In Conversation with Filmmaker Sara Driver
In 2017, New York filmmaker Sara Driver released Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat. An immersive, time capsule of a documentary, the film delves into the life of revolutionary artist Basquiat as a teenager running around the streets of Lower Manhattan in the late ’70s.
The soundtrack is filled with all the quintessential songs from that time period; New York music from that scene, the songs Driver and Basquiat were probably listening to at the time. Never-before-seen works, photographs, footage, and writings are intercut with interviews between Driver and Basquiat’s old friends, lovers, and collaborators.
Boom For Real is a documentary about one of New York’s most celebrated artists. But it captures something more than an exploration of Jean-Michel. It captures the city at a peak time fueled by community, creativity, freedom, expansion. It captures the mood and energy of the city through the lens of someone who was there.
At 57 Great Jones Street—just off Bowery—a plaque marks the site of Basquiat’s former home. Driver suggested we meet at B Bar & Grill, just one block down. The waitress (“An old girlfriend of Jean-Michel”) knew Driver and greeted her warmly as we settled into our booth. New York City never stops moving and it never stops growing; the hot spots change, both buildings and businesses come and go, but the city’s streets accumulate a history rich with constant reminders of old friends, old apartments, old parties, old movements, old passions. Driver speaks of Manhattan with such fondness. I ask her if she could imagine living anywhere else. “No,” she replies. “This is my island, it’s my home.”
When and how did Boom For Real come to you?
Sara Driver: My friend Alexis Adler is one of the leading embryologists in the country; she started the first fertility clinic in New York in the mid-’80s. Jean-Michel lived with her and whenever I’d go over to Alexis’s house, I’d always see the beautiful mural he put over her bed and the bathroom door he painted and a few different drawings she had up.
Hurricane Sandy hit New York in the fall of 2012. It hit that whole part of the Lower East Side very badly. I was going to see Alexis and she told me the story of how she had gotten very worried about this work she had put away that he had left at her apartment when he moved out. She kept it not because she thought she was going to make money off of it or anything but she kept it as a keepsake because he was very dear to her. She had it in a bank vault but it was below street level so she was very worried. At first, they couldn’t find her card because it was so old and finally they found the card with her name on it and she was able to go into the safety deposit box and she found over sixty works, a notebook and about 150 photographs she’d shot of him while he lived in the apartment. And then she remembered she had a box of clothes he had painted all over.
And so, she showed me everything when we had this cup of tea and my immediate reaction was, Oh my god, this is a window into Jean-Michel. But it’s also a window into the New York of that period and what a privilege to be able to show the environment that nurtured this great artist. And having been a witness to it. It’s not theoretical; it’s what happened.
Where did the title Boom for Real come from?
SD: When Jean-Michel got excited about ideas, he would say, “Boom! For real!” I think one of the great charms of Jean-Michel was his love of ideas of all different mediums in the world… Very open.
How would you compare the New York of today with the New York you saw in the past?
SD: It’s pretty extreme. It was interesting because when I showed the film at the NYFF, I invited many of the artists who had shared their archives and nobody remembered how bad New York had been. When they saw the film, it was just, Oh, we forgot! Because nobody wanted to live here. It was a bankrupt city and it was a very dangerous city. I mean, my mother still gets worried when I go out at night. She still perceives it that way.
It’s hard to align that version of New York with this one. How does it feel to walk these streets with the memory of that city you used to know looming in the shadow?
SD: I feel like I was given gifts every day….I would see such bizarre things because everybody was communicating with each other. I watch people today walking around and looking at their screens. They’re not even engaging with the city and we had to engage because it was so dangerous. You had to have this antenna and be alert to everything and as a result, you really saw and you witnessed this human behavior which people are oblivious to.
The power of the people is sitting in a room and being together and talking about ideas and the love of ideas. Back then, we didn’t even have intercoms. You’d have to ring a bell and somebody would throw out a key. Or you met people in clubs and you put up posters on the street to let everybody know what was going on. That was the way of social media at that time.
When Reagan came in, that was really the end of New York and that was the beginning of the real estate boom. It was slow. It didn’t really fully kick in until the beginning of the ’90s, but that was the introduction and that was when the change hit
Do you remember when you first looked around and the city looked different to you?
SD: Actually, I did a film on French TV in 1993 with a series of other filmmakers. The challenge was to focus on a street that we loved in New York. It was called Passport to New York and I worked with three kids that I knew who were young artists about 19 to 20 years old. One of them was a kid who wanted to be a cinematographer but was selling pot in the Bronx just to support his mom. He’s now a cinematographer and we went out on the Bowery because that’s one of my favorite streets where I witnessed a lot of incredible things. Every year the homeless guys who lived on the Bowery or in the shelters, used to save their security checks and go to Florida for the summer and then they’d come back like birds in March. We captured their return and that was the last spring that they returned. That was when I really felt the change. Giuliani got rid of so many of the shelters for the homeless. He shipped them up to Queens with a one-way ticket like, never come back, and they really were characters.
How do you feel about the term “female filmmaker”? I don’t naturally think of filmmakers as either “male” or “female” and there is something strange about having to specify.
SD: Right or the ghettoization where you have a “female film festival.” Like women’s movies? What are those?
Yeah, that just makes you feel like a minority more than just being a part of a normal group of artists. Did you have a sense of that when you started making films? Did that ever even occur to you?
SD: No. And I think I was a little shocked by it because I always felt like I could do whatever I wanted to. I never thought about being limited by gender.
Weirdly, I feel like it’s an equipment thing. Anytime I’ve applied for a job on set doing PA work, people question my ability to lift anything.
SD: Yeah. I remember these punk guys saying to me, “Why don’t you just stay in your stilettos? What are you doing trying to be a filmmaker?” It’s really strange. Also, having been a young woman who was completely trying to be oblivious to all this stuff, when I produced Stranger Than Paradise for Jim, I could go into equipment houses and they’d never seen a woman producer. They were so helpful. In fact, even more helpful. They were showing me the lighting and everything. I used it to my advantage. You couldn’t take a 35mm camera unless you were union and we were an eight-person crew for Stranger so they helped me smuggle the camera out the door. They were really into it.
WORDS Hillary Esther Sproul
PHOTOGRAPHY Henny Garfunkel