Chuck Workman's "Superstar: The Life and Times of Andy Warhol" has been called by Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum's film and video curator Kelly Gordon "the most comprehensive and keenly wrought anniversary of the artist's death."
When first approached with the idea by executive producer Marilyn Lewis and co-executive producer Peter English Nelson, Workman jumped on it.
"It brought all these images of Andy Warhol to me because of the way he created his own image," Workman said. "I envisioned a film that said something about the way we look at images, the way we look at media; about the way media creates stars and the way stars manipulate media."
Workman has been acclaimed for his juxtaposition of powerful and conflicting images, his innovative early use of the quick-cut edit and for his "Precious Images," an Academy Award-winning short subject that he did on assignment to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Directors Guild of America. With "Superstar," which had its first showing at the Berlin Film Festival, he sought to capture the artist primarily through those who were closest to him.
"The only way you get past the enigma is by trying to work it out through the other people, and through the circumstances of his life," Workman said. "You can see the real Andy by getting clues from the people around him, and from the work he did."
But even getting the people who knew Warhol to offer up a few of those clues was no easy task, as writer-producer Peter English Nelson was well aware. As former owner of the Stella Polaris Performing and Visual Arts Center in Los Angeles, Nelson had hosted the world premiere of Warhol's "Portraits of Ingrid Bergman" show, an exhibition at which the artist made his last public appearance in L.A. It was at that time that the two of them discussed collaborating on a larger project. But Andy's death put an end to that. It was only later, in May of 1988, that Nelson put aside a feature film project he was working on and turned to the idea of doing a Warhol documentary.
"I realized that his life and career were absolutely central to our time, in a way that no other figure had been able to express," Nelson said. "It had to do with the overwhelming impact of media. Warhol was the first to make that dominant in his work and to understand it so well. He was the first true media-age artist."
With the help of friend Joan Quinn, who had spent 12 years as the West Coast editor of Warhol's Interview magazine and had known Warhol well, Nelson began contacting the key players from his subject's life.
"I wasn't sure how easy it would be," said Quinn, whom Nelson first videotaped talking about Warhol and who appears in the Workman film, "but I knew we had a lot of access. I had access to the family, and that opened up a whole side of Andy's life that hadn't been open to people before. And I knew who had video footage of the funeral, who had clips from the newspapers."
It was a start.
Through the summer of 1988, Nelson began collecting letters from people closely associated with Warhol either professionally or personally, and got involved with a lot of negotiating with lawyers. He noticed, he says, a "haunted tendency" for some of the personalities he was searching out, such as Warhol Factory regulars Nico and Ondine, to "die and disappear right under your eyes." The living just offered resistance.
"Whether it was accurate or not," Nelson said, "the perception among a lot of people was that they were going to get sued. A lot of people were afraid. I had to convince them that it would be a project of the highest quality, that it wouldn't rehash a lot of negative stuff for its own sake, but that it would be a complete and accurate picture that would do justice to their memories--in some cases very ambivalent, in some cases rather tender--of their time with Warhol. After Chuck was involved I was able to convince them that this would be a definitive film.
But there were still obstacles. The Warhol estate took an aggressive stance and ultimately was not involved. Warhol's brother John declined at the last minute to talk about Andy, particularly about his spiritual connection to the Catholic Church. And the attempt to film Warhol's work on location at New York's Museum of Modern Art, though ultimately successful, was like getting into Fort Knox.
The efforts seem to be paying off. "Superstar" is being heralded by many witnesses as the definitive Warhol film.
"It's much more than your typical documentary" said the Smithsonian's Kelly Gordon. "The characters, the scene in New York, the people he knew--it's an incredible film. I can't see that anybody who's interested in the '60s, '70s or '80s wouldn't just be rapt. They've gotten the flavor of the times in an extraordinary way."