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Interview with Jonas Mekas, Cameraman for 'Empire'

Filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas recalls the making of 'Empire' with Andy Warhol--sneaking in, sandwiches, and screenings.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Earlier this week, as part of our reporting for "Empire" Tweets Back (WNYC's live-tweet marathon of Andy Warhol's eight-hour film of the Empire State Building happening on Friday at the Museum of Modern Art), we tracked down the cameraman behind this 1964 film—legendary filmmaker and poet Jonas Mekas—to answer some of our many questions about what was going on behind the scenes during "Empire."

So, how'd you get into the building? Who was there? What did you eat? Why that frame? Why the slow projection speed? Have you actually sat through the entire film? Any advice for viewing this thing?

Mekas, the 88-year-old co-founder and president of Anthology Film Archives, who couldn’t join us at MoMA because he's debuting his new film at the Berlin International Film Festival, had some enlightening answers. So enlightening, in fact, and so charming with that Lithuanian accent, that we decided to include 24 minutes of excerpted audio above, along with a rough guide to listening here so you can skip around:

Intro: Why the Empire State Building? The backstory, planning with Andy Warhol.

2:30 Sneaking into the Time-Life Building...

3:30 Setting up, framing, changing the 30-minute reels, sandwiches.

4:45 The premiere..."It was like a party."

5:30 "I have to tell you a joke." A tricky museum in Vienna screens "Empire"--with a twist.

7:45 The experience of watching the film. Skepticism, relaxation...and then "this huge incredible event happens"...

9:45 Similar cinema? "The most boring masterpieces of cinema."

12:00 "We had a great night, friends together...it was peaceful."

12:15 The ghost of Andy: Years after filming, Whitney Museum curator Callie Angell discovers, after studying the frames, reflections of Andy and Jonas in the glass. Andy had already passed.

14:30 Henry Romney made arrangements for them to be in the building; who was there.

15:15 During the filming: What did you guys do? And after?

17:00 What dictated framing, and: "almost on the level of where the King Kong and the plane goes and crashes..."

18:45 Meeting Andy Warhol...Ginsberg...Salvador Dali...

20:00 Belmore Cafeteria: for "taxi-drivers sandwiches."

21:00 Filming and projecting speed; why Andy liked 16 frames per second.

22:30 Major problem: Stan Brakhage initially watched "Sleep" at the wrong speed.

23:45 Last words and advice on watching "Empire." Hide your sandwiches from MoMA.

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