From Burroughs to Uncle Howard: An Interview with Aaron Brookner

The new documentary Uncle Howard is an inspired compilation of recovered footage, interviews, a story of discovery by Aaron Brookner, a filmmaker who followed in his uncle's craft. A passing of a baton, you could say, Uncle Howard reflects Aaron Brookner's determination to ensure his uncle's legacy. Aaron was seven when Howard Brookner, died of AIDS in 1989. Some family films show them together, a handsome, charming young man with a cute little boy.

In 1983, Howard Brookner's biopic Burroughs was featured in the New York Film Festival, and then lost. Aaron found the film at the Bunker, Burroughs' residence on the Bowery, and this year Criterion released the DVD thanks to Aaron Brookner's work on restoring his uncle's work. But more, Aaron found enough additional footage to create this homage, with producers Jim Jarmusch and Sara Driver who remembers this talented group including Howard as student filmmakers together excited by the chance to tell stories in new ways in film. Coming full circle, Uncle Howard was featured in this past New York Film Festival where I had a chance to catch up with Aaron Brookner.

Uncle Howard is a personal film for you. Is it also a sequel to Burroughs?

I wouldn't use the word sequel; it's more of a modern deconstruction of what was going on behind the scenes, a look at the person creating that film. The Nova Convention, for example, shows Burroughs in the center of his peers; this film reflects young people in the background of downtown New York. The people documenting this scene were Howard, Jim Jarmusch, Tom Dicillo, and Sara Driver.

As your film deftly shows, Howard Brookner was making a big Hollywood style movie with Madonna and Matt Dillon as he was dying of AIDS. It made me wistful to think of what his career might have been.

I wanted to evoke that. Without feeling nostalgic and sad, I wanted the audience to think of the damage of the AIDS epidemic. We get an unfulfilled feeling of what could have happened if the guy who could navigate the world of William Burroughs and Robert Wilson and Hollywood, had lived. Where would he have taken it next. And I did find out, he was developing something with David Bowie. He was adapting Brad Gooch's first novel, he was hanging out with Sean Penn so there was something going on there. He had a close relationship with Derek Jarman; he had a lot of things going on.

Was it difficult to create the narrative structure?

A lot of conceptual work went into the filmmaking. The film manages to talk about a lot of things, downtown NY, what we leave behind, and gentrification, for example. It was challenging to create a narrative. In the beginning I was working with the sound roll, in pieces, I was working with a narrative through line which was such a downer: Howard's story takes all the air out, and I realized the film needed to be a lot more than that. The editor and I looked at Kurasawa's Ikiru. A character finds out at the beginning he's ill and then the film cuts to his wake, so we structured Uncle Howard that way.

What did you learn about your uncle Howard in the process of making the film?

I was talking to Jim [Jarmusch] about this. I think of generations. Jim and Howard learned from Burroughs, and I learned from them. Art is an ongoing process. You are never done. You do something, it does well, you keep doing versions of that over and over. If something succeeds you can't take a break. I am inspired by the element of risk-taking by Howard and his peers. I wanted to show that through line. That was not easy: I wanted to make a movie about a guy no one knew, his films were missing, and he's dead. I learned not to give up.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.