Comedy guru Del Close, mentor to everyone from Bill Murray to Tina Fey, sets out to write his autobiography for D.C. Comics. As he leads us through sewers, mental wards, and his peculiar talent for making everyone famous but himself, Close emerges as a personification of the creative impulse itself. He's a muse with BO and dirty needles, offering transcendence despite (or because of) the trail of wreckage behind him.
I first stumbled into Del Close-- or rather the legend of him-- while making a doc taking place in a teenage girls’ prison in Chicago. The prison was grim, but to my delight the girls themselves were surprisingly hilarious despite the bleakness of their situations. They got me thinking about comedy as a way of asserting our intelligence and humanity over impossible situations. On a break from prison shoot, I picked up a copy of the Chicago Reader and read a piece about a madman who lived in squalor and had also trained all of my favorite comedians. There it was again- the grim right up against the delightful. How could I not pull that thread?
We knew that to make the definitive movie about this icon/unknown, we would need to take the same kind of creative risks that he was famous for. A standard talking-heads tribute was not the way (nor was it our interest.) As someone known for breaking down genres and experimenting with form—not to mention playing fast and loose with the truth - we decided to apply the same ideas to our film and try to break new ground with the documentary genre. This resulted in constructing a set of scenes imagining the creative process behind WASTELAND, Del’s comic book autobiography. Del’s dialog would consist of direct quotes from him, lifted word for word from tapes of his workshops and phone calls, while other performers-- all students or grand-students of Del’s-- would be free to improvise. Handmade stop motion animation and the use of found footage, work prints of Del’s unseen acting work, and decayed video of Del’s now-famous students at play would add to the sense of pulling the curtain back on the creative process and allowing it to exist for its own pleasure- something Del delighted in.
About a half an hour after we delivered the finished product after 6 years of incomprehensible effort, texts started coming in. SXSW, and the premiere of our film, had been cancelled. Now, with pandemic on the rage, it’s hard not to slip into reflection. In some moments, I think- why the hell did I spend my precious days on earth making a movie about an obscure comedian? And then I remember that Del Close himself was just the gateway drug. It’s incredibly fitting that For Madmen Only is really about the cosmic joke of the creative process. It’s never been more clear to me than right now that the outcome of any creative endeavor is 100% uncertain, so you better enjoy the process. Should I shake my fist at the universe or give it a high five for its jerky sense of humor? It’s not usually a good idea to follow the lead of Del Close in anything, but as people around the world contemplate their own mortality we’ll look to him, and the young women in that Chicago prison, and keep our sense of humor as a lifeline in this most impossible time.
Q&A WITH DIRECTOR HEATHER ROSS
1. How did this film come about? How did the idea originate? What inspired you?
To tell this story, I had to investigate my own rabid interest in comedy. I ended up digging into the fact that, from childhood, comedy was a sort of signal in the dark, letting me know that there were others out there who saw the ludicrous in the everyday. Lo and behold, as our interviews rolled in, I learned that my heroes felt the same way, and that Del, like comedy itself, was a kind of pied piper summoning the outsiders from the four corners of the earth.
When you make a documentary over the course of six years, you have to find a reason to keep going. When I got pregnant with twins halfway through the process and I really had to ask myself whether there was something here that justified the grind, I realized: that was exactly what the film was about. Del Close became the seductive, stinking embodiment of the creative impulse. He promises a chance encounter with God and then leaves you hanging; he drains your patience, your bank account, your time; and yet you keep coming back, like a moth to the flame, because if you have the need to create, you’ll endure just about anything to do it. The film became an exploration of the creative process, both its joys and its costs, and an homage to those who choose to live their lives for it.
2. How long did it take to make the film? From concept to finish.
I’d been thinking about Del as a subject since living in Chicago in 2005, but it wasn’t until I’d mentioned the idea in passing to a colleague and she told me her sister worked at Del’s old theater for his partner that it started to seem viable. So since that first conversation with Del’s partner to now… on and off...6 ½ freaking years.
3. Why did you make this film?
Why I started it and why I finished it are two different things. When I started, having cut my teeth on fairly serious verité documentaries, I really wanted to find a subject that would enable me to take creative leaps and be a little less of a reporter. Having been a comedy fan since my neighbor’s mom showed us tapes of early SNL when I was 7 (she also let us watch Kentucky Fried Movie- that’s some 80’s parenting), I thought it would be an easy project.
Cut to years later, slogging through the story of a man with so many contradictions and so little first-hand footage, it was hard to see a path. Especially after I gave birth, I was unsure whether there was a film here. I had to really ask myself what my stake in this story was. I realized that the place where I most identified with Del was in his creative low points, as he trudged through nearly 20 years of making long-form improvisation a viable art form. That’s where I was with the film- after the initial burst of excitement, the path had washed away. When the film became a more personal examination of the perils of the creative life and an appreciation of those who dive into it headfirst, it started to come together.
4. Share a story about filming; anything that you found interesting along the way with your filming journey.
There was a scavenger hunt aspect to this film. We’d go to interview someone, and they’d send us to someone who had a box of tapes in their basement etc. For instance, when we interviewed Bob Odenkirk, he told us his aunt, an improv historian, had some hot goss on Del and Elaine May. He ended up sending us to NYC where his aunt Janet Coleman gave an amazing interview, unveiled the love triangle between Del, Nichols and May, and sent us off with a bunch of tapes of her conversations with Del from the 80s.
Similarly, we were on our first shoot in Chicago, shooting at a random comedy club, when the owner mentioned he knew someone with a box of tapes of Del’s 70s workshops in their basement. We chased down that treasure trove and the tapes, though low quality, were full of the wisdom and insanity Del was famous for. We didn’t know what to do with them until the answer became clear- build improv exercises around them. Have an actor play Del, speaking actual quotes from these tapes, and then allow everyone around him to improvise.
5. What were the challenges in making this film?
We knew that to make the definitive movie about this icon in the rough, we would need to take the same kind of creative risks that he was famous for. A standard talking-heads tribute was not the way (nor was it our interest.) As someone known for breaking down genres and playing with form—not to mention playing fast and loose with the truth-- we decided to apply the same ideas to our film and try to break new ground with the doc genre. This resulted in incorporating our improvised comedy scenes. We were so excited that our experiment attracted the level of talent that it did, but the real challenge lay in how to weave the scenes in with our doc footage AND the subplot of Del writing his life story in the comic book Wasteland. It took several iterations before we had a version that didn’t give our viewers whiplash or make them throw a chair at us, Del style.
6. What were the successes that you had in making this film?
Getting to meet our favorite comedians and explore the importance of comedy was certainly a highlight. Finding never-before-seen footage of Chris Farley and Tina Fey in basements around Chicagoland and NYC was also satisfying.
7. What do you want audiences to take away from this film?
I’d love audiences to leave feeling creatively empowered. To know that the more marginal the voice, the more it’s needed, especially in comedy. I’d love them to have a renewed appreciation for those necessary figures that wade out into new territory before the rest of us, but are too “out there” to reap the rewards. And to know that there’s no such thing as genius sui generis- that truly creative work takes time, effort and process and there’s no shame in letting that unfold. We don’t need to have it all figured out before we begin.
8. Was there something special technically that you utilized in making this film - your cameras or sound or editing etc… and why were these important.
We did use a very original type of 2ish-D stop motion collage animation by animator Kendra Morris. She used found materials and in-the-moment choices to create what she called Improvised Animation.
9. Where do you find inspiration or who/what has influenced you as a filmmaker?
I drew a lot on the early-80s comedies I loved as a young person and which I still feel speak to a bizarre, surreal vision of the world: Blues Brothers, Desperately Seeking Susan, all things Gilda Radner. I tried to channel Penelope Spheeris, John Landis, Amy Heckerling and their broad but somehow sublime senses of humor.
10. Anything else you want to add about the making of the film and its importance?
As a woman whose primary interested has been making films about women and marginalized voices, I was slightly mortified to find myself making a film about a white male blowhard whose record of being a feminist was decidedly not ideal. What’s more I realized halfway through that my own film didn’t pass the Bechdel Test. One way of addressing this was to create a scene in which the head of DC comics (loosely inspired by the CEO of DC in Del’s day, Jenette Kahn) and her assistant put Del on hold and hijack the film to have their own conversation. Lauren Lapkus and Lennon Parham ended up improvising that entire scene, simultaneously putting Del in his place and giving him a perfect homage.
Director: Heather Ross
Emmy-winning director & producer Heather Ross spent much of her childhood in film classes and edit rooms, watching her film student mother at work. Her first feature documentary, GIRLS ON THE WALL, won an Emmy after a festival run garnering multiple awards. Following that, ITVS commissioned her to make a short documentary in response to falling graduation rates; the resulting piece, BABY MAMA HIGH was picked up by Independent Lens and was the subject of a 2018 congressional debate on funding for the stories of citizens who live in the margins. She has directed Molly Shannon, Regina King, Julie Bowen and others as a director of the award winning documentary series WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE? for which she was nominated for another Emmy. Recently, Heather directed the IT GOT BETTER short documentary series for Dan Savage and was a writer on Apple TV’s forthcoming DEAR… documentary profile series.
Director of Photography: Steven Poster
Steven Poster is a veteran DP who cut his teeth in the camera department of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and BLADENER. Since then, he’s lensed projects ranging from the comedy classic STRANGE BREW (featuring the work of Del Close’s colleagues. Dave Thomas and Rick Moranis) to DONNIE DARKO.
Writer: Adam Samuel Goldman
Adam is a composer, producer, and artist whose music, films, and social practice projects have been presented at LACMA, MoMA, the Annenberg Space for Photography, and the Walker Art Center. Adam uses songwriting, performance, and social engagement to examine issues of translation, process, presence, authorship, and the imprint of popular culture on individuals and groups. Adam is also founder of Fol Chen, a music/art collective whose three albums of fractured electronics have earned praise from the New York Times, NME, Wired, and Pitchfork, and art-pop guru David Byrne. Adam has remixed David Bowie and legendary club producer Junior Vasquez, and covered Prince for SPIN’s “Purplish Rain” compilation. Fol Chen has performed live on four continents and on-air at KCRW, the BBC, and Dublab. As a film composer, Adam has worked closely with Emmy-winning director Chris Wilcha, and nonfiction film auteur Lauren Greenfield. Adam received his MFA from CalArts in Valencia, CA.
Editor: George Mandl
George Mandl specializes in editing improvised comedy. Recent work includes episodes of the celebrated improvised shows THE LEAGUE and I’M SORRY, as well as the forthcoming Netflix comedy BREWS BROTHERS from CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM showrunner Jeff Schaffer.
Composer: Jacques Brautbar
As a composer, my mission is to write unique music that adds a fourth dimension to the narrative experience by supporting story, enhancing visuals and communicating the unspoken. I enjoy finding themes, and sonic signatures that subconsciously connect a story to its audience. With a combined twenty years of professional experience as a performer in Phantom Planet, a songwriter for EMI/SONYATV, and composer on projects from HBO series to Sundance features, I have a wide range of tools and colors from which to draw to tailor a special sound for each project.
Adam Samuel Goldman
Helen Hood Scheer
Adam Samuel Goldman