Corruption of the damned: A conversation with George Kuchar
Few directors have the career longevity of underground filmmaker George Kuchar. His filmography, which spans five decades and comprises more than 200 films and videos, belies his relative obscurity outside the scope of cult cineastes and college film classes. He has taught a film production course at the San Francisco Art Institute since 1971, casting students and passersby in two short films per year; Courtney Love and Devendra Banhart appeared in Kuchar’s class pictures before they were famous. Along with twin brother and onetime collaborator Mike, the Kuchar brothers’ films blend no-budget aesthetics and Old Hollywood melodrama, influencing filmmakers like Todd Solondz, John Waters, and former student Jennifer Kroot, whose documentary It Came From Kuchar debuted to critical acclaim at SXSW last year. It screens tonight before Kuchar's appearance at Union Theatre on April 13. The A.V. Club talked with Kuchar about his career and who he wants to play him in the movie of his life story.
The A.V. Club: You once said movies are, by nature, exploitative, and filmmakers shouldn’t be afraid to exploit everything from budgets to talent. So, does that mean you advocate exploiting people?
George Kuchar: No, you exploit the scenery, exploit the lighting. You don’t degrade anybody. Whatever you can get your hands on, you use. Also, there’s a whole genre of exploitation pictures. I remember when I was a kid, I would go to the movies and I would see coming attractions, and they would say, “See cannibals eating so-and-so!” And it was regular office people and housewives in the movie theater, and you realize, wow, these people want to see cannibals. They may have an urge to eat other people, but they don’t. So you go to the movies and you get to see it and experience it that way. It’s a release! Though sometimes it’s like a volcano. Pressure will build up and people explode. Like that biology teacher that went and shot those people. Maybe she went to different movies or something.
AVC: You became a lot more prolific when you switched to video. Do you work things out on paper first?
GK: No, never on paper. It’s always with the camera. You start somewhere and from there you build. It’s just the idea of bringing a camera along and finding something that’s either in your head that interests you or something that you see on the way to wherever you’re going. And then you start, and you’ve made the commitment to make a picture. And then you see it all the way to the end. You never abandon it.
AVC: You were one of the first filmmakers to ditch film for video in the early ’80s. How have you weathered changing technology without compromising what you do?
GK: Well, with me it was always what was available, what you can afford. When the camcorder came—the 8mm camcorder Sony put out with no glitches—I realized that was the time to jump in and make video. And because it was the film department, it was considered a disgrace, the final thing before I was to be ejected from the school, my humiliation. But no, I took the camcorder and started making them.
AVC: Has there been greater interest in what you do since It Came From Kuchar?
GK: No, nobody’s been interested, which is nice. I just make the pictures. Jennifer Kroot—she was a student of mine, a star of one of the class movies 10 years ago or more—had made a movie on her own, and it was good. And then she wanted to make another one, a documentary, so she asked me, since she enjoyed being in the class and stuff, if I’d be interested. My idea was to help encourage her to make movies even though I wasn’t all that interested in being in a documentary because I don’t look as good as I did 20 years ago.
AVC: And now there’s a biopic in development about you?
GK: Oh, that’s another guy [Jeffrey Schwarz]. He made documentaries. And now he’s got his own little film company and he does DVD specials. And then he wanted to get into feature films, and he said, “How about we do your life story or something?”
AVC: If money wasn’t a factor, who would you choose to play you?
GK: Jeffrey was throwing out names, and he picked out that guy who was in that car crash and hurt his hand, what’s his name? He’s got a weird name. He was in one of those Transformer movies.
AVC: Shia LaBeouf?
GK: Yeah, LaBeouf. But then he said, “You probably won’t get him because he’s too hot now.” So I don’t know. But I like Jeffrey, he’s in the documentary. He’s got a nice company and he knows a lot of movie stars. And he’s got a nice personality.