|Luis Fernandez de la Reguera, director of Rockets Redglare.|
In the late ’70s and early ’80s, Manhattan became
the site of one of the country’s most memorable cultural and artistic
awakenings, where new forms of music and artistic expression were
continually being introduced to the world. It was here that music
genres from punk rock to hip-hop first gained prominence in America,
and where now esteemed artists such as Jean Michel Basquiat and
Julian Schnabel struggled to get their work seen. At the same time,
burgeoning directors like Jim Jarmusch and Alexandre Rockwell and
neophyte performers like Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone, Jr. were
finding their voice. Though each of these art forms—and individuals—eventually
veered in separate directions, they would always have one thing
in common: Rockets Redglare.
Best known as a character actor with more than 20
parts to his credit, Rockets Redglare (born Michael Morra) lived
a life few could fathom. Addicted to heroin at birth (his 15-year
old mother was an addict), an opiate was added to his formula to
help with withdrawals as an infant. But this would be a precursor
to only one of many addictions: drugs, alcohol and life in general.
The earliest lesson Rockets recalls learning is that when he found
something he liked, he did it to excess.
Rockets’ father wasn’t any more of a positive influence
than his mother. A career criminal, he was not afraid to conduct
“business” (including murder) in front of his young son, and was
eventually deported back to Italy after robbing a local post office.
Left to support her family and a drug addiction, Rockets’ mother
turned to prostitution for income. Rockets eventually left home
when his mother took up with an abusive ex-boxer, who eventually
beat her to death.
Perhaps in an attempt to forget these early tragedies,
Michael christened himself “Rockets Redglare,” and became a staple
of the early ’80s downtown NYC arts scene, jumpstarting the careers
of Steve Buscemi and Mark Boone Jr. with his regular Taxi Cabaret
show. Though he turned to comedy for a living, Rockets’ material
was fueled by the early misfortunes he had endured.
In his new documentary, Rockets Redglare, Luis
Fernandez de la Reguera probes the identity of a man who was, by
turn, a brilliant actor, seasoned con artist, best friend and bad
influence. Though he never held a day job, Rockets counted actor,
author, model (for Julian Schnabel), bodyguard (to Jean Michel Basquiat)
and drug dealer (to Sid Vicious) among his crowning achievements,
resulting in a life that even the highest-paid Hollywood screenwriter
could unlikely concoct.
Luis got to know Rockets while working as a bartender
several years ago. Rockets was a regular customer who would “often
show up at 5 p.m. and leave at 5 a.m.” Of his reasons for making
the film, Luis says “it was difficult watching Rockets kill himself
with the booze I was pouring.” Conceived as a sort of video intervention,
Luis hoped that his film would give Rockets the encouragement he
needed to finally kick his addictions and focus on his career. Unfortunately,
Rockets did not survive to see the finished product.
Through interviews with those who knew Rockets best,
including Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe, Jim Jarmusch, Matt Dillon,
Alexandre Rockwell and Julian Schnabel, de la Reguera crafts a touching
portrait of an afflicted individual who was a slave to his addictions.
Though it could easily be construed as story of wasted potential,
the message is a more positive one: in spite of the many barriers
that were put in front of him, Rockets Redglare accomplished more
as a performer than others would dare dream. In the process, he
lived a life that few will ever forget.
Jennifer Wood (MM): The traditional
role of a documentarian is that of an unbiased observer. Do you
think that being a friend of Rockets affected your ability to be
Luis Fernandez de la Reguera (LFR): I
think it was easier to be objective during the shooting, except
for the final hospital scene. Grabbing as much [content] as I could
was the main objective, and that is a matter of tenacity.
MM:Can you talk about the production
of the film: when you began shooting, preparation, etc.?
LFR: I kicked it around for a while
I began actually shooting in a serious way in late 1999. I had a
few ideas, like renting a limo and riding around NYC, having Rockets
tell stories, but I decided that he would get into way too much
trouble. Rockets in a limo with my credit cards? I needed a reality
I soon got this weird feeling that time was crucial, so I just started
shooting him with a cheap Hi8 camera. Then I started the buy-and-return
game with several DV cameras.
MM:What other cameras did you use?
LFR: MiniDV, Super8 and Hi8. The Hi8
was good for sneaking in places. The Super8 I did ’cause New York
looks great in Super 8! I used a Canon XL-1 when I had the dough.
MM: Each of your interview subjects
seems to open up so easily about Rockets. Were you surprised by
the candid nature of the interviews?
LFR: I was nervous about dealing with
some of the bigger names (mostly that if they cancelled at the last
minute I would be out the price of the gear rental). With Matt Dillon
I was surprised because he seemed a bit reserved at first and his
interview turned out really well. I have to realize that he was
putting himself out for a first-time project with an unknown director.
Alex Rockwell was a complete accident: I had my camera with me when
I ran into him on First Avenue and convinced him to do an interview
on the spot.
Steve Buscemi let me use what he shot on the set
of In the Soup. Speaking of Steve, he showed up right after
having a root canal so I wouldn’t lose my rental money, and that
says volumes about his heart. Steve was very close to Rockets. So
many people, at different times, took care of Rockets and Steve
was there for Rockets with hotel money or cab fare when Rockets
couldn’t walk. Willem Dafoe had a good take on the way Rockets was
often on the hustle and his abilities as an actor. Willem was at
a distance from Rockets, and the view of the forest is as important
as the tree.
MM: Was there ever a time where you
felt that your friendship with Rockets was being threatened by the
film—or vice versa?
LFR: Sometimes the friendship made it
harder. And there were times when perhaps someone else would have
considered shooting when I felt it wasn’t right or needed. For instance,
at his wake there were all sorts of “famous” people milling about,
but I didn’t think it was appropriate to be running around sticking
a camera in people’s faces. MM: Rockets talks about the
things people do in life—the good and the bad—and how if you juggle
these together, you come up with who that person is. After juggling
all that you know about Rockets, who was he? Is it possible to sum
him up in just one word or phrase?
LFR: To sum up Rockets in a word or
phrase is what people did to him every time he walked down the street…
I think Rockets struggled with a lot of inner conflict: I think
he felt responsible for his mother’s death on some level. He was
in a lot of pain his whole life and it sometimes drove him to do
things that made him feel even worse about himself.
Jim Jarmusch said ‘I hope you get Rockets.
He is very complicated.’ I don’t know if I got him. I got some,
but I am not so arrogant to think I got it all. [That’s] impossible.
MM: Was there anyone that helped
you sort out the footage, or offer an ‘outsider’ perspective?
LFR: We buried Rockets on a Saturday
and I had already been accepted to Avid Film Camp in Portland, OR
to start on a rough cut that coming Monday. It was a very difficult
experience, but along with eight student editors who had great instincts,
I was able to assemble a two-hour chunk that was worth the pain
of watching Rockets die over and over again. The people at Avid
Film Camp were understanding of my [state], but they also knew what
had to be done to get a movie made. My friend Mathieu Hagnery, who
shot most of the movie, offered to help me finish editing the film.
I think he knew how badly I needed it. I was really lucky to have
Mathieu to argue with; he had much more distance from the project
and was able to help me make many very important decisions. Jo Andres
and Steve Buscemi contributed some much-needed dough that enabled
me to complete it.
They really saved me.
MM:Several interview subjects talk
about what Rockets could have accomplished if he’d stayed sober.
Do you see his story as one of wasted potential, or as something
LFR: I think that Rockets could have
been much more successful in the eyes of the world. He was born
behind the eight ball in so many respects, but he was quite successful
in impacting people’s lives for the better—and for the worse, at
times. His potential was directed to the daily task of feeding his
demons. You’ve got to realize Rockets was hustling to survive in
one of the most expensive cities in the world. That was his job.
Bukowski worked at the post office, William Burroughs had a trust
fund, Rockets had charm.
MM:At the end of the film, what do
you want audiences to decide about Rockets?
LFR: I hope they miss him. I hope they
see what I saw in him and try not to pass judgement on the next
obese man sitting alone, sleeping at the end of the bar. But you
know, none of them will be Rockets.
MM:What sort of reaction have you
gotten from those who’ve seen the film?
LFR: So far the response has been terrific:
lots of laughing and crying. Steve Buscemi, Willem Dafoe and Julian
Schnabel have seen it. So have Indian Larry, Elizabeth English and
Mark Zero. I humbly say those who knew him that have seen it thus
far are happy with its honesty and that’s what I wanted it to be—honest.
I hope it comes close to that.
People who didn’t know Rockets sometimes have a little
trouble with some harsh moments, but by the end of the film they
seem to feel a sense of loss. Of course, I am basing this last opinion
on perhaps the feedback of only 20 people who didn’t know him. I
think objectivity will only come to me once it gets distributed
and I can know that I kept my promise to Rockets: I did my best. MM
For screenings and information on Rockets Redglare,