Interview with Antonino D’Ambrosio

Dir. Antonino D'Ambrosio

Antonino D’Ambrosio is a multimedia artist, musician, photographer and filmmaker. His debut film, Let Fury Have The Hour, is based on D’Ambrosio’s 2012 book of the same name. The feature-length film was an Official Selection of the 2012 TriBeCa Film Festival, and includes exclusive interviews with Lewis Black, John Sayles, and Chuck D, among many others. Let Fury Have The Hour details the rise of punk and other revolutionary art movements during the politically conservative Reagan and Thatcher eras of the 1980s. It can be found on Video-on-Demand via SnagFilms and has an ongoing international theatrical release. D’Ambrosio spoke by phone from his production studio in Brooklyn with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about how he classifies his own work, getting the scale of his first film just right, and why the eponymous fury is as prominent as ever. This interview has been transcribed, compressed, and edited from audio for publication. It contains spoilers.

Sean Malin: You worked in a lot of positions on your film. You were sometimes the camera operator, you did interviews with your subjects, some of whom are your friends, and you edited and directed it. Not to put you into a pigeonhole, but how would you label yourself if someone asked you what you do for a living?

Antonino D’Ambrosio: *Laughs* That’s a very good question! I don’t want to say this jokingly, but I have discussed with my agent being officially called a “worker.” The reason I say that is because I come from a background — my father was a bricklayer, and I’d probably define myself as a craftsperson. For me, it is very important to approach the work as one piece of work; that’s why I go back and forth between writing, visual arts, filmmaking, photography, certainly music…I think it’s all embedded. And that’s what Let Fury Have The Hour is about, you know? One people having one creative response for one people – that’s the same way I approach my work. I think one has to be that way, at least for me, to be ambitious with your work.

SM: The ambition in the work being to be considered a craftsperson, rather than an experimenter or a hobbyist or a dabbler?

AD: Yeah. It’s interesting how things in the world change, like how, with digital technology, new and social media, there’s more of an access to [art]. But I think it’s always been that way. Picasso, to me, is the big touchstone because he was so successful working across so many genres. He painted, made a sculpture or two, he did collage work. And to look at his history – the Blue period, the Cubism – is just amazing, and gives me something to aspire to in terms this pursuit of work and total engagement with it. Always being the student, rather than the teacher – the most important thing is to participate in the work. That’s what makes art democratic, and hopefully encourages anyone who comes into contact with your work to participate with limit or boundary.

SM: What I think is so interesting about your comparison to Pablo Picasso – and forgive me starting a question with a disagreement – is that your work is almost entirely collaborative. It is clear you will not produce work without a dozen people by your side who know just as much or more about what you’re working on than you. Whereas someone who is a painter or multimedia artist, like Dali or Picasso, is the auteur of their work. They, themselves, are known individually for their work, even when they may have worked with other people, like Dali and Bunuel. They are not democrats: they’re autocrats. Is it a conflict for you to draw a line between yourself as the author of your work, and the collaborative environment you try to foster?

AD: There is a tension for sure. At the end of the day, I have to have a vision – I think that’s what separates good art, if you want to call it that, to everything else. And realizing that vision that requires a good deal of insularity; not in the sense of a narrow field of vision, but insularity in the sense of focusing on the path you’re on. That can be very challenging. It took me seven years to make this film because people wanted it to be so much — you know, a biopic, or a film with me as the main character. But I envisioned what I would call a visual essay: a nonfiction film that pushes the boundary of documentary [filmmaking]. I think that form reflects the importance of its narrative, as when people in the film finish one another’s sentences and thoughts. That stuff was not orchestrated by me, but it kind of validated this vision of responsible citizenship when all these different subjects ended up in the same place in their interviews. Every one of them ended up in the same place in terms of how they talk and think about they world in their different platforms and mediums. To me, that was both inspiring and encouraging, and I always say so when I speak to audiences.

SM: In getting this vision you had for Let Fury Have The Hour, a boundary-breaking film, realized, what was the biggest obstacle?

AD: This can never be understated or overstated or described in any way differently: money.

SM: Obviously.

AD: This idea of DIY (do-it-yourself), and kind of putting a spin on it like, “do-it-yourself for other people,” as an approach to work is a great thing for me. But you have to be realistic. There is no purity. We’re living in a dominant media, in a dominant culture, that seeks to make profit; that’s commerce. Raising money for this film was extremely challenging. People have said that it looks like it cost a million dollars to make. I will say that it did not cost a million. Here’s what happened along the way. The film is about creative response, and is, in a way, itself a creative response. Somewhere along the way, there became an economic response. While I continued work on the film, I wrote two books (2005’s Let Fury Have The Hour: The Punk Rock Politics of Joe Strummer and 2009’s A Heartbeat and a Guitar: Johnny Cash and the Making of Bitter Tears, I wrote a book with [visual artist and subject of the film] Shepard [Fairey], I did visual arts with him and a project in Santa Fe…and those things started getting my work out to the different sectors. Then, I had patrons come in to support me, which is an important thing for an artist.


SM: Right. All artists have historically needed patrons.

AD: We don’t have a dialogue in this country about people who avoid art. There is a lack of support here [for visual artists] that is not only embarrassing but is downright undemocratic. I mean, this is what Let Fury Have The Hour is about: how art serves so many roles for different people, from giving them a sense of hope to entertaining them to empowering them to encouraging them. Whatever it is, it’s important, and it should be cultivated and fostered far more.

SM: A few filmmakers working today – Steve McQueen and Julian Schnabel, for example – have managed to make their films thanks to responses from people in Hollywood or a relationship to fame. When your film started to have names like Lewis Black, Eugene Hutz, or even Shepard attached to it, did their involvements in the project help it to get made on a financial level, rather than just a creative one?

AD: Now, that is a very good question, and I’ve never thought about that. And when I think about it, not nearly as much as you might think or that I would have hoped when I got them in the film. There’s this kind of trap in filmmaking where everything has to be digestible. It happens in music and art, in everything actually, that there is this tension between pop culture and popular culture. Pop culture has to be sugary sweet, Britney Spears, you know. Popular culture includes things like The Clash, who managed to break free from rock and become popular. Their music speaks to the human condition, but it’s also commercially viable and widely popular. Having that mix of people in the film was an intention of mine, to really push the boundaries of pop culture. That’s also why I had a certain level of famous artists in my film. I was originally going to reach out to Bruce Springsteen and Sean Penn, who have had nice receptions for me and are supportive of what I’m doing. But I thought their glare – someone like Springsteen’s especially – that glare, their spotlight, would blind people to the actual message.

SM: I can imagine that even someone of Lewis Black’s or Chuck D’s fame can seem like pandering to a pop audience. How did you find the line between popular and pop with your subjects?

AD: When you have a vision of something that can be seen as a counterpoint to the dominant culture, you risk always being put into that category. But millions of people have felt and thought [contrapuntally] to the current political narrative. Now showing that can come off like, as you say, pandering or skewing. I also align myself with Hunter S. Thompson, who believed there was no such thing as objectivity, just the subjectivity of your own convictions. And this film is meant to show those for me. It is personal. I was a kid in the 1980s; I felt there was no voice for people like me. Here we sit thirty years later, where that kind of way of thinking – that cynicism in our culture, in this ridiculous idea of individualism or the bombings in Boston or the gun debate – is so dominant. These are things that we should, historically, have a handle on. I think creative response is our grand talent as human beings, and it empowers kids like me, who are 9, 10, 11, 12, or 13. I grew up under Reagan and under Thatcher but I still have compassion. So it’s interesting that there is so much more criticism when dealing with something that’s not objective when, obviously, the headlines of our day tell a subjective story already.

SM: Have you felt that your film has been generating a dialogue you are satisfied with between you and the people who have seen it and reacted to it?

AD: Well, I’ve been to Europe with the film, and it is still playing in some theaters in the states. So thousands and thousands have seen it…it is a hard question to answer. I am satisfied that the film got out there. Whatever reaction it gets is beyond my control, so I did not put an expectation level on my hopes, because then the film becomes something different.

SM: I happen to agree.

AD: My discussion with you right now is a great example of what motivates me. Let Fury Have The Hour is about connecting with people who want to have this discussion. That is really the greatest possible outcome of the film and of my work in general. The film, for me, is also not done – you and I are remaking the film in this discussion. That’s the point of cinema. You come into the theater as an individual and you leave as an audience. So in that way, if 10 people come to my film or 500 people come – in Europe, there was one showing of like 1200 people – that is validation. Also, the film is not entirely about one political point of view: it is also about an engagement with art, and with craft, as we discussed earlier.

SM: Why do you think it took up to this point in your life to engage with feature-length filmmaking, rather than just the shorts and music videos you have worked on previously?

AD: You know, you might be the first person to ask me that. In my twenties, I had done some underground stuff, some avant-garde stuff, but I was really content when I started this non-profit production organization called La Lutta (1997). It means “the struggle” in Italian. I was quite content working with community groups and independent artists, and ended up working with around three thousand groups since starting it sixteen years ago. In 2001, I met Joe Strummer, and our idea was to do a documentary series with him as the narrator. We wanted to focus on music – reggae-punk, jazz and hip-hop – as social movements. When he died [in 2002], I had all this material that ended up in the first book. What The Clash wanted to do with their music was to reach as many people as they could with what they had to say. I think that that is at the core of what I wanted to do when I put [the first edition of Let Fury Have The Hour] together; up until then, I had not intended to pursue writing at all. But I saw the attention that it got. And other artists especially – people like [filmmaker] Jim Jarmusch, Shepard, a wide range of artists – reacted quite strongly to it. When I saw that, I thought, “I’ve really got to do something with this.” At first, the idea was to do something a picture about Strummer.

Joe Strummer Graphic

SM: That sounds very Jarmuschian. He and Strummer worked together [on 1989’s Mystery Train], and that create a landmark of experimental artwork.

AD: Mystery Train is one of my very, very favorite films. Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man [1995] is an amazing film, too. Johnny Depp is another artist with such wide range and diverse tools that inspires me. Anyway, Tim Robbins said, “You should turn [Let Fury] into a film.” So we met with a big studio, and I just did not like that experience. There were these mind-numbing conversations that were more about commerce than art. I said, “This is not for me,” and I started to come up with the idea of a visual essay. People have always had interest in it, and would step forward with money, but it was never the right time or the right investors for me. I could see that I would lose the film and any autonomy, and I was not interested in doing that. If I was going to do it right, like The Clash did with “London Calling,” I knew I had to go all the way with it and I kept pursuing this general idea of “creative response.” After Heartbeat and a Guitar and the May Day project with Shepard, people kept coming forward. The only thing that constricted me in making the film, really, was the format. I couldn’t make a seven-hour film! I could have made an individual film about every one of the people in my film!

SM: No kidding. I would still watch those films.

AD: I mean, I was rich in material. Ian MacKaye [of the band Fugazi], for example, does not give interviews. It was only after he read Heartbeat and a Guitar that he felt, “Okay, I can talk to you.” My conversation with him was much like what you see in the film. They were all like that, actually, where I just had conversations with them, just as I’m having with you. And just in that, as you see, MacKaye drops so many gems and such moving anecdotes – that was two-and-a-half hours of footage with him. There was two-and-a-half hours of footage with [filmmaker] John Sayles. Two-and-a-half hours with [comedian] Lewis Black. These are people whose body of work we, you and me and our culture, I think, will still be referring back to in twenty, forty years.

SM: The subjects in your film lend themselves beautifully to this nonfiction or documentary style. Do you think that fiction has represented these concepts of direct social protest well?

AD: I would say for sure that fiction has lent itself to that. Burn! (1969, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo), for example, spoke out so cleverly. I also look at Jean-Luc Godard’s work for social messages. You’ve got to stand by your work, no matter what, even if it’s Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron) as a social statement. It is so incredibly difficult to get anything done. I think about Martin Scorsese, who even after years of great work could not get a film made at one point, so he made After Hours (1985). And what a departure for him! While that’s a looser version of a fictional social statement, more direct ones would be the films of John Sayles or Jarmusch’s Dead Man. These films are made with almost a documentary eye, even though their fiction, and that was what I wanted to get at with this film. I wanted it to be inherently cinematic and to have these sorts of classical elements. I always think of De Sica’s The Bicycle Thieves (1948), which is my all-time favorite film. That film is all about real experiences that become documents, in their own way, of their time. And, my god, of course The Battle of Algiers, I still can’t believe that film got made. Think about that film! All non-actors. That film has inspired movements! And during the Bush era, I believe it was the CIA who were consulting it for military tactics.

SM: As a younger person, I did not grow up in the Reagan or the Thacher eras. I have never felt direct social oppression in my life; I was raised fairly Jewish, without bullies or danger or really any tragedy in my life. I have been sheltered. Many of the subjects of your work in general – Johnny Cash, Strummer, Sayles – take direct, aggressive stances against repression or oppression of healthy democracy. Do you think your subjects, as an artist, must have a fluency in forceful or aggressive opinion-spreading to be appropriate subjects of your work?

AD: No, not necessarily, as long as the subjects have the courage of their convictions. I should also say that the film and all my work is, ultimately, about our shared common humanity. I’ll point to Edwidge Danticat, the Haitian writer who is, for me, the most moving experience of the film. She reads from her book; and when she performs, it touches on all these things, and it’s very quiet. That’s why it is called Let Fury Have The Hour: it’s not about violence. It is about saying it is okay to have these emotions and to express them in such a way that they do not turn into situations like the bombing in Boston. These things happen because people in whatever situations feel oppressed. Now, Boston may not be a great example because they must have been pretty crazy to do those things, and the people we were talking about are actually very engaged and thoughtful and compassionate. But this idea of freedom of expression, which is our most important freedom and which is embodied by Lewis Black – because in Italian culture, humor is very important in dealing with struggles – and this idea that, within expression, are these buried emotions. Happiness to anger to sadness to love…we need to express all of that. And that’s what creates a healthy and compassionate, noncynical society. Even [musician] Billy Bragg, who I know to be one of the angriest people, appears in the film quite reasoned and softspoken and…

SM: I would even say subdued.

AD: Yes. I mean, he’s this classic protest folk singer. But this idea that freedom of expression takes all different forms is what makes us human. And this idea is what Reagan and Thatcher, for me, held back. It was them for me, but it could have been Nixon for someone else.

SM: For me and my generation, it was George W. Bush.

AD: George Bush for me too! I had to live through that whole nightmare as well. Throughout human history, we’ve been supporters of Stravinsky and Cervantes and Diego Rivera, but we have also had our Thatchers. The tension always exists – but I truly believe, in my heart, that we who choose to be compassionate are the greater majority. The dominant narrative can be shaped by the cynical minorities, like Reagan and Thatcher, but those are not ideologies that last, man. Picasso’s “Guernica” will last forever.


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