Like many literary masters, critically-acclaimed Naked Lunch author William S. Burroughs was an enigmatic soul riddled with contradictions. Born into an affluent family of Missouri inventors, he was Harvard-bred but held blue-collar jobs. He married two women — one Burroughs killed by accidental gunshot — but severed his pinky over love for a man. He was troubled by a history of drug addiction and loss, but had a crystal eye for the future.
Still, what do we truly know of Burroughs — the multi-faceted author who foretold readers about the rise of AIDS, widespread crack use, and plastic surgery? Just who is the man who spoke of being ‘queer’ before it became a universal language? Unraveling the mystery, 25-year-old director Yony Leyser tackled the task by reviewing Burroughs social history in the documentary William S. Burrough: A Man Within.
Screening at North American film festivals, Within grants viewers a behind-the-scenes look at beat-writer Burroughs’ literary rise and drug-plagued fall through a series of exclusive interviews and celebrity conversations including talks with John Waters, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, and Gus Vant — signifying his enduring impact on artists worldwide.
Recently, Leyser stopped by to answer a few questions regarding the experience.
Anthony Paull: Hi Yony. Thank you for taking time to talk. What Burroughs’ novel most inspired you to chronicle his life work? And why?
Yony Leyser: Well, I don’t think there was one novel. The first book I read of his was Naked Lunch. I thought it opened up new avenues of thinking. It was funny, outrageous, and I found it shocking that it had been written in the late ’50s when everything else I had read from that time period was such crap. It still holds itself up as such a great critique of society, and it’s a great satire in regard to the bullshit government system we’re living in now, stuck and controlled by.
Paull: Burroughs used a nonlinear/cut-up technique to separate himself from other writers in Naked Lunch. What directing and stylistic techniques separate you from other documentary filmmakers?
Leyser: No person is a carbon-copy of the next. So hopefully, if you decide to make it in life as an artist, you’ll have some form of creativity. The techniques I incorporated were experimental animation techniques I’d learned while I was a student at CalArts, including wired-sculpture stop-motion and drawn-animation. Also, I included a combination of unseen footage in the film that his friends had given me, along with close-knit, intimate interviews with his closest friends. I looked for accuracy while maintaining the grittiness that was found in Burroughs writing.
Paull: Burroughs’ work as an exterminator inspired the title of one of his short story collections. Outside of the film industry, what personal work experience has helped you become an effective director?
Leyser: I don’t think any of my jobs assisted in forming my work on this film, except financially. I worked as a copy boy at Newsweek magazine, a personal assistant to a wine executive, a bike messenger and with various newspapers reporting on music. I didn’t want to be a bike messenger or a copy boy. These are jobs I took to financially support the film. I made my first documentary at the age of 16 about an obese carpet cleaner and his love affair with a crack prostitute. I’ve made documentaries and short films my whole life.
Paull: Through his life, how did Burroughs help develop queer culture?
Leyser: Burroughs was a pioneer of queer culture. Back then, people didn’t know gay people or ‘out’ people. He was gay when it was illegal. He had a boyfriend when it was illegal. He wrote about it when it was illegal and no one else was doing it. He was a deconstructer of language and sexual identity, and I think he paved the way for what a lot of people have come to take for granted.
Paull: Burroughs short novel Queer took 30 years to find a publisher due to its centralized LGBT themes. From your experience, what kind of obstacles does a director face in modern times when attempting to produce a queer-focused film?
Leyser: Well, I don’t think it’s a queer film. It has elements of homosexuality and Burroughs was a homosexual, but I believe in deconstructing labels. Other than being labeled a documentary, I don’t know how many more labels could be attached to it. The LGBT audience is extremely important. I’m a big advocate of the community, but much more in my photography work, which focuses on transgender, queer, outsider punk. The film is a portrait of an intricate and dynamic man with so many different facets to him, and I think it’s a very important film for the LGBT community to see.
Paull: Within is laced with many celebrity conversations regarding Burroughs’ work. What seems to be the central characteristic about Burroughs’ writing that has so many celebrities enthralled?
Leyser: Again, in the ’50s and ’60s, Burroughs was a pioneer of rebellion, of anti-authoritarian, of deconstructing modes of creating art. That’s why they sought him out. Who else were they going to reach to? I didn’t include celebrities because of who they were. These are people who were friends with Burroughs. He was a huge influence on John Waters and Patti Smith.
Paull: Ultimately, what surprised you the most about ‘the man within’ Burroughs that you had not known before undertaking this project?
Leyser: Wow. There’s just too much to say. That’s truly an impossible question. It’s too simplistic. There’s nothing that’s fact about Burroughs. There’s interviews and research. There’s nothing written in stone, and we don’t truly know who Burroughs was. I think people should watch the film, and I’d like them to be surprised at what comes out.