This week in our quest to understand the life and work of Avery Willard, Cary Kehayan, the co-director of the documentary In Search Of Avery Willard explains how the project came to pass, how it relates to Keep The Lights On, and what intruiges him about this unusual but exciting endeavor.
It’s a great privilege to share with you the work of the late Avery Willard. Avery wore many hats – photographer, filmmaker, writer, editor, leatherman, pornographer. He was a creator in the truest sense. Ambitious, elusive and prolific, he was an unsung trailblazer of the queer art world. The work of innovators like Avery is what drove me to become a documentarian. I’ve always felt that a good doc filmmaker is, first and foremost, a disciplined and acute observer – one who isn’t afraid to take the side streets and embrace each tangent along the way. The process requires a tremendous amount of movement and obsession and perseverance. There’s a lot of joy but even more frustration and heartbreak. And yet, every once in a while, there is a discovery filled with such promise, it gives you the shivers. This was the case with Avery.
A few months ago, director Ira Sachs and I took a trip to the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division. Ira had first heard about Avery Willard through singer Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons. When Ira and Adam Baran asked Antony what films he would want to show at their Queer/Art/Film series at the IFC Center, Antony said that he wanted to show films he’d only heard about but never seen: the lost films of Charles Ludlam and Avery Willard. Ira and Adam had restored and presented the Charles Ludlam films at their series, and now it was time to see what could be done about Avery Willard.
Upon requesting access to the Avery Willard Collection at the library, we were presented with three nondescript cardboard boxes. Each contained dozens of tangled, decaying reels of film shot by Mr. Willard from the 1940s through the 1970s. After restoring and viewing four of the prints, we were instantly mesmerized. The films were so wonderfully strange and enchanting that we knew there had to be a fascinating life behind them. And so, with almost no clues, we set out in search of Avery Willard.
While we were researching Avery, Ira was simultaneously developing his film Keep The Lights On. In the original draft of the script, the lead character, Erik, was a young documentarian making a film-within-a-film about the famous East Village gay club, The Saint. One day, Ira told me that he had experienced a moment of clarity. His partner Boris suggested that Erik be shooting our doc, mirroring our real-life search for Avery. It made perfect sense. Keep The Lights On felt so real to me and so beautifully honest. Why not blur the lines even more?
So here we are, shooting reality, shooting fiction, shooting reality as told through fiction. We’ll conduct an interview about Avery and, shortly thereafter, witness Erik shooting the same subject in the same location, asking the same questions. It’s all a bit confusing and wonderful. One of those whirlwind experiences where you have to relinquish lucidity and simply dive right in. As life is layered upon art, we begin to see Avery through many different lenses. Things are merging together in the strangest of ways. I already feel so close to Avery even though there is so much left to know. We don’t expect to find every piece of the puzzle. In fact, our biggest questions remain unanswered. But it’s not all about answers. This is a film about the search itself. The closer we come to chasing down the ghost of Avery Willard, the more we discover profundity and beauty in the gaps and mysteries along the way.