They approached me as two people who wanted to finish a film. What I didn't realize was how that fed into all the reasons why they've had a difficult time finishing it over the years.
How did you first meet Robert and Ruby, these two eccentric filmmakers who were trying to finish their 40-year-old movie?
You know how New York just kind of happens? I do a bunch of work for Harper's magazine, and their receptionist was at a party with Ruby about five years ago. They transferred a tiny bit of Robert's film to video, and they were looking for someone to sync up the video with the audio. A guy recommended me, so Ruby came in to my office and had crazy red hair and was wearing a bunch of punker clothes ... She sat down and we took a look at what she had, and I just kind of fell in love with it. She was really interesting, and she told me about Robert. They were both just incredible characters, so I pitched them - I said, 'Why don't you let me make a movie about you trying to finish your film? I can probably get a lot of the expenses taken care of.' It just made sense to me, and it made sense to them - so that was the beginning.
Was there a lot of negotiating, or were they really open to the idea?
They were incredibly open to it, and there was a lot of negotiating. It took about a year and a half to gain their trust. It's very New York - when you start to smell something good, everybody kind of retreats into their camps of 'I'm not going to get screwed.' Robert and Ruby were together during the making of the film like 40 years ago, and I think there was a lot of old business between them. It was almost like they picked up right where they left off. The fireworks began, and they got very ... protective.
These two were bright young stars that never really reached their potential - why was everyone so sure they'd be great?
Shooting this film, I got kind of a crash course in the '70s in New York. I'd heard of it all, but I never really understood what was happening with the Warhol stuff. And there were a bunch of brilliant filmmakers coming out of NYU. New York had a different mindset back then - media was still young. If you were a star in your own mind, then you were a star. And you were destined for stardom. It was a lifestyle they lived. People just wanted to change the world in their own little way. Glamour and the sexual revolution were new - anybody who could draw attention to themselves was going to be famous. Being a star now is very different. The bar is set very high. Back then, people thought the ride was going to go on forever.
But it didn't - at least not for Robert and Ruby ...
At the outset, I just liked his film. I just didn't realize that it was going to take up five years of my life.
We go through that now, too - you never realize that you're going to get old. Then what happens when you are old? You get kind of addicted to a certain way of being, and then that way of being doesn't yield the same results as you get older. Robert and Ruby are still the same, minus the partying and such. They still operate on this level where everybody is going to be excited to hear what they have to say. Which is part of why it was so natural to make a movie about them. They were just like, 'Oh, a camera crew ... of course!
Did you have trouble getting their story to make sense?
I'm a simple guy, so I organized the film around the editing process because that's something I feel very comfortable with. So the narrative thrust just attacks each little step in actually finishing a film. That let us veer off on all these crazy little paths and then come back. Without the film being there, the movie would have just rambled on potentially forever, but the film kind of brought to light the distractions that make it difficult to accomplish ... what you need to accomplish to feel proud of yourself.
Did the finished product turn out as you expected, or did that veer off as well?
I think the structure is what I intended. I think the content definitely went off in a bunch of different directions. I've always been a champion of Robert and Ruby's film - I love it - but I didn't really know them. They approached me as two people who wanted to finish a film. What I didn't realize was how that fed into all the reasons why they've had a difficult time finishing it over the years. I think I did set out to make a movie about people who were going to finish a film finally and achieve the dreams of their youth. What ended up happening is it became an examination of how you have to make compromises along the way. You get a real look at what it is to grow old in kind of a New York frame of mind.