Interviewed by John Marmysz
Christopher Anderson is a San Francisco based filmmaker whose three major films – Rocket Baby Dolls (1993), (An Act of…) Sabotage (1999), and Temple (2005) – represent disturbingly nihilistic meditations on the nature of human life, civilization, and reality itself. Dennis Harvey, writing in Variety, observes that Anderson’s films are “more likely to find a receptive Eurotube audience than Stateside broadcast or theatrical play.” This may be more of a compliment than Harvey intends. Anderson’s films eschew mainstream Hollywood polish in favor of a strangely hypnotic mix of documentary realism, dream-like fantasy and low-budget grit. It’s no wonder that funding for his films mostly originates from Germany rather than the US, given that his work boldly embraces such difficult themes as anarchism, nihilism, human degradation and their connection with mystical transcendence.
I sat down with Anderson on June 29th, 2012 to talk with him about his experiences making movies and about his philosophy of life.
Background, philosophy and vision:
JM: How did you get into filmmaking?
CA: Well, I was always into theater and wanting to take over the world. At first I thought I could do this through other art forms, but then I came to realize that film would be a better propaganda tool and that it was much more interactive with beautiful women too. So my main motivations were to change the world and have interaction with beautiful women.
JM: So you did other kinds of art before filmmaking.
CA: Yes. I did sculpture, theater, photography, drawing and painting.
JM: You have mentioned having an almost totalitarian vision in your filmmaking. Is there some sort of theme that ties together and runs through your art as a whole?
CA: You mean other than the desire to take over the world? Isn’t that enough?!
JM: What I’m wondering is do you have a vision; an artistic vision?
CA: Well yes. Now it’s a bit more watered down, but at the beginning of my career I had a vision of – I wouldn’t say a utopian world – but I had the idea that there had to be a better world in which art, and sex, and beautiful women all somehow played a bigger role than what I could see as I wandered around the city and suburbia. In everyday life most people are caught up with running some sort of obstacle course in which pleasure, aesthetic pleasure, or even philosophical thoughts – like devoting one’s self to big questions – have no room, no place. In my grand vision everyone would be a philosopher who has sex with beautiful women (or whatever you’re into!), everyone one would eat good food and have access to these sorts of things instead of there being only a few rich assholes who get it all while everyone else has to work away in the factories.
JM: So do you see yourself as a leftist? Are you an anarchist?
CA: I wouldn’t say that I’m an anarchist, but I can see that anarchy is a tool that can be used at times. It’s like picking up a hammer, or voting or what have you. It depends on the context. In certain contexts anarchy could certainly work against you more than anything else. It all depends upon what your agenda is. If it is anarchy for anarchy’s sake, then who cares? But if anarchy is used as a means to something else, then it can be useful.
So I wouldn’t say that I’m necessarily left or right. That seems like an unnecessary dichotomy that I would want to avoid. There are certain things that I identify with that are conservative and right wing, and there are other things about myself and my politics that are more leftist.
JM: I ask you this because some of your films deal explicitly with anarchistic themes. On the other hand, I’ve heard you express totalitarian sentiments. So you see yourself as flexible?
CA: It just depends on who’s in charge. I mean if I’m in charge, then a totalitarian regime would be appropriate! If I’m not, then I would want to work against the system through some process. It could be a democratic process if everyone who voted was educated and intelligent.
JM: What sorts of aesthetic influences feed into your filmmaking?
CA: George Kuchar was a huge influence on me. He was a personal friend and I studied with him at the San Francisco Art Institute. I’m also influenced by Italian neorealist filmmakers like Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica, Pier Paolo Passolini; they were all very important to me. Also early German Expressionism, going back to films like Nosferatu and that sort of thing, and then moving on to filmmakers like Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Documentary film has also been a big influence on me; any type of what we call “vérité” or “realism,” insofar as what I am always primarily interested in is conveying what appears to be an authentic experience. I like films that reveal some of the workings of the filmic process itself, and that is something I try to incorporate into my own work.
For example, in the late 1990’s one of my art pieces was part of a show curated by Tony Labat called America’s Not Funny Videos. I took thirty minutes of footage extracted from a shootout film we had been filming. I just had fun with it and edited it together into an orgy of actors being shot in combination with my tyrannical direction. It was like my direction was even more of an attack than the fake blood and bullets. The two things combined became this tapestry that said something about film culture and American culture. The whole thing took place in front of an American flag. You know how you get these artists that do their American flag pieces? Well that was my American flag piece.
So that was part of the America’s Not Funny Videos show and then it got picked up as part of some Canadian broadcast. And then we did a live installation of the piece that included a live performance. Nobody knew what we were doing as the video was playing. We were tinkering around in this gallery trying to set off an explosive in front of the screen. Of course it didn’t work properly and we got hurt. There was a big, loud bang and a little bit of flame when there was supposed to be a little bang and a lot of flame because we actually didn’t want to hurt anybody! But we messed it up.
JM: Anything for art.
CA: Yes. Exactly!
JM: So when was your first serious involvement with making films?
CA: When I was a student in the 1980’s, and I was acting in Kuchar’s films, I took that very seriously. That was one of George’s strengths. He was able to transform this little class into a huge production. In his mind there was no difference. What I learned from him was to erase that difference where, you know, Hollywood is on a pedestal, or even art films are on a pedestal and you are something else, like an aspiring amateur. He sort of dissolved all of those boundaries and made the whole thing this sacred, trashy, low budget process to which anyone had access. He would draft these insane people off the street to be in his films. At first I thought, “Who are all these crazy losers?” But then I came to see the egalitarian beauty of it all. So I came around and started to see it all as something like a political or a religious act.
JM: So you are both an actor and a director.
CA: Yes. I was acting since I was a kid. I did a lot of theater. It was something I did for fun, but I never took it too seriously. I even went to Hollywood at one point, but I quickly saw that it was going to entail a lot of whoring around. I mean, I wanted people to whore themselves to me, I didn’t want to whore myself to them! And on top of that, the day I arrived in Hollywood, the Rodney King riots broke out and it became a big inferno of insanity, so I soon left.
JM: Did you leave because of the riots?
CA: The riots were just the icing on the cake. I was just disgusted with the whole process of whoring myself out in order to get into the film industry. I just knew that wasn’t me. I mean, I was just going to make films no matter what and as far as I was concerned they could come to me. I thought they could either give me the money or not. And I learned that from George. You don’t need anybody in order to make a film. I didn’t need them.
So I came back to San Francisco. The interesting thing is that I made a pilot film. Just out of film school I wrote this script. It was Rocket Baby Dolls 1 (the first version of many). I was showing the pilot around; it was like a twenty minute film. And everyone – even producers from LA – were saying, “Wow! This is pretty cool looking, but we’re never going to produce it because it’s way too aggro.” Finally someone said, “Y’know, the Germans are into this kind of thing.” And I thought, “Well OK. I’ve got friends in Germany. So I hopped on a plane and went over to Germany and started shopping it around there. In two months I generated interest from three different production studios and the first one that threw down the money I went with. I made the pilot in 1991, the first funding came through to develop the script in 1992, and the actual production budget came through in 1993 and the film was done in 1994.
JM: How would you characterize Rocket Baby Dolls? When I saw it I thought it was a very weird film.
CA: It was my vision of the future if the future was dreamt up by some very impoverished people in the early 1970’s who had no money to make a sci-fi film. At the same time it was going to be about all of these life experiences that I had lived through and some of my other interests. This brings us into this whole thing of performance art. Rather than just acting, I thought of this as a performance piece, which means it’s going to be a documentation of something that is really happening; y’know blurring the lines between so-called performance art and acting, which is a bunch of bullshit anyway because it’s all acting. I mean, even sitting here and talking, or watching those people over there walking down the street; we’re all acting.
JM: What would you say is the plot of Rocket Baby Dolls?
CA: Well the plot was real loose, if there was one. It was more like, OK, the basic gist was let’s do a take off on God and Adam and Eve – this will be the loose structure. Let’s make God a pimp/performance artist, but a loser performance artist that nobody likes (a painter as well; let’s throw that in there). Then Eve will be an underage schoolgirl/prostitute, and Adam will be a kick boxer. They will all be cheesy-looking Warholian characters who just got let out of art school, which was easy because that was the truth of the matter! We didn’t have to stretch that! The idea was Warhol with a bit of a plot and some action instead of a long, boring Warhol film. I was, of course, heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Goddard and films like Alphaville, The Battle of Algiers and the whole docudrama kind of thing.
On the one hand it is a document of us making this theatrical or performance feature, and on the other it is an actual documentary of stuff that was happening.
So we churned this thing out. It roughly follows the idea that God is unhappy with his creations, the creations rebel, they get cast out of this never-ending city where it is always night and everything is out of control.
JM: It was filmed in San Francisco?
CA: Yes. It was filmed in San Francisco, Bangkok, Tokyo and Los Angeles. So we mixed it all together in order to create this weird sci-fi city. When we filmed in San Francisco, there were still a lot of ruins from the earthquake of 1989. So we incorporated the abandoned highways into the film, which was kind of fun.
JM: You played the lead in this film, right?
CA: Yeah, I figured it was the only chance that I was going to get to star in a film that was actually going to be on celluloid. In retrospect it was a good move, because that really was the case! But it almost drove me insane. When you’re twenty four and you have all this money and power and you only have a vague notion of what you’re doing, things get out of control pretty quick.
JM: How did it get out of control?
CA: Too much party, too much power. Y’know it’s like Caligula! It got pretty ugly. But then having the experience of falling flat on your face helps to reel you back in. I definitely had a series of those sorts of knocks, but I’m still here today.
JM: I remember reading something somewhere that characterized Rocket Baby Dolls as “pornographic.”
CA: At the time it came out it got mixed reviews. Half of the reviews were excited about it because they wondered how I was able to slip this thing into the system. The other half of the reviews were very much against it. They thought it was an offence against everything; God knows it really was an offence against everything that I could manage to offend. In retrospect I didn’t do enough.
JM: The only that I recall as being pornographic were images on a TV screen.
CA: No, there was some fairly pornographic stuff that would probably be borderline between “X” and “NC-17.” But it’s the context that we spun it in that I think added to it and the fact that it seemed real. That’s what really bothered people. I mean you can go murder people all day long, as long as it seems staged. But the minute that it starts to look like a snuff film, then people become nervous. So there was something about our film that made people wonder, “Wait. Are they really doing this?”
JM: In the ratings code they talk about “pervasive themes” as being key in how they rate movies and whether they are thought of as “mature” or not. So I guess you could say that Rocket Baby Dolls has “pervasive disturbing themes.”
CA: Yeah, it even disturbs me! At the time I wasn’t disturbed at all. It was just like, “This is real; I’ve seen this; I’ve experienced this.” But in retrospect I look at it and it will probably be a springboard for extensive psychotherapy or something.
JM: Who is the bald guy in the film (Ramon Quanta La Gusta)?
CA: He’s from Spain. He’s terminally insane! We were in school together, so our partnership was a natural. You make a film and you call together everyone you know. He’s a real character. He probably should have been on medication (or maybe he was). I looked past his flaws. You couldn’t understand a word he was saying. So we put him up there because he’s interesting to look at. He added a certain element to the production.
JM: Didn’t you say that he lit himself on fire?
CA: Yeah. He sat down in a fire one time as an art piece, and then he was upset because no one picked him out of the fire. So somehow that became part of the art piece or whatever! He had a thing with fire. I took some pictures of him when we were working on one of his films many years later. I superimposed pictures of his family over this bonfire and to this day he accuses me, “Why did you burn my family up!”
JM: There are a lot of pyrotechnics in Rocket Baby Dolls.
CA: Yeah. At one point I decided to call up the guy from Survival Research Labs, Mark Pauline. I called him saying, “I’m making this movie. Can you loan me some of your robots? I’ll put them in my movie.” He, of course, was turned off by all this, probably thinking, “Who is this young upstart! How dare you! What makes you think you can rent one of my creations for your piddling movie!?” I could tell he was annoyed. So I said, “Never mind. I can make my own flamethrowers. But I need a place where I can actually shoot them off. Can I rent your studio?” He says, “No. But let me recommend a place where you can do that. It is in this abandoned train tunnel right next door to me.” So he tells me where it is and we go in there and start shooting off flame throwers and filming away. Then suddenly we hear a train coming and before we know it – ZOOM! – there goes a commuter train! It nearly runs over the crew! Flamethrowers are shooting everywhere. And I thought, “Oh! Mark that fucker! He just set us up!” But no one came after us or arrested us.
JM: But you could have been creamed by the train!
CA: Yes. He definitely endangered our lives and probably was watching and snickering about it. So I always resented that. I thought it was too harsh of a revenge for just trying to rent his machines. But I learned my lesson. Y’know, I thought that we were all artists and could collaborate a bit, but no. It’s cut throat.
JM: It is ironic, because when I think of Survival Research Labs, I think of a group that has a similar philosophy to your own. Y’know, it’s kind of anti-hierarchical, back to the streets and all that.
CA: No. He’s looking for money and fame just like everyone else. The bottom line is that our flamethrowers kicked ass on his! If we went head-to-head we would have wasted him.
JM: What kind of distribution did Rocket Baby Dolls get?
CA: It was owned by German television, so it was shown all over Europe. But I couldn’t get it shown at any festivals here. People were like, “No. There’s no way that we are showing that.” It was shown on TV in Europe. Basically after 11pm you can show that type of stuff. It was also shown in kunst halls and film schools and stuff. I was so wiped out after two years of making the film that afterwards I just had to put it away; so it’s not like I could go push it. Later on we got a limited distribution deal here with some whacked out art company; I can’t remember their name. Apparently you can get it on video with them.
JM: After Rocket Baby Dolls what was the next film you made?
CA: Right after Rocket Baby Dolls I was broke and on the verge of insanity, so I actually had to go and work. It just happened that a friend of mine came in who was going to Alaska to fish for salmon, so I went along for that. And that was more insane than making the film. I barely survived that. I was out there on a boat, in the middle of the ocean with these crazy people and I’m saying, “I’m a film director goddamnit!” Of course nobody believed me.
After I got back from that I got another job in a juvenile prison in Arizona. I was a counselor, but it was really just a job for anyone who had a college degree and who could survive for more than one day without quitting. The kids would always get out of hand. I mean they were rapists and murderers and this and that, and they’re in the middle of the desert in this boot camp kind of thing. It was fascinating. I started to write a script while I was there and that was going to be my next thing.
It took me about a year of doing these weird jobs to sort of pay my dues, suffer and that kind of thing. So eventually I started writing another script that was about lesbian anarchists. Something pissed me off and I thought, “Why isn’t anyone making homemade rockets? I mean, the technology is readily available. I used to play with Estes rockets as a kid. Why couldn’t you make one that was seven feet tall modeled after a SCUD missile? Why isn’t that happening?!” And then the Oklahoma City bombing happened and I thought, “Well it is happening here in America, and this is worth talking about. Something is motivating these crazies to do this, and I wonder what might that be?” I didn’t want the terrorists in my film to be McVeigh; I thought my terrorists should be beautiful lesbians! That would make it worthwhile and marketable and then I could suffer through the process of making another feature. So I worked on that from 1995 until 1998 and called it (An Act of…) Sabotage.
JM: That is my favorite movie that you’ve made.
CA: Yeah, it doesn’t hurt that much to look at. But I needed way more money; let’s just put it that way. I would love to do a remake with a real budget.
JM: What I like about it is that it is very well structured.
CA: Yes. There is some structure in that one. I wasn’t so crazed at the time, so I actually tried to write some narrative into it. I realized that it would be to my advantage if we had a bit of a story. You’ve got an evil corporation and they’re messing everybody up with pollution, and so a group of young activists decide that they are going to do something about it. They were modeled after Critical Mass; y’know they are riding around on bicycles and block traffic and things. But a part of this group becomes dissatisfied and wants to take things to the next level; like Baader-Mienhof or something. But they don’t know what they are getting into. For them it is mostly about partying and sex, but in amongst them is someone who has more of a serious agenda. He’s actually a war veteran. He has some real experience, and he wants to take it to even a higher level. He wants to build this rocket and shoot it through the window of a high-rise building that is the corporate headquarters.
Right after we made it, the Seattle riots occurred, and the film started to get a lot of attention. It started playing a bunch in Europe. And then 9-11 happened and no one would talk to me! I mean, no one wanted anything to do with me! It was like, “Who is this guy? He’s getting funding from Germany to make films like that?! He must be one of THEM!” So nobody’s going to talk to me anymore, and my film career, just as it seemed to start rolling along, started to take a nose-dive. So I decided it was time to go into exile.
JM: Well, with that particular film, the special effects you used with the rocket being shot off; that looked like it probably cost a bit of money.
CA: That’s where a lot of the budget went, yes. The whole idea was to see if we could build it. So I had this friend who was into this stuff and somehow he got a permit to buy the fuel and the materials, and we used the designs from a German V-2. The drawings are available online. So we built this V-2 rocket that was seven feet tall instead of twenty feet tall, and we went down to the South of Market area in San Francisco. At that time there were a lot of big, empty parking lots where you could shoot stuff like this off. And then we had to bring in some special effects. There was a need for some digital animation, and that cost a bit of money.
Probably one of the more spectacular things gone wrong in that film was the rocket that we built. It was only supposed to shoot about fifty feet in the air and fall back down. The guy who built it had a twisted sense of humor, I think. The thing shot up quite far and headed for downtown San Francisco and we watched in horror as it headed toward the skyline. It landed in a very busy parking lot just shy of downtown. We saw someone running around like crazy over there, so we drove over to try and retrieve the thing. This guy was screaming, like he was having some sort of war flashback, and he was pulling fire alarms and screaming about a missile invasion. Then he saw us picking the rocket up and loading it into our truck. He was chasing us and very upset. I don’t blame him honestly. It was a miracle that no one got hurt.
We had thrown a blanket over the rocket. If you can imagine what this looks like: it’s seven feet long, pointing up toward the sky, in the back of a pickup truck, and it has a blanket draped over it. It just looks like a rocket with a blanket over it! So we pulled into a parking lot and decided to get something to eat. We went to get these deli sandwiches, and one of the crew members had to take a leak. So he starts peeing behind a car and this guy runs out of the sandwich store and starts yelling, “How dare you urinate here while I’m eating my sandwich!” So I immediately launch into kickboxing mode and he whips out his undercover cop badge. He tells me, “One more move and you’re going downtown!” So I start saying, “Look, I thought you were some psychopath. I’ve got a right to defend myself!” Next thing I know three cop cars screech up out of the blue and I think, “Oh no! We’ve been followed! Now we’re done for!” So they start threatening to arrest my crew member for urinating in public and I intervene, saying, “C’mon. Can’t you just give him a ticket or something?” They get all pissed off and say, “What? Are you trying to obstruct us? Maybe we need to search your truck!” There are five cops there, inspecting this truck with a rocket and a blanket thrown over it and they say, “What do you have in the truck?” And I’m thinking, “Are you joking? What do you think this is? It’s a rocket with a blanket thrown over it!” But then they just gave my friend a ticket, threatened to arrest me one more time, and that was it. This was before 9-11 when no one could really conceive of such things. If it happened today, forget it! I’d be in Git-mo!
JM: The scene at the anti-nuke rally was real, wasn’t it?
CA: Yes. Whether it was a boxing scene or a riot, we would try to actually go and film what was happening when possible. So in (An Act of…) Sabotage, we used a Critical Mass Rally that got out of hand with the police and we also went out to the anti-nuke protests in Mercury, Nevada. There were a bunch of activists out there going head-to-head with Wackenhut Security at the dump site. A lot of activists were there doing direct actions like handcuffing themselves to old cars filled with cement that were blocking the highway. So we were out there filming. The protesters were kind of suspicious of us. They thought we were undercover FBI since we were out there with our cameras. It was a weird scene, but those are authentic images. What you see in the film really happened. We weren’t staging that.
CA: That came out of my twisted mind! It was like we were halfway through the film and I’m thinking, “Where’s my whole lesbian angle?” But really, it was about them bonding. When you study the psychology of groups, oftentimes it becomes the interaction between individuals that propels them forward. If it isn’t mixed with a sexual bond or a love bond or even competition amongst members, action doesn’t move forward. So it is not just politics that motivates actions; there is not enough glue there. Once you add love or competition into it, when people are trying to upstage each other and show that they are more authentic than others, then you get a situation that is much more conducive for things to move along.
JM: I think that’s true. Oftentimes the desire to look a certain way in the eyes of your peers, to appear tough or daring or bold, is really what motivates extreme actions rather than ideology.
CA: Absolutely. There’s got to be a narrative and an emotional element to the whole thing. It’s usually that kind of volatile combination. I also thought that having these two beautiful women making out, that’s attractive – to me anyway – and it might help sell the film. And then we played with it and wrote that into the script. We tried to seduce the audience so that we could sell them the politics. So we used that as a way into people’s hearts, or as a way into securing funding. And it definitely did open some doors to gay film festivals or to people who saw these as marginalized characters who needed to be given a voice. When it premiered here as part of the Film Arts Foundation Festival in San Francisco a lot of lesbians came up and said to me, “Wow! That was great. We love the characters. It was very authentic.” I was kind of surprised, because to me the characters in the film were just lipstick lesbians. I mean, we didn’t have a real hairy dyke. But, hey, they loved it.
JM: Were the actresses lesbians?
CA: They were bisexual or some kind of thing. Who knows?! As far as I know, 99% of the time they have always had boyfriends.
JM: Comparing (An Act of…) Sabotage with Rocket Baby Dolls is interesting, because the two films seem almost antagonistic in tone to me. Whereas Rocket Baby Dolls seems incredibly nihilistic in tone, (An Act of…) Sabotage – as you were just suggesting – seems to be selling a political ideology. Could you say something about that? Is that true?
CA: There could be some truth in that. I suppose we could construct a regression chart of my outlook as I aged. At age twenty two or twenty three I was more nihilistic. As a result of that nihilism, I looked for meaning, and so part of creating that meaning was to develop a political agenda, or something like that. So if we look at the whole arc of creative progress, perhaps that was what was going on. At the same time, I wouldn’t want to separate the two stages.
The first film may seem like a hopeless, nihilistic tale suggesting that the world has no meaning, and that the world can’t even be seen in a positive light. The ending is not very hopeful. The characters find themselves in a dead-end, and they are like, “Oh shit!” They are in a never-ending tunnel, coming down off of their coke high, and they look around and think, “Oh fuck! This is no glamorous escape.”
But for me that was the hopeful part. As the filmmaker, that was the anti-nihilistic moment. What to me would have been nihilistic would have been if there had been a clichéd ending, which is a total lie, where they all feel happy as if everything is resolved when nothing is really resolved. The ending, because it was so hopeless, made me feel satisfied. Now we’re getting someplace, because true hopelessness is continuing to have false hopes. It fits into the idea of nihilism as this positive, creative step.
JM: That is very interesting, because your third film is Temple. Now you just confessed this psychological arc in your work, and I can see how Temple completes that arc. It is a very contemplative, meditative piece of work. It’s very quiet. It feels like a meditation, whereas the first film feels like an explosion of nihilistic chaos and emotion and the second film feels like a political statement. The third film feels more relaxed.
CA: Well, I was more relaxed when I made it. I had taken more knocks and had to reevaluate my philosophy of life and my mode of moving through it. Undoubtedly that affected the creative process and how I went about it. So I would agree with you. I think you can see that kind of progression from the first to the third film.
JM: Whereas (An Act of…) Sabotage was my favorite one to watch, I found that Temple was the one that I thought about the most.
CA: Interesting. I can see that. I did put more time into dealing with ideas and concepts and investigating philosophical ways of thought in order to convey where I had come to through this filmic process. It was a much more self-reflective film.
JM: So how would you characterize Temple? What would you say is the plot?
CA: To me it is more like an anthropological or psychological study. I was constantly trying to peels back more and more layers. If the plot develops for a minute or two, I would hope that by minute three I had sabotaged it! Then another might start up. It is made of all this footage that we shot when we were in Thailand filming another film. I was also going through this whole kickboxing thing; not to mention existential angst par excellence. I took that footage and edited it about seven years later and used it as a way to talk about life and creativity. Each time that it got to the point where the narrative started to overtake that idea, I would want to make it transparent and stop and start to peel that back or break it down. I don’t want to say that it is a film within a film within a film sort of thing, because that’s kind of cliché. I would say that it is the film in which I tried to impose myself the least. I assembled all of this footage – ten hours of footage – and I just kept subtracting stuff that wasn’t interesting to me and then loosely arranging it in some sort of chronology that conveyed the different arcs of experience that the characters were going through, whether that was the actress being filmed, or whether it was myself trying to train and fight and get the scene, or whether it was the filmmakers talking about the shots, and so on and so forth. I would say that it is the film that I imposed my “grand vision” on the least.
JM: Was the female lead a prostitute?
CA: No! She was actually an American supermodel. She was very glamorous and photogenic. What was interesting to me was that in Thailand, she didn’t look like any of the Thai girls. What she did look like was a transvestite. Because all of the Thai transsexuals were that tall; she has big features, like big hands and a big head. I mean, she was very attractive, but when we were there filming they all thought she was a transsexual for sure. And that added to the whole experience. Everyone thought we were making some kind of transsexual psycho-porn, which was good because we got carte blanche in the nightlife scene.
JM: So this was filmed in the context of making another movie.
CA: Yeah. We were there filming Rocket Baby Dolls 3 (the final version). As a part of that we had to shoot all of this video. I wanted to make a documentary about making Rocket Baby Dolls, which was going to be my second feature. So I had this plan; there were two scripts. One was the film and the other was the “making of” sort of thing. But it wasn’t really the “making of,” it was just another film about this process. So I finished the feature, fulfilled my obligations, and then I put together this rough assemblage (Temple) thinking that I would get funding for that in no time because it was by far the best idea. And I tried for years and years to get funding for it, because I wanted to reshoot it in 35mm. I never could convince anyone to fund it. What happened was that they funded Sabotage, which I thought was un-produceable. When I realized that no one was going to fund me to reshoot it, I just reused the video we shot and made it out of that.
JM: That’s funny, because to me Temple looks like something that is so out of the mainstream that no one would think they could make money from it, whereas (An Act of…) Sabotage would be marketable because of its clear message and its clear structure. Temple, on the other hand, is slow and meditative and not at all what I would think of as a marketable feature.
CA: Sure. But I’m speaking subjectively. I thought that this would be a much more sane and philosophical piece. But the people who are handing out the money are totally insane! They are judging by profits. They are fame whores like anyone else. So they went for the one that was probably the most commercial.
JM: What was it that inspired the name Temple?
CA: I was thinking of William Burroughs, y’know, “in the temple.” I was also thinking of the Biblical story when Jesus goes into the Temple and he turns over the tables of the money changers. So I was trying to look not only at the architecture, but the psycho-social geography of Bangkok where the film unfolds. But it’s not so much about Bangkok as it is about this media saturated environment where there’s a video screen nearly everywhere that you look, and where there are references to Hollywood characters everywhere. To me its not even Bangkok; it’s just a futuristic world that is all spectacle. It’s all condensed into an extreme version of spectacle and everyone is worshipping it. And so that’s what I thought. OK, they’re all in the temple. It’s a temple of film, and film worship, and worshipping film stars, and worshipping the idea of making a film, and worshipping glam and glitz and bright lights and the architectural structure. So: Temple.
JM: The parts of the film that are the most memorable to me are the scenes of people walking through the streets, socializing with one another (like they are at Church), and the scenes of your kickboxing fight. Was all of that real?
CA: Yes, the fights were all real. I was fighting an Israeli Captain, who was a pretty brutal and aggressive guy. But he also had a nice side as it turns out. That was all real, and that was also part of the process of worship and partaking of the sacrament of this experience. So instead of kneeling down and praying, there was that. Filming was the meditation. It was what allowed me to have total consciousness of the experience. It’s like remembering to breath as a Buddhist. Remember to film yourself! Maybe on one level it could be just pure ego or mental masturbation, but maybe on a higher level it is more along the lines of mental meditation.
Trying to direct a scene while you are having a real fight in a ring is a real trip. You’re trying to make sure that the cinematographers are getting the shots; so on the one hand you are getting the shit kicked out of you, on the other you are leaning up from the mat yelling at these guys, “Did you get that shot?” And they’re saying, “No I didn’t get it!” I’m screaming, “Fuck you! You fucking idiots! I have to stand back up now and take another knee to the head!” That will really mess with your mind. I don’t recommend doing that.
JM: When I think of Bangkok, the first things that pop into my head are things like sex trafficking and muay thai kickboxing. But there is a connection between these things, isn’t there? I mean, a temple is a place where people go in order to commune with one another and with the holy. And there is something erotic about all of this in the sense of engaging with the body.
CA: Absolutely. Don’t forget about Mary Magdalene. I mean, Jesus is there in the whorehouse. If you go to the temples in India, they are covered in all of this pornographic imagery. So, you have all sorts of things connected in the temple. There is sex, there’s commerce, everyone is buying things. In the modern day temple, people are buying brand names. You can buy things cheap or have them made. It’s more than just the capitalist system; it is a system of human interaction where people prostitute themselves in one way or another. It is all exaggerated, accelerated, with all pretense stripped away. In the Catholic Church, they pretend that there is nothing nasty going on behind the scenes, but here in Bangkok, no one is pretending that!
JM: In the Catholic Church you have the crucifix with this tortured, bloody man on it while in your film you have two people in a ring that are beating on one another. It seems to me that both images are playing a similar sort of role.
CA: Religious themes are so pervasive in our culture that I’m sure they are running throughout the film; both consciously and unconsciously. You could look at the crucifixion of Christ as a pretty amazing performance piece! The fight in Temple could be looked at the same way and on various levels. Initially I’m doing the fight as a way to stimulate my senses and to feel alive. Then the filming and documentation of the fight becomes a way for other people to participate in the action vicariously. And then on another level we start talking about and interpreting the scenes; philosophizing about them and gaining a more abstract appreciation of their potential meaning. Maybe that’s how religious myths and narratives develop.
JM: Did you study kickboxing just for this purpose, or was it something that you were already involved in?
CA: Right after film school I was tired of just living in my head and I figured that I had to do something in order to get back in touch with physical reality. I had already been involved with martial arts like karate, so I thought I would go back and do it more intensively. I took some classes here in the US, but it just wasn’t enough. I wanted full contact and the whole nine yards.
Then I met this guy from Thailand who told me that if I really wanted to get into this, then Thailand was the place to be. He said that there were these schools where you could go live for free. They would feed you and train you non-stop. So when I was about twenty one years old, I got the name of this place and me and another guy hired a scooter taxi to take us out into the middle of the boonies. When we finally got there, there was this place with about one hundred teenagers and some older Thai males who were living in this camp and training non-stop everyday. There were two foreigners; one from Finland and another guy from Germany. And that was it. They let me in the gate and I stayed there for about six months the first time, just fighting and training. And then I went back and did it again for another three month stint. I kept doing it here; but at that time there wasn’t much muay thai here, so I just did boxing. Then there was a place in the Mission that started to do muay thai, so I studied there. Eventually, I went back to Thailand about four times to study. In total, I probably spent about a year overseas.
JM: So you were fairly serious about it.
CA: Yeah, it was my medicine. It was what counterbalanced my life as a struggling artist and trying to sort through all of these ideas. Sometimes you just want to go and punch something.
JM: It’s funny; I had a similar response to graduate school when I joined the Army. I also have a friend who is a Ph.D. in philosophy as well as a black belt in karate. He used to be a bouncer at a club back east, but he had to stop working at the club because he said that the incongruity between being a philosopher and being a bouncer was just too much for him to deal with!
CA: Interesting! It was the incongruity that, for me, made both of them tolerable. I mean, eventually I did give up boxing because I realized that after a while getting hit in the head so many times will impair your ability to think. But I guess different personality types would react to it differently.
JM: But in your own case, that is what is fascinating. There is an incongruity between your creative and your destructive sides, and all of this is folded into your films. Your films are certainly creative ventures, but they are also about destruction.
CA: I don’t see how you could have one without the other. I mean, there’s just not enough room left in world to make new things unless you destroy other things first! Even if you look at evolution as a creative process, it’s a very destructive process as well. You have all of these beings struggling for dominance and destroying one another; or sometimes helping one another. But either way it gets pretty brutal sometimes. The art world is extremely brutal! So is academia with all of its backstabbing and politics.
JM: So what’s next? Where are you now in your career?
CA: That’s a good question. On the one hand it seems like it has become easier to make moving pictures, what with all of the new and affordable technology. But I miss making films, which on the other hand seems to be more difficult. I’ve been formulating my next project for many years now. The next step is to come up with a strategy to carry it through on my own terms.
JM: What is your idea for the next project? Is it something that completes the psychological arc that was started with your other films?
CA: Hopefully not. Hopefully I can break out of that pattern. No doubt it will look similar in some ways. I’m hoping that it will be more refined and more accessible so that it appeals to a larger number of people (or at least people who’s opinions I care about). It would be good to have a larger audience.
As far as what it’s about; I couldn’t tell you. I know how I want to film it. It will certainly engage with the quest for meaning, or the struggle to create meaning. So, we’ll have to wait to see what it looks like.
JM: Is there a Christopher Anderson philosophy of life?
CA: It’s a work in progress. Being is a creative process, and the more conscious that you are of the various factors and elements that go into it, then the more effective and enjoyable it becomes. I don’t know if there is any “-ism” that I can attach to my philosophy of life, however.
JM: Do you see your films as possibly changing the world?
CA: No. They’re changing me more than anything else. They are meditations and attempts to use language and imagery to think about the world and about Being itself. They are part of reality; they are ripples in Being. If I can be part of one of the minor deviations in reality, then my life is a success.
JM: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
CA: It was a lot of fun!
Christopher Anderson can be contacted at: email@example.com
His website can be found at: christopheraanderson.com
Harvey, Dennis. “(An Act of…) Sabotage.” Variety, Dec. 1999: p. 60.