Matt Wolf Talks “Wild Combinations”

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Matt Wolf grew up in San Jose and went to film school at NYU. While attending Tisch in New York City, Mr. Wolf admits to having felt “very anti-film school.” Wolf decided to get involved in experimental non-fiction film. He saw a film called “Old Joy” by filmmaker Kelly Reichert which “really re-integrated my interests,” said Wolf.  Towards the end of the film school program he was inspired by experimental form and how others before him used it for powerful storytelling. Matt Wolf now lives in Brooklyn and has just completed his first feature film about avant-garde composer Arthur Russell.

SFF: What contributed to this initial feeling of dispassion towards film academia?
MW: At the time I was feeling it was too formulaic and it was too focused on story telling and any kind of visual language being for the purpose of storytelling. I think my interest in filmmaking from the beginning was about unique visual form. Rather than approaching that from the narrative form, I wanted to stay true to visuals and incorporating content and subject matter material through that lens. In school the process began with a subject matter and then creative visual material that was responsive to the demands of storytelling. In this way I came to storytelling in reverse. I went through a mainstream film program and rejected a lot of the ideas.

SFF: What are some documentaries and documentary filmmakers that have inspired you?
MW: I got into film because I was interested in the filmmaking from the 1990s. It includes work from Todd Haynes and Isaac Julien. Julien’s film, “Looking For Langston,” inspired me early on. In high school I discovered Thom Kalinand and Eric Jarrman. I was also inspired by experimental work of Katy Denning, Kenneth Anger. My interest in documentary sparked in college. There are certain films that really stuck out to me, particularly, the “Lost Children of Rockdale County” and “American Dream Nights.” Those two films as a pair I was obsessed with. I was really into Chantal Ackerman’s kind of filmmaking which is a kind of mode of documentary that makes use of static shots of New York where there is also a fictionalized component applied. I also have found the importance of Errol Morris.
SFF: How did you first hear about Arthur Russell?
MW: I heard about Arthur through a friend in San Francisco who heard about his music when it was re-released. His initial description of the music when he recommended it was what enticed me. He described Arthur as this gay disco auteur who would wear a farmer’s plaid shirt and ride the Staten Island Ferry back and forth listening to mixes of his own cassettes. That image really intrigued me and when I heard the music I got really obsessed.

SFF: How did you arrive at calling the film “Wild Combination?”
MW: It’s one of his songs that later  would be called “That’s Us/Wild Combination.”  It’s the song I think that Arthur thought would be his biggest hit. In a lot of ways he’s right, it really is his strongest and most poppy, accessible yet complex song. Also, obviously the metaphor of a ‘wild combination’ is appropriate because he was bringing together so many disparate kinds of ideas and elements of music.

SFF: I want to talk about Arthur Russell as a character but also as a human, and I want to know how you see Arthur. What do you see?
MW: I see someone who was extremely driven and profoundly creative. He was of a strange perseverance and had unique ideas. But he was also a perfectionist to a fault and at times his worst enemy. On a personal level, I see him as very romantic and very childlike in the way that he related to the world and in the way that he idealized creativity and life experience.

SFF: Within “Wild Combination” there is an amalgamation of footage, of media. There’s video, digital and film. How did you go about obtaining it and what was the editing process like?
MW: A lot of the footage of Arthur you could call “fake archival.” We shot with an outmoded VHS camera and on Super 8, so there’s no distinction between the fake, staged recreations and the actual performance footage that we found. This footage became a necessity because of the limited amount of film that featured Arthur. We had to shoot stuff on our own to fill in the blanks. There is a great deal of contextual archival material that brings to life the periods and context that Arthur was a part of such as Haight- Ashbury in San Francisco. The disco material was key. I really had to be able to help people understand what the underground disco period felt like and looked like. It was important to convey the energy of the underground to avoid the cliché ideas about disco a la Studio 54.

SFF: By just watching the first 15 minutes of the film, one gets a sense, a strong sense, of Arthur’s internal conflict.
MW: On one level there was this obsession with fame and crossing over into popular success. But Arthur was someone who was clearly uncomfortable with his own physical presence, he shied away from attention and he made a lot of self-defeating choices that created obstacles or situations that sabotaged his own potential success. There was conflict in his relationship between having necessary love and an idealized romantic relationship. There was a conflict with going home and being with family and starting over—running away and creating his own identity. I think this conflict with his roots in Iowa and how he would cling to this farm boy persona and knowing he didn’t belong in that world, but rather on the streets of downtown New York and that world, though I don’t feel that these dichotomies were black and white.

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