Interview with George Kuchar — Chicago Underground Film Festival

George Kuchar
Interview by Scott Trotter

George Kuchar started making films as a pre-teen in the early 1950s in New York City with his twin brother Mike. Their first films were low-budget send-ups of the melodramas and Grade Z Hollywood films of their time. In the 60s, the Kuchar brothers stopped making films together in order to develop their own unique styles. By the early 80s George had made the switch from film to video. I met George in 1990 while attending his infamous production class, AC/DC Psychotronic Teleplays.

Scott Trotter: You and your twin brother Mike started making films in the late fifties and I was wondering what got you started.

George Kuchar: Well, we went to the movies and either enjoyed or got scared by what we saw. From that point on we wanted to make pictures. At that time 8mm movies were being made by normal people; it was a home movie medium. My mom realized that we wanted to make pictures and we were borrowing our aunt’s camera. And she didn’t want me to see my aunt much–they had ill feelings towards one another–and so she bought us the camera so we could be more independent.

ST: You started before the price of silver went up, so film must have been cheap.

GK: It was really cheap…a dollar eighty nine? Was it even that much? I keep remembering in my head a dollar eighty nine. And you could send it through the drug store for processing. But eventually what would happen is that the film would turn green and crack like a fresco. Kodak processing was much better, it had cleaner chemicals.

ST: In the beginning, did you have any dreams of grandeur like making films for Hollywood?

GK: Yes, but in our version, in 8mm. And of course watching Hollywood pictures was an inspiration that also provided technical knowledge, and insight on how scenes were put together. We watched the movies and would notice the different shots, when the music came in, and the different lighting effects. Then we would try to duplicate them with the stuff we had.

ST: I know you were influenced by Douglas Sirk. Were there any other movie makers who grabbed your attention back then?

GK: A ton of them! A lot who made garbage pictures that we had seen, low-budget stuff. Mike and I would go to the movie theater and see a lot of pictures one after the other. The very early Roger Corman pictures, horror pictures, foreign pictures, anything I’d see would influence me. I’d absorb everything.

ST: Corruption of The Damned was the first 16mm film you made. It also marks your split from Mike as a partner, doesn’t it?

GK: He started that picture and then he gave it to me. He didn’t want to work on it anymore. He moved on to his sci-fi Sins of The Fleshapoids. So in a way Corruption of The Damned was like a carrying-on of the 8mm’s, cause it even had title card in it. There was no sync-sound, no dialog or dubbing. All our 8mm’s were like chunks of me and chunks of him. He would direct a chunk and then give the thing to me. Then his chunks got kind of long until it was eventually 50/50 instead of it all being interspersed. And then we just made our own picture.

ST: Although there are a lot of similarities, how do you feel your work differs from his?

GK: It differs a lot. There’s a whole different style and approach. Even though we were born fifteen minutes apart, that fifteen minutes changes people.

ST: Who’s older?

GK: I read it once and I forgot. I was not able to retain that information for some reason, but it was different from what I thought. I used to think he was older. Maybe I’m older…I don’t know. They got it all wrong anyway cause they even misspelled my name on the birth certificate. They spelled it with an er instead of an ar.

ST: Maybe you’re not even brothers.

GK: Could be true! (laughs)

ST: Hold Me While I’m Naked was one of your first big hits, but I’ve always heard you say that you’ve been all washed up since that film.

GK: I used to say that as a joke. That’s actually a freeing mechanism when you say that you’re all washed up after a certain picture, because you can make your new pictures any way you want. You don’t have to feel like you’re under pressure to top something if you’re washed up already. I recommend that. I think it’s a great thing to happen if you’re considered washed up and not doing anything of value any more. The spotlight is off you and you don’t have that kind of tension. And then you work with the idea that nobody is going to pay attention to this anyway. You know what I mean? So there’s this certain sense of freedom. Otherwise, it’s like making a Broadway hit one after another; you just get eaten up by ulcers.

ST: How early on did you meet Jonas Mekas (Co-Founder and Artistic Director of Anthology Film Archives, New York)?

GK: That was in the early part of the 1960s. He was a nice man, quiet. I think he wore a corduroy suit. I met him in filmmaker Ken Jacobs’ loft.

ST: Did he have an instrumental role in shining a light on your work?

GK: Yeah, cause he was one of the few people, maybe the only one who was reviewing those movies in New York City. Therefore, his reviews were read and considered interesting, though some people thought he was some sort of a strange crank or something. He was very passionate. His columns were always looked forward to and read. The favorable reviews brought people to look at the movies that he wrote about. So he had a powerful influence in those days to get people out of the house.

ST: To jump ahead to the present time…when did you start working in video?

GK: It was 84 or 85.

ST: Why did you make the move, other than the inexpensiveness of the medium?

GK: Well, I always liked being independent and working at home and not having to rely on too many things or places. So, working on video came out of the fact that you buy the material to shoot on, you put it in the camera, and you do everything right there in the camera.

ST: Some of your first videos were shot and edited entirely in camera and are quite brilliant, considering there was no post-production.

GK: Well, I enjoy working with it that way, and that made it totally independent. You don’t have to go to the lab all the time and deal with all the people. Although they are nice people and it does get you out of the house. You can do the whole thing right there for not only so cheap, but done right in the machine…that’s what turned me on! Also the idea that you don’t get hooked onto a single instrument to make a picture because your career seems to be based on one tool and if that tool breaks down or goes obsolete, you can’t continue any more. So when I bought another camera, it had other features and I decided after so many years, you don’t want to do the same things…it gets to be too repetitious and the material looks dead. I’ve gotten other decks over the years to edit and a machine where you can actually have fun making a collage, or fixing images and moving them around, so that’s another thing to keep you going. I enjoy that process, and staying home enabled me to do stuff and not have these strange anxieties about having to be out of the house for 12 hours or to stay out for 24 hours to edit!

ST: With film, your time is limited because the editing space is rented and the next group will be coming in.

GK: Now the only reason you want to get out is because all the wires are all over the floor and you want to turn it back into a living room! You also want to finish the thing so the same kind of pressure is on, but at least you can go easily to the refrigerator, or if you have a pet you can keep the pet company. You don’t have to feel guilty.

ST: Was there any pressure from the old guard when you switched to video, since it was so despised?

GK: It still is! (laughs) It was considered pretty much a shame or something, and that the thing was a toy made out of plastic. I enjoy it being plastic…it’s lightweight!

ST: I find it humorous that video was and sometimes still is regarded as a joke, yet you’re getting more shows than any experimental film maker I know of.

GK: It is strange, because video isn’t isolated to a box anymore. They made these projectors and the thing is getting on the big screen. It’s no longer confined to postage stamp size. I made one of my pictures and had it shown at the Art Institute. At that time they only had one television and they put it in the lecture hall. I realized that people were looking at something that was postage stamp size, yet the audience was responding to all the emotions the thing was generating, as if they were looking at something on the big screen. And I said, This is kind of shocking, because it’s so small!

ST: As projection has improved you’ve been getting more video shows, and for the past few months we’ve been crossing paths because of the traveling show I’ve been taking around for X-Film Chicago. Driving around the country has been a blast for me! Have you been having a great time as well?

GK: Well, I never really have a great time (laughs). You know what I mean? My mind is so cluttered and as you get older maybe the chemicals change and you have great senses of dread and stuff like that. And then you realize that you go through these inner worlds and the actual outer world sometimes is not that bad. So then you try to clear the window, get rid of all the soot and see sort of clearly. It’s the sort of a strange combination of the interior and exterior, and you do meet a lot of people.

ST: And see a lot of different places.

GK: Yeah, and if you do have an interest in certain things like architecture or weather then you get another pleasure fro m being where you are.

ST: Weather comes up a lot in your work, as do UFOs and sex.

GK: Well, the sex thing you can’t help; it’s the driving force to make movies. You can’t dampen that or you lose the desire to make pictures. It’s a fueling thing that helps give you the energy to make pictures and do everything else. It is a motivation. (My telephone gets a call-waiting beep.) Uh oh; a call from Hollywood! (laughs)

ST: OK, I’m back…

GK: And anyway, the weather is just an interest of mine, aesthetically and scientifically. You make pictures of what you’re interested in and then that becomes your world. And then things with flying saucers… maybe extraterrestrial, maybe not…but just the idea of a strange mystery or enigma happening is something that captured my imagination. You develop certain subjects that interest or fascinate and do a series and follow it through. That leads to research and that spurs you to go out to different events, and then things that happen get placed into pictures.

ST: Your videos are sort of like time capsules, or diaries, filled with what is interesting you at the time.

GK: Yeah, or an obsession, or some kind of problem, and then you work on it because that also gives you the building blocks to make the plot or the way the thing looks. If you get out there and things happen it’s sometimes fun to recreate them in that medium to get it off your chest. If you don’t write a diary in some manner, you put it into the work you have and then it seems to be out there. You get rid of it for a bit in a creative way.

ST: Aside from your personal work, you’ve been churning out a class production each semester at the San Francisco Art Institute. You’ve molded this into a studio similar to the studios of the golden age of Hollywood.

GK: You use the equipment and get to know the people because they have to interact between one another. And if you look at it as a studio it’s like a dream come true. Some of the students go out and make pictures that are spin-offs and you look at it as everybody being under contract with that studio because they signed up so you’ve got your contract players. And it also removes it from being too heavy. You know what I mean? It also sounds fun, not only a dream, but a dream factory. It’s also educational, because you have to learn how to tackle problems, hopefully. And of course, they put their seed back in because they’re not just sitting there, they have to act and do certain things and you’re seeing what’s in their minds via their pictures and how they look at things from all the strange angles and that’s always kind of interesting.

ST: Well, when you come to Chicago you should bring some tapes to sell.

GK: I hate to cary a lot of stuff. I like to travel light. I don’t even like the bags on the carousel because you wait longer. Then I usually bring a VHS copy because it’s less heavy than a 3/4-inch. And nowadays I think they look just as good with the machines that can project. Anyway, I like the people to retain the videos in the memory, you know what I mean, and then they leave and keep it in the brain and don’t have to go home with the baggage.

ST: Thanks, George! See you in August.

Chicago filmmaker Scott Trotter is the co-founder and a curator of X-Film Chicago. He recently finished a successful tour of the United States with various experimental works from the X-Film Collective. X-Film will be starting its third season of weekly independent film programs at The Lunar Cabaret (2827 N. Lincoln, 312-327-6666) on Sunday, September 22. X-Film can be reached directly at 312-2235-4055.

KULTURE VOID’s interview
with George and Mike Kuchar.

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