Without much fanfare, Michael Almereyda has developed into one of the most intriguing and intellectually rewarding filmmakers at work on the American independent scene. When he followed up his surprising modern-day Hamlet with the even more adventurous Happy Here and Now, the latter film was met with a resounding shrug by the industry at large. During the years-long struggle to bring Happy to theaters, Almereyda nevertheless remained busy, first with This So-Called Disaster, a gut-wrenchingly up-close look at the rehearsals for Sam Shepard’s star-studded production of The Late Henry Moss, and now with William Eggleston in the Real World.
A truly inspired peek into the life, work and wild times of the legendary photographer, Real World captures the notoriously cagey Eggleston in full, unguarded glory. The result is a heightened understanding not only of Eggleston’s artistic process and work, but also of how he shapes his entire world to fit the life he wants to lead. We should all be so fortunate.
L.A. WEEKLY: During the protracted and difficult process of getting Happy Here and Now released, would you say that part of the reason you made these docs in the interim had to do with . . .
MICHAEL ALMEREYDA: It had to do with not being able to get money for other features. Sort of like getting into barroom brawls if you can’t get into the ring. I felt I was using the same reflexes, and I was able to get in some good punches. But it just so happens, they were both amateur efforts. For all the excitement, I didn’t get paid for either the Shepard or the Eggleston movie.
Was your time with Eggleston instructive? Did you feel you were learning from him, either as an artist or as a person?
Absolutely. He’s fascinating. One element that’s inspiring is the sense of freedom he operates with. There’s an openness, an adventurousness, a good-natured recklessness. This movie can surprise people because it’s so intimate; it shows a guy who’s relatively famous, being way more unguarded than famous people can usually afford to be. But the goal wasn’t to invade his privacy, but to reveal how he works, how he’s shaping his life in a way that intersects with his work — taking pictures, playing music, drawing, staying up late. I consider that inspiring, a model for overgrown children like myself. Of course, it’s hard to manage that with filmmaking, because of money, crews, budgets, schedules. All the same, Bill operates with a spontaneity that I’d like to hold on to. I’d like to think it carried over into the shooting of this film, and that it’ll spread into others.
Of all the people you’ve presumably come in contact with over the years, what made you want to do a portrait film of Eggleston?
This was in some ways a whim that developed, organically, into something more solid and even urgent. To begin with, I spent a lucky week with Bill, during which a lot happened. But I got busy with other things. It was the same year I did Happy Here and Now and the Shepard movie back to back, and I went to Iran on an unlikely goodwill visit, and did a long interview with Pauline Kael, which was finally published last year. I was busy, and I’m still dealing with the fallout from that year.
That was 2000?
Yeah. And then by chance, in 2003, I landed back in Memphis for a film festival the same week Leigh Haizlip died. That sparked an awareness that what I’d shot might have some value. I wanted to believe it did.
How much time did you spend with Eggleston altogether?
In some ways the film is incredibly concentrated. There’s that one week, driving with him from Memphis to Kentucky and back to Memphis, hanging out a couple days and nights; then L.A., where he had a show at the Getty and a so-called slide lecture. Then he went off to the desert to do a commission, and I went to Sundance with Hamlet, and there was a gap of nearly three years, followed by four or five visits, which by then were practically social calls. But the bulk of the movie, the most concentrated and continuous bit, is just one week in 2000.
Was he nervous about being filmed?
Bill, probably more than anyone I’ve ever met, is pretty oblivious to the camera. The invisible force field most people project, especially actors and even more especially people who use cameras themselves — he just didn’t have it. He was aware of the camera, but he didn’t care.
Did you get a sense he was performing for you at all?
To the extent that we’re all performing all the time, sure, but one of the built-in themes of the movie is how we’re all different people under different circumstances. I wanted the portrait to be multifaceted. Different versions of Eggleston get revealed as the movie keeps turning corners and seeing him in different circumstances. But basically his defenses were down, and he’s an honest man, a strangely open person. That’s in his pictures, too — an honesty that has to do with being both very sophisticated and very innocent, and it can be terrifically disarming.
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Many people who have written about the film have referred to the interview in the barbecue joint as the “climax” of the film. In trying to get Eggleston to directly explain and discuss his work, were you trying to draw him out?
That interview was something of a stacked deck. I knew that going in, and I invited it, almost for the sake of giving some drama to the movie. I didn’t think I could draw him out; I just wanted to confront him. So I was willing to play the fool. It was sort of like driving a car into a wall over and over again — except funnier. And besides, his pictures confirm things he willfully denies. The photos do have a relationship to time, and they do reveal an emotional investment he’ll never admit to. But I admire him for his intransigence. There’s a dignity to it. He’s confident enough not to need to deal with language, theory, self-promotion. At least, not in any way that’s obvious.
Aside from the obvious, that the film ends with Eggleston listening to the Roy Orbison song “In the Real World,” could you explain the film’s title? Where else would he be?
Well, reality is relative, or at least highly subjective. A photographer distills a separate reality from the reality we all share. By standing a few inches over this way and framing the picture that way, he reinvents the world. Following Bill around, you might get the idea that he’s oblivious, or lost, or searching for something that isn’t there. And then you look at his photographs, and you see he’s tuned to a wavelength all his own. I figure this is something I’ll probably be chasing forever — it’s in all my movies — the distinction between an inner and outer reality. Aside from that, it so happens that the reality Bill records and radiates is fascinating. As often as not, when you’re with him, you’re suddenly in an Eggleston photo. That’s another undeclared element of the movie. I wasn’t imitating him, but the light, the landscape, the personality of the places he visits — suddenly, you’re at large in an irresistible other world.