Issue 8 Pharmacopia Fall 2002
Collaborating with Warhol: An Interview with Ronald Tavel
Dorothy Krasowska and Ronald Tavel
Ronald Tavel’s ability to write campy satires filled with clever clichés that would make even Mae West proud earned him his place as scriptwriter-in-residence at Andy Warhol’s Factory from November 1964 to March 1967. During that time, Tavel wrote and directed some of Warhol’s most acclaimed films, including Screen Test #2, The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Vinyl, Kitchen, and segments of The Chelsea Girls. Warhol admired Tavel’s talent, saying, “I enjoyed working with him because he understood instantly when I’d say things like ‘I want it simple and plastic and white.’ Not everyone could think in an abstract way, but Ronnie could.”1 After leaving the Factory, Tavel went on to write 40 produced plays and 2 novels. In 2003, he will publish The Complete Warhol Screenplays of Ronald Tavel. Since the films that Tavel worked on are not widely accessible and have therefore often been omitted from the discussion of Warhol’s artistic output, this book will broaden our understanding of the Factory’s collaborative environment.
Ronald Tavel’s ability to write campy satires filled with clever clichés that would make even Mae West proud earned him his place as scriptwriter-in-residence at Andy Warhol’s Factory from November 1964 to March 1967. During that time, Tavel wrote and directed some of Warhol’s most acclaimed films, including Screen Test #2, The Life of Juanita Castro, Horse, Vinyl, Kitchen, and segments of The Chelsea Girls. Warhol admired Tavel’s talent, saying, “I enjoyed working with him because he understood instantly when I’d say things like ‘I want it simple and plastic and white.’ Not everyone could think in an abstract way, but Ronnie could.”1
After leaving the Factory, Tavel went on to write 40 produced plays and 2 novels. In 2003, he will publish The Complete Warhol Screenplays of Ronald Tavel. Since the films that Tavel worked on are not widely accessible and have therefore often been omitted from the discussion of Warhol’s artistic output, this book will broaden our understanding of the Factory’s collaborative environment.How is it that you began working with Andy Warhol?
In the fall of 1964, Andy had just finished a block of silent films and he wanted to move into sound. Since he thought abstractly, his first thought was to have a voice that had nothing to do with what was on-screen, so that it would force interpretations. Andy and I met when he came to my reading at a café in the Village because he was looking for voices.
What was it like to meet him?
It was so Hollywood. He sent up a card that read “Come to my table.” And there he was, sitting with his entourage. Andy asked, “Wanna make movies?” I replied, “Doin’ what?” He answered, “Reading.” I asked, “Yeah, what?” “I think the telephone directory, except you’re gonna make it interesting. It’s still early in the morning; come back to the Factory, I want to shoot you.” I protested, “But I look like hell!” He said, “No, you look great.”
Warhol was notoriously prolific, creating over 4,000 reels of film during the 1960s. At what rate were you producing scripts for him?
He wanted a new script every week, but I could not do that. I could only keep up with two a month, so he did his own to make up the difference. The literal time between scripts varied, and he could never really hold up to that one-flick-a-week ideal.2
How were Warhol’s films screened?
The films were usually projected seven days after they were made.
Did you get to see all of them?
I didn’t get to see all of them, but I insisted on seeing most of them. Right after a film was shot, that same day, Andy was already telling me about the next movie he wanted. I told him that I didn’t want to write another one until I saw the one we’d just made. He said, “What for?” I said, “So I could learn from it.” He sort of turned his head away and said cynically under his breath, “Everyone wants to learn something.”And you weren’t used to working that way?
Andy just wanted the work to always be different, not necessarily better. That was the strain that he put on me—not to repeat. Even if something is bad, you just go on to the next thing. For me, in addition to doing something different, it had to be just as good as the previous ones.For many of the films you worked on, you not only wrote the scripts but also directed and appeared in them. How did Warhol participate in the creation of the films?
Andy would normally select the cast and give the title, and not much more. Now, it was our job to make the movie that matched it. That was okay; that was like the Hollywood system.But these films are not like Hollywood movies, in that the Factory actors did not study lines or even see the scripts beforehand. How did your scripts have to differ from conventional scripts?
My own way of going about it was that I thought of the scripts as scenarios. They provide a field in which whatever happens will develop its own meaning rather than have the author’s imposed meaning. The quality of my work can be judged by how well it provided for things to happen; I didn’t impose my personal vision. This way of working was part of what Andy was doing.
What exactly was Warhol trying to do?
He was struggling very hard to remove himself. One way of getting rid of himself was by having me write and direct. Now, how was I to get rid of myself? That’s why he was a magnificent teacher and disciplinarian. There couldn’t be more pressure on me to get this right. Write, direct, and remove yourself.
One of Warhol’s most famous film projects was a collection of over 500 “Screen Tests”—four-minute vignettes featuring a Factory visitor holding completely still so that his or her projected image could be mistaken for a photograph. Some critics simply regard this as a diary of the Factory from 1964 to 1966. Although you did not work directly with the “Screen Tests,” what do you think Warhol was trying to achieve with this work?
They are actually “living portraits,” and are mistakenly called “Screen Tests” because he usually was not testing anyone to be in a movie. Andy was a great portrait painter, and he attacked that from many different angles until finally he just decided that it had to be on film. Because canvases or photographs only reflect a single moment, he was not incorporating the time element of human existence. A real portrait should include a vital part of experience, the temporal.
One of the most infamous films that you worked on was Screen Test #2 (separate from the collection of “Screen Tests”), in which you mockingly interviewed the drag queen Mario Montez for the part of Esmeralda, the gypsy in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris. It has been called sadistic because for over 70 minutes you command Montez to perform demeaning acts, such as repeating the word diarrhea until “she” masters the proper inflection and lifting up “her” skirt to expose “her” penis. How do you feel about having made the film and the notoriety it has achieved?
It’s very painful for me to watch Screen Test #2. People used to think of it as a sadistic film in which I’m projecting my self-hatred on a defenseless drag queen. They hated the film and it was ignored. But it isn’t about that at all. You must think of the pain I went through to put myself through a trip like that; Mario really believed that this was real, that he was really getting the role of Esmeralda.You’ve said that your favorite film is Horse, which I think brilliantly satirizes the mythology of the cowboy by exposing the sadomasochism and homoeroticism underlying Hollywood westerns. The film becomes extremely violent; one character gets kicked in the head by a horse, and the men end up really banging each other’s heads against the concrete floor. Did you plan for the fighting to be real?
I was expecting them to fake the fighting, not actually hurt each other. It was horrifying to watch. I realized that I was watching real racism taking place. All of the sudden, they slammed Tosh, who was playing the character Mex. At the Factory, Tosh, who was devastatingly handsome, had introduced himself as a Hawaiian prince. Of course, he was really Mexican-Indian. I realized that it was jealousy of his good looks mixed with racism against the “other,” the non-white. They meant to just beat the shit out of him.Why do you think that the actors felt compelled to put themselves in harm’s way?
They did it because authority told them to. I was the authority. Behind me was the authority of the great white one. Right away I was thinking of World War II: people will do anything they are told to by authority, including placing themselves under the hooves of wild beasts.
Through that film and others, you read the credits and titles rather than showing them projected on-screen. Why was it done that way? Was it meant to distract the viewer?
My reading of credits and titles throughout most of the films had many purposes. Andy never wanted anything written on the screen, so the credits had to be read as a matter of course. Then there was a question of when. It would have been boring if they were read at the beginning or end—nobody would remember either way. My first technique was to read off actors’ names when the action was slow; I knew it would be very funny then: “The role of Sheriff is played by Gregory Battcock.”
It also keeps reminding the viewer that this is a movie, to never let you get involved with it as real, and to remember always that you are watching something staged. Previously in cinema, this would have been a no-no.What caused you to split with Warhol?
It was really Kitchen that made it clear to Andy and me that we could not go much further together. Andy wanted to go commercial. When he met Edie Sedgwick, he focused on her as his ticket to Hollywood. Once he got that bee in his bonnet, he wanted me to write increasingly commercial films as vehicles for her, but he did not have the circumstances to provide for commercial filmmaking.
Edie was becoming heavily addicted and becoming worse every day. This was a woman who could not learn lines. Plus, that attitude of hers…. Did you ever see her in a movie where she projected anything but annoyance at having to be in it? How can you work with that—an actress who is annoyed and cannot be bothered learning lines, and even when she tried, she was too drugged up to remember anything? This is not material you can turn into Hollywood films.How do you feel when you look back on that time at the Factory?
For many years I felt bitterness about the whole scene, that we did not make more wonderful movies. I felt the bitterness because I watched Andy becoming less serious and more foolish. He was wasting time, becoming petty, and letting his worst qualities come out. Historians now agree with me that his earlier work was moving up to these films—that they were his golden age, and the period after was sheer decline.
Did it bother you that the best films are considered Warhol’s when in fact you wrote and directed them?
Of course it bothers me. Look at the credits on this pirated edition of Kitchen. Nowhere on the dust jacket am I mentioned, even though I wrote, directed, and appeared in it. That was intentional on Andy’s part—to write me out of history. But it is convenient when they show the film and people say how rotten it is. Then I can say, “Well, it’s not mine. I would have made something better, or at least more interesting.”
Ronald Tavel is one of the major contributors to Andy Warhol’s films, a playwright, and a novelist. His collection of Warhol film scripts will be published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2003.
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine