hell they were supposed to do. But remember, none of this involves speaking most of the time, because there was no script, and Doris post-dubbed everything. She wanted as little lip sync as possible.
That was my next question. What the heck were they shooting with? I always assumed it was an ancient camera.
35mm handheld Arriflex.
And it had no sound, right?
No sound. There is a little bit of location sound in a couple of scenes that persist in one of the Chesty Morgan films. They were just the funniest things of all. They decided to try to shoot actual sound with Chesty Morgan, who has the heaviest Polish accent you ever heard in your life. There is a scene where she is ordering a drink, and she says, ‘Viskey, please.’ Then the rest of it is post-dubbed with this other actress. They never even rented audio equipment, because they were never going to record sound.
It was just cheaper to dub sound in post?
I will channel Doris, because this question has been asked to her in my presence. Doris would say, it absolutely was not cheaper, because she had to spend quite a bit of money after she was done to hire actors — and these were union actors paid a union rate. These are the same actors who were dubbing Ingmar Bergman movies, and doing voice-overs for TV commercials and trailers. She’d hire them, and have to hire that studio and an audio technician to record the sound. They would stand there all day for days at a time, trying to hit lip-sync. Then she had to pay the technicians to actually produce the soundtrack that then could be sent over to Magno Sound to be mixed with the music. That would have to be professionally done. She had the absolute same professional services as a Hollywood studio, and it was very expensive. You might argue it saved money on the other end, because many times when shooting a movie, it is the sound take that’s spoiled, not the film. Now you are reshooting it for the fifth time, because an ambulance went by — and you are wasting film.
So it was efficient, but not necessarily cheaper.
Yeah, you could actually spend more money on film reshooting takes because of bad sound. Let’s say Doris had a script in her head — she knew what the general story was before she started any film project. When she needed dialogue, she would say: ‘Say it very clearly and move your lips. Very clearly.’ Then she would make a note on a yellow legal pad, writing down what the actress said. Remember, she is looking at this footage later without sound. Not even a wild track. Then she would get the dubbers to come in later. She learned early on to have the actors exaggerate their mouth movements to help, because a lot of the dubbers got pretty good at reading lips. I can imagine what it was like, to have all this footage, to have an hour’s worth of footage, and now you are trying to figure out what the hell they’re saying in that shot. But she kept fairly careful notes. Also, she has all those cutaways, those inserts. People are talking, and all of sudden you see a picture of a painting of a clown on the wall.
There’s a fun cut to a cat painting in Bad Girls Go to Hell . . .
She does that, in part, because she didn’t have any way to transition from one shot to the next. She only realized that while she was editing, and sometimes she would lay some dialogue over that. No actor had ever said that dialogue while she was shooting it. She invented it during the editing to help build a bridge. There’s a cute moment in Another Day, Another Man. A couple gets married; they’re moving into their first apartment. They come to the apartment and have nothing, just the clothes on their back. And the apartment is some person’s actual apartment that Doris has rented. They walk in, and over shots of various stuff in the apartment, you hear whoever the dubbing actor is saying, ‘I know you’d prefer not to have a furnished place, but it was the first place I could find available.’ Somewhere along the way, Doris figured out, or somebody mentioned to her, ‘You mean, a young couple is moving into this apartment that looks like someone has lived there for ten years?’ So, she would contrive bits of dialogue to explain the anomalies.
And the music was all licensed from a couple of companies in New York that sold so-called stock music or library music. One guy named Alan Hawkshaw wrote the famous theme music for Another Day, Another Man. There are cues from Doris Wishman movies that you will hear kicking around in old TV. Radley Metzger movies have some of the same music as Doris Wishman movies, because they used the same music services.
How did Doris feel about having to ramp up the nudity and violence to sell more pictures later in her career? I’ve read that she was ashamed of going hardcore.
Yeah, it’s true. She was very uncomfortable with the idea of hardcore. I think she found it disgusting, and she found the idea of shooting it disgusting. Chuck shot at least one of the two known hardcore porn films that Doris filmed. He confirmed that she actually said, ‘Ok, you know what to do. Just shoot it.’ And she left the room when the actual sex scenes were being shot. She didn’t have any interest in that. She seemed to do something very comparable, by the way, for the softcore sex scenes in Let Me Die a Woman.
Let Me Die a Woman [a semi-documentary starring a non-acting cast of transgender people] seems so progressive for the time period. How was the movie received? Did Doris struggle with feelings about potentially exploiting her cast?
I don’t think Doris felt like she exploited them. What she typically said was that she felt bad for them — meaning that she understood the peculiar circumstances they were in. She understood and recognized the kind of humanity of the difficulty of their lives. That’s why she told me she paid them more. And she didn’t feel bad at all for making a movie with them in it.
Leo Wolman, the narrator of the film, was a real doctor who serviced the transgender community in New York starting in the late ’60s. This was a guy who was friends with a tiny cadre of people who were pioneering trans culture and sex-reassignment surgery. He was friends with Harry Benjamin, who wrote the so-called “standards of care” that would determine whether or not a person was a total wacko psychotic who just wanted to get their cock cut off or really transgender. There was a lot of concern about that kind of stuff, so nobody involved in the process seemed to feel that anyone was being exploited.
Let Me Die a Woman, 70% of the film as it exists today, was shot, believe it or not, in 1970. This was just three-and-a-half minutes before hardcore porn appears on the screens of movie theaters. We’re not talking about stag films here. Deep Throat‘s not the first, but it is the first famous one, or one of the first. But in the middle of 1971, movies start to play in New York that actually have, ‘Whoa! I’m watching these people fuck, and I can see it!’ In 1970, though, there is a huge fad, the so-called white-coater films. There were dozens of purported documentaries about sexual culture — almost like marriage manual films, showing you how to have a healthy marriage and happy sex life. The people are on-screen, fucking, and you are learning from that. ‘Next, we will see a couple engaged in coitus in the missionary position.’
Like the film featured in Taxi Driver, called Language of Love . . .
You got it. That is one of the first famous films in that genre. A few of the films were actually prosecuted as far as I can tell, but the legal justification for the hardcore pornography in the film was that they were documentaries about relevant social subjects — and you can’t criticize information. So Doris really made Let Me Die a Woman thinking that she could market it in this white-coater genre. Not all of them had hardcore. The edgier ones, the more successful ones, did. But it had very strong softcore, which was very strong for Doris at that time.
It got a very limited release under the name Strange Her. Then it disappeared in 1972. Doris was never forthcoming about what happened. Then sometime around 1974, I have records suggesting she was trying to revive the project and change the name to Let Me Die a Woman.
The version that was released in ’77-’78 is Let Me Die a Woman. It actually had a big release in Canada, as weird as that sounds. They flew “Lisa,” as she is called, and that isn’t her real name, up to Toronto. She did radio interviews and public appearances to promote the film. The film was so out-of-step with what was being exhibited then. It was meant to be playing in this white-coater market, but now there is this whole fully-fledged hardcore porn industry — and no porn theater was really going to book that film, because it doesn’t have any hardcore. Besides, the straight porn audiences were notoriously homophobic, so you would never show anything that seemed to have, what they would call, “gay” content in a porn theater. I don’t think the gay guys at the gay porn theaters wanted to see that shit either. They wanted good-looking muscle boys — beefcake. They don’t want some weird, sad documentary.
It is kinda sad, yeah.
It’s very sad. I love the film desperately, but it is one of the most downcast movies ever made — which is a real distinction in a certain sense.
Do you have any favorite stories about the production of these movies? Is there anything memorable in your mind that sticks out that Doris might have shared?
There is a story she enjoyed telling about the first time she shot in an actual nudist camp. The film was Diary of a Nudist, which is her third nudist movie. The first one she ever bothered to shoot in a nudist camp. Doris first approached Zelda Suplee about shooting at her nudist camp down in Homestead, Florida, which was called Sunny Palms — which totally sounds like a masturbation thing. Sunny Palms Lodge it was called. She told Doris, ‘You will have to work in the nude.’ Doris said, ‘Absolutely not.’ There was no way she was ever going to work in the nude. She called up her cameraman at the time, a guy named Raymond Phelan, who was sort of a New York bohemian. She said, ‘Ray, I got bad news. They said we can shoot in the camp, but we can only do it if we’re nude.’ And he said, ‘Hooray!’ He was thrilled and eager to do it. Doris said they finally made a deal, that Zelda would let her work in the camp if she wore shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. Doris loved to tell that story.
I’ll tell you a story that was told to me. It creates a great image. Towards the bitter end, when Doris was trying to get A Night to Dismember together, she couldn’t afford to work with editors regularly. And she’d been living off of credit that was offered to her by an editing business. They were very nice to her, but they eventually told her they couldn’t afford to have her work with any of the editors anymore. They offered to set her up in this room with an old Moviola — the upright editing machines, before they had flatbeds. They showed her how it worked. That was the first time Doris ever began editing. In the end, she actually cut A Night to Dismember together — which, in many ways, makes it her most rigorously auteurist film.
She is editing this film, at this company. There were different rooms for different editors working on projects. One of the editors there said, ‘I smell smoke.’ People start coming out of the suites and follow the smell and smoke down to the room where Doris was working. They open the door, and what do they see? Doris is sitting there, trying to cut A Night to Dismember, and the back of the machine is on fire — and she has no fucking idea. She’s just sitting there, editing her movie. The image of Doris sitting in front of this flaming Moviola, desperately trying to cut her movie, and she is so focused on the film that she doesn’t even see it’s burning, I love that image.
Doris told me that the FBI approached her when she was making sexploitation films, to try to find out if she was making pornography. She said, ‘I told them that all of my films were submitted to the New York Censor Board.’ Which is true, because the Censor Board closed at the end of ’65, and this happened in ’65. She said, ‘If they have any complaints about my films, they should talk to the Censor Board, because they have been approved by the New York Censor Board. Therefore, there couldn’t be any questions about their obscenity.’ And she was absolutely right. She’d tell that story, and she’d say, ‘And that is why I like censorship.’ As far as she was concerned, censorship was an insurance policy. They let her get away with some things, and they might have asked you to pull some things, but at the end of the day, nobody could complain about your film. Doris really didn’t want to get into a hassle and couldn’t afford to go to court.
Doris Wishman movies are really a collaborative product. And, in so many ways, the movies are good, because she was a very charismatic, likable person. I’m not saying she manipulated people, because she didn’t. But people got hooked into working with her. I say that like a positive thing. She inspired you to do your best work, to help her do her work.
There will never be another filmmaker like her. She was an outsider artist.
That is totally how I think of her.
It is a tougher sell, for some reason, with cinema. With cinema it’s trickier, because it’s a bigger, more technological, more extensive medium than painting or something. Plus, the commercial aspect. It’s a bigger process, but that is exactly what she was, an outsider artist. I took her to the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore.
What a great place.
I was very curious to see what she would think of it. She didn’t seem to think of it as anything but an art museum. The whole notion, that there was anything off-center about the work, didn’t strike her at all. There was this crazy big piece of wall art covered with sequins and stuff, all glued on by some wonderful psychotic. She walked up to it and started rubbing her hands on it, to touch it, because she liked the texture. And the guard’s coming up, ‘Please don’t touch that!’ I thought they were going to jump her. It never even occurred to her that she couldn’t touch it. I love people like that. They’re very rare in this world. They give you a lot of energy and a little hope.