L.M. Kit Carson is hardly a household name, but he’s left his mark on some of the most important films of the last half-century. As the co-writer and star of 1967’s David Holzman’s Diary, he and director Jim McBride crafted a potent and funny critique of cinéma vérité’s claim to truth that doubles as a pre-emptive strike against the culture of YouTube confessionals. He watched the ’60s counterculture’s romance with Hollywood go down in flames on the set of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, filming the proceedings for the fascinating documentary The American Dreamer, and later filled in for an absent Sam Shepard by completing the script to Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas. A Dallas native, Carson founded the still-active USA Film Festival, in part so David Holzman would have a place to play, and later helped a trio of local unknowns turn a handful of film scraps into a short, and then a feature, called Bottle Rocket, launching the careers of Wes Anderson and Owen and Luke Wilson. For his latest project, Africa Diaries, Carson used cell-phone cameras to craft short narratives about life on the continent; he’s currently editing the results, which will show on the Sundance Channel in the fall. With David Holzman’s Diary finally getting its long-awaited release on DVD, Carson talked to The A.V. Club about setting his sights on cinéma vérite, remaking Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless, and his role in Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.
The A.V. Club: The way you came to David Holzman’s Diary is fascinating. You’d been working for Robert Drew, one of the fathers of observational documentary, and you and Jim McBride were contracted to write a book about cinéma vérité. Instead, you ended up making a film that remains one of the most potent arguments against trusting in the camera’s ability to record without affecting what takes place in front of it.
L.M. Kit Carson: What I find interesting here is that originally… Let’s go back: The diary format was the first long-form storytelling that had been devised. Robinson Crusoe was the first way that somebody figured out to tell a story with a set of episodes that lead to a “learning experience,” to say it in a bad way. What I find interesting, and how David Holzman fits into this, is that the Internet is again using that type of model for learning how to tell stories. I find it incredibly meaningful that in the 17th century they figured this out in order to start telling stories, which turned into movies, and now in the 21st century, “Ah, let’s do it that way.”
AVC: “Prescient” is such an overused word, but the idea that someone would take a documentary camera and turn it on himself wasn’t exactly commonplace in 1967.
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LKC: No, it wasn’t. Then it became several movies that adopted that format. Cassavetes, etc., they did that. But my point here is that I love that it’s happening again on the Internet. Here’s the story: In 2005 I realized that there was a new grid of intimacy and information from the world, and that was the Internet. And I wanted to figure out how to tell stories on the Internet. And that’s what led to Africa Diaries.
AVC: So what countries have you shot Africa Diaries in so far?
LKC: It’s Mozambique and Zambia and South Africa. Those three countries are the first set.
AVC: Where did the specific interest in Africa come from?
LKC: I was hired to be a consultant on a documentary that was shooting in Africa, and as I headed there, I wanted to somehow film being there. I looked at those horrible little mini-cams, and a friend of mine who’s a DP named Ueli Steiger, who works on all of Roland Emmerich’s films, had dinner with me right before I was leaving, and he had just come from a film festival in Sweden where they gave all of the jury Nokia N93 cell-phone cams. I looked at that, and I loved it. I got one because the N93 doesn’t look like a camera. It’s this T-shaped thing you hold in your hand. People in front of you who you’re recording, they don’t think you’re recording. It’s not like the BBC just arrived, where suddenly the veil goes up and they’re on camera. It was great because it gave me access to media presence for the people I was dealing with. It was also a great device: It has a Hubble lens, the same thing that’s on the telescope. Nokia, I don’t think they knew what they were doing when they did it, but they made one that has the best quality of image-making.
AVC: There’s a parallel between the low profile of the cell-phone camera and the famous shot in David Holzman’s Diary where Michael Wadleigh held the camera under his arm and walked around the people eating lunch on the benches outside New York’s Needle Park. They didn’t know he was filming them either.
LKC: What you want when you’re doing the documentary is being there. You don’t get it when the veil goes up. You’re not there. That was key for me. I went to Mozambique as a consultant on this documentary, and I shot while I was there using this. Then I came back and put together a DVD. I sent it to [Robert] Redford for his birthday in August, and he sent back a message through his assistant: “Go make a deal.” He set up a meeting in New York with five execs from the Sundance Channel. So I went in there and showed them the pieces. Some of them were crying at the end of it, and turned to me and said, “Okay, what do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to go back.” So we made this deal to do Africa Diaries. I went and spent four months in each country shooting on the cell-phone cam, and every night you download it to your Macbook laptop. And then you eventually finish the shoot. Then, exactly like any other movie, you catalog the stuff, and you begin to make selects. It took me 18 months. I also had to devise a language for telling short stories, short pieces, three- to five-minute pieces that have a beginning, middle, and end, and have an emotional impact and an intellectual impact. It was inventing new language. It’s elliptical. It’s not MTV. It’s not documentary. It’s not didactic.
AVC: You started off studying journalism, right? That was why you were at Columbia when you made David Holzman’s Diary.
LKC: I got published when I was in college in Esquire. At the same time, I was working at the American Place Theater as, for a year, assistant stage manager. It’s where Dustin Hoffman got his start. I would work at The American Place until midnight, and then I would walk from West 47th St. to West 43rd to Drew Associates between Fifth and Sixth, and from midnight to 5 a.m., I would do the basic assistant-assistant-assistant’s work. Which means synch up footage. It was a great exercise. That’s how I learned storytelling, really.
AVC: That feeling of having the camera be invisible was exactly what Robert Drew and his partner, Ricky Leacock, were after, and it’s what the Maysles brothers and D.A. Pennebaker and many others picked up from them.
LKC: One of my fondest memories was looking at some rushes with everybody in the screening room. Albert Maysles was on a train in Africa, and he was shooting a woman at the other end of the train car who had a baby, and she was nursing the baby. So the camera zooms in to her, and at a certain point Maysles stops, the camera kind of bobbles, and then it begins to pull back away from her. In the dark, in the screening room, you could hear Ricky Leacock’s voice boom out, “That’s right Al, you can’t get too close, can you?” That’s all about the relationship between you and who you’re shooting. That’s the moral judgment you’re making. And that was a good way to start documentary learning.
AVC: Of all the people involved, Maysles seems to have the most romantic idea of documentary producing unmediated truth.
LKC: That’s one of the reasons that they’re relaunching David Holzman’s Diary. It also brings people around to think about how to do this, how to record your life and your thoughts, have them make a story. We had a 12-page outline, which was brilliant, and then we improvised. We had a 10-day shoot on Easter break from college.
What I really love is that they’re coming back, and it plays. I was in a small film festival in Pennsylvania and I saw the audience walking around afterward. They didn’t act like it was a 1968 film. They acted like they just saw it on their computer last week, as if somebody just sent it to them.
AVC: You published a screenplay for the film, but under your name it says, “From a film by Jim McBride.” So you shot the film, and then wrote the script after the fact?
LKC: That was prompted by Joan Didion, who loved the film, and screened it in her house several times, her and John [Gregory Dunne]. They used a 16mm projector, showing it on a blanket in their living room, hung from the ceiling. People like Jackson Browne were sitting on the floor watching this. In the day, everybody was blown away. So Farrar, Straus and Giroux decided they would publish three scripts, one by Susan Sontag, one by Charles Eastman, and Joan pushed her editor to get a hold of me to do David Holzman’s Diary. That’s how that happened.
AVC: You also co-directed a documentary on the set of Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, called The American Dreamer. How did that come to pass?
LKC: I went out to see Dennis, he and I being pals, and I spent about five days there. I left there feeling, “Holy shit. Something’s really going on, and it should be on film.” I went to L.A. and tried to get all of my friends, Mike Medavoy, etc., to come up with some dough. I knew Larry Schiller, who was a still photographer; he’s sort of become legendary now, but he had just come off doing still sequences for Butch Cassidy. So I went to Larry, and Larry was smart enough to realize, “Holy shit. If Carson’s right, there’s something here that hasn’t happened before.” So he raised half the money. That’s how we worked together on the shoot. It was a collaboration. Dennis is such a daredevil. He let everything happen. We all dared him that if he would walk naked through Los Alamos, then I would bring him 22 girls. And he did, and we did.
AVC: There’s a fascinating moment near the end when Hopper confronts you and your co-director behind the camera, basically accusing you of causing everyone to act differently when you’re around. He says that moment, where he’s basically talking right into the lens, is the most real thing you’ve filmed, which has a striking overlap with some of the themes in David Holzman’s Diary. [Note: The moment begins at 53:15 here.]
LKC: Especially now, years later, it does have a real resonance that it didn’t quite have at the time. At the time, it was more newsy, sort of hip newsy. A friend of mine was a writer at Rolling Stone, Robin Green, who’s now a television writer, got there, was writing up her story, took a lot of mescaline, wandered off into the desert and got lost. I had to go find her, save her, bring her back out of the desert. But that was the time. It was the era, where journalism and drugs mixed pretty well.
AVC: There aren’t a lot of other films of the period that have a significant public figure on film talking about how he likes eating pussy so much he might as well be a lesbian.
LKC: But it was his personality. That’s who he is.
AVC: It’s interesting, because at least until Apocalypse Now, that wasn’t who Dennis Hopper was in front of the camera.
LKC: Dennis liked to dare himself. Like when we did [The Texas] Chainsaw [Massacre] 2 and we cast him in it, and on set he had his 50th birthday. So we brought the cake out to the set, and he insisted on cutting the cake with a chainsaw. It was just another indication of how he never thought he was going to die.
AVC: Were you responsible for making that call, getting him involved?
LKC: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, it was also a rescue mission, because that was the point in time when Dennis had kind of gone off the grid. So I wanted to do it because I wanted him to play this guy, but I also wanted to do it because I wanted to bring him back.
AVC: How did you get involved in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 in the first place? It’s not exactly a traditional sequel.
LKC: It was because of the friendship with Tobe [Hooper]. He was asked by Cannon to do a sequel, and so he turned to me, because he knew I wouldn’t do anything obvious. So my feeling was, the reason Chainsaw works is because it’s so fucking daring. You’ve got to do something else; you have to be daring in a different way. So it’s a kind of horror-comedy, maybe the first horror-comedy.
AVC: While we’re on the subject of Texans, how did you get involved in Bottle Rocket? You came into it through Owen and Luke Wilson, right?
LKC: I knew their father, Bob Wilson. When I moved to Dallas from East Hampton so my son could go to the same high school I went to, Jesuit College Prep, the first cocktail party in town that fall, I ran into Bob Wilson and he said, “You’ve got to come to dinner. You’ve got to talk to my kids. They want to be in the movie business, and you have to talk them out of it.” So I did. I went there, my wife and myself, and halfway through dinner Owen and Luke left the table and came back with cardboard boxes of posters and shit like that. At the end of dinner I said to Bob, “You’re not going to talk them out of this, but I will take them to Sundance.” So I took them to Sundance that season. And they stayed with us, and they kind of figured it out.
The next thing I know, in the spring, Owen brings Wes Anderson to the house with little fragments of a film that they’d shot, black and white. It was the first time I’d seen this generation, because this generation came after the hippies, and was very hidden. I felt this was the first peek at them. They showed me 12 minutes of scattered shooting. I was like, “Great, you got a script?” They came back the next day with a 97-page document that was all first act. And I said, “Uh, okay.” Then I showed them The 400 Blows, which starts, as you know, in a classroom in Paris, and ends at the edge of the world, freeze-frame. I said, “You’ve got to go all the way from here to there.” So I coached them through a script, and at the same time, we made a short. I got money from Michael Lang, you know, the Woodstock, guy, 7,500 bucks, and we made the short. Got it into Sundance, and from there it went to Jim Brooks and that’s how it all happened.
AVC: It’s interesting that you would choose The 400 Blows. The same technology that enabled cinéma vérité also allowed the French New Wave filmmakers to shoot fast and cheaply on location. How important were those films to you?
LKC: I saw Breathless. I came down and saw it when it first was in New York, and it just completely blew my mind. I left the theater, and I was walking down the street in New York, and I would look around and it was all changed by what Godard had done to my mind.
AVC: So how did you end up remaking Breathless with Jim McBride? There’s a certain “repainting the Sistine Chapel” quality to the endeavor.
LKC: That came from McBride. He said, “I have an idea to do it in L.A. and reverse the roles.” So we wrote a first draft, and about that time I’d developed a kind of relationship with Godard. He was coming to L.A. and wanting to meet with studios about backing a film, and staying in the Chateau Marmont, and asking us to drive him around. So McBride and I drove him around for a week, and at the end of the week we said, “We’d kind of like to do Breathless in L.A.” A day later, when we went to pick him up, he picked up a paper napkin, and wrote on it, “You have the rights to Breathless, Jean-Luc Godard,” and handed it to us. That’s true, man. So of course, when we eventually made the deal, Orion had to send a bunch of lawyers to France to find out who else he said that to. And we got it.
AVC: Was it nerve-wracking to go up against a film like that? It’s not only a great film, but a landmark.
LKC: Right. It’s funny, because years later at the Toronto festival, I ran into Godard, and he pulled me aside and said, “You know, I just saw Breathless last night for the first time on my hotel TV.” That’s the only way he even had an inkling. Obviously he wasn’t running out to go see the film. And he said, “And I thank you for not remaking Breathless.” That’s sort of an answer to your question. We made the movie that we made, and it was about this guy.
AVC: I don’t think anyone would confuse the two.
LKC: No, no, no.
AVC: Let’s talk about Paris, Texas. You came into that halfway through?
LKC: No, no. I came into it after they cast my son [Hunter Carson]. We came back from East Hampton at the end of that summer, and I went into the production office where Wim [Wenders] was at 8 or 9 at night. And he was at his desk with his head in his hands, his fingers over his eyes. I said, “Wim, what’s wrong?” He says, “I set up a great mystery at the beginning of this film, and then I explain it.” I said, “Okay, what are you talking about?” So he told me the two scripts that he had from Sam [Shepard]. One was a script where Nastassja [Kinski’s] father was a big Texas oilman like J.R., and he sent his goons, and they beat up Harry Dean [Stanton] and took her and put her in a penthouse in Houston. And the other version of the script was Nastassja’s mother was under the spell of a televangelist, who of course, in the great tradition, ran whorehouses and drug dens. So he sent his goons to beat up Harry Dean, and took Nastassja and put her in a whorehouse. Those are two versions, and how they separate, and how Hunter ended up living with his brother.
I said, “That’s kind of corny, Wim.” He said, “Yes, I know.” I said, “What if they just did it to themselves?” He looks up and says, “Exactly!” And he says, “You write this!” I said, “Wait, wait, wait. First you got to call Sam and tell him.” Because they had started shooting the beginning of the film. They had shot Harry wandering out of the desert, and Walt [Dean Stockwell] picking him up. They got as far as driving to Walt’s house in Los Angeles. They hadn’t even gotten to the house yet. I said, “You call Sam, tell him you’ve asked me to do this, and see if it’s okay, and you call me.” Because I was heading back to New York. It was Sunday night, before I was getting on a plane on Monday, he calls up and says, “It’s okay. Stay, stay!” My fee for this was, he had bought a ’57 Chevy Bel-Air. He gave me that car for the shoot. That was my payment. And I got a per diem and all that kind of shit. At the end of the shoot, when we got it all done, he took the car back. That’s what he paid Ry Cooder to do the music.
AVC: Did you have any direct contact with Sam Shepard?
LKC: I had no contact with him. What happened was, we got to the point where Harry Dean talked to Nastassja for the last time, to tell her the story of their life. He’d seen her before and sort of ran away. So Wim called Sam and said, “Okay, so here’s where we are, here’s what happened.” And Sam said, “Okay, let me write this.” So he wrote the speech, Harry Dean’s speech, and dictated it on the phone to the script girl, who then typed it up. Then it got to Harry Dean, who went nuts. He had to talk to Sam, he had to talk to Sam. So he talked to Sam, and Sam said, “Just. Say. The. Words. It’s all there.” And it was. And it is. When we shot that scene, Harry Dean had the right to call “cut” if he was fumbling. So we shot it all day long, and he kept calling “cut.” And he finally got it from the beginning to the end without any break. It’s funny; it was a giant hit overseas. When it was distributed in England, the distributor printed T-shirts, and what was on the T-shirt was the speech. The whole fucking speech.