Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Lynn Hershman-Leeson

Strange Culture

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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Born in 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio, the multiple-award winning San Francisco artist Lynn Hershman-Leeson has created everything from sculptures to more outlandish, inventive stuff, using real life as a canvas. In the late 1970s, Hershman-Leeson began experimenting with video, and many of her productions appeared as installations in museums or on foreign television. In 1997 made her feature theatrical debut with Conceiving Ada (1997), starring Tilda Swinton as Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace and inventor of computer language. Her second feature, Teknolust (released in 2003), was a colorful, bizarre science-fiction story with Swinton playing four roles as a scientist and three Cyborg clones. Her newest film, Strange Culture -- which recently played at the San Francisco International Film Festival -- is a kind of fictional documentary, telling the story of Steve Kurtz, an artist working on an installation involving petrie dishes full of bacteria. When his wife suddenly died, the police saw his project and he was arrested as a potential bio-terrorist. Hershman-Leeson hired actors to play the parts, and also interviewed the real participants.

JMA: Did you know Steve? How did you meet?

LHL: We had been in some of the same shows, and I knew his work.

JMA: How has the story progressed since you wrapped the film?

LHL: They're hoping to have a trial next year. They're using the documentary as a means of raising money, because he's out of money now. Docurama has picked up the film for release on DVD. It will be in Europe, but in the United States people seem to be afraid; they don't know how to sell it.

JMA: Is it true that the film had a webcast premiere at Sundance? How did that go?

LHL: It was great. They called me from Sundance to tell me it was going to be in the festival and I was already doing a private screening for curators, re-animating the archives, screening some of my films of the 70s in that space. It occurred to me, why not do a Second Life [an internet-based "virtual world"] screening for people around the world while we were in the festival? We screened it at the festival, and then the next day we screened it for Second Life.

JMA: I loved how this mixed and mingled the documentary format and fiction formats. Can you talk a little about this?

LHL: When we started it, Steve couldn't talk about certain things. I didn't know if I could interview him and I didn't know what he could say. He was fighting a gag order. His attorney wouldn't let him talk. I didn't go to film school, so I didn't know what I couldn't do. It was the only way I could portray these things. I had to edit it myself because no editor would touch it; they said you couldn't do it. Nobody understood how you could make the two things meet. An then, at first Steve said he didn't want anyone to play Hope, but then six months later, he said if it was anyone it would have to be Tilda.

JMA: But you were eventually able to get Steve.

LHL: Steve, the first two times he was supposed to come out was cancelled, so we shot all that in one day. The art institute gave me their school, including their auditorium. We had to cut almost 40 minutes out of it because we had it vetted by his attorneys and our attorneys. We did a screening at SF MOMA, and I showed only the stuff I had cut out. [Laughs]

JMA: At one point in the film, the actors playing Hope and Steve (Thomas Jay Ryan and Tilda Swinton) simply turn to the camera and begin talking about the case as themselves, and not as their characters. How did this come about?

LHL: Those papers were scattered on the table was the script that nobody had seen 40 minutes before. Steve helped me to write it because I didn't know Hope. This was a really interesting element, and the actors were so intelligent and passionate that it would be a pity to leave this part out. I had to get releases so that I could use their off-the-cuff comments. They agreed to let me use any footage I had. It was kind of a progressive deconstruction of making the film.

JMA: I thought I saw in the credits that Josh Kornbluth was playing "Lynn Hershman Leeson." Did I see that right?

LHL: The incident in the classroom where the students wouldn't sign the petition, that was me.

JMA: You've worked with Josh before, in Teknolust.

LHL: I felt it was necessary to get into this world as fast as possible, so I worked with people I had worked with before. I saw this as a document of our time rather than a story. Many people criticized me: 'we don't know what's going to happen.' It's not the traditional narrative of the courtroom drama. This is kind of a pervasive paranoiac society. It's about the loss of privacy.

JMA: Also, you had Peter Coyote reading a transcript from a real person. How did that scene come about?

LHL: [Steve's associate] Robert Ferrell had a stroke, but I was able to talk to him on the telephone and get this transcript. We had to find an actor here to read it, and Peter agreed to do it. We had him for less than an hour.

JMA: Another thing I like about it is that it's not an angry, preachy film.

LHL: That's another thing people criticize is that Steve is laughing. But people deal with loss in various ways. He had to schedule 10 minutes here 20 minuets there just to grieve.

JMA: What are you working on next?

LHL: The history of feminist art. 125 hours. I started 40 years ago. I think it will be ready by the fall.

May 26, 2007

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