A Q&A with David Henry Gerson, Filmmaker ‘Ultra Violet for Sixteen Minutes’ Part I

Ultra Violet, mistress to Salvador Dali and muse to Andy Warhol, reveals in this sixteen-minute documentary her untold tale of spiritual rebirth and her iconic perspective on fame, art, and religion. Includes rare photographs from her past, and Andy Warhol’s screen-test of Ultra Violet from 1965.

TAD: What led you to this subject?

DHG: I have always been interested in the relationship between art and religion. Ultra Violet has been intimately involved with some of the greatest artists of the 20th century – Dali, Warhol, Duchamp, Chamberlain, Ruscha – as well as intimately involved with religion – today the Church of Latter Day Saints, aka Mormons. Her life experience provides a vantage for me to evaluate how we are similarly drawn both to great artists and to religious doctrines.

TAD: Being both an actor and an artist, is the idea of fame something that drives your work either as a motivator or a deterrent?

DHG: Yes. Inevitably. In the film, Ultra Violet says, “Fame is a pre-taste of immortality – people that are famous want to go on and be remembered.” This is tricky – I’ve fallen for this before. I wouldn’t say that fame a la Ultra Violet’s description is what I am driven by. As an actor, as an artist, fame for me is important simply as a means to have my work recognized and therein, hopefully, get more work.  But when the idea of fame becomes a pressure cooker it certainly can be a deterrent to creativity – you know? – People can become obsessed with how they are perceived and I find that pretty uninteresting.

TAD: Ultra Violet talks about art as an investigation into something greater, she refers to an investigation of God’s creations, but this film is an investigation as well, what conclusions if any are you hoping people will draw from this, and you yourself, have your investigative practices changed after working on this project? Does religion play a role in your own artistic practices?

DHG: Lots of questions here. Ill start with the last. Religion does play a role in my artistic practices. I was raised conservatively Jewish, and my grandparents were Holocaust survivors. Religion for me was a cultural practice, but the belief in God, in the traditional sense of the word, has been a challenge to me given my grandparents’ experiences. But religion has served as a platform for investigation – questioning. I would say my greatest relationship to God is questioning God, seeking, investigating paths towards enlightenment, spiritual enrichment. Ultra Violet in the film says, “art is lovely, but that’s not the answer to life!” I only hope that people leaving watching this film will be left with more questions of the purpose of art, the purpose of religion, of life, and that they will continue to think of the things Ultra Violet says in the film for a long time after viewing the film. I feel that the best films are those you start really seeing once you have left the theater.

TAD: Ultra Violet also talks about the importance of drama in creating fame eg: having an alter ego, this portrait seems very real and not dramatic, can you talk about what it took to strip the drama away or was this a natural process?

DHG: I wanted to paint her as she was, as if no one was there. Before filming, I was fortunate to have been given some advice by Albert Maysles, the great American documentarian – he advised me not to shoot a talking head, but to ask her to do whatever she would be doing normally if I were not there. So when I arrived I asked her to go about her regular day as I asked her questions. She immediately went behind her couch and pulled out an old pink brazier and started cutting it up and re-sewing it to transform it into a headdress. This may have been an act that she was performing for me, a bit of drama she knew would work on camera, or it may have been an honest exercise of her day. However she became very honest, candid, non-performative in the process of executing the activity of cutting up the brazier. So this helped in that process. Yet the other primary reason the film is stripped of ‘drama,’ or rather ‘performance,’ is that I did ask her to sit silently in front of my camera for fifteen minutes which will inevitably leave a person somewhat bare. My favorite part of the film is seeing how much she has transformed by the end of those fifteen minutes.

TAD: Ultra Violet talks about the ability for people to change or not change, is that a driving concept behind this? You juxtapose her natural, aging face against a constructed Warhol silkscreen flower and the idea of change and evolution is emitted, this is artistic and quite poetic, talk more about this idea and juxtaposition that is the foundation for much of this film.

DHG: I am very glad you appreciate this. Yes, absolutely, one of the primary images of this film is the juxtaposition of her flesh, her skin, which is of course wrinkled as anyone’s at her age would be, and the silkscreen of Warhol’s flowers behind her. In a sense, Ultra Violet, the ‘character’ created in Warhol’s factory, not Isabelle Collin Dufresne, is also a work by Warhol. Yet one of Warhol’s works has lasted and likely will last for a long time and the other, the human, is going the course all humans go. The way in which Warhol used people in his factory to elicit fame, and here I mean fame in the sense of “a pre-taste of immortality,” I find rather troublesome. A human being is not an artwork in the same way that a piece of paper is. The paper can be used for this sense of immortality, but unfortunately it seems that Warhol used many people in the same way. Paper does not feel a sense of loss, betrayal or abandonment when it’s creator has moved on to a new study.

TAD: Many contemporary artists, have used film and video to recreate classic paintings, you have done something different here but there are elements of painting and photography in the shots you have and the frames you chose to focus in on, in many ways, a very surrealist approach to film making. Your own photography reflects this as well, what role does the subject herself, her relationship to surrealism and your own artistic practices play?

DHG: In my photography I have always been very interested in organic lines vs. geometric lines and this is a theme that plays into the previous questions. The straight line almost never exists in nature, yet we urban creatures try to live by straight lines. Nature is dominated by the organic line, the curve of skin against bone, the crooked nooks of fingers and trees. Visually I am interested in the juxtaposition of these two forms – just like the rigidity of Warhol’s print against the organic fluidity of Ultra Violet’s changing arm and flesh. It seems to me that religion is a straight line, and mankind is an organic line.

TAD: The 15 min of stillness and silence in Andy Warhol’s original screen test serves as a good background to the newer 16 minute screen test you have created, what role does silence play in this film? It is interesting that a screen-test involves no moving, no expression and no talking, this speaks to ideas of a constructed and false idea of skill and fame and more about an idea of an actual physical test, Ultra Violet herself addresses the difficulty of this task at the end, how did you land on this 16min test as the anchoring theme in the film?

DHG: Ultra Violet’s book, “Famous for Fifteen Minutes,” was the motivating idea behind doing a fifteen minute portrait of her. During the process of filming she said, “I want to be famous for sixteen minutes now, no fifteen is gone.” Hence, we added a minute to the film – but that extra minute symbolically stands for what she found beyond fame. On Ultra Violet’s Amazon book reviews, one reviewer writes something to the effect of questioning how much of these experiences Ultra Violet writes of in the sixties and seventies are made up and as to how much are true. Here she speaks of seeing God and being born-again. The same doubts apply. The benefit of using film is that often when you see a person silent, not speaking, they end up communicating much more than they do when they are speaking. This opinion may be routed in my being an actor – in the sense that an actor, who does not create his language in a film or play, must artistically communicate experience without words. So in contrasting Ultra Violet’s life obsessed with fame and her supposed more honest nature after she found religion I am very interested in trying to depict her as honestly as possible – without any ego involved – and seeing her not speaking, or her silence after making a statement in some cases, becomes a very useful tool.

DAVID HENRY GERSON is an actor and filmmaker. He has trained as an actor in the Meisner and Method techniques, and classically in London at the British American Drama Academy. He holds a BA from Columbia University where he studied English, Film, Theatre and Visual Arts. Film and television credits include David Mamet’s FOX TV Show ‘The UNIT,’ leading roles in various short and independent films, as well as PBS and various commercial projects. He has acted ion the stage as well across New York, and in London and Washington DC.

In 2007, he co-produced and directed the US Premiere of Mick Gordon and AC Grayling’s ‘theatre essay’ entitled ‘On Religion’ (AKA Grace). His first short documentary film, “Ultra Violet for Sixteen Minutes” (“Totally Engaging” – Al Maysles), hit festivals in 2010. He currently resides in New York where he is developing his next short film, a narrative about alienation in America entitled “American Standard” – a story of a troubled relationship between an Afghanistan war veteran and his undocumented immigrant girlfriend.

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