Metro Retro Movie Love In Conversation

The Metrograph Oral History: Downtown 81

October 23 2019

The definitive New York new wave film, Downtown 81, was shot on the fly on the streets and in the nightclubs of downtown Manhattan in the dead of winter, 1980. A raucous underground odyssey and a who’s-who of the downtown demimonde, the film stars Jean-Michel Basquiat, then an unknown 19-year-old street artist, as a slightly fictionalized version of himself, wandering in and out of the city’s exploding music scene on the lookout for his patron, encountering live performances from some of the era’s greatest acts: DNA, Kid Creole and the Coconuts, Fab Five Freddy, and more.

Written by Glenn O’Brien, produced by Maripol and Michael Zilkha, and directed by Edo Bertoglio, Downtown 81 should have been an instant underground classic, but the film went unfinished for two decades, and it required another odyssey to find all the missing pieces. We brought together some of the film’s surviving talent to figure out, for the first time, how the project fell apart and came back together, and why it stands the test of time.

MEETING GLENN O’BRIEN

Edo Bertoglio (director of Downtown 81): I met Glenn at a party downtown. Around that time he was putting together six pages on new fashion trends in New York for Oui magazine, which was Playboy’s trendy little brother. He asked me to take the pictures for it and we instantly became good friends and collaborators. I ended up shooting the photos for his Beat column in Interview.

Maripol (stylist, photographer, and designer, as well as a producer of Downtown 81): When Edo and I moved as a couple to New York from Paris in 1976, we lived on 84th between Columbus and Central Park, and I think Glenn heard of us from Kid Creole, who was our neighbor at the time. Glenn would come to our holiday parties, things like that. He and I were friendly, but Edo and him were really tight. The three of us actually wanted to do a magazine called X. Glenn was at Interview but I guess he wanted to be independent. We got to the proofs stage, but it never came out.

Michael Zilkha (owner of ZE Records, executive producer of Downtown 81): I arrived in New York in June 1975 immediately after my finals, and within three days I found CBGB’s. I started as a second-tier theater critic at the Village Voice, but eventually started my own record company. I knew Glenn because he would always write about my bands.

Lori Eastside (choreographer and casting agent, former backing singer for Kid Creole & The Coconuts): I lived across from the old Fillmore East on East 6th St, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues, in a three-bedroom apartment I shared with two guys from Pittsburgh. One was an artist, Henry “Banger” Benvenutti, who Jean-Michel hung out with all the time. My other roommate, Lenny Ferrari, was the drummer on [Glenn’s public-access cable show] TV Party so we would always go and hang out or appear on the show.

Amos Poe (No Wave pioneer and director of TV Party): I met Glenn through Debbie Harry and Chris Stein of Blondie. I had recently made Blank Generation with Blondie, and they introduced me to him and we started TV Party soon after. It was probably 1977 but it’s impossible to remember that period. Everyone was on drugs basically. It’s like Rashomon on crack.

Maripol: It’s like when there is an accident and you have different witnesses, no one sees the same thing.

Lori Eastside: People were so fucked up. Everyone was so high, it’s no wonder we can’t remember anything.

THE GENESIS OF THE FILM

Maripol: In ’78, Edo and I were back in Europe for the summer, in Lugano. I was pretty bored and wrote a synopsis for what became our little movie. At first, the idea was to have Danny Rosen, the beautiful young brother of our friend Lisa Rosen, as the lead.

Edo Bertoglio: We came back to New York and Elio Fiorucci [the owner of the molto trendy Italian fashion label Fiorucci] came to town. Maripol was working for Fiorucci, so every time he would come to New York, he would contact me and Maripol because we knew where all the parties and music were happening downtown.

Maripol: We had a small dinner party for Elio, and I told him that we should do a film about this period, because I didn’t think it was going to last. It really felt like the end of an era. Elio was very high on coke and he said, Facciamo! Facciamo! (“Let’s do it, let’s do it,” in Italian.)

Edo Bertoglio: I talked to Glenn and said that we had this opportunity to show a slice of life of the downtown scene—the music, the people, the art—and asked if he would like to write it. He said yes. At one point I gathered a lot of pictures I had taken of people on the scene and went to Milan to talk to Elio, to push the idea. I was actually Elio’s driver on that trip and would take him outside of Milan, where the Fiorucci headquarters was, so we were able to talk about the film idea for 45 minutes in the morning and then again on the drive home.

Maripol: Elio is often credited with putting up the money for the film, but that is definitely not true. He did not put up a cent. But he was friends with the head guy at [book publishers] Rizzoli, which had a movie division called Cineriz, and he convinced him to put some money into the movie. They weren’t credited as producers—they were like the silent backers—because it was all a bit of a scam. Importantly, they had a subsidiary company here in America that they sent the money to, but they never told head office in Italy. Instead they installed a guy called Patrick Montgomery to oversee the finances and be the adult in the room.

Edo Bertoglio: When the money finally came through—it turned out to be $250 a month for each of the principals—Glenn wrote the script and it went from the Danny idea to his genius idea to have Basquiat star in the movie, which we decided to call New York Beat.

BASQUIAT & THE DOWNTOWN SCENE

August Darnell, better known as Kid Creole: The 80’s in New York City was the greatest period ever. The city was such a great example of diversity in those days. The word today carries a different weight than it did back then, but the diversity of the city was astonishing.

Maripol: New York was still so cheap that you could take risks and be creative. It was much more natural in those days to work with all sorts of people. There were no agents to go through, so we cast the film from our friends.

Lisa Rosen (plays the French maid in Downtown 81, is now an art restorer): At that time, people had moved on from CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, and the Mudd Club was the center of the downtown scene. That was my alma mater. I left NYU after two months and graduated from the Mudd Club instead. As soon as I walked into the club, I thought, this is the coolest place and people I have ever seen in my life. We were all really young. Nobody had a dime. The city was broke. We were surrounded by fascinating people who became well-known artists, musicians, designers, filmmakers: Anna Sui, Jim Jarmusch, John Lurie, his brother Evan from The Lounge Lizards, James Nares, and of course Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Andy Hernandez, a.k.a. Coati Mundi (performs in the film with Kid Creole & the Coconuts): I had seen Jean-Michel on Glenn’s cable show and I knew him from the whole East Village scene, mostly through Lori Eastside who I dated back in the day. To be honest, and remember this was way before he blew up, I didn’t think much of him or his art. I guess I wasn’t much of a visionary. There were a lot of great artists downtown, graffiti artists and artists in general who I thought were better.

Lori Eastside: Like a lot of people, I thought that Banger and Walter Steding and other artists at the time were more talented. Jean-Michel couldn’t really draw a picture of somebody sitting in front of him, but the way he looked at things was so genuine and original, and very much from the heart. He might have said once or twice that he wanted to be a famous artist, but I figured he was half-joking, because I don’t think he really believed it. I guess he just hadn’t found the right medium.

Daniela Morera (appears in Downtown 81 as the patron to whom Basquiat sells a painting): I would be lying if I said I knew that Jean-Michel was going to become an art superstar, because when I met him he was so young and just doing little drawings on whatever he could get his hands on. He hadn’t even had a proper show, and the painting he carries in the film was, I believe, the first acrylic he ever did on canvas. Glenn gave him the materials because he needed a painting for the character to carry around. He was clearly very talented and charismatic and stylish, and he definitely looked like a leader. We all loved Jean-Michel, but Glenn really understood what Jean-Michel would become.

THE SHOOT

Maripol: The production office of New York Beat was across the street from where Jean-Michel later lived and died on Great Jones Street, in an apartment that he rented from Andy Warhol. I had the task of waking up Jean-Michel every morning, and that wasn’t easy.

Edo Bertoglio: The production budget was $350,000, which was a lot for a little movie. We shot in Super 16mm and had a wonderful crew—all professionals. It was like a pyramid of talent. We were all beginners up top and they were the safety net at the bottom.

Maripol: We had amazing sound because we used guys who were union but did it on the side. Same with the cameramen, sound guys and lighting. It was totally illegal.

Lisa Rosen: I remember shooting in November or December and it being very cold. I was hanging outside during the filming of one scene where Jean is walking down the street, I don’t really remember why—I think somebody was scoring drugs—and practically froze to death. The interior shots were easy and a lot of fun.

Edo Bertoglio: Believe it or not, there actually weren’t that many drugs on the set, but we had to have marijuana every day for Jean-Michel because he liked to smoke all the time. He wasn’t a diva, but he wanted a croissant every morning, a cappuccino, and his grass. The only drama I remember was that he didn’t really know the dialogue, so Glenn started every morning in the car with Jean-Michel, telling him what we were going to shoot that day and what his lines were.

Maripol: The shoot lasted about six weeks, and even though it was the first movie that Edo, Glenn, or I had made, it went pretty smoothly for the most part. It was all very casual. But that’s when all the problems began.

Edo Bertoglio: We had a rough cut by March or April of 1981 and then an Italian journalist from Panorama, a sort of Italian Newsweek at the time, came to New York to interview me about this “Rizzoli movie.” She went back and published the story, which was read by the executives of Cineriz in Rome, who knew nothing about the movie that was meant to be under their supervision. Remember, it was Rizzoli Milan that had sent the money to New York.

They came to New York and saw a rough cut and because we had gone through all the money, they decided to move the post-production to Rome and finish it there. For me it was like looking into the abyss—it was something I did not want to do. It was a New York movie. We needed that local atmosphere—the mood, the people, the scene—to get it done. Then the movie disappeared.

THE FILM STALLS

Maripol: For the longest time, we had no idea what had happened to the film. Glenn was able to show a rough cut he had made to Warner Brothers, which was interested in it, but we literally did not know what happened to the reels, so that went nowhere. We were traumatized and thought we’d never finish it.

Edo Bertoglio: At one point, I went to Italy to look for our film, but nobody would even talk to me because there was this big Rizzoli problem. The government put a seal on everything they owned because some of the top executives were caught in the big P2 Masonic scandal that involved a prime minister, military leaders, church people, leading businessmen. They were all secret Masons and were giving business to one another. It was a mess.

Maripol: I eventually got a legal letter from Rizzoli saying that they didn’t have a clue what we were talking about. What film?

Edo Bertoglio: Glenn went to Italy three or four times to look for the film. Eventually, we gave up but Maripol would not let it go. Credit where credit is due. Glenn was a genius and his idea to cast Basquiat made the movie. But without Maripol’s hustle, that would have been the end of it.

Maripol: In about ‘89, after Jean-Michel died—and by the way, he wanted to finish the film—I started to call all the laboratories in New York. I finally tracked it down to this one place that said they had five boxes but couldn’t release them without a letter from the film company. I explained that the company was just set up for the film and was defunct, but he said he couldn’t release them. And of course Rizzoli was hopeless.

Some time later, I’m in my loft and I get a call from the same guy I had spoken to at the lab and he asks if I am still interested in those boxes. His boss was no longer there and he remembered I wanted them, so an hour later, I had the boxes. I raised my eyes to the heavens and said, “Thank you, Jean-Michel.”

TAKE TWO

Edo Bertoglio: Unfortunately, the audio tracks could not be found, but the reels of the live performances in the movie showed up in Glenn’s basement. They were covered in mold and had to be baked at the AMPEX headquarters in order to salvage them, but the sound ended up being impeccable and those performances kind of make the film.

Michael Zilkha: Around this time, I sold an energy company that I had with my father and made a lot of money. I had no idea I was going to be in a situation where I would be able to make things happen, but all of a sudden, I was, so I reached out to Glenn and told him I could help him get the movie over the line. It made sense, because so many of my bands were in it.

Maripol: We were so excited, but of course there were no audio tracks, so I made it my business to track down everyone in the film and have them come back to New York to re-record their dialogue. Unfortunately, we had to re-cast Jean-Michel, but we found Saul Williams, who sounded just like him. We actually hired a lip reader to figure out some of it, because of course no one had really followed the script. It’s a little off in places—especially in the scenes in Astor Place with David McDermott—but it’s actually pretty good.

Edo Bertoglio: The movie, which Glenn decided to rename Downtown 81 because he went off the old name, was not long enough to enter in festivals as a feature so we had to add a few minutes. Maripol bought the stock footage of the clouds at the beginning and Glenn wrote that beautiful piece that we asked Debbie Harry to come in and read.

Maripol: Glenn and Michael didn’t want me entering Sundance or Berlin Festivals, as they thought we could just choose where we wanted to show the film, and of course it doesn’t work like that. So I went behind their backs and registered the film at the Cannes Festival and at the Fortnight, and somehow we got in. There were only three American films selected that year: Shadow of the Vampire, Girlfight, and us.

Michael Zilkha: The reaction was respectful, but it was clear it was never going to be a blockbuster. People were interested, and applauded, but I think it was applauded more as an artifact, a rather wondrous artifact of a time that, even in 2000, felt like it had passed. I describe the film as being sub-aqueous because it’s so dreamlike that you feel like you’re under the water gently swimming. It’s a great time capsule of the scene and music then, the ultimate documentary of that time even though it’s a work of fiction. There isn’t anything else like it that shows that culture the way it was.

Lisa Rosen: Whenever I have seen that film, I often think, Who the hell would understand this if they’re not in it or related to someone in it? It’s a totally different New York that looks almost unbelievable these days. I can’t follow a lot of the editing, but every time I watch it, as soon as the credits start rolling after the last scene with Jean-Michel walking away carrying those shopping bags, and the Suicide song “Cheree” is playing, I just burst into tears. I’m welling up now just telling you about it. It’s an incredibly beautiful fucked-up relic of old New York.