Flashing Back With Sara Driver on the Bowery

My favorite Sara Driver story involves her 1981 film of Paul Bowles's short story, You Are Not I. Long thought lost, a print of the 48-minute film was discovered in 2008 among Bowles' possessions in Tangier, Morocco in his driver's insecticide-laden basement. Now restored, the film was featured at several conferences and festivals celebrating the author's centennial last year. In its own right, Sara Driver's work has been feted in Buenos Aires, Reykjavik, and Thessalonika, among other places.

This weekend You Are Not I screens in a retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, "Sleepwalking: The Films of Sara Driver," along with her films Sleepwalk (1986), When Pigs Fly (1994), and Bowery -- Spring, an 11-minute documentary from 1994. Also marking the occasion of a newly minted boxed DVD set of Driver's work, the series will feature films Driver found inspiring, among them Jacques Tourneur's Cat People and Charlotte Zwerin and Bruce Ricker's Thelonius Monk: Straight No Chaser.

Last week, at her neighborhood's Bowery Diner, over a sugared doughnut and some cappuccino, I had a chance to talk to Driver about her distinctive, downtown cum international career.

Why a retrospective this year?

I don't like to call it a retrospective when I've only made 4 films. I like to call it a flashback. Ron Mann has the company, Filmswelike; he saw my films in Buenos Aires and wanted to do a boxed set. At that time I had nothing available. I was trying to get the rights back to When Pigs Fly, which had gone into some very bad financial situation. I barely had a film that would go through a projector for Sleepwalk. When the print of You Are Not I was found in Tangier, it made me jump into action to preserve all my work. So this all fell into place at the right time.

Flashback is a good word. In Sleepwalk, you show so much of the city that is not in our city anymore. Did you realize the work would be something of a time capsule?

It's so hard to be here, if you don't use the city, why be here? We shot Sleepwalk in the summer of '85, and finished in '86. You never know how your city will change. That film was woven around my life in NYC. I produced Stranger Than Paradise for Jim [Jarmusch, her longtime partner]. We made the first part in 1982. It took till 1984 to find the rest of the money. During that time I worked in a Xerox shop along with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. It was the only kind of job I could do that would allow me to go to film festivals to raise money. So I had this experience where I'd be xeroxing all day long with this rhythm that would echo what was happening outside the shop.

This area was not heavily populated. It was like a war zone. You had an instinctive reaction to the street. You had to be tuned into everything around you otherwise you would get hurt. You would run into your heroes on the street, like Burroughs, and they had an influence on your work. And that was a wonderful time in the city when we had repertory art houses and a lot more European films. Studios didn't own theaters the way they do now. I got a great education from NYU and from these cinemas. I was influenced by Jacques Rivette's films, and Tarkovsky's. Their magical realism was a big influence on Sleepwalk.

What was the inspiration for When Pigs Fly?

Tourneur said, if you anchor something in reality, you can go anywhere with your imagination and people will believe it. Screenwriter Ray Dobbins and I would talk about ghost stories. He told me about this chair his grandmother would talk to his grandfather in. People are born and then they die in rocking chairs. That gave me the idea.

A rocking chair links Alfred Molina, a jazz musician, to a pair of ghosts, one of whom is Marianne Faithfull. How did you cast them?

I had seen Alfred in a film about Joe Orton. I fell in love with Alfred. What a great energy! Great presence! He loves to act. I wanted Alfred to play Arnold in Two Serious Ladies, a film I was adapting from Jane Bowles' novella. I fell in love with Jane Bowles' language. Her dialogues are really funny. I wanted Marianne Faithfull to play the woman who runs the house for Frieda. That film never got made, and I wrote When Pigs Fly for Marianne and Alfred.

Can you talk about the music in your films?

Joe Strummer did the music for When Pigs Fly. He was like an archeologist of music. Strummer's spirit was so great. Joe had been out of the studio for a long time, so when I asked him for music he gave me 9 hours in 5 days. I said, Joe, I can't even index this music. He just exploded and I was the recipient. Phil Kline worked on Sleepwalk; he is a classical avant-garde composer, now very well known. He and Jim are working on an opera together.

Aside from Two Serious Ladies, what else is sitting on the proverbial shelf?

I wrote Deaf, Dumb and Blonde, a silent movie from the George Bush era when nobody knew what was going on behind all the smoke and mirrors. I got involved with cinema wanting to be inventive with cinematic language and it's harder and harder to do that. Deaf, Dumb and Blonde is about the memory of sound. Nobody wants to finance a silent movie! I thought The Artist was schmaltz.

I wrote Gone With the Mind, about a scientist who is forced to stay with his mother in a senior citizen center. And, in They Live Among Us, perky college girls dress in bright colors and keep getting murdered. It turns out they are bees. The idea came from the thought that Dick Cheney was really from another species. The script echoes what bees actually do in the hive. Sounds Burroughsian, right?

Flashing forward, what are you working on now?

A European production for children, a series of folk tales to be called Tales from the Hanging Head, and directed by international directors. I'll be doing one; Marjane Satrape, Emir Kusturica, Michel Gondry, and Alfonso Cuaron will direct others linked by the common thread of metamorphosis. The challenge for the directors is they have to hand make all effects.

Now I can't wait till April when I will be done with my past, live in the present, and go to the future.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.