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“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

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