Kirby Dick Director of Sick Interview
Winner of the Special Jury Prize at Sundance and the Grand Prize at the Los Angeles Film Festival, Kirby Dick's documentary Sick: The Life and Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist finds compassion, inspiration and humor from what might be considered an unlikely source: the eponymous Bob Flanagan, an artist who bravely and unsparingly utilized his struggle with cystic fibrosis - fused with his enthusiasm for S/M - to provoke and enlighten.
Nothing is spared from director Dick's view: Flanagan's constant health struggles, his final visit to the hospital, and the exploration of his physical and psychological limits through at times brutal self-mutilation. (The nail-through-the-head-of-the-penis-routine is not easily forgotten, if at all) His great love and mistress Sheree Rose, who also acted as co-producer of Sick, similarly takes no refuge from the camera's gaze. This is brave, uncomfortably honest filmmaking that resonates long after viewing.
Now available on an extras-laden DVD from Lions Gate, producer and director Kirby Dick recently discussed the film with DVD Talk's Jason Janis.
How did you become aware of Bob Flanagan and his art?
Bob was a poet and performer at Beyond Baroque, which was a literary center in Venice, California. I was very involved in that organization as well and met him there. We became friends, would hang out at parties, and I would follow his work. I grew closer to him and actually approached him about another project for a film, which was not focused enough on him personally, and he said no - it would have been a funny thing. It was modeled after a Pasolini film…
Love Meetings (Comizi, d'amore) where he goes around and meets all the different sectors of Italian society, prostitutes, soccer players, and is investigating the sexuality of Italians. I always thought that Bob would be a perfect interlocutor for that... he has this good sense of humor and knows what he's talking about, sort of like Pasolini. He was not into it. I still kind of wish I had done that.
Was Bob a fan of Pasolini?
When you approached him about this other project and he balked, how did you approach him about a project concerning him explicitly?
I was looking around to do something that was very intimate. I wanted to do something with someone who I knew personally, and I was interested in doing something about the subject of death. I was also interested in doing something about an artist - these are all sort of varied interests. What happened was that I saw the Re Search Bob Flanagan book - it came out and he showed me the galleys - and I just looked at it and said, "Why don't I do you?" I thought it was an excellent book, and there was a line in there that I knew would be great in a film. There is a lot in that book that was missed, because his humor - and also Sheree - is not presented very strongly. I just realized that he would make an incredible subject, and I was kind of kicking myself for not thinking about it earlier. He had seen another film I had done called Private Practices, a documentary about a sex surrogate, and he and Sheree really liked it. Bob's one request was that if I was going to do this, I had to film all the way until he died, no matter how long that was.
I was going to ask about that: were there any restrictions placed upon the film by Bob and if his eventual death was the conceived ending for the film?
Exactly, it was. It kind of made for an odd sort of project: on the one hand, Bob was my friend and I did not want him to die, and the other thing was do I keep making this project for ten years? What I realized was that it was such a pleasure to be working with Bob and Sheree that I was completely open to making it for as long as it took. It was just a lot of fun to make. As to restrictions, not really. He was really concerned that the art was presented in the manner he wanted it to be presented. What he meant was that his work had a very formal quality to it, even though it seems very expulsive; it is very expulsive, but there is a great deal of control involved. I knew that, and as soon as I started working with him I could really see that, and I wanted to present that. He saw that was happening and it really did not become an issue.
Your camera unflinchingly captures a lot, ranging from some of the more mainstream - or knowledgeable - aspects of S/M, from spanking to forced feminization. It then moves into decidedly tougher stuff, including play piercing and scarification. Were there any restrictions you placed upon yourself as a documentarian? Audience concerns?
It was interesting. From the very beginning, I wanted to put the penis nailing scene in the film, and I didn't just want to have a clip of it. I wanted it to be long, and that was kind of a challenge: how do you make a film where by the time you get to that part the audience is ready to see it and they understand why it is in there? That was one of things that made me push making the film as hard as I did. Restrictions... well, a lot of the footage was actually from his art, especially from the Scaffold, which he and Sheree had shot together. So, I had a real bank of footage to draw from, especially S/M footage. I mean it was kind of interesting, because I had seen the Scaffold, but it's one thing to be looking at a piece of art and another looking at all the outtakes of everything they had drawn from, and it was bracing to see it for the first time. I was very interested in the kind of impact that work would have viscerally on an audience. The audience is in sort of a masochistic position in some ways in a theater - in a dark room…
Exactly. I thought the impact of the image would play well cinematically.
You received a remarkable level of cooperation from Bob's family. How were they brought into the project and did you encounter any reluctance at all?
Bob told me late in the process that he talked to him Mom every day, and I was not aware of that. He was very close to his Mother. Of course, I wanted it for the documentary and so did he, so we arranged for Bob, Sheree, and I to go out there for a couple of days. We spent time at their house just outside of Phoenix, and - since I had been staying there for a few days - we became sort of friends. It was interesting because they had never really been interviewed before, and you probably know this, there is always something interesting about interviewing a person that has a lot to say and has never spoken before. This whole thing comes tumbling out, and you can just trigger things. The intimacy of the situation and their desire to speak about just really made it work.
Was Bob's example of being so forthright instrumental to that end?
I think that sort of set a tone. In some ways, when people speak they speak for what they think the film is going to be, and since it was obvious it was going to be about Bob, anything goes.
I noted that Sheree was also noted as a co-produced for Sick. What did that title entail?
It entailed a great deal. She had actually documented a lot of Bob for years and years, so there was a lot of footage in the film - which was very important - that she had shot. I tended to work more closely with Bob in conceptualizing the film since it was a collaborative process, but Sheree was right there most of the time. I was pretty much editing the film at that point, and I would continually go to her with questions I had, and issues and things that would come up, and she was just the best consultant you could imagine. She was subject, she provided material, she was supporter, she was right there.
Sick includes footage from Nine Inch Nails' Happiness in Slavery video, which was my first introduction to Bob. Any problems with the rights issues?
Well we went through Trent Reznor's attorney and Reznor really respected Bob, so he said "OK" we could have it. There was a long, involved interaction with Universal, and it came through without much of a problem. It was really just going through the bureaucracy, and it was not at all contentious.
One of the things I noted and was curious about takes place during the Scaffold sequence. Up until that point, you really do not hear safe words or the like, and Bob begins to challenge Sheree.
That was actually outtake footage, and was shot several years before I started shooting. It's interesting - I know they discussed it, but I don't think I ever asked them about it, although I am sure they had some sort of words. Sheree was very aware of what Bob wanted, and what Bob wanted Bob got. This is where the conflict came in and this is what's so funny. Sheree was performing her role as a top - I mean, that's what she was - and she was seeing this as sort of sexual interaction where she had control. Bob was seeing it a situation where he was directing a scene. When they got the scene, he did not want to be hurt anymore. He was not into this as a masochist at this point. That conflict was so humorous that I wanted to include it. In some ways, it was one of the most unique examples of conflict in artistic collaboration.
Well, you certainly capture the relationship. One of the aspects that gets to me every time I watch Sick is when Sheree tells Bob that if he loves her, he would submit to her. It's heartbreaking on many levels. I think of the old quip "the masochist said 'hit me' and the sadist said 'no'", but it's not that dynamic here. They are not role playing at that point.
I think that was primarily Bob's health. Obviously, as relationships go on the sexual tension changes, but more important was that at that point Bob was not well enough to engage in sex, especially S/M sex which can be an extremely physical undertaking and requires a great deal of strength.
Was S/M primarily sexual to Bob?
I don't think so. There are a lot of other things, like being locked up in a room overnight, hanging himself.
That's why I asked. When you mentioned his deteriorating health, I was curious if that ended their sexuality and maybe resulted in their hashing out another arrangement.
I think it was more the physicality. If she was going to be spanking him, or locking him up, he just did not have the strength to be up for the task. I found that scene heartbreaking like you did, and the reason is that Bob fell in love with Sheree because she was a person who would not stop when Bob said "no." This was a very important part of their relationship and sexuality. Sheree's desire to relate to him in that way does not change, even as Bob is getting sick…
And this is something that comes up when any member of a couple gets sick, but here it's just put in such stark relief.
Absolutely. The illusory nature of control in these relationships is also explored. When Bob is on his deathbed, he is confused and cannot believe it's happening when cognizant. Sheree, it seems, tries to reestablish some sort of control over the situation. That has always made it very poignant to me: whether she was conscious of it or not, she was trying to shape it and create context.
I think you're completely right. In that regard, especially around Bob, she was always trying to do whatever she could to make it as comfortable for him as possible, even at the last moment. What's interesting also about that scene is that Bob did not accept death, and he fought it all the way to the end. This scene, where he's saying "I don't know what's going on" is after he's been in a coma for several days and no one thought he was going to make it.
I didn't know that… I don't believe the documentary references the coma.
It's not specifically stated. What happened was that he pulled himself out of it to that semi-conscious state, still trying to figure out how he could get himself together and keep living. It's that will to live that made him live as long as he did, be able to do the S/M feats that he did, and his work as an artist.
It's jolting - his eyes are open, and he manages perhaps semi-lucidity, but he's not there. Sheree is there smacking him - gently - to rouse him, and he's not responding, gasping for air. It's a visceral experience.
Right. There was one scene where he actually was in a coma, and a close two- shot right at the end where he's gasping, and he's gone. He's dying at that point.
Toward the end, in his monologue, Bob notes that sex, orgasm, and the endorphin rush always relieved his pain. He also alludes to his Catholicism. Did you two have any conversations regarding religiosity specifically?
I remember very clearly that he told me he was an atheist. That does not stop him from exploring, or being completely caught up, in the iconography of the faith. But he did not believe in God.
There seems to be a confluence of these factors, since he was made aware of his mortality at such a young, impressionable age. These seemingly disparate elements were sort of formed into a cohesive whole. The context is provided and one can see the framework very clearly.
Right. One of the wonderful things about him - and one of the many wonderful things about having him as a subject - was that for twenty of thirty years he had meditated on these issues and their relationships. That's one of the reasons the film has the impact that it does: you're dealing with the meditation of all those years that is presented.
I was also impressed with the levels of cooperation you received from Sarah, who met Bob through the Make-a-Wish foundation. She gave you access to some very candid moments as well.
Are you talking about the additional footage on the DVD?
Well, her involvement as a whole. Was she aware of your project at the time?
She was. It was interesting because I wanted to shoot Bob meeting Sarah for the first time, because Sarah broke down and cried. Bob was being deferential, and not knowing how she would react to being involved in the film, said no, I could not be there at the meeting. The irony of it was that Sarah showed up with a camera and began shooting it. She did not get exactly what we needed, but she was totally cool with the idea, and had no problem with me shooting. The additional short film Sarah's Sick Too is really heart-wrenching…
It really is…
She's like a young Bob. Getting to this level of insight that Bob had is very striking.
You had a subject that was also a close friend near death. I noted his death was not shot, but Sheree did take some photographs. What was the experience like when Bob checked himself in and was at the end, as a filmmaker and as a friend?
It was obviously very, very difficult, but in some ways, having this project, I was still sort of giving something back to Bob and doing something that Bob had asked. And Bob was aware of that, whether he was conscious or semi-conscious. He knew why I was there. It was a gift to me by Bob just being the subject, and it was a gift back to him by putting his art and everything else on this sort of stage, if you will. Often, when someone is dying, you just feel completely helpless. Here, I had something I could do. I was not there at the moment he died, and I was sort of concerned about that because that was one of the original objectives. Sheree took his body into another room and took some photographs, and I thought this was much better. It said so much about their relationship and mortality in a different way. So, once I saw that, I realized that it would work much better.
This is all raw, tough stuff, and I can see how some might not respond well to this film. What were the initial screenings like?
It's funny, because when I was mixing the film with Dane Davis, he was right on the verge. At some point I said to myself, you know, when I show this at Sundance is there going to be a riot? What the hell is going to happen? People, for the most part, are very affected and very moved, even though there were a few walkouts. It has been banned twice: once in D.C. at the Hirshhorn Museum where it was to show for two nights. I was there for the first night and it was cancelled for the second. I'm sure some right-wing operative got wind of it and made sure it was not shown.
Were these outright bans or just some grass roots campaigning?
I think someone just called the museum and said it could not be shown a second time. It was pretty clear that was why. The second time, it was in theatrical release in Australia, and the Minister of Culture of Western Australia banned it. She had a committee whose responsibility it was to review and ban it, and she overstepped her authority. Consequently, the press swooped down on her, and it was a big issue across Australia. Actually, it was not in release but in a festival, and it immediately got a theatrical release.
It's funny that you mention Australia. I recall reading that, ironically enough, Pasolini's Salo had been banned there, and I believe it was eventually re-certified for release and then banned by the same organization again. At least you got to experience an increase in distribution.
What sort of distribution did Sick receive stateside?
A fairly substantial one. Lions Gate was completely behind it, like any of their independent films, and it played in fifty or seventy-five cities.
What sort of feedback did you receive once it was released, and what would you say to those who may have some trepidation in approaching it?
Some people are afraid to see it, and when those that are afraid to see it do, they are normally moved by it, even though there are some scenes that are tough to watch. Continually people come up to me and say it is their favorite film ever. I think the reason is that Bob really affected people that way. At his performances, people would come up to him and see this sort of outcast and iconoclast taking what could be a weakness and turning it into a strength. It became so moving to these people that he saw a way out. There was a Christ-like quality to the way he - obviously not at the same level - was viewed. That was one of the things I wanted to convey in this film.
It is very empowering. It's also a very rich piece - I have noticed new layers every time I have seen it.
That was Bob. There were many themes in play here: death, collaboration, S/M, relationships, illness. It was so rich. That was one of the problems in making the film. Any one of those themes would warrant a feature film, so it was sort of a juggling act. On the other hand, better to have more themes to deal with.
What's Sheree up to these days? Do you two keep in touch?
Not so much anymore. I know that she did a very interesting art piece in Japan a year or two after the film was completed. There was a major exhibition of American artists in a stadium in Japan, and she had sort of an effigy of Bob about thirty or forty feet high, like these balloons that are hung over car lots. He had a five-foot erect penis, and was bound and gagged, and she put it up. It caused a scandal, and she was forced to wrap the penis in gauze, which made it look like a diaper and made it even more perverse. She was hanging out with one of the lower level Ministers of Culture who was somewhat of a bottom - and he dug her - and he was able to get the gauze off and Bob's penis could fly free. It was interesting because it had a quality of turning Bob into a kind of demigod. This puts Sheree maybe - if Bob is the Christ-like figure - as the God-like figure. There was some interesting feminist cosmology going on there. She did not pursue that, but I always thought it was a really interesting direction.
Final thoughts for those, again, who may be put off by the subject matter or DVD cover for that matter?
Well, one thing is that Bob is very, very funny. He's as funny - or nearly as funny - as Lenny Bruce.
And as subversive.
But he'll do the whole range, from slapstick to the most intellectual of jokes. So all the way through this there are laughs. Even though you might be watching some things that are difficult to watch, they are often presented in a very funny light.
He also had a penchant for very bad puns.
Bad puns, everything.
It's very universal in that regard.
Exactly. Humor helps to get though it. It's made with the awareness that there are tough scenes to watch, but you're ready for them when they come. This film is shocking, but it not made for shock value or shock effect. You don't feel like you're blasted against the back of your seat.
It does not feel exploitative for a moment.
Exactly. You're sort of emotionally in the film even when you're watching it, so you're kind of carried along through humor and emotion.
That was another gift from Bob to you as a filmmaker. Any charge of voyeurism - lodged justly or unjustly - is moot. Bob is right there.
(Laughs) A complete exhibitionist. And he's theorized it: it's an art gesture that has personal, social and cultural resonance. That's very interesting and thank you.
- Jason Janis