Was the place to be

Celine Danhier on Downtown 81, Maripol, Eric Mitchell, Cookie Mueller and Otto Preminger

by Anne-Katrin Titze

17 Blocks director Davy Rothbart accepts Best Documentary Editing Award on behalf of Jennifer Tiexiera at the Tribeca Film Festival
17 Blocks director Davy Rothbart accepts Best Documentary Editing Award on behalf of Jennifer Tiexiera at the Tribeca Film Festival Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

At The Odeon on West Broadway, a few blocks south of the Tribeca Film Festival Spring Studios Hub, I met with Celine Danhier, director of Blank City and Creative Director of Bunny Lake Films, which she co-founded with producer Rachel Dengiz (Davy Rothbart's 17 Blocks, Andrew Cohn and Rothbart's Medora, Sini Anderson's The Punk Singer on Kathleen Hanna, Sara Driver's Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years Of Jean-Michel Basquiat), editor Vanessa Roworth, and producer Aviva Wishnow.

Rachel Dengiz of Bunny Lake Films is a producer for Davy Rothbart's 17 Blocks
Rachel Dengiz of Bunny Lake Films is a producer for Davy Rothbart's 17 Blocks Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

After 99 Records founder Ed Bahlman departed, my conversation with Celine Danhier led to Maripol (producer of Edo Bertoglio's Downtown 81) and Eric Mitchell's role in Blank City, John Waters' star Cookie Mueller (Multiple Maniacs, Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble, Desperate Living, Polyester), Otto Preminger's Bunny Lake Is Missing, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, growing up "watching New York movies" such as Martin Scorsese's After Hours, and her collaborators at Bunny Lake Films.

In Blank City we see clips from films by Sara Driver, Susan Seidelman, Bette Gordon, James Nares, Jim Jarmusch, Anders Grafstrom, Eric Mitchell, Amos Poe, Richard Kern, Nick Zedd, Charlie Ahearn, Michael Oblowitz, Vivienne Dick, Lizzie Borden, John Lurie, Casandra Stark Mele, Tommy Turner, Tessa Hughes-Freeland, Michael Holman, Michael McClard, David Wojnarowicz, Kemra Pfahler, Beth B and Scott B, discussed by the filmmakers and stars.

A couple of weeks after our conversation, 17 Blocks film editor Jennifer Tiexiera won the Best Documentary Editing Award at the Tribeca Film Festival, which was accepted by the director Davy Rothbart at the presentation ceremony.

Bunny Lake Films produced Sophie Auster's Run Run Run music video
Bunny Lake Films produced Sophie Auster's Run Run Run music video Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Eric Mitchell has some great quotes in Blank City. He calls Rome '78, directed by James Nares, "High Camp". He notes what inspires him as a filmmaker, by saying that it was Andy Warhol for the concept, Fassbinder for the ensemble, Pier Paolo Pasolini's integrity, and Jean-Pierre Melville's hat and sunglasses, while Mitchell himself is wearing a hat and sunglasses as he makes the comment.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There's an authenticity or integrity to Blank City - to quote Eric Mitchell on Pasolini. What have you been working on since? You are part of the production company Bunny Lake.

Celine Danhier: Yes, me and Aviva Wishnow who was part of Blank City, Vanessa Roworth who was part of Blank City and Rachel Dengiz who was part of another documentary about Medora.

AKT: You named the company after the Preminger film because it is a favorite for all of you? I love Bunny Lake is Missing.

CD: I mean, I love Otto Preminger. He's one of these directors who inspired me. We were looking for a name and it's always difficult to find a name, and we're like four. And then we were like, okay, a filmmaker, and someone came up with Bunny Lake. It's such a cool name, you know? And it's linked to this movie from Preminger, who is such an icon in terms of filmmaker and storyteller.

Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby's: "I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is."
Jean-Michel Basquiat at Sotheby's: "I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Our idea with Bunny Lake is to produce. We were like part of Boom for Real, the documentary by Sara Driver, which was released last year. We produced as well a documentary called The Joneses [directed by Moby Longinotto] which was released last year and now is with Gravitas [Ventures].

AKT: You do also videos, right? I saw one of Sophie Auster, I believe.

CD: This one yes. It was produced by Rachel. We also produced some political videos last year for Swing Left, this political organisation. It was a bunch of people talking about why it's important to vote for the midterm election. And we've been doing lots of fashion videos.

AKT: Which brands for example?

CD: Fashion brands like Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton, you know. We've been doing lots of different things, trying to tell stories and as well to develop some ideas to produce documentaries or work on narratives.

AKT: Anything that is like Blank City that you are working on? Blank City 2?

Puzzle director Marc Turtletaub and a producer for 17 Blocks
Puzzle director Marc Turtletaub and a producer for 17 Blocks Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CD: Not Blank City 2.

AKT: That was a joke.

CD: I mean, sometime yeah, on the other side, I like to create new things all the time. After Blank City, so many people were telling me "You could do a documentary about this person, about this movement."

I really wanted to do something about Cookie Mueller for a very long time because she was linked to so many people like John Waters. A book was released about her a few years ago [Chloé Griffin's Edgewise: A Picture of Cookie Mueller]. I thought she could be like a very interesting topic. It was just a thought and I've been working on different projects right now.

As you know, working on a documentary or on fiction takes a lot of time. People need to be at ease with you, so you need to take your time if you want to portray something. It's the relationship that you have with the person.

AKT: The connection.

Medora executive producer Wren Arthur
Medora executive producer Wren Arthur Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

CD: And the connection. It's funny because it's like in the movie world, people sometimes are like "Okay what is the next thing that you are doing?"

AKT: Some people seem to rush from one project into the next, in the Fassbinder school of never stopping to take a breath.

CD: I love Fassbinder. He was releasing lots of things, one after the other.

AKT: The toll it takes, the other side of the coin. As Ed [Bahlman] was saying earlier, all the drugs and self-destructive behaviour [by filmmakers and performers]. That's another thing I liked about Blank City - that you don't romanticize, and don't portray it as the dream life. No idolising a point in time.

CD: Not like any nostalgia and "oh it was better before." Because it was not. It was just different. New York is like the backdrop. Now it's all the new technology. You don't have to be in one place in order to create something. Which was true in New York of the late Seventies because you had so many creative people who wanted to come to New York because it was the place to be.

AKT: You came to New York to make Blank City?

Blank City poster
Blank City poster

CD: I grew up watching New York movies. I remember this movie from Scorsese, After Hours. It was like New York at night, this guy meeting a lot of people and having a lot of adventures.

AKT: Ed told me he had to move his car for this shoot. He lived right around the corner in SoHo when they were filming this [on Crosby Street].

CD: After Hours?

AKT: Yes, and he lived on Broome Street and he said his car is in a shot and he had to move it for one of the alleyway scenes in SoHo in the middle of the night.

CD: I was having this dream, you know, about coming to New York, but I didn't really know what I will do. I wanted to work in film. When did you hear about Blank City? When it was first released?

AKT: Yes, I had heard about it. But I hadn't seen it until a few weeks ago.

CD: How did you find it?

AKT: I stumbled upon it at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Center. I was looking for something else. Stanley Donen had just died and I wanted to watch Seven Brides For Seven Brothers again. I had just talked about this film, by chance, days before Donen died, with Batsheva [Hay]. You know, the designer?

CD: Yes, yes. I read a portrait in The New Yorker.

Tribeca Film Festival Best Editing Documentary Competition nominations
Tribeca Film Festival Best Editing Documentary Competition nominations Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: So these were the two films I found there - Seven Brides For Seven Brothers and Blank City.

CD: I think it was on Netflix for a couple of months but I don't even know now. I think it was on YouTube, someone put it there. But one shouldn't really put a whole movie on YouTube, so it was removed. We have a film at Tribeca now. It's Rachel's, who is part of Bunny Lake who's one of the producers of 17 Blocks.

AKT: [We both look at the page in the Tribeca FIP Guide, which I had picked up, together with my press lanyard right before meeting Celine at The Odeon.] I see Marc Turtletaub is also one of the producers. Last year I interviewed him on Puzzle, the film he directed. Maripol is a great interview in your film with a fascinating career.

CD: You saw Downtown 81, like, the movies that she made. Maripol is such a legend as an artist, photographer. She had some very interesting insights. And she was French as well, so we had this kind of connection. She was really trying to help me to connect with people. I remember Maripol sometime calling me, telling me "We need to change this and this in the documentary."

Maripol: Little Red Riding Hood by Marc Jacobs
Maripol: Little Red Riding Hood by Marc Jacobs

And Eric Mitchell was like that as well. He was calling me to change things. When he saw the documentary the first time at Tribeca [in 2009] he sent me this long email: "So, you need to do that and that and that and that and that."

AKT: Can you give an example of that?

CD: He was like "Cinema of Transgression was important but I think you should focus totally on No Wave and not Cinema of Transgression." I think he was trying to detach himself from the Cinema of Transgression movement. But then he was like "No, no, it's very good."

AKT: Maripol did a Little Red Riding Hood {Maripol: Little Red Riding Hood} book with Marc Jacobs?

CD: Yes, it was published a few years ago. I think it's about all the Polaroids that she made. She had Polaroid books she made with Madonna. No, it's not Madonna, it's Patti Astor. The Little Red book was about her career.

Read what Celine Danhier had to say on filmmakers in Blank City and the music with Ed Bahlman.

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