How They Did It: Making a Film With a Recluse as Your Subject? Forget Plans, Says the Director of Shadowman

In 2009 I met street art pioneer Richard Hambleton and started shooting a film that would become the documentary, Shadowman. Richard was clever and charismatic, but could suddenly flip and become shy, anti-social, and even paranoid. He was also an addict, which obviously affected his behavior on and off camera.

Making Shadowman was like falling down a rabbit hole. I’ve been directing documentaries for a long time, but this was the weirdest experience, by far.

The first time I went to film a scene in Hambleton’s studio on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I asked politely if it was OK for me to be there. The artist just shrugged and then nodded. A little surprised by how easy that went down, I proceeded to go quietly around the very dark space where he lived and worked and, as I’d been taught early in my career, replaced a few of his regular light bulbs with brighter ones. I think I exchanged three or four 60-watt bulbs with 200-watt bulbs, hoping that would be enough for a decent exposure. But as soon as he walked into the room where I’d replaced the bulbs, Richard yelled, “Turn out those fucking lights!” There was no time to put back the old bulbs; I just had to shoot in the dark.

I learned my lesson. That was the last time I’d try to alter what was going on while we were filming Shadowman. Sometimes this made me feel lazy—or stupid—but I knew from that first moment that I just had to surrender to whatever was going on and see what came next.

A scene from Oren Jacoby’s Shadowman. Photograph by Ben Buchanan

This passive, go-with-the-flow approach began with making arrangements for each shoot. I’d call Richard. He’d tell me to show up at, say, six in the evening. (It was never much earlier than that. Richard was definitely not a morning person, at least not in the sense of “get up” in the morning.) One of two things would happen once I arrived on the street in front of his place and knocked on the door or called up to his second story window. Either there would be no answer, or, from somewhere in the depths of his studio, I’d hear a dim voice calling, “Just a minute!” Then I’d wait. Not for a minute, but for an hour or more. Sometimes two. Eventually Richard would shamble downstairs, open the door a crack, and let me in. The same thing happened if I called Richard on my cell phone from outside his front door. He wouldn’t answer at all, or he’d mumble, “Hold on a sec. I’ll be right there!” But he was never right there. And it wouldn’t matter if I tried to calculate the wait time and show up late.  If I was supposed to meet him at 8 and arrived at 9, it didn’t help one bit. In fact, it was worse. I’d just have to wait until 10 or 11. And he seemed to treat everyone who came to see him the same way.

There was only one thing I could do. Give in. I had to. If I’d gotten mad or, even deep inside, if I’d blamed Richard one bit for keeping me waiting, then it would have been a disaster. I never would have finished the film… because I never would have forgiven him. If I’d taken any of it personally, it would have driven me crazy.

You can’t hold a thing like that against someone if they are the subject of the documentary you’re making. The norms of human behavior don’t apply. You have to be patient. And if you’re smart, you figure out pretty quickly how to turn the obstacle into an advantage. Or at least a clue. I recognized by the second or third time I was waiting out in the cold in front of Richard’s studio that this was as much a part of his story as anything that would happen inside. And, if there was someone out there waiting with me, like one of his art dealers, even better! Then I had conflict. If I just relaxed and watched, I could film them getting madder and madder as, for the umpteenth time, they cooled their heels until Richard was good and ready to let them in.

A painting by Richard Hambleton, the reclusive subject of Shadowman. Photograph courtesy of Andy Valmorbida

Of course, another thing to gradually sink in was the realization of a core trait in Richard’s personality. He was a Zen master at playing hard-to-get. He never went out of his way for anyone. Time after time, I’d witness Richard somehow arrange for everyone he depended on in his life, from his art dealers to his drug dealers, to come to his place and interact with him on his terms. I began to understand that this was a brilliant strategy for someone with almost no real power in the world.

Richard had once been famous, had lots of money at his disposal, was admired throughout the art world, and even adored by a number of women. But no longer. Not for long time. When I met him he was an impoverished artist, had gone without a major show for 20 years, was forgotten by those who matter, was alienated from almost all of his loved ones, and his health was failing miserably; he couldn’t even walk a few feet without leaning on his bicycle.  But he still had an uncanny ability to seduce people into wanting to help him. From what I can tell, he got them to pay his rent, buy his food, and bail him out when he was in trouble.

No matter what tricks he pulled, the people around Richard kept loving him. Why? My guess is that, like me, they adored his paintings. People I met from many walks of life, rich and poor, young and old, hip and square… if they were exposed to Richard’s art, they were drawn in and wanted to help him.

As much as I loved his work and was invested in Richard, after literally years following him around with a camera, I never “gave” him anything or expected anything back. Maybe he sensed that I was just there, not judging, and not asking for anything or trying to use him. But I knew that at some point before the film was finished, I would have to ask him to sign a release so I could distribute the film. I was nervous about doing this, even after we’d been filming him for a long time.

Luckily, I remembered the lesson I’d learned that first day. Wait. Be patient. Don’t push. I took a gamble a filmmaker should never make. It was several years into the process before I finally felt I’d earned Richard’s trust and was ready to even show him the release. He took a quick look and signed it. Maybe in documentary filmmaking, like many things in life, good things really do come to those who wait.

But the last time I went to visit Richard it reinforced an even better lesson about filmmaking.

Over the course of my career, like many documentary directors, I’ve gotten caught up in the “arms race.” We’re always looking for the latest camera, trying to compete with the big guns for the highest resolution image. For some reason, when I went to film Richard the first time, I forgot about that and brought a small, inconspicuous and fairly cheap camera. As a result it never felt like Richard was performing for the camera. He seemed to barely notice it was there.

A scene from Shadowman. Photograph by Hank O’Neal

On that last visit… Richard had been evicted several times for failure to pay his rent or for trashing the place.   I’d lost contact with him for months and even some of his friends had no idea where he was living. Then I found out he was holed up in a motel on the edge of Little Italy in lower Manhattan. I called his cell phone and left message after message. I wanted to tell him that the film was almost finished. Nothing. Until one day that summer, my phone rang and he asked me to come see him at the hotel. He said, “Meet me on the roof.”

I rode the elevator to the top floor, walked outside onto the roof and saw a cloth covered with several cans of paint and propped against a chimney a large half-finished painting—one of Richard’s signature Shadowmen.

But no Richard. I waited. And waited. I looked out over the rooftop’s incredible views of the East Village and Lower East Side and thought—what a perfect spot for this quintessential “New York painter” to have landed. But it felt kind of weird waiting out there. Finally he showed up and we sat there for a little while and talked.

Richard said he was glad I’d finished the film. Then he confessed that “the first time we met—when you came to the studio and started filming—I didn’t believe you could really make a movie.” He told me that he had just assumed that if I was a “real” filmmaker, I’d have a bigger, fancier camera. So he just ignored me.

That’s something for documentary filmmakers to think about, next time they‘re trying to “keep up with the Joneses” and buy the latest, most expensive camera on the market to get the sharpest most high resolution image. Sometimes it works out that less really is more. MM

Shadowman opens in theaters December 1, 2017, courtesy of Storyville Films. Featured image photograph by Hank O’Neal.

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