Playing for the People
A conversation with Steven Sebring, director of 'Patti Smith: Dream of Life'
The article "Bohemian Rhapsody: Patti Smith's 12-Year Take," about photographer Steven Sebring's documentary, Patti Smith: Dream of Life, appears in this print issue. An expanded transcript of the interview with Sebring is below.
Patti Smith: Dream of Life screens Monday, Aug. 25, at the Alamo Ritz as part of Alamo Drafthouse's Music Mondays. It opens for a limited theatrical run on Aug. 29.
Austin Chronicle: How did the movie come about, and why did it take 10 years? Or 11 years.
Steven Sebring: [laughs] Well, it kind of did – 12.
AC: Oh, okay, 12.
SS: One reason it took so long is that you just don't enter her life and make film. She's incredibly private. There's no footage of her. Mapplethorpe took a lot of film of her, I think, but you just don't go into making a film for three years with Patti Smith. I mean, it's a real personal film. Also, I didn't set out to make a movie; really, I just set out to document her. It was an outlet because I'm a fashion photographer, and I shoot a lot of celebrities and music and was always looking into ... doing some film. She's somebody I met on a photo shoot in '95 for Spin magazine. And I just didn't know a lot about Patti in the beginning, and she knew that immediately about me. So I was just fascinated by her when I saw her at Irving Plaza [in a series of shows that were her first concerts in 17 years], because she seemed so different to me from the woman I met in Detroit, you know.
AC: How so?
SS: Well, in Detroit she was just this like beautiful, soft-spoken, kind of funny girl. And then onstage, she's ... something else. So I was fascinated with that. And at the time I was looking for something that would inspire me. She very much inspired me, so I just kept hinting to her if I could follow her around and over time of hinting and stuff, she let me come to London. That was the start of it. And then I just started hanging out, more as a friend. I didn't had a camera with me all the time I was with Patti. Once in a while I'd have a camera; it was more about us connecting as human beings, and we had a spiritual connection quite immediately.
Also, I was financing it, financing the whole thing, so it wasn't like somebody was giving me money. That's why the film is the way it is, too, is because I had complete control of how I wanted the film to be, and Patti was the same way. We were very much controlling. ... The fact that it premiered at Sundance and did well and it's been going all over the place is kind of extraordinary for us, because it was never intended to be that.
AC: A lot of people, of course, worship her, would like to get access to her and hang out with her and have a spiritual connection. What do you think made that happen for you when it hasn't happened for so many people who are musicians, who know more about her?
SS: I think that was an immediate thing. I only knew her stuff in the Mapplethorpe books and I knew the song "Because the Night" and stuff like that, but I wasn't totally engrossed in what she was about. I'm always like that. When it comes to knowing who people are, I'm just pretty bad at that. I'm not this photographer who knows everything about a person before I photograph them. I'd much rather just learn about them, as a human being.
The day I photographed her for Spin in '95, I took maybe four or five rolls of film at the end of the day. We actually had to remind ourselves that we had to take a picture. We had just an immediate, sort of laid-back, "I'm an artist" ... you know, she doesn't like her picture taken, I don't like my picture taken. I mean, I understand that and I think she just saw where I was coming from. When I asked her to start filming her, it wasn't about money or contracts. I never even brought that up, because I didn't want that. I just wanted to document somebody like her. It was very interesting to me. That's why the film is the way it is today, because it really is an observation through my lens, through me. Because I'm not digging, I'm not ...
AC: Yeah, most of the actual information in the movie, in terms of the biography, isn't anything people don't know, or people who follow her don't know ...
SS: The whole idea of it was for people to sit there and learn, as I learned, who she was and just sort of see what we created together – this sort of art piece that has a lot to say about her. You know, I really started the film in '96, and the film is really about '96 on. While I dabbled in the past with some old footage that Amos Poe gave me, or we found some stuff from the BBC, just so people that didn't know a lot about her, like I didn't, could. But then, I wasn't spelling it out for people either, because I wanted people to go research her.
That was one thing we did in edits. I did some screenings, and a lot of people would tell me what they were inspired about, and they were so inspired, coming out of the movie, by poets like [Gregory] Corso and [Arthur] Rimbaud, and they all wanted to know about these people because that's who influenced her or who were her friends were – Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. It was really a cool thing because it gives people inspiration to go out and do that.
The thing I wanted to do is get her word out, because I adore her, and I fell in love with her, I want to get her message out. She's such an incredible woman, I mean there's no woman on the planet like her. Who's indicting Bush, you know what I mean? And who's doing a lecture at the Tate Modern and doing a lecture at the church William Blake was christened in and then doing a concert in Vienna at the opera, I mean, who does that? And then paintings that are at the MoMA, and she does things at the Met. That's why I wanted to do the movie and I wanted to premiere the movie in New York City at the MoMA, which we did, because it's that level that she's at that is really interesting to me. ... I always just think of her as the Rimbaud of our time.
AC: The look of the movie very much goes along with how I think of her, imagistically. That imagery has been consistent in her career, and I think of it as showing people what a bohemian artist's life looks like. But I'm also thinking, does she ever watch television? Does she ever go to a chain store? I mean, the whole film had no pieces of anything like that. And maybe she really lives that way ...
SS: Yeah, she doesn't watch TV. She doesn't have a TV. Once in a while she'll catch up on the news but it's always depressing. She doesn't go to chain stores. She is truly somebody special, you know. And she's always at work. She's always writing. She's always taking pictures, and her pictures are extraordinary, and she really is reading a lot. It's a beautiful thing. I think once in a while she'll pick up on HBO or something. I know she used to watch lots of Sopranos or something. And she's written two murder mysteries.
AC: Well, she does, she mentions Mickey Spillane.
SS: She likes that kind of stuff, and she likes [Jean-Luc] Godard films. ... She adores [opera singer] Waltraud Meier. ... A lot of times, she does this thing where she tours in the same place as someone she wants to see.
AC: Sort of around that person?
SS: Yeah, and she's always touring around. She'll do a thing in France because it's Arthur Rimbaud's birthday or she'll do something at the Metropolitan Art Museum, she'll do a thing on Rimbaud, or one of the last things she did at the MoMA was a thing on [artist Georges] Seurat. She's always doing stuff like that. She'll stay in a hotel that happens to be close to a graveyard where somebody's buried that she's inspired by.
AC: Tell me about some of the archival footage.
SS: The stuff in the park, where they're in the park, that's from Amos Poe. [Filmmaker] Jonas Mekas gave me the footage of Allen Ginsberg when he's like lying there and he'd just passed away and his spirit just left his body. We have that in the film. The early, early stuff is from the BBC. It was really nice to see and have. There was other stuff that I could have put in the movie, but the publishing rights were just stupid. That was one thing about making this movie was, after the fact, dealing with all these rights issues got boring. I was like "how much money for that?"
AC: One of the banes of indie filmmaking.
SS: Oh, it's awful. It's awful.
AC: When she's doing voiceovers [in the film] – not reading someone else's stuff, but her own stuff – is that spontaneous or did she write that ?
SS: A lot of it is spontaneous and a lot of it's written. There was quite a bit of spontaneous stuff. But there is also new poetry in the film. A lot of it is just her and I in her bedroom, recording some stuff. After I'd do a scene edit, I'd have her come in, and she would lay something over that. Also, over the years I'd have recordings and stuff, and I'd just use it in certain places. But it was a very organic film. It was not an easy film to edit. It took over a year to edit. ... It was like a beast that you try to tame. ... A lot of the scenes were coming from like maybe three different countries, and I made a scene out of it. It was just one camera; it was only me and her 95 percent of the time. There are no crews or anything like that, so it was very organic that way. ...
I would bring her v.o., and I always wanted her to tell her story because she's got such a great storytelling voice. You know: no talking heads films. I think other people can do that. I actually got slammed by somebody, I think it was the Voice, because they wanted more of that VH-1 type of stuff. What I don't think people really realize is that's not what I'm doing. ... It's not the kind of thing I was inspired to do. I think eventually, someday, somebody might do that, but not while Patti's alive.
AC: It doesn't sound like your approach would have made this a problem, but do you feel like there were issues of her wanting to control the content?
SS: No, she wasn't heavy-handed at all. We have such an incredible trust and bond. We're really literally like a brother and sister now at this point. We're very close. I wanted to show her in the best light. I'm not trying to do anything bad. I want to do something positive and inspirational. She really trusted me throughout the whole process. And that was beautiful. There were some things where she was like, well, no. But again, because of publishing problems, too, it would have been problematic maybe – but that's stuff that's out of my control.
The movie is totally what I do. That's why I did a book, because when you see the stills in the book it's like my [photographic] stills. I took the movie and made them stand still in the book, and that's so perfect for what I do. It was really about me doing something really beautiful. And hoping to get her involved. ... But she was not heavy-handed. I mean, there were times when I felt like it wasn't the right time to film, and I would just throw the camera down. I'm not interested in filming people that don't want to be filmed, and I don't want to photograph people who don't want to be photographed. I'm not that paparazzi-style thing.
AC: You started when she was coming back onto the scene. What was your take on that?
SS: She did great! People were embracing her immediately. Over the years now, 12 years, I've seen the youth just getting so into her again, big time. Her whole spectrum of people is all over the place. Whole generations. I think it's so amazing, because it's not just music lovers – it's poets and writers, and a lot of actors and actresses adore her. It's really amazing to see what she crosses, I mean, she's crossing over everywhere. At the beginning ... I was always curious to see who'd be coming [to see the film]. Now it's pretty much across the board, all over the place. Patti and I have been doing Q&As at the Film Forum [in New York]. It's fun because we get to see who's coming and answer questions and stuff, and it's really all across the board, all generations. It's really awesome for me to see. It's really great to see that, you know.
AC: Did anything surprise you in making the film?
SS: How much things cost in the making of a film – a 16mm movie! You know, that was surprising. And just how much fun it was. We're still doing projects together.
AC: What are you doing?
SS: We're always doing stuff. She just had a big retrospective at the [Fondation] Cartier in Paris, so we did some stuff with that. She's touring with the movie when she can. She'll just show up and sing, or [sometimes] the band can come. I have an installation that's touring – it just went to Australia – it's called "Objects of Life." ... It's going be at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Melbourne for a month and a half, and her show is going to be part of the whole thing. ... I'm involved in photography and fashion and book publishing and now film, and it's just like you can do anything and that's kind of like what she's about, too, so we're always thinking of different collaborations.
AC: Do you think of yourself as a biographer?
SS: I don't know, I don't know about that. A biographer? ... Yeah, could be. Her messenger, maybe? To get her word out. In this election year, too, we're trying to do as much as we can.
AC: This might be a question for her, but when did she decide to become more overtly political?
SS: Yeah, that's a question for her, because as long as I've known her she's been pretty political. We were protesting the war before it started and documented that in the film, and we indict Bush in the film. So definitely she's gone down documented as somebody that ... is not afraid to speak out. ... For her to do that, I'm proud to be a part of it and make a really cool visual piece to the indictment. Because nobody's doing that. I love going to the protests with her. It didn't make any difference but, you know, we were there.
AC: I think you don't know yet that it didn't make any difference. Sometimes the difference comes later.
SS: Yeah, hopefully, you know. Seems like people didn't learn from Vietnam, you kknow what I mean? But we're proud that we documented it in the film, that that's where we stand.
AC: That was a really moving and stirring part of the film.
SS: It's amazing that people aren't writing more about that kind of stuff in the film, because we talk about it. But some people think, oh it's a done deal, [Bush is] already leaving office. But we're like, no, it's not done. It still needs to be out that he is crooked. It's such an incredible thing that a woman, a mother, a rock & roll poet, is speaking out like that. ... She always says she's a performer for the people. You see her going to the Film Forum, practically every night, being there for them. You don't see Dylan or these people doing that kind of stuff. You know, they don't do it. They're on some high horse or something.
AC: She's what I would call a very receptive performer.
SS: Yeah, she's with the people. You know, at the Berlin Film Festival, for instance, it was all about the Rolling Stones and Patti Smith, this whole big deal. We did this big screening event for 1,000 people, this big thing in East Berlin. There was this huge, huge press conference, I mean there were thousands and thousands of people there and cameras all over the place, and I gave her her guitar, and she sang them a song. It was the first time in the history of the Berlin Film Festival – I think it was the 59th film festival – and nobody ever sang for the press. It was the hugest thing that hit the press. And she just stood up and sang. To the press! And she's like, you know, they're people too.
AC: That's a charitable view.
SS: They all saw the movie, and this is like a press conference, and then following that is the big premiere. And I saw a grown man crying. I was like, wow! That's who she is. She's playing for the people. When we found out nobody ever did that, we were like, why? Do they not have the right acoustics or something? ... That's why she and I really hooked up, because in that way we're really the same.
AC: Meaning ... ?
SS: We're just trying to do good work. And do work that is great work – that is recognized as really great work. That's what we're really both about. It's not like we're selling out. It wasn't like, oh if you make this film a little bit more like this, it'll be more understood for the masses. I'm like, well, gee whiz, you know, can't we let people think for themselves sometimes? ... Last night she and I went and did a Q&A, and there were people there for their, like, third time. It was really cool. In Paris, they're playing it at the Pantheon for a year, every Saturday night. ... We just found out that the Film Forum here just extended it until September 11. ... That's the kind of stuff that we love. We love that people are going back to see it again and again.
AC: Maybe then they'll start dressing up, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
SS: Exactly! [Laughs.] Wouldn't that be something? Like this cult.
AC: How did Flea get involved? I just have to ask.
SS: Oh, Flea's a friend – he's a friend of hers. Patti and I were in L.A. and we just hooked up at the beach and I brought my camera and did that. He plays a lot with her. ... Flea really adores her. It's like Michael Stipe; they were very influenced by her, obviously. So they're writing a lot together. He wanted to be in the film. ... I just filmed them gabbing on Malibu Beach and it's a funny scene.
AC: Lenny [Kaye, Smith's longtime bandmate and co-songwriter] isn't in the film very much except when they're performing. I know that they have had such a long relationship and I was wondering if that's just how he is – is he always in the background, or was that a choice?
SS: There will be some extra footage. But he was pretty much in the background a lot. ... And he is just one of these quiet types. I love him. He's always present. The way he's captured in the film, the most amazing part of it for me is seeing him dancing on the beach with Patti. That for me is like, hey, you don't need to see him talking or anything. It's just really lovely to see Lenny Kaye just sort of there like that. And he loves the movie. He really loves the movie. He saw it at Sundance and then he saw it at the MoMA and he says it's better the second time. He just thinks it's so incredible, and he's really happy.