Tales from the Underground: Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont
by Dale Dobson
Vincent Fremont began working with Pop Art legend Andy Warhol in 1969. Fremont was heavily involved in the artist's film and video productions for many years, and came to know the regulars at Warhol's "Factory," including the loquacious renegade heiress Brigid "Polk" Berlin. He and his wife Shelly Dunn Fremont produced and directed the recent documentary, Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story, and they spent some time talking with digitallyOBSESSED.com about the project and the Warhol mystique. Our conversation has been edited for continuity and clarity.
dOc: Vincent, tell us about your background with Andy Warhol and company.
Vincent: It started a loooong time ago. (laughs) I came to New York in 1969, August of '69 as I remember, at the end of Woodstock, in fact, and I had been a great fan of Andy's work in high school. So I came with two friends, and we were called "The Babies," we were kind of a conceptual group that looked like a rock-and-roll band. And about the third day I was in New York, we went up to Andy's studio at 33 Union Square West, and my other two friends had already been to New York six months before, briefly, and met Andy. We brought him Mexican masks, and then that's how it all started. I met Andy that day and hit it off, he was still carrying a tape recorder around that was a reel-to-reel tape recorder with a microphone. I spent the whole afternoon with him, my other two friends left. And from there I started freelancing, and after that brief time, I went back to California for six or eight months, actually, to get out of the draft, and came back to New York permanently in the 1970s and went on staff in January of 1971.
dOc: Did you know Brigid Berlin during that time?
Vincent: The first time I laid eyes on Brigid, who I knew about because I was following Andy's world from high school, she was at Max's Kansas City, which was the restaurant which was quite the scene in the mid-to-late sixties, and the back room was really Andy's area. Everything started around midnight, or after midnight, and Brigid was there, and German television was there, filming everybody. And she was given, like, ten dollars to go and try to knock off Candy Darling's wig. She was such an imposing figure at that time. That's when I was first really mesmerized by her.
dOc: How did the film come about?
Vincent: After Andy died, I went to Brigid and I optioned her life story, because I wanted to make a film of it. I had optioned [Tama Janowitz's book] Slaves of New York for Andy, and I was getting Andy back into filmmaking. I had produced all of Andy's television shows, and we were starting to expand. After Andy died, we couldn't make the movie, but I still wanted to do something. So I thought it would be a good idea to get Brigid to have her story told as a film. She wanted a fictional version of her life with Jodie Foster playing her... I still had an agent through the process when we were trying to make Slaves of New York, and he said I should have Brigid write a book first, and we could option the rights. But Brigid tried to write a book, and it was very emotional for her, and it just didn't succeed, she could never get started. So as time went on, the option ran out, but I still had it in the back of my mind. And maybe three years ago, Shelly and I were talking to Thea Westreich, an art advisory person, and we started working on chapter monologues.
Here, I'll make it shorter... 1996... Shelly's giving me... it's really hard to give an interview with somebody when... (laughter from both)
The breakthrough is 1996. I asked [Brigid] to do a monologue at the Gramercy International Art Fair, which you see partly in the movie, when she does her "tit prints." That's her first live monologue show since Brigid Polk Strikes! in 1968. Calvin Klein, Bianca, everybody came to see and hear her, because she is the legend, and from that we started seriously thinking about doing her life story again. And she announces at The Kitchen, which was another live performance, and that was a piece on cleaning, she announced to the audience, therefore Shelly and myself, she wanted her life story done as a film. And then we decided to make the documentary.
dOc: Let me ask a technical question... some of the home movies from the Berlin family were restored?
Shelly: The films had all been stored in the basement and the attic of Brigid's house, and when her mother died, she'd taken them to the Factory. And then—she was going to throw them away at one point—Vincent had salvaged them. Then when we decided to do the movie we realized we needed to look at everything in the cans, and some of the cans had rusted shut, they weren't in great shape. So we hired John Hanhardt, who is an archivist; he had worked at the Museum of Modern Art on Andy's films, so we knew him. He helped us find the people who could...
Vincent: ... the labs...
Shelly: ... the labs that could make the new reels. They had to make special... the sprockets had even shrunk, so we had to find a place that could do that and adapt to all these things. And then, when you see the pictures of Brigid as a baby, with sort of the special effects along there, when she's six months old. That's actually the one pass we got off of that film before it disintegrated. So were lucky to have that. And then the Warhol things, we had to get from the Warhol museum.
Vincent: I knew about all that material at the Andy Warhol museum, since I shot a lot of the black & white material. I had worked on all the soap opera ideas in the seventies with Andy, of which Brigid was an integral part. That's why you see her with the pie, using the whipped cream in the mouth—that black & white scene—that is actually a scene from Phony, in which Brigid is playing herself but playing a character. And that's how we incorporated those scenes, because they are funny.
dOc: Brigid mentions in the film that she's no longer talking to her siblings... but her sister Richie was involved with the Factory too...
Shelly: They weren't speaking, just for a while, when we did the movie. Now they're back on track.
Vincent: When we started filming, I invited all the siblings to be in the movie.
Shelly: And that happened to be a moment when they weren't speaking.
dOc: Was Brigid happy with the film?
Shelly: Yes. She was happy with it. She liked it from the first, second, third time she saw it, and then as she realized it was going out in the world, and she couldn't really control...
Vincent: What happened is... it was delayed reaction. It affects you, because it's very hard to see your life on screen, hearing the tape of your mother... She started eating a lot more pie all of a sudden. But she came around, I think she's recognized in Union Square, Farmer's Market... people come up to her. I think it's very, very difficult, and she was very courageous, I think, even doing the movie. Very few people can speak so directly about themselves.
Shelly: So honestly.
Vincent: We tried to not make... we weren't trying to make any judgments about her. It's, 'There she is!'
dOc: John Waters alludes to her openness a couple of times in the interviews you did with him. Were those interview segments shot differently than the others?
Vincent: John was 16mm. At that time, we were thinking of shooting sixteen.
Shelly: He was the first interview we did, because when we started to figure out our schedule, we realized John was starting Cecil B. Demented. And if we didn't get him in August, before he started shooting, we wouldn't. He'd be too tied up. So we quickly threw a crew together and went down to Baltimore, and that was before we'd even figured out we were going to do it in DigiBeta. And actually it worked out well, because that sort of helped us realize how expensive film was, and how much more complicated it would be. And that's when he honed in on the DigiBeta, and found Vic Losick after that. He was D.P. on all of the live shots of Brigid.
Vincent: I had been more comfortable, because I produced all of our television... we had shot only tape for television. And I thought, technology's changed, I asked for the best quality video available, and that was DigiBeta. And Vic had a camera and came with the whole package.
Shelly: And he had the lighting guy, we had the lighting all set up in Brigid's apartment so that it looked like natural light. We were very lucky to find him, I think. We were lucky in all our crew, from Vic, to the lighting man, Ned...
Vincent: And of course, Michael Levine, our editor...
Shelly: Right, and Chris Stein, who did the music, all the original music.
dOc: Chris Stein is from "Blondie," but the style of some of what he's written for your film is very "Velvet Underground"-ish...
Shelly: We wanted to evoke that time. And Chris actually opened for the Velvet, back in the day...
Vincent: As a young man. So he knew, when I needed a part to have a "Velvet" sound, he knew how to... he knew the rhythm.
dOc: It's interesting to me, the connections between the Factory, and the Velvet Underground, and John Waters...
Vincent: John first came to the Factory in 1972 when he was promoting Pink Flamingos. That's when I first met him. So there is that connection—it goes all the way through.
dOc: One gets the impression, watching the film, that Brigid is quite talkative...
Vincent: Never at a loss for words. I've always taped Brigid that way, 'cause I learned it from Andy. You set her up, and then she goes, and you can guide it from time to time, but it's better to let it go.
Shelly: Let her run with it.
Vincent: Then you try to get... There are certain topics, one day she wouldn't want to talk about, or she never talked about. Like the portraits done by Gerhard Richter, the wonderful German artist, and if she doesn't want to talk about it, she doesn't want to talk about it. So you find, on another day... you just have to go with it, because that's the best use.
She is a natural in front of the camera, and you can't over-direct her. It defeats the purpose. Andy understood that, because she is such a brilliant talker, and was so imaginative and creative in her thinking that he loved her for that reason. She's a dynamic person on camera. I always told Vic to keep the camera running as much as possible, because you never know what can come up. And she was great, to have a crew in her apartment. She was incredibly patient to have us there over a two-week period, maybe more. And she didn't get to meet the editor, or know where we were editing, until we were almost finished, and wanted to show her almost the final rough cut. So she was terrific with that, very, very patient. It's about your life, it's something that not many people could have the courage to do.
dOc: Do you think there's an "underground" today?
Shelly: It hasn't come above yet.
Vincent: I don't know if there's an underground. I would think it's hard to find in Manhattan. Not many people can afford to live here. I don't know. I'm sure there's all sorts of things that I'm not aware of anymore. I'm sure there's a thriving... in different parts of Manhattan, I would say, also in Brooklyn...
Shelly: Across America... it's hard to know what's going on, until it comes up, until it comes above ground. But I'm sure there's something going on. I think it's the nature of youth to experiment and figure out what's going on.
dOc: The cultural concentration may not be there as it was during the Factory years.
Vincent: I think that's a relatively unique moment in New York City history, in the culture and the arts. Artists were working in their studios, and some were still making films, but Andy was one of the few artists making films, and had that circle or scene around him. He was a center where people gravitated to the Factory, and not just the East 47th Street Factory, [but] carried it forward to 33 Union Square West, and 860 Broadway, and finally to 19 East 32nd, 22 East 33rd Street. People came to New York to see Andy; publicists brought rock stars, or up-and-coming rock stars, or writers... That kind of energy is hard to see. You don't hear about that so much anymore, where there's a center. And Max's Kansas City was the hangout for what Brigid called the "heavies" in the front, which were Larry Poonz, Brice Marden, and artists like that, and in the back it was Andy's, for a while, until he got shot. But that scene was a mixture of musicians, actors and artists.
Vincent: It was more of the scene scene. The hard-driving, driven artists were in the front.
dOc: One thing I wanted to ask is, who was "Rotten Rita"? I know Brigid mentions her in the film, and Lou Reed mentions her in a song...
Vincent: You know, Brigid told me who "Rotten Rita" is. I never met Rotten Rita... I can find out for you, though. Rotten Rita was around before I came... I came in '69, she was probably around a little bit earlier, and was not around the scene very much when I came, but was somebody they all talked about. [Mr. Fremont was kind enough to call me back a few minutes after the interview to fill me in. "Rotten Rita" was a male, a friend of Ondine and presumably a fellow "speed freak," known for passing bad checks and other criminal activities. He referred me to page 76 of Warhol's book "POPISM: The Warhol 60's" for more information about 'her.']
dOc: Is there another project in the works for you two?
Shelly: We're both working on separate projects. Who knows which one will come to the... you know, come above ground.
Vincent: We'd like to do something else.
Shelly: We'd definitely like to. We enjoyed the whole process of making the movie. It's the first time we've ever worked together, so it's been interesting on that level. But we've been married for like a hundred years, so... (laughs) at this point, it's... [we're] kind of a good foil for one another. We both know each other's weaknesses and strengths.
dOc: Hopefully the DVD release will help the film reach a wider audience than it already has. It's been a great venue for independent films.
Shelly: Yeah, because people can get a hold of them. It does seem like people like New Video are putting out a lot of things.