Stephen Sihla and Eric Slade’s Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton is a close exploration of a man who embodied the tenants of free expression. Living under the mantra of ‘Follow Your Weird,’ Broughton was both a poet and a filmmaker, an avante garde champion of artist expression who refused to play by the rules of his time. As a contemporary of and grandfather to the beatnik generation, Broughton made artist waves within a population striving to break away from the norm and has left a lasting impact for poets, filmmakers and countless people. Sihla and Slade’s film charters the course of Broughton as a man and an artist as he bravely pioneers that frontier of queer entertainment.
I had a chance to speak with the duo as they shed some light on their personal experiences knowing James and making this filmic epitaph of his life.
There are many big players in the beatnik scene that are more well known than James Broughton, and honestly I had never heard of Broughton before this film. Were you guys always aware of him or was there a moment where each of you discovered him for yourselves?
Stephen Silha: Good question. I guess I discovered him in 1979 when I stumbled into a little auditorium at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where they were showing his films. I kind of uncharacteristically sat down and sat there for about an hour watching these really interesting films from the 50’s and 60’s and I was kind of taken by their subtle homoeroticism as well as their spiritual quality. That was my first encounter with James’ work and then 10 years later, he and Joel were in the same cabin as me at a Radical Faerie gathering at a hot springs in Oregon.
Eric Slade: My first big exposure, and Steve and I are both from the Radical Faerie background which is sort of an alternative queer culture, I don’t know what you’d call it, and I think somewhere in the early 1980’s, I was at a Radical Faerie event at someone’s house and they showed ‘The Bed’ which is probably James’ most celebrated film and it totally captivated me. I’d never seen anything like it. It really stuck with me. Later in the 80’s, I met James a couple of times at Radical Faerie gatherings in southern Oregon but we never became close but Steve and him became very close.
I didn’t know that you guys had actually met him while he was living.
SS: Yeah, I was so inspired by him. When I met him, he was 75 and I was like, “I want to be that lively when I’m 75 and want to be surrounded by interesting young people.” It was just a good fortune that we were assigned to the same cabin and then he and Joel invited me for dinner and we ended up becoming friends and he certainly was a mentor for me.
What was it that made you choose Broughton as your subject for you film? Was it this friendship that you developed or a fascination with his work of a combination of both?
SS: I think it was both. I found that his books were out of print. When I went to bookstores, I couldn’t find his work. The only place you could see his films were at the Anthology Film Archives in New York or occasionally at a retrospective at the San Francisco Cinemateque. Originally I was thinking of a book but I realized it had to be a film to try and bring his work back because I think it’s incredibly relevant for the 21st century.
ES: One of the things that you were saying earlier is he wasn’t as famous as Ginsberg or Ferlinghetti or Kerouac or those guys and I think one of the reasons is he and his friends in the 40’s and very early 50’s were creating this thing called the San Francisco renaissance which is sort of the soil that the beat movement grew out of. It was really their group that started live poetry readings. That hadn’t been done before and wasn’t popular before they started doing it. They laid all the groundwork for this and then these guys like Ginsberg came in who were incredibly talented but were also good at publicity so it was their group who got on the cover of Life magazine so James and a bunch of the people from his group in the San Francisco renaissance kind of got overlooked so James’ work, as incredible as it is, started getting buried in history. Part of Stephen and my intention was to bring that back and make sure that people didn’t lose sight of it. We’ve heard from a number of film and poetry scholars and historians that they are so grateful that this incredible work is coming back to the world.
SS: We were surprised that no-one had done a documentary about that San Francisco Renaissance period.
Because Broughton work was prominent in the beatnik subcultures from the 50's to his death in 1999 and probable even lesser so then, why choose to make the documentary now?
SS: Again, I felt like since he died in ’99, and I was present at his death and it had a huge impact on me because my father died 5 months later and I felt like it was preparing me in a way, and it just felt like the right time to do it. In fact, I said to myself, “If I don’t do it now, it’s never gonna get done.” For me, it was a big step jumping out of print journalism which is something that I’ve been doing most of my life into filmmaking. I honestly couldn’t have done it without the partnership with Eric.
ES: It was a good partnership. We both brought really different things to the table for this. The film that we created is unlike most films out there because of what we each brought to it.
SS: I think another thing about the timing of it is we got an interview with Lawrence Ferlinghetti who is in his 90’s now so there’s a group of people who aren’t gonna be around to tell this story soon so it was timely in that way because we wanted to make sure that the story got out before it was too late.
And had you two collaborated before?
SS: No it was our first thing together. We knew each other from Radical Faerie gatherings before but had never worked together.
What was the experience like of reaching out to his former friends and lovers considering how much of a bond he seemed to have fostered with all these people. All of them seemed to have such loving memories of him, even his ex-wife who seemed in love with him to this day. Were they glad to see Broughton getting his day in the lime light again or was their any hesitancy to speak with guys about it?
SS: We did 37 interviews and none of those people were unwilling or hesitant at all to speak about Broughton. It was amazing.
ES: Almost everybody who we talked to, especially people who knew him more recently, said being around James was just this amazing pleasurable thing. He would almost always take your hand and hold onto it during your conversation and he just had this sparkle and this life to him that people liked being around. You hear that even with Suzanna and the time they spent together that having James in your life was a good thing for most people.
Was there a particular interview that you did that touched you in any way or made you see him in a new light?
SS: So many of them because we were piecing together [his life]. We didn’t really have a script for the film when we started interviewing, we just kind of used my journalistic bent to interview these people while we can and see what story emerges. In a way, it was James’ own journals, he journaled from the age he was 13 until he died, that was the most profound interview of the whole thing. We were getting his inner thoughts. It was interesting because a lot of people had sort of forgotten about him like Alex Gildzen, the guy who organized the Broughton archives at Kent state who tells a lot of the story in the film, he got so excited remembering James’ story and then he also remembered how painful it was to read some of the personal letters in James’ journals. The road to Big Joy is not all polished bliss.
ES: I think that in interviews with his former wife Suzanna and his son Orion, those were really poignant. You can see the really positive impact that he had on their lives but you can see that he wasn’t a great husband and he wasn’t a great father. There was difficulty to it too with those relationships. If you follow your true path, there can be damage along the way. Not everyone goes along with that path and I think Suzanna expresses that well, that she was really hurt by it.
In the film, Broughton says that film saved his life. How has film had a significant impact on you?
SS: It’s definitely given me a new life. It’s so different from print journalism to try and coordinate the six or seven dimensions of film. You’re trying to tell a good story and show a good story and I had no idea how important sound is to make a good film. I just feel like it’s given me a whole new area to play in for self expression as well as documentation.
ES: I originally embarked on this as a career path because I wanted to do, and I still see it as social activism. At some point early in my life, I wanted to make an impact on the world and it seemed like [I] made some impact but I wanted mass impact. It’s really gratifying that films I’ve worked on have been seen by tens of thousands, millions of people and I know that at least some percentage of them have their lives impacted or effected by it. This film has been especially gratifying in that way because people coming out of the theater who have seen the film want to live a more creative life. They want to find their inner spark and live more fully. That’s a great success if people are inspired to live bigger lives.
SS: We really do want to start a movement here. Given the fact that that’s the reaction that people are having, which is what we hoped, we’re really pushing people to figure out what is their weird and how can they best follow it. To that end, we’re encouraging people to have salons and have special events around the country for the film in the coming months leading up to Broughton’s 100th birthday on November 10th.
You just mentioned his saying to "Follow your weird", did you guys take this as some kind of personal calling to make this movie?
SS: Definitely. We discovered that everytime we did an interview or an editing session, we would read Broughton poetry and talk about what each of our weird is. What the film shows the weird of a number of creative people melding together.
ES: One of the things we said earlier on when we were making the film is that we have to be willing to fail and fall on our face and have it not be [what we wanted.] I think that’s part of the creative process. Part of following your weird is being open to not working because otherwise you’re limiting yourself to things that you know are gonna work and that’s a pretty limited palette. That was part of our credo and we wanted to film not just to be something you watch but something you live through - an experiential prayer that you go to and come out transformed. We had big goals and very high standards. We also said very early on that we weren’t trying to make an experimental film. We weren’t trying to make a Broughton film but we did want to be inspired by the style of his work. For me, it was daunting and a little scary to follow in his footsteps to try and make a film that honored his work and followed his spirit but I feel like we did a good job. We didn’t made an experimental film but we made a film that embodied some of that.
Broughton was married for a number of years to Suzanna but he says that it was because it was just the status quo. It was the thing to do. His generation was characterized by this expressive freedom and yet these rigid sexual barriers and even Broughton saw his sexuality as a specter to be overcome. How do you guys think Broughton would respond to the ongoing marriage equality movement that has really emerged and flourished in the last decade?
SS: I think he’d be happy with the social justice aspect of it but I remember him saying that there was something about the 50’s that even though they were horrible in some ways, it was refreshing in that people didn’t have to be categorized as gay or straight of any one thing.
ES: It’s a good question and I don’t know what he would think. The thing about the equality movement is it’s pushing the boundaries in a great way but I also think that marriage itself is such a restrictive [thing]. I don’t think it’s following your own weird necessarily. The boundaries are pretty rigid around that so I don’t know how he would embrace marriage as a goal. Although he and Joel got married three times.
Juxtaposing this generation to the 1950’s, how much of his work was a result of being in his particular time and place especially considering that it’s a time with these intense social stigmas around sexuality and how much of his work do you thing was a result of that and struggling with his own duality?
SS: Oh I think a lot of it. That was central to his work throughout his writing and filmmaking career. He was really struggling with his own contradictions and it enabled him to see the contradictions in the world. He never really accepted any own religion. He said things like, “Jesus, Pan and Buddha are my sidekicks and we like to sit by Lao Tzu's river.” ES: I think that the era, because the oppression was so tough, through those questions right in his face. You didn’t have a choice whether you were gonna grapple with those issues because you see them every day, and I think it’s still true today, but if he hadn’t been living in that era, that was what he was interested in anyway - our own contradictions. We all have a male and a female inside of us and he was fascinated by that. As much as he was struggling through it, he just loved diving deep into that question because its so central to the human experience.
Speaking about the male and the female, there’s definitely no shortage of male or female genitalia in the film. Were you worried that that might make it more difficult to get a rating from the MPAA and it get into wide circulation?
SS: Yes but we decided early on that that didn’t matter. That if we were being true to Broughton, we had to do that. Our trailer was pulled down from YouTube within a day of putting it up because of scenes from his film ‘The Bed’. At the moment, the film is not rated. If we do go theatrical, we will have to go through that system to see what they say.
ES: We’d early on said that PBS is not our goal but they actually said, when we talked to them, that as long as they can blur, they’d be happy to give it a try. But we didn’t want any restriction on that. To make the human body not part of the film would just not work.
SS: We did restrain ourselves however from showing the ‘Hermes Bird’ film which is an 11-minute erection.
Yeah, that would make it all the more difficult. So Broughton in his last moments seemed to adopt an almost breezy towards his own death, seeing it as an invitation to something new and weird without having some sort of morbid fascination that you see with a lot of sickly or elderly people. And Stephen, you were there with his for his passing, what was that experience like on a spiritual level and how has that effected you going forward from that experience?
SS: Yeah, I don’t think he took a breezy attitude towards it at all. His comfort with it came from his having really grappled and dealt with it for years. He wrote poetry about death all the time and he was able to take that attitude of the adventure of it, after doing lots of deep, inner work. The process of making the film has had a similar effect on me in that I’ve had to look at my own mortality differently and tried to bring that sense of humor that he brought to it. I’ve lost a lot of close people even since the film has been made and it’s been helpful to have Broughton’s voice in my consciousness.
Finally, what’s next for the both of you? Are you planning on collaborating again and continuing down the documentary road or are you thinking of exploring the feature film route?
SS: Or a Broadway musical?
ES: Who would play James? Right now, it’s all about getting this film out in the world but who knows? We could collaborate again.
SS: We still like each other.
Are you planning on continuing on the film road? Is this a more suiting avenue for getting your voice heard than print journalism?
SS: I think I may have the documentary bug. I’ve also become interested in experimental film but I’m giving myself another couple years to just recover from the intense process of making ‘Big Joy’ and trying to get this film out in the world in a good way. I see a lot of good films that don’t get out partly because the filmmaker is already onto the next thing.
Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton has no official US or international release date but it will be making the festival rounds in the upcoming months. For those in Seattle, be sure to check it out at the Seattle International Film Festival at the SIFF Uptown- Fri, May 31 at 6 PM or Pacific Place Sat - June 1, 1:30PM.