F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.03 - July 1995

Remembering Johnny

By Rogier van Bakel

Author William Gibson wrote the unforgettable short storyJohnny Mnemonic. Director Robert Longo dreamed of filming it. But they couldn't raise the $1.5 million they needed. So they turned it into a $30-million film.

Robert Longo is one of America's foremost painters and sculptors. Born 41 years ago to an Italian immigrant family in Long Island, Longo studied at the State University of New York in Buffalo and subsequently distinguished himself with his stark, neo-expressionist art. His work also includes music videos for REM, Plan B and others. He lives in New York City with his wife, German actress Barbara Sukowa, and three children.

Author William Gibson, 47, emerged from obscurity with his 1984 novel Neuromancer. The bestseller introduced the term "cyberspace". ("And they'll never let me forget it.") Gibson's subsequent works include Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light and a self-destructing story-on-a-floppy, Agrippa. Gibson lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife, Deborah Gibson, and two children.

Gibson and Longo met to collaborate on a film version of the writer's short story Johnny Mnemonic. The film, which tracks an unfortunate courier who must deliver his data or lose his life, marked Gibson's first experience with Hollywood screenwriting, and Longo's first experience with big-time feature directing. The film is slated for UK release this autumn.

Rogier van Bakel recently caught up with both of them in the liminal period between wrapping up production and starting post-production work.

Tell me, do you still collect pictures of animals fucking?"

The words are spoken by a slightly nerdy man with John Lennon glasses and the posture of a question mark. He clearly feels at home here, although the loft isn't his. The huge studio occupies part of the top floor of a downtown building filled with some of New York City's infamous sweat shops. This is Robert Longo's loft, a wildly chaotic repository of the odd and the ordinary: large works of art on the wall, some protected by sheets of heavy plastic; a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Telecaster in a corner (Longo is a veteran of punk and avant-garde bands); stacks of cassettes over by his desk (including PiL and Joy Division); and a lost-looking, disconnected washer-dryer combination machine that, in this context, is almost a sculpture itself.

There's also a very large TV set hooked up to a U-Matic VCR, on which its owner must have watched - any number of times - the rough version of his first feature film, Johnny Mnemonic.

Like any postmodernist worth his salt, Longo refuses to distinguish between highbrow and lowbrow culture. While his art has graced the floors and walls of some of the world's most prestigious museums, he is equally happy to talk about the movie, or about the videos he directed for bands like REM ("The One I Love").

Oh, about that TV. Plugged into it is a Mitsubishi electronic-image grabber that takes snapshots of the TV screen and prints them out while-u-wait. It is this little contraption that caused Longo's friend William Gibson, he of the Lennon glasses, to inquire about the state of his host's collection of copulating critters.

Gibson, of course, is the daddy of cyberpunk. Having decided that traditional science fiction was "stodgy and geeked out", he created a gritty future that wasn't about space cars or intergalactic battles. His universe is populated by computer jockeys on junk food, hookers and hackers who are closer to the soul of the 21st century than George Jetson.

But no matter how rich Gibson's imagination, he never envisioned the long process of scraping Johnny Mnemonic's budget together. Bounced among a series of backers the film ended up supported by Alliance Communications, Cine-Visions and TriStar Pictures. By then, what had started as a small project in need of a $1.5 million budget had ballooned into a $30 million action- adventure flick.

The movie is about "the politics of information," muses Gibson. "It's phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that." On a more basic level it's the story of a hapless messenger, Johnny, who has crucial information locked in his head. Even he doesn't know what it is. Others want it - his head and the data it contains. "We want to see him get the information for himself, escape, turn the tables on the bad guys," says Gibson. "But in the end he does something else and manages to become a human being in the process. I see it as a fable of the information age."

Longo and Gibson have spent countless hours in each other's company during the more than five years it took them to finance and shoot Johnny Mnemonic. What follows are excerpts from a long, rambling talk between the two - a verbal free fall, with no holds barred.

Longo: What was your favourite part of making the movie?

Gibson: Being part of what sometimes felt like a medieval campaign. Three hundred people working in this freezing old factory building in the middle of winter in Toronto, all working towards the same end. It was the biggest empty building I had ever seen in my life. Someone took me up these ladders to a vantage point that would give me an idea of the scale of the thing. At that point, I had decided that you were crazy. I kept thinking, This is too big. [Laughs.] What was the best part for you?

I really wish you'd been there when Keanu slipped into his character's suit for the first time. When he cut his sideburns off, and put the suit on I recognised the feeling I had, because, here in the studio, a lot of the time, I'd work on pieces in parts. And then at maybe three or four o'clock in the morning, I'd have the assistants assemble it and put it up on the wall, and I'd say, OK, tell me when to turn around and look at it. And it was always this incredible explosion, this rush - of seeing this thing that you'd been carrying around in your head. And when I turned around and saw Keanu, it was just mind-blowing - to see this guy, this fictional character that you and I had been talking about so much. My heart was pounding. I was on the verge of crying.

My equivalent experience to that was walking onto the set for the first time. This complicated, unimaginably huge structure, with shipping containers and trucks and boats hung up on the underside of a bridge. I was crazy for about two hours. Out of my head. I could hardly talk. It was such a moving experience to be completely surrounded by the product of your own imagination. This particular kind of environment is something I come back to over and over in my work. Seeing one constructed, full-size, in much greater detail, much higher resolution than I was expecting.

It looked like a place. A very real place. And it was a place. I wish we could've made another movie where we just endlessly went around that set.

One thing about making movies: it taxes you. Not just in terms of the responsibility you are talking about, but also in terms of the million little details that need to be taken care of over a period of years. I got a university degree in less time than we've been working on this. Also, in movies, the expectation of how far you will go to do a good job is much higher than I've ever seen anywhere. Some of these people are so ambitious and driven, and so highlyorganised.

[To Longo.] That seemed to have an influence on you. There's a certain stamina involved in being a director that's pretty impressive. I enjoyed watching you pull it off.

Well, there's a Kurt Vonnegut quote I like, something about when you pretend to be someone long enough, one day you'll be that person. I was hoping that'd be true of this experience. 'Cause all of a sudden I'm directing a movie and quietly going, wait a minute, I really don't know how to do this! Holy shit, where do we put these cameras? It's like waking up out of a dream and realising you're riding a bike without any handlebars. Like, Fuck! I gotta keep my balance! I was going totally by instinct. That was all I could do to keep my sanity. I found the whole experience of making this picture vaguely unsettling - but comical, too. For instance, a lot of times, directing a movie is explaining to the actors what you want them to do, and then actually doing the gestures, which is really weird. You'll say stuff like, "walk across the room like this," to seasoned pros, and then you'll show them what you mean, with 50 people standing around looking at you like you're a fucking idiot. The other thing that made me self-conscious was watching Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, and I kept thinking what an incredible asshole Francis Ford Coppola was, with all his petty agonising and despair. But after about an hour of watching this fat egomaniac, it sunk in: Holy shit, he's just like me! I don't know, I'm just really glad to be back in my studio.

The Players

That meeting we had yesterday, though, with some of the studio hotshots - I came away from it feeling that there were people there who still didn't have any sort of a clue about what we had been doing all this time .

Ha! We did a good job! They gave us $30 million and we gave them a movie they can't understand. All riiighht! [Laughs.] It's interesting that this started out as an arty one-and-a-half-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30- million-dollar movie because we couldn't get a million and a half.

[To van Bakel.] True. We went in and asked for a million and a half, and they laughed. It wasn't until we started asking for much more that they started taking it seriously.

A million and a half is the budget for the Heidi Fleiss TV movie.

There is so much pulp out there, I can't believe it. I rented a bunch of movies in the process of filming because I wanted to see how others were doing it. I was appalled at the mindless masturbatory violence in these films. We don't really have that in Johnny Mnemonic.

Except the scene where the guy gets slashed into three pieces by that nasty molecular whip. It doesn't look that bad, though. It's not much worse than looking at raw steak. I think about violence a fair amount. It's in my artwork, too. I once needed to get some guns to take photographs of. Someone put me in touch with a guy in Brooklyn who, for $2,000, would get me some guns for a while. So this guy unpacks a cardboard box with about 30 guns that you could rent. For a crime. I mean, he wasn't dealing with people who want to go plinking cans off fence posts. And then I was driving back across the Brooklyn Bridge and there was an accident or something, a lot of police cars sitting there, and I'm thinking about this box in the back of my car. If I get stopped, what am I going to tell the cops? "I'm an artist, officer, honest"? Or "I'm starting a cult"? Jesus. It was weird.

I grew up in rural Virginia, where in effect, there was no firearms control. I bought pistols when I was 13 years old from the guy down at the gas station. Now, I've been living in a country with European-style gun control for so long that the gun situation down here in the States is one thing that would keep me from moving back.

Do you remember when we were in school, there was always the toughest kid in school, the biggest, strongest kid? Now anyone can become the toughest kid in school for a hundred bucks. Just go out and buy a weapon. I can tell when kids in New York City are packing guns. Because they have a strut of absolute fearlessness. It's this inherent thing about America. Deep down inside, we're still cowboys.

Urban cowboys. Kid cowboys.

You know, for our next project, we really should leave the future alone, just forget about it, and instead make a huge movie about this city in bygone days, the New York of the 1880s - based on that book we were both reading: Low Life, by Luc Sante.

I've enjoyed New York so much more since reading that. I read that after the Civil War, in New York, you could go into any pharmacy and buy an ounce of pure cocaine for about four dollars - and a jug of opium to chase it with. And there were a lot of people doing that. But it's something that's been whitewashed out of our history. There were drug gangs, and -

[Excited.] And bars where people went to kill themselves. Actual suicide parlours! Mostly women offed themselves there. I guess it was much more dramatic than slashing their wrists at home.

And how about these bars in back alleys that catered only to children? Very young children at that. Newsboys and beggars, that kind of thing. Incredible stuff.

No verbs, just nouns

Sometimes, what I really want to be is a writer. Writing somehow reminds me of boxing. It's, like, right there.

It's direct, yeah. It's not a model for something else, at least. And that's the weird thing about writing for movies: what you produce as a screenwriter isn't anything real. It's like a drawing, or a plan. A book manuscript, at least, is its own end product. In science fiction writing, where you create strange worlds to your heart's content, that's great and it totally works. You don't need to be concerned about the cost of special effects. It's just you, your imagination, and ink and paper.

When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan's lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic which not many people have picked up on. But there's other stuff - David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed I thought, OK, that's the hip science fiction of our age, and so I'm going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov. I was looking for a way to not have my science fiction come out as this lame dorky thing that the genre had gotten to be. In the late '70s, early '80s, the white-walled art galleries in New York were dead and the places I ended up going to get inspired and psyched to do great work were the rock clubs and the old movie theatres. I remember thinking, I want my art to be like a chord change in a Sex Pistols song. For the first five years, punk rock was the power source of what I was doing.

Punk was the last viable bohemia that we've seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I'm afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilisation; and if we're in fact at the end of industrial civilisation, there may be no more bohemians. That's scary. It's possible that commercialisation has become so sophisticated that it's no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.

Next time anyone even tries, it'll be a prime-time show before you know it. Bohemia: The Series!

Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that's on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I'm sad to see the phenomenon disappear. I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.

Rogier van Bakel (ragiernl@aol.com) cannot afford any of Robert Longo's works, but has plenty of William Gibson's. He is a writer in Sharon, Connecticut.