I recently spoke with Tyler Hubby about his 22-year journey making his new film Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present. The documentary opens in New York City on March 31st and runs until April 6th at Anthology Film Archives and will stream on Mubi starting on April 8.
Director Tyler Hubby
Tyler Hubby has edited over 30 documentaries, including The Devil and Daniel Johnston; Participant Media’s The Great Invisible, which won the Grand Jury Prize at SXSW 2014; Drafthouse Movies’ The Final Member; the HBO documentary A Small Act; the Peabody Award-winning television special about Latinos in the US military For My Country?; and Double Take, Belgian artist Johan Grimonprez’s metaphysical essay on the murder of Alfred Hitchcock by his own double. He edited and co-produced Lost Angels about the denizens of Los Angeles’ Skid Row and the punk rock documentary Bad Brains: Band in DC. He served as an additional editor on the Oscar-nominated The Garden and HBO’s Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. He is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute where he studied film and photography.
About Tony Conrad and the Documentary Tony Conrad: Completely in the Present
The documentary follows American multi-media artist Tony Conrad’s uncompromising 50-year artistic path through experimental film, music, video, public television and education, and his unlikely resurgence as a noteworthy composer and performer. Earning a mathematics degree from Harvard, Conrad was a central figure in the 1960s New York scene, collaborating with artists such as Henry Flynt, Jack Smith, and with the legendary drone ensemble Theatre of Eternal Music, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela and John Cale. Conrad’s 1966 ‘The Flicker’ stands as one of the first examples of structural film. Conrad has influenced artists ranging from the Velvet Underground to the Yes Men. The documentary has been screening at such festivals as Viennale, Leeds International Film Festival, DOC NYC, International Film Festival Rotterdam and esteemed museums including the TATE Modern in London, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., Los Angeles’s Broad Museum and San Francisco’s Cinematheque.
The evolution of this documentary is perhaps not surprisingly as unconventional as the artist Tony Conrad himself. As Tyler Hubby explained, the journey began in the spring of 1994, when he left art school with his video camcorder to follow a touring gang of experimental musicians.
Hubby: We didn’t have any money to pay anyone but we got a generous donation of $500 from someone to buy video stock. We rounded up volunteer camcorderists in whatever city we were in. I’d ask people, ‘If you shoot using my tape, I’ll give you a wristband and you can go back stage and drink some beer, but you have to give me the tape back at the end. It made all the difference in the world because I had multiple angles of everything.
Kouguell: When you first started filming Tony Conrad did you have a specific documentary idea in mind or were you just documenting his performances?
Hubby: The idea was to document the performances. We initially thought we were going to do a documentary on the band Faust; it was their first US tour, and that was kind of momentous. This was in 1994. A few days in we realized this wasn’t making a great film, and we thought we really should be making the film about Tony Conrad. Tony was media ready, winking at the camera, and so on. This was before I knew about his video work experience.
Kouguell: Tell me about the evolution of the project.
Hubby: Over the years, as Tony’s record label was putting on more events, I continued to film – 1996 in Chicago and again in 1998 when Tony appeared in Los Angeles, and in 2002, 2006; it just kept going. In 2002, I shot a lot of short vignettes, the idea was that we were going to do a DVD that was going to have seven short films about Tony Conrad with playback and random shuffle order, that was what you could do on DVD, none of this VHS business, but it turned out to be too expensive at the time for the record label. By 2010, I approached Tony to make it as a feature-length film. Then I made several trips to Buffalo and Brooklyn, filmed the interviews with the other people, and used the archives I had.
Kouguell: How did you decide on a structure for the film?
Hubby: I used the writing process. Editing a documentary is screenwriting. The most exciting part and the most terrifying part of putting a documentary together is that you’re really writing it in the edit.
The film almost has a clean 3-act structure even though there are time jumps within it. The first act really covers downtown New York in the 1960s. The second act is leaving New York and finding Buffalo. There’s even a dark night of the soul at the bottom of Act 2, which is the death of Mike Kelly, Buffalo is not a happy time, the jail movie is derailed, and things got dour. Then Act 3 is the rediscovery of the music. The evolution of the records, showing recordings and album covers, which did by mixing the concert footage. The performances were thematically organized, not chronologically organized.
It’s funny, in some ways those were the acts of Tony’s life. There was a structure there. It’s not a capital N narrative. Even though the Lamont story has a through-line, I was approaching the movie as a film with ideas and experience we experience the physics, the music. There is structural work underneath that.
Kouguell: Did you write an outline?
Hubby: I do a lot of outlining. I’m a color-coded 3 x 5 card user – (laughs) I should say addict. This is the first film that I used Amazon story builder. It’s a virtual corkboard where you can move your cards around and then expand them, and so on. I do a lot of carding, and while trying to figure out what’s going on here and there, the script gets written and rewritten.
Like in a narrative film, it’s finding out, what’s the scene really about. I transcribe all the interviews, notating and color coding all my transcripts. I ask: why are we here, what can we pull out of this scene?
Kouguell: Approximately how many hours of footage did you shoot?
Hubby: It wasn’t excessive. I’ve been working on documentaries for so many years, I’m not an over shooter. I found that one-hour of shooting with Tony had three hours of material in it because his interviews were very dense.
Kouguell: How long was your edit?
Hubby: Maybe not even a full year. I’d been editing bits and pieces all along, and when I had a break from other jobs, I’d work on it. I had a lot of building blocks pre-built, like some of the concert footage. In the end, after 22 years, it was a sprint to get it done. With his health declining it became more urgent; we had a premiere date, and dates locked.
Kouguell: Did Conrad have any specific input into the film?
Hubby: I had free reign to edit and include what I wanted. He never saw a cut of the film and he never asked to see a cut of the film. He understood that it was my film, and he let it be my film, which was amazing. That was also part of who he was. He could be very definite in his ideas what he wanted and didn’t want, but when the trust was there it was there. We never really talked directly about the film; the feeling I had being around him was that I think he was tickled I was doing the film but he would never admit it to me.
Hubby: I wanted to make something accessible and digestible and fun to watch. Not an academic film. I didn’t want to be didactic and say, ‘Tony Conrad’s work is this or that’ – I wanted to introduce the audience to the core ideas, and if you’re interested in these core ideas, look them up. I tried to make the film a bit anarchic as well (laughs). I wanted to make an art documentary that was more like a midnight movie.
Learn more about the film here.