NICK ZEDD - Director, actor, writer, painter, underground icon, author of the Cinema of Transgression Manifesto that he published anonymously in 1985 and editor of the Underground Film Bulletin (1984-90). Among his films: Police State (1987), The Wild World of Lydia Lunch (1983), Whoregasm (1988), War is Menstrual Envy (1992), Tom Thumb in the Land of the Giants (1999), I was a Quality of Life Violation (2002). Between 2002 and 2008 he directed The Adventures of Electra Elf and Fluffer, a low cost science fiction satire of TV series starring Reverend Jen and featuring the ‘flying’ Chihuahua Reverend Jen Junior. In March 2011 he relocated in Mexico City. In 2013 he published The Extremist Manifesto.
In 1996 Jim Jarmusch said about him: ‘Nick Zedd’s films are legendary. He is a truly seminal figure in the New York underground. Now we have his first book [Totem of the Depraved] and I recommend it to anyone interested in the rough underside of our overly-processed culture.’
I interviewed Nick Zedd in New York in 2003. This material is unreleased.
Voices: Nick Zedd about Music, Words and Noise
In Tom Thumb in the Land of the Giants the music is very alienated and it works really well with the film. In I Was a Quality of Life Violation you used Debussy as well as sampled barking dogs.
I saw your name in the credits. Did you also compose or play some of the music? Can you tell me something about how you work with music in your films?
In I Was a Quality of Life Violation, I sat down with Patrick Hambrecht at his computer and we composed an organ segment that we used during the scene where the old lady is in the bathtub with the dog. I wanted something that would make you feel like crying. And I wanted orchestral music, but I didn’t know anybody who had access to an orchestra and all the instruments. It’s really expensive. We tried doing it with synthesizers and I thought it didn’t sound good. I don’t like the way that sounds, fake strings. I think it gets overused in low budget horror movies, the fake strings and fake orchestras, because they can’t afford a real orchestra, so I thought I should use Debussy, because it’s classical.
It is perfect for the story of this old lady who lost her little dog and is so desperate about it. Well, Choo Choo is an incredibly good actor, or is it an actress?
So it’s a male dog.
Yeah. I also like the way that I had the music overlapping. You hear the orchestra music overlapping the organ music during that sequence, so I thought it was reflecting her confused state of mind, as she was trying to find this dog who she loves, the only creature in the world she loves and feeling this loneliness. And when I edited it, every time I would watch that scene it would make me cry. But then, when I showed it in public, the audience laughed! They thought it was hilarious. And I thought it was so strange…
Well, it is very strange, it moved me, but I didn’t see it with an audience. The pictures it brought to my mind weren’t really funny, pictures of the riots in Genoa in 2001 and old ladies beaten up by the police. I recognized the face of the policeman, is that the same actor as in Police State?
Yeah. Willoughby Sharp.
He is older of course, but he has exactly the same face, the same expression.
He just looks more grotesque now.
How did he feel about playing the same character?
He wanted us to refer to him as the same character in the script. I said: ‘Fine I’ll do it.’ but then I asked Reverend Jen and she said: ‘No! No way, he has to be the name that I wrote in the script.’ I thought it didn’t make any difference and I went along with it, because to me he’s just like the same person.
Exactly, he is. It’s a very strong performance.
He’s not really an actor.
Really? So he does that out of natural anger?
Well, when I direct him!
Oh, so you are able to trigger this quality!
With the cue cards, he reads the cue cards, through the whole thing. He never could memorize lines.
You use a lot of sound effects in your films. Police State opens and closes with the sirens of the police cars and the police radio. Before the end of the film, when Rockets Redglare, who plays the detective, gets the gun we hear a scream: an incredible scream on a white frame, without image.
Do you consider a scream word or noise?
(long pause) Noise. It’s primal. It’s just conveying pain.
So it’s like a pure form of pain...
Did you actually feel pain in the scenes?
Not that much. During the hitting there was some knocking around, but it wasn’t that serious. I had a slight headache and I drank some beer and it went away. The fighting was mostly fake. We did it with sound effects.
At a certain point, though, the lieutenant [Flip Crowley] smashes a chair on your back.
We sawed the legs almost completely ahead of time so that didn’t hurt.
It’s a very strong film. It doesn’t get old. And why did you choose not to show anything? There is just a white frame while we hear this scream...
I wanted the audience to feel the pain. It was subjective, making the audience member identify. It was cathartic doing that scream when we shot the film, I was lying on the floor, I was recording my voice screaming. When you’re screaming that loud, it puts you in a different dimension, another state of mind completely.
Were you screaming for a long time?
As long as you hear it for.
So it was a natural scream.
In your films you don’t waste too many words and humour plays a big role. I think, for example, about Police State where the arrested ‘punk’ tells the cop that his name is ‘Fred Flintstone’...
Originally I had written Fred Hampton, the Black Panther leader, who was killed by the police in 1969. It was a state sanctioned execution and it was covered up. It was a famous case, in Chicago. But then I thought that nobody would remember who Fred Hampton was so I made it Fred Flintstone.
You are also a writer: Totem Of The Depraved is your autobiography and you also wrote a novel, From Entropy To Ecstasy, which you self-published.
What is your relationship to words? Do you consider yourself a writer?
It depends on the movie, sometimes I’m a poet and other times I’m a painter. The more experimental films are not horizontal, linear or narrative, they’re more musical, go up and down in wave patterns. But then in the narrative films like Police State or in Electra Elf it’s obvious that there’s a storyline and I’m communicating satire and expressing my frustration with society and doing it with comedy, with words and action.
It can be a very subversive thing to do, because through laughter you can reach lots of people. If you take Roberto Benigni, for example, well in Italy many consider him something like a national hero. For real. Since the ’70s his work has been always very political, through comedy. Now he has reached what you could call the ‘state of the fool’ and he can say anything he wants.
That’s traditionally been the role of the court jester. And I feel that a lot of comedians are abdicating their social responsibility by not ridiculing authority in the way that Lenny Bruce did. Many comedians now are cowards. But then I found these comedians in the open mike scene, I use them in my movies and they’re great character actors. I really like having them play these caricatures of reactionaries or authority figures that we can laugh at.
Speaking of actors, I wanted to ask you about Rockets Redglare. He acted in Down By Law and Stranger Than Paradise by Jarmusch and played the detective in your Police State. In Down By Law he is playing a pimp who frames John Lurie in a hotel room with a little girl.
Can you tell me something about him?
That would take a lifetime to explain, you know…
Can you give me a short story?
He was a downtown legend and an annoyance as well. He was a natural actor and a con artist and he employed his acting ability on the sidewalk. When you’d run into him he’d try to get you to give him money. He could usually succeed. Jim Jarmusch and Steve Buscemi lent him lots of money, and he almost never paid them back. Sometimes he would, but rarely. I never gave him that much money because I was as broke as he was.
Was he really living on the street?
No, he’d always find somebody to live with, or to stay with and near the end he ended up staying at a friend of mine’s place in Williamsburg, this guy Scott. I knew people who had let him sleep in their beds. I was always impressed with his ability to manipulate people through charm because, just on the surface, he didn’t appear to be that charming.
Well he had a toothless mouth, bad skin and was a quite fleshy man…
He was great at playing the villain, though. Almost through the whole of Police State he was reading off the cue cards, and he did a really good job, you can’t tell. He did improvise some too.
I think he has a great voice, this really squeaky voice.
Right. There was a documentary made about him after he died. When he was a child his parents were gangsters, and they got into gunfights with the police.
Is that true?
Well, it’s always hard to tell with him, he’d make up stories that were so exaggerated, but I think there were elements of truth. And he was born supposedly addicted, because his parents were heroin addicts, and he did lots of drugs too. One time he did have a lead role, in a romantic movie oddly enough, but I thought he was miscast in that.
In a feature film?
Yeah, this guy Rachid Kerdouche directed him in the early or mid ’80s. I like it when actors can go beyond the type casting but he never had much of an opportunity. He’d just be given roles as mean people or authority figures, but then that’s what made him so good, because he’s so despicable, or he could portray being despicable. He was really good in Police State because he wasn’t one-dimensional, you could sympathize with his state of mind, with his frustration and his inability to control the prisoner that I played.
It’s all about the contradictory orders given to the prisoner by the detective and the lieutenant: ‘Stand on the table! Sit on the chair!’ It’s a very primal authority/victim situation.
But the prisoner turns the tables by making the two cops so frustrated while they wanted to be in control and to act like they knew what they were doing, but he keeps reversing it. It’s just a mind-game.
At a certain point it’s as if you are leading the game, even if you’re getting all the hits.
The prisoner in that instance wasn’t afraid of the pain.
Exactly: pain is the only weapon that they have, and when that doesn’t work...
Then you're free.
Did you have anyone specific in mind when you played that character? Was it a story that you heard from someone?
Well, it’s actually three people’s stories. The interaction with the cops on the sidewalk, that’s verbatim dialogue from encounters that I had with police, and I remembered it and I wrote it down.
The scene of the interrogation at the police station is based on what Rockets told me, the way he was treated by police one time and he was threatened with castration. And then I had a roommate from Hungary who told me that he was in Hungary when it was communist in the ’80s. He was interrogated by the police and he had to stand on the table, and then sit on the chair, you know, back and forth. And I read about the theory of cognitive dissonance, which is a method of mind control in which you’re giving the subject orders that contradict each other in order to confuse the person. And I realized that was what they were doing to this Hungarian guy when he was in the police station. I just remember at the time being really angry with the police who had been sent into the East Village during ‘Operation Pressure Point’. They were trying to clean up the neighbourhood of what they thought were drug dealers. They were cops who lived in the suburbs and were not familiar with the bohemians or the non-conformists who lived there and made blanket assumptions in which they would target people who were not drug dealers and just harass them. That was the ‘quality of life violation’ that the government imposed on us. It's basically class war.
Well, in that specific case your only crime was to walk, wasn’t it?
Right, and it was my attitude they didn’t like and the way I was dressed. I also had encounters with obnoxious police officers in other instances where I would joke around with them or with security guards or bouncers. And usually their intelligence level wasn’t high enough to have the give and take of a humorous verbal insult match and they would always resort to physical violence and coercion. I wanted to make this black comedy about arguments with the police and see what would happen if the character who was the prisoner wasn’t afraid of the pain and was just saying things that were intentionally getting on the nerves of the cops.
Do you know if any real cop has ever seen it?
Not that I know of…
Well, it would be an interesting experiment, don’t you think?
Well, I got arrested a couple of years ago...
Here in New York?
Have you been arrested many times?
Well, not that many.
Dropping a gum wrapper on the subway, or jumping a turnstile during Giuliani’s reign of terror. One time when I turned myself in to be arrested the detective was asking me what I did, and I said: ‘I make movies’, and he said: ‘What movies have you made?’ and I said: ‘I made this one called Police State.’
And was he interested?
Yeah, but then I thought maybe it’s not such a good idea that I told him because what if he looked at it? He might keep me locked up longer! And then when he was driving me down to the Tombs I said: ‘Maybe I’ll make a movie about you.’ And he said: ‘No, No! Don’t do that!’ He was very against that idea. He said: ‘You shouldn’t make movies about the police!' It’s absurd though, there’s all these cop shows on TV!
Just one last open question, is there anything you want to say about whatever you want?
No, I don’t have any big statement...
Not a big statement, simply something you would like to say.
Rules are made to be broken.
New York City, December 2003 © Sara Piazza