Most people reading this probably weren’t around to experience New York City’s punk scene in its heyday. Yet, stories of CBGB’s and the now-legendary bands that defined that downtown era are vividly ingrained in our collective memory, thanks in large part to photographer David Godlis, the subject of this week’s Staff Pick Premiere.
In the mid-1970s, Godlis was a young street photographer looking for interesting subjects when he found his way to CBGB’s and discovered an underground world filled with a magnetic cast of characters. With a front row seat to music history in the making, Godlis captured some of the earliest photographs of legendary bands like The Ramones, Blondie, Television, and the Talking Heads.
Now, over four decades later, Godlis has opened up his immense archive to animators Lewie and Noah Klosters and finally tells his story. In “Shots In The Dark with David Godlis,” the Klosters transport us back in time using Godlis’ photographs, animated to life with a punk rock, DIY-style that includes hand cut frames and black-and-white watercolor. Rounding out the film’s immersive experience is a lively survey of punk tunes that bring us as close as we’re going to get to being on Bowery ourselves.
With access to an archive of photographs and stories one can only begin to imagine, the Klosters, to their credit, remain focused on Godlis, his passion for the world he found there, and the desire to capture it in photographs. For Godlis, the story begins with a bit of the right place at the right time but it’s his creative instinct to make ordinary people “look as interesting as a Ramones song” that draws you into the work and still excites us today.
We reached out to Lewie Kloster ahead of the release to hear more about how the film came together and what it was like bringing the photographs to life.
On meeting photographer David Godlis:
We’ve always loved punk. I mean, Noah’s first CD was the Ramones self-titled. In 2016, I bumped into David at a film premiere where he was working as a photographer. I was so scared to approach him. I mean, he took the photo (THE PHOTO) of Alex Chilton I had up in my childhood bedroom! He was THERE. He was at CBGB’s in 1976. And now he’s standing right in front of me! I sheepishly said “hi” and praised him for his work and as soon as he started talking to me he revealed himself to be one of the most candid, creative, poetic, self-deprecating guys I’ve ever met.
On the inspiration to make the film:
Throughout the next three years, we developed a friendship and humble appreciation of each others’ work. So wanting to make this film was a no-brainer. But I knew that it would be a really sensitive question to ask him for the digital archive of his work. He’s such a successful photographer and it felt like asking the president for the nuke codes. It was very nerve wracking, but to our delight, he said “let’s do it.” He gave us his entire archive, the best of the best, the outtakes, the proof sheets, everything. And incredibly too, he gave us complete artistic autonomy. I can’t even fathom the amount of trust he placed in us.
Talking with David is one of our favorite activities and it was only a matter of time before we wanted to stick a microphone in front of his face. We wanted to write a love letter to David and the overly influential punk movement my brother and I are entranced by. We moved to New York City more-or-less because of what Godlis’ photos told us about this city. We owe our lives, careers, and this film to the DIY attitude of the late 70’s. But more importantly, we owe this film to David Godlis. Without him, where would I, my brother, or New York City be today?
On finding the story:
If you know David, the first thing you might know about him is how easy and fun it is to talk to him. My brother and I sat down with him on 5 occasions, gathering 16 hours of audio. We probably had the film in the can after the first couple of hours of talking with him, but we couldn’t resist the excuse to just hangout. And not only does he have enough stories to fill a feature, but Ken Burns could make his next 20 hour documentary on Godlis alone. If you ever bump into him, and you will- he’s everywhere all at once in the village, ask him about some of our favorite stories that hit the cutting room floor: Jager at the Revlon Bar, the bum pissing out the window, when he was held at gunpoint in Boston, about Merv and the Heinekens, and seeing Bob Dylan window shopping. Just to name a few. And don’t mention the Yankees’ tenuous past decade.
On the punk-rock style of the film:
I guess it all makes sense looking back. So many of the gig posters of the late 70s are cut up xerox prints and reprints. But other than our decision to hand-cut every photograph, we owe it all to Godlis. Capturing an era, a feeling, a mood 40 years after the fact is one thing, but David captured the feeling AS IT HAPPENED. It takes immense skill to do that as well as a certain romanticism. To see a scene unfolding in front of your eyes and then compose it beautifully in a flat rectangular frame with the resulting work igniting all five senses is beyond me. His pictures did all the work.
Watch how it came together in this behind the scenes video.
On capturing the spirit of CBGB’s:
We don’t have a better idea of what it was like more than anyone else apart of our generation, but a lot of our friends used to hangout there. From what we understand, CBGBs is an ever changing place. Godlis even stopped going there regularly in the early 80s. The club will live on through the spirit. It’s like conjuring a ghost, like we’re sitting around a table doing a seance. You need to provide the ghost with the right attitude and environment before it will reveal itself. We had to capture the punk spirit before we captured the venue.
On lessons from making the film:
We are no longer afraid of black and white or adding fake digital film grain (when applicable)! We always felt like it was such a fraudulent move, but it’s just another tool at your disposal. And with film being so expensive, especially when working with a tight budget, there is no shame.
Best piece of advice to aspiring filmmakers:
Make your art first, don’t worry about what anyone else thinks. If you want to see a certain kind of film/painting/sculpture, you can bet that like-minded people will want to see the same thing. It is all about who has the guts and grit to (finally) make it. It’s not a race to make art, it’s more of an exploration and when the right person sees it, they’ll shout “Finally! Somebody made this!.” Make a short list (maybe 5 people long) of friends, family, and mentors to show your work to and only listen to them.