Lots of Questions for Greg Whiteley

“Probably the only people who are more lonely in an LDS ward than musicians who used to be almost-famous are filmmakers who never were”–Greg Whiteley, director of New York Doll.

One of the most appealing aspects of this film is the intertwining of Mormon themes with the New York Doll’s story. Because it is done in an unobtrusive way, it makes the film still very palatable to a non-Mormon audience. How did you come to find the balance between those two worlds? Was there a conscious effort to make non-Mormons aware of Mormonism through NYD or did you weaken the Mormon aspect to satisfy a non-Mormon audience?

I worked with two people who were not Mormon: Ed Cunningham and Seth Gordon. They were a goodbaramoeter. “Weaken” is not the right word, but they did help me to choose avernacular that non-Mormon audiences would understand. When you are discussing “work for the dead” and other such LDS topics there is some potential for miscommunication. Their input was invaluable in keeping the film accessible for non-Mormon audiences.

When and how did you get David Johansen to render “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief� at the end of the film? And was it recorded at Arthur’s funeral? If not, how did he (or you, or whoever) persuade him to do it? On your appearance on KCRW’s Morning Becomes Eclectic, you played a portion of David Johansen’s rendering of “Come Come Ye Saints.� Can I download the whole recording anywhere, or will it be on the DVD release?

I asked David at a concert in L.A. if he would like to record a Mormon hymn for the DVD and he said he would. I gave him 5 to choose from and he ended up choosing “the one about the guy in prison…” There are no plans for a soundtrack currently–the music we selected became too expensive for a soundtrack–but if you buy a T-shirt (I have like 70 of them) I’ll burn you a copy and slip it in with the T-shirt.

Many people are not going to have an opportunity to see it in the theater. What are the plans for an appearance on cable or for selling a DVD version?

Showtime and the Sundance Channel bought it so it will be there within the year. It is out on DVD now.

I read about some woman claiming that she was Arthur’s wife, and complaining bitterly about the way “the Mormons� handled Arthur’s funeral. What happened there? Was it that she really was his wife, but it took time to verify her claims and that she wasn’t just a crazy fan?

That was in fact Arthur’s real wife (although until his death they both thought they were divorced. Turns out the final papers were never signed). I asked her about those allegations you mentioned and she denied ever making them.

Do you feel that your project–in terms of both the Mormon subject matter of the movie and the attention it has brought to your own Mormonism–contributes to or is symptomatic of a larger “normalization� of Mormonism in American culture? Mormons are commonplace in business and politics by now, but until recently were still seen as curiosities in the arts. (The phrase “perversely exotic� appeared in a review of a Mormon visual artist’s gallery show not too long ago.) Certainly the seeming incongruity in Kane’s story has its own initial appeal, but do you feel that that perception of incongruity extended to you as a filmmaker as well — or are there enough Mormons in “the business� that your own religious affiliation is no longer a novelty?

I pray I am always seen as perversely exotic. Several of my gentile artist friends here in L.A. would pay real money to have such lavish praise attributed to their work. Probably a good rule of thumb for any person involved in the visual arts is to recklessly embrace and express your own culture–as confusing or enigmatic as that sometimes may be.

How did you view The Village Voice review? They critiqued you for not knowing enough about the punk movement. It seemed pretty elitist – as if one could only write about things vaguely related to the movement if one was an expert in the movement. It reminded me of some of the more distasteful tendencies among Jazz snobs. You mentioned in one interview that many punks were asking questions in some of your Q&A sessions. I’m wondering if they expressed that kind of elitist music snobbery or if they were more supportive.

I actually know a fair bit about the music from which the Doll’s hail. There is an early cut of our film that we called “the NY Doll Rockumentary” version, which we screened for friends and family, and it was just pretty boring to everyone but me. My wife kept suggesting we put the focus on Arthur, so that’s what we did. The writer for the Village Voice is a significant music critic whom I actually respect. I suppose he was hoping the film would have focused more on the evocative story that is the New York Dolls, but that’s another movie. This film is about Arthur, which is why it’s called New York Doll, not Dolls.

In your post-screening Q and A sessions, what kinds of questions do the punk fans typically ask and what kinds of questions does the Mormon crowd typically ask?

Punks asked if I found it surprising that Arthur’s dream to reunite with his band was embraced so enthusiastically by his friends at church. Mormons typically ask if I was surprised by the warm reception Arthur received as a Mormon by his old “Punk” friends.

You’ve mentioned that your next film is centered on the world of high school debate. Could you say more about this project? Is it a documentary or a narrative film? Has the huge success opened up new job opportunities? How has it changed your life career wise?

The debate film is a documentary that I hope to finish by the end of the year. New York Doll has given me some great opportunities. I tend to like small films about obscure things, which is not usually a recipe for blockbuster success, but then how many of those blockbuster directors have Sylvain Sylvain on speed dial?

How difficult was it to both be a personal friend of Kane and simultaneously be crafting an engaging story about him? I would think that the events chronicled at the end of the movie, particularly, would create an enormous tension between the roles of friend and documentarian.

I think I was only pretending to be a documentarian in order to be a good friend. I think there is a line you can crcoss where you are not acting in the best interests of the film and you lose your objectivity. However, I find “objectivity” to be philosophically impossible. Fortunately, my favorite films do not seem to care very much for being seen as “objective.” I think what people are really hoping for when they see a film or read a book –fiction or not–is that the maker is honest and that she or he does not bore you.

Although there is much discussion in the film about Kane’s estrangement from David Johansen, there is precious little information about the cause of the estrangement, aside from vague notions of jealousy, rumors, and a cryptic reference to an argument in a Florida trailer park. Could you give us more details on what exactly triggered the longlasting enmity between the bandmates?

No. I really don’t know any more specifics than what I gave in the film.

I was surprised (and thrilled!) that you were able to get access to people like Chrissie Hynde, Mick Jones, and Iggy Pop for comment on Kane and the Dolls. I’m curious who else you approached, and what kind of responses you got. In particular, did you approach Malcolm McLaren, Todd Rundgren, or Richard Hell, or others who were connected with the band at one point? Any rock critics? On a Coolness Scale of 1 to 10 where 1 equals Really Cool and 10 Equals The Coolest Ever, how cool was it to interview Stephen Patrick Morrissey? Have you had any feedback on the finished product from Morrissey and David Johansen, specifically, but also from the other NYD, stars, and icons?

Wow. Lots of Q’s slammed into that one. We did approach those individuals. Todd and Richard did not have much to add to Arthur’s story that was not already covered by people in the film. Malcolm McLaren (who was the first person to check Arthur into rehab) would not agree to an interview because I think he has done 14 other documentaries on Punk Rock within the last year alone. Everyone else was pretty eager. One person demanded to be paid before he appear on camera. Since no one had received a dime for their interview time in the film we turned him down.

Nearly everyone who agreed to be in the film did it because they loved Atrhur, they loved the Dolls, and many of them now have a fair bit of time on their hands. Finally, they appear to be pretty pleased with the outcome. Sylvain Sylvain called me after he saw it in New York and was fairly emotional (in a good way) about how he felt about the film. I spoke with David Johansen after he saw it and he seemed very pleased as well. I actually sat with Morrissey in an LA screening and other than the awkward moment where my wife attempted to embrace him–he seemed to enjoy it quite a bit.

I think I remember you saying that loneliness was one of the themes of the movie and that Kane helped you realize how easy it is to overlook people. Why didn’t you overlook him when so many others did?

I did overlook him to a degree. However, probably the only people who are more lonely in an LDS ward than musicians who used to be almost-famous are filmmakers who never were. That gave us plenty of
time and opportunity to know and appreciate each other.

One thing I loved about this film was Kane’s honesty. The opening line says so much about who he is. How did that scene play with Mormons vs. non-Mormons? It is uncommon for active Mormons to describe past transgressions as fond memories. Do you think that irony was lost on the non-Mormon audience?

To a degree I believe that irony was lost. However, Mormon or not, how many cranky old men do you see walking to the bus complaining about their sex life? Well okay, how many today? That being said, there is an enigmatic quality to Arthur that I believe audiences are interested in. He also has an innocence and a transparency while on camera that people root for.

Did Arthur have any concerns about facing old temptations at the reunion? At one point, he is describing the crowds of people who used to sleep outside of the hotel room and you ask him something like, “Do you think it will be like that again?�And his response is something to the effect of “It should be.� Did he see a relationship between the groupies and illicit sex, alcohol and drugs?

I think Arthur felt like he could go back and do it right this time. In his mind, the thing that kept the Dolls from being the superstars they were meant to be was the drug addiction. There is a celebratory element to the whole backstage scene that I think he found to be positive and worth celebrating. I think he was anxious to go back and see if it could be done clean–Mormon style.

Now that you’ve been recently called as a bishop how will you balance your filmmaking career with your new church responsibilities? And how will the examples of the bishops in the film and the experience you had making it influence your approach to your new calling?

When I go to church I still feel like I am a little kid who has sneaked into his Dad’s closet and put on one of his suits. The whole thing is very awkward and I am not sure anything related to the film or professional life has surfaced to rescue me or the ward.

There’s an old question regarding working as an artist, approximately summarized by whether it’s best to wait to work until one is inspired by a good idea, or work until one is inspired. How did New York Doll fall out along a continuum between these two? Did the narrative unfold in front of you as naturally as it seemed to on the screen, or did it require some teasing out?

It all requires some teasing out but I think what you are doing as much as anything is trying not to get in your own way. The question we kept coming back to was “How did this story happen to us?” or “How do we tell this story to our friends?” From there we were able to eliminate the footage that was not part of that arc. It also helped us to know when and how we should reveal the ending of the film, how much weight should the rift between Arthur and David get, etc.

I was intrigued and a little puzzled by the photographic choices you (or your cinematographer) employed in New York Doll. Why, for example, were almost all the shots of Arthur low resolution handi-cam takes, over-exposed or low color saturated images, etc.—even in the easily controlled and lighted interior spaces used during some of the more formal interviews—while the interview shots of Morrissey were of studio quality? Why so many cropped head shots, seemingly arbitrary camera angles, etc. In short, what aesthetic principles were guiding your photographic decisions?

I have shot really glossy commercials before but I simply do not know how to capture “real” moments without being really small. That usually means I am the one holding the camera and when I start talking to people and I get excited about what they are saying I kind of forget I am holding a camera and consequently it sort of drops–cutting their heads off in the frame. I would be fired if I were working in any other medium. Here, it’s considered edgy and “aesthetic.” As for Morrissey, he is lit like a patron saint because–well, he is. Furthermore, he scheduled his interview a week in advance and we waited three hours to interview him. There was plenty of time for lighting.

In the wake of his conversion, Arthur must have indulged in many moments of self-reflection about the reasons why his life took the many fascinating and storybook turns it did. Did he ever discuss such reflections with you? Did he personally see a divinely influenced trajectory to his life—not just his introduction and conversion to LDS beliefs, but his pre-religious life as well?

I was amazed in London as I watched nearly every aspiration Arthur held over the last 30 years of his life come true. He was chauffeured around town while people clamored for his autograph, he lounged around his five star hotel, he rehearsed with his long-time friends, did interviews for the press — and he seemed completely unsurprised by it all. As if he expected it to happen. The only thing that shocked or surprised him was that it had taken so long. One time when I feared that our camera was wearing his patience thin I asked him if he wanted me to turn it off. He thought for a moment and said, “No. Let’s keep going. This film will be seen by millions of people.”

I’d like to thank everyone who submitted questions and thank Greg for answering them. I think New York Doll is one of the best movies (notice I didn’t say ‘one of the best Mormon movies’) that I have ever seen and I would strongly encourage you to see it if you haven’t already.

17 comments for “Lots of Questions for Greg Whiteley

  1. Kevin Barney
    June 10, 2006 at 4:51 pm

    Wow, terrific responses, Greg. My favorite was this one: “I pray I am always seen as perversely exotic. Several of my gentile artist friends here in L.A. would pay real money to have such lavish praise attributed to their work. Probably a good rule of thumb for any person involved in the visual arts is to recklessly embrace and express your own culture–as confusing or enigmatic as that sometimes may be.”

    I was disappointed that I missed it at the Music Box in Chicago (I only learned of it towards the end of the week, and work was simply too hot at the time). But I have since purchased the DVD and seen it. I agree with Julie, it is a wonderful film. Congratulations on your well deserved success.

  2. June 10, 2006 at 4:57 pm

    I’m just amazed that I didn’t know about the ending of the film. I mean, I’m never particularly concerned about knowing the story and “surprises” contained in a film–I don’t really go to movies for the plot, though the absence of such drives me batty–and consequently I tend to read every review that I can find, unconcerned about spoliers. Yet, I was completely taken aback by the ending. To everyone who discussed the film on the Bloggernacle, kudos: whether it was done intentionally or not, you actually, despite all the thousands of words written about the film, managed to keep first-time viewers like myself in the dark.

  3. D. Fletcher
    June 10, 2006 at 5:04 pm

    I too, enjoyed the film, which I finally saw when I purchased the DVD. I was particularly impressed with some of the rock artists who had wise things to say, like the woman who said “in this world of sex, drugs and rock and roll, it’s nice to know someone believes in something” (I’m paraphrasing) and after Bob Geldof complained about Arthur’s church responsibilities, Chrissie Hynde said “I think there’s room for both,” my particular favorite moment in the film.

  4. June 10, 2006 at 5:56 pm


    I almost goofed up on that, assuming everyone had read my previous coverage of {ADMIN: spoiler removed} at AMV, but someone from Whiteley’s ward e-mailed me and I made a couple of changes to my posts on the documentary. I’m glad to see it paid off.

    Interestingly enough, at the San Francisco screening that Whitelely attended, many of the questions were about money issues. And all the questions came from punks. I would guess there audience was about 20% Mormon.

    If I recall correctly, there were questions about…

    1. Whether Arthur was really that poor and how that happened. He was. And he just wasn’t very good at managing his money.

    2. tithing and if the Church was going to get a cut of box office. Greg handled this question very well, explaining that the “millions of dollars” the film was going to make would go to the production company, but that he would be paying tithing on whatever income he made from the fim.

    3. about Greg’s taste in music. There seemed to be a bit of disbelief that this Mormon guy could really be into punk rock. And it seemed like they were really thrilled when he proved that he knew his stuff.

    4. about shooting the rehearsal, concert, etc. I don’t remember a lot about this part, but I can say there’s no way that I’d have had the patience and the gumption to make this film.

  5. Julie M. Smith
    June 10, 2006 at 6:01 pm

    William Morris, I hope you don’t mind my editing of your comment, but I had the same reaction that RAF had to the movie and I’d like to make it possible for others to experience that as well.

  6. Greg
    June 10, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    Russell: It definitely wasn’t intentional. This post — http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=1060#more-1060 — was up before the film was done.

  7. June 10, 2006 at 9:46 pm

    I’m so glad the answers to these questions were published. I noticed a few times in past months that it hadn’t arrived and wondered if it was ever coming.

    Loved the movie.

    I am wondering what you actually think of Arthur as a bass player. I think he said in the film that he was referred to as Arthur “Killer” Kane because of his “killer bass lines”. However, it didn’t seem that in the film we actually heard him play very much. It seemed to me that either we were hearing clips from the concert where other instruments were involved (and perhaps drowning him out a little) or that he was in some odd corner sort of fingering the strings but not playing very loudly. I suppose part of the issue could be that he hadn’t played for years. Did you feel he was able to pick up the bass and start where he left off or was he having a hard time learning to play again?

  8. Wilfried
    June 11, 2006 at 6:27 am

    Thank you so much, Greg! Very enlightening answers and they make this top documentary even better to appreciate. Will the movie ever make it to Europe? It would be an indirect missionary tool of immense value. Actually, just showing the DVD on firesides for rock-loving investigators of a certain age… And with Bob Geldof in the cast! Any mission presidents looking for great ideas? This is one!

  9. June 11, 2006 at 9:08 am

    I guess I just completely missed that post of yours, Greg. My apologies. I don’t think it would have made any difference in my appreciation of the film had I known the ending; it’s just that, given my viewing habits, being surprised by a movie like that is something that happens to me very rarely.

    The finest moment in the movie? The scene just before the Dolls went on stage, including Arthur’s slow, quiet defense of and explanation of church doctrine, and then his leading a group prayer backstage. What a gutsy and plainspoken moment; I haven’t seen anything like it outside a Richard Dutcher film.

  10. Ken Merrell
    June 11, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    I’d heard about \”New York Doll\” for some time through Sunstone, some websites, etc., but never had a chance to see it in a theater here in my little hamlet in Oregon, so I was thrilled to be able to find it recently. I found it to be very moving, powerful, and funny as well. Seeing “Buster Poindexter” (David Johansen) sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” and “Come, Come, Ye Saints” was incredible. There is a question I still have about Arthur. I am curious about his mental status later in his life. The film did indicate that he not only had a terrible fall on his head when he tried to take his life by jumping out a window, but that he was “hit in the head by a baseball bat,” which leads me to think he may have suffered significant mental impairment from those events. I am a psychologist and have worked with individuals who have experienced traumatic brain injuries of one kind of another. Arthur’s presentation and demeanor seemed not unlike some people I have seen who have frontal lobe damage: perseveration, difficulties in planning, problems forming quick verbal associations, etc. Does anyone know more about this?

  11. Derw00d
    June 12, 2006 at 5:50 pm

    I caught NY Doll by chance on pay-per-view. I, too, was touched in a way that surprised me. In the 80\’s/90\’s, I played in several local Punk/Goth/Industrial bands. I\’m also a Return Missionary with a wife and kids, and now an active calling in church. Seldom do these 2 facets of my life converge peacefully. I\’ve always felt like a \”walking contradiction\” (NOT quoting Green Day). In a very eloquent way, Greg, you managed to capture and safety-pin these 2 aspects of my past together.

    I appreciate the thoughtful way in which the subject was approached. It is obvious in the footage that there was a significant amount of trust between subject and scribe. Thanks for sharing a vision and giving us in-betweeners a place to feel welcome.

    I\’m heading over to the One Potato site to order my shirt now. I\’d love to get my hands on an audio file of David Johansen\’s renditions of the hymns as well – please let me know if there is an established method for acquiring these.

    Rock On…

  12. mike d.
    June 12, 2006 at 9:24 pm

    greg, thanks for making the movie and doing such a good job. arthur really was a great guy and i miss him. he was always one of my favorite people in the ward. it was great to see how happy he was reuniting w/ the dolls, i’m just a bit sad that i didn’t get to see him play w/ them here in los angeles.

  13. June 20, 2006 at 8:29 pm

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