David E. Simpson on When Billy Broke His Head...
David E. Simpson is a producer, director and editor who has crafted award-winning films for over twenty-five years, including Milking the Rhino and Refrigerator Mothers. He has worked in close association with Kartemquin Films since 1997. He is currently editing Cooked.
David’s first feature-length documentary, When Billy Broke His Head... And Other Tales of Wonder, co-directed by Billy Golfus was a groundbreaking 1995 film about disability culture that garnered major prizes at a slew of film festivals, including a jury award at Sundance and a duPont-Columbia Baton for Journalistic Excellence.
Originally released by Fanlight Productions, but unavailable for years, When Billy Broke His Head... is now being re-released under by Kartemquin. Get the DVD today!
David spoke with Kartemquin Spring ’13 intern Rachel Rozycki about why Billy Golfus' story is still resonating with audiences twenty years later.
Rachel: I know Kartemquin Films gets a lot of requests to screen When Billy Broke his Head.... Why is this film still so relevant? Is it something about the film, is it something about Billy? What about it still resonates with audiences?
David: I think it’s something about the film, but also about Billy’s indomitable voice in the film. What he’s talking about is just as relevant as ever. I haven’t been as immersed in disability culture in recent years, as I was back when I was making the film, but I think, and I know Billy would say, that a lot of the momentum of the disability rights movement has stalled out in recent years. The ADA was passed in the early 90’s, and that was supposed to be a big coup, but not as much legislation, policy, and even cultural awareness has moved forward since then.
The film is also still relevant because it has been important in the educational realm and there are continued efforts at the educational level to really open people’s awareness up to disability rights, disability culture, and to different perspectives and different ways of viewing it.
Our first distributor, Fanlight Productions, specializes in disability, aging and health related topics, and they had the film until recently mostly in educational markets. Finally Billy and I decided to spring the film loose and do a much bigger push toward home video and individual viewers as opposed to educational. We’ve never felt satisfied that it’s getting to individual people with disabilities or to family members at a $30 home video price point. It’s always mainly been going into institutions which particularly irked Billy. In his parlance he would say - the do gooders are seeing the film – the people themselves are not seeing the film. I don’t think that’s completely true, I think a lot of people in classes, in high schools and universities around the country are seeing the film.
When the film was first released, it was revolutionary. We weren’t aware of any previous documentaries that had that kind of rough edged, completely honest perspective from the point of view of someone with disabilities telling it like it is. Not telling an inspirational or overcoming story or a story to illicit pity or charity, but just the sort of hard boiled, caustic, cynical voice that Billy has. At that time, I think the film was a real voice in the wilderness showing Billy’s experience and the experiences of a lot of people he knew, which is to be screwed over by the bureaucratic systems that you fall into when you become disabled and lose your ability to make a living in some cases. Or people perceive that you’ve lost your ability to make a living and don’t really find ways to accommodate your ability to do so, and a lot of educators recognize that.
When Fanlight had the film, at one point they reported it as one of their best selling films of all time for a number of years. Since it’s been out there now for 18 going on 19 years – am I doing the math wrong? 1994! Man – how old does that make me?
Don’t think about it!
I think a lot of people have seen it and a lot of VHS copies at universities have worn out and people are desperate to replace it. That’s part of why I think we’re still getting a lot of inquiries. Since that time there have been a lot of terrific films, and the whole kind of way of depicting disability in films has shifted toward more authentic voices with the filmmaker being the disabled person or someone who really gets it. Now again, I’m maybe patting ourselves on the back too much, but feel that this film may have shifted the paradigm for how to make films about disability.
I certainly have never seen a film that so honestly depicts disability, but also depicts how capable people with disabilities are, and I think that is part of what’s really special about the film.
I think that message starts in the film with Billy’s voice. His wit and anger locks you into identifying with him.
It is nearly impossible to find a film about people with disabilities that doesn't have the words "inspirational" and "determination" in the descriptions. And it makes me want to vomit. It is as if there is only one valid way for people with disabilities to communicate about their lives. They inspire us with their determination. And if they're not going to play that game and give us that message, then we don't want to hear about it. And I think that's still true in both documentary and narrative film. Less so in literature and non-fiction writing.
Yes, there are films that present a full enough picture of the participant that we see them as multi-faceted human beings. But the hook, and the conclusion, and the reason we're willing to watch in the first place, is always that they inspire us with determination.
In the film Billy says "this ain't exactly your inspirational cripple story." He starts the film pissed off and cynical and he ends it pissed off and cynical. But he's REAL and witty and truthful enough that we're willing to go on a journey with him without the sugar-coated promise that we'll feel warm and fuzzy and inspired.
That brings me to my next question about your relationship with Billy since he is the main character in the film, but you are the filmmaker. How did that work?
It depends on how you define filmmaking. We collaborated, and he was the co-director and producer of the film. He didn’t share technical tasks, but shared creative vision and decision-making and content. The point of view is obviously more his than mine, and he had never done filmmaking before, but he had been a radio producer. He produced radio documentaries, very much like the ones we hear now and are very commonplace with rich narratives in them, but it was very un-commonplace back when Billy was doing it. So he was kind of a pioneering radio documentarian, and I hadn’t heard some of his stuff when I first met him but when I was considering getting involved and doing this film with him, I listened to his stuff and was really impressed.
How did you first meet Billy? Did you know him before the accident?
I didn’t know him before the accident. I was teaching a filmmaking class at the University of Minnesota, and he was a student. He showed up twenty minutes late to the first class and was wearing denim overalls with no shirt. And he just leaned in the doorway for a while, but didn’t come in. So finally, I told him to sit down. It was the very first class and I was sending students out with video cameras right away to go run around in the streets and capture some footage to just immerse them in the process. This was 1989, and even then autofocus was available on all the cameras. So I was explaining that I didn’t want them to use the autofocus. I wanted them to focus manually with their left hand. Billy, at that point, said “I don’t have a left arm.” And I’m looking at him and can see that he’s got a left arm. I said, “you don’t have a left arm?” He said, “no. I can’t focus that way.” And I had to make a momentary decision about whether to laugh or call him out on it...but I decided to say, “OK, then you can use the autofocus.” And that was how we met.
That semester’s assignment was to do something I call the bedroom tapes where you do a self portrait in your bedroom about the objects that you have where you sleep as a way of doing a mini-autobiography. His bedroom tapes project, and the way he had of expressing himself – both the sound of his voice, this kind of gruff quality and his perspective both blew me away. He said that he wanted to do a film about his story and I set him up to work with the most advanced student in the class at the end of the semester. And they worked together for the better part of a year, by which point I had moved back to Chicago and then after a while they had a falling out and both of them asked me to continue working with Billy. So I inherited some tapes, and in a sense we started a new from that point because I felt like what I was seeing was really strong. Billy and I started working together and it was an extremely rocky collaboration.
Really? Tell me about that.
Very difficult. I think I should be canonized for surviving it! Billy is, I love him – I still love him, but he’s a pain in the ass! Partly because of the head injury and because of what’s happened to him as a result of the head injury. He’s very untrusting, and possibly for good reason. He’s very angry about a loss of control over his own life and his own decision-making. And, for years after the accident as he was going through physical rehab, vocational rehab trying to put a life back together he was surrounded by professionals who told him what he could do and what he couldn’t do. So anyone who comes into his life that has a professional hat that they’re wearing can provoke anger, some of which is misdirected. As the filmmaker in the collaboration who sometimes had to say to Billy – “Look, just trust me. Just do it this way for now.” - that would always backfire, and I would eventually learn not to say anything like that. So it was just a very difficult dance. And then I learned subsequently that even before the accident he was a real hard ass guy, a real pain to deal with. That’s just who he is. But it was exacerbated ten fold after the accident. And it’s tough for him to stay focused on something for a long time. But, it is the only way we could’ve done it. I didn’t want to make a film about Billy, Billy didn’t want me to make a film about Billy. We had to meld our perspectives. And he offered many times to break my legs so that I could understand what it means to be disabled. I think that’s why he was offering. Maybe he was just angry.
I have to imagine it was hard for him, and I have to imagine that part of the reason home distribution is so important to him is because of his own relationship with his father that we see in the film, especially since his father just didn’t get it. I wonder if that’s his motivation for home distribution so that families have access to the film and can gain an understanding of what their loved ones are actually going through.
That’s probably true. I think he also really relates to other people with disabilities. Many of whom don’t feel empowered or have the fighting spirit that he wants them to have, and he wants people to know there’s some solidarity.
Where is Billy now? Do you still keep in touch with him?
We’ve been in touch a lot lately because of the re-issuing of the film. He’s still in Minneapolis and chugging along. It is still difficult for him to find work. But he’s a character that a lot of people know and love. He does a fair amount of writing, and has tried to get another film project off the ground. He wrote an article a few years after we finished the film called Sex and the Single Gimp, telling it like it is. Now there’s the recent film, The Sessions, which is wonderful and based on the memoir of Mark Obrien who’s the guy in Breathing Lessons by Jessica Yu. And Billy’s article was sort of along those lines. He was trying to blaze that path. He still writes for various magazines.
In the last 19ish years, has the view of disability changed in society?
Good question. I’m trying to remember how society looked and felt to me twenty years ago. I think to some extent it has. I think people take for granted the architecture in public spaces. They take for granted that places should be built to be accessible. Any new public space that is built now is not retrofitted, but built for a universal design. Now you design something so that you don’t need accessibility, and there doesn’t need to be a “special” way to get from floor A to floor B. Everyone can benefit from ramps – it’s built in. There’s an awareness of the need and right of all people to be able to move freely in public spheres. Probably at the employment level there’s been some progress in terms of people’s perspectives or how they see people with disabilities. I’m not working in the HR realm, so I don’t really know, but I would hope that there’s been openness and an open-mindedness that’s still developing.
I think what’s not progressed very well and remains a crucial frontier is care for people with disabilities who need some sort of residential care. Everyone ends up in the same boat at some point, when you get old and can’t care for yourself any more you are in the exact same boat as someone who’s twenty years old and can’t care for themselves. And in each case there’s a real backwardness about how we as a society fund that necessary care and what types of care we allow our public dollars to go towards. The battle in the film about nursing homes that ADAPT was waging twenty years ago hasn’t progressed much. There’s been some movement toward group homes as opposed to big institutions, but there are still huge restrictions in place in most states about how Medicaid and Medicare money can be used for someone with a disability. Even if it’s cheaper to bring in a home care attendant who might only need to be there for a few hours every day, the regulations on the books inhibit your ability to do that, in large part because of the nursing home industry lobby. So we end up institutionalizing people who could very well live at home with less financial support. It’s all still about following the money, and that’s really sad. And as a result of that, not only do people not get to live the kind of life they would like to live, but they also are kept out of view and out of circulation of society at large.
How do you feel about the film coming under the Kartemquin umbrella after all these years?
I think it’s wonderful. It seems like a perfect fit and is the right home for the same reason that this has been my home for a long time. There’s a kindredness of spirit between the film and the rest of the work that goes on here, even though I made the film before I’d met Gordon or Jerry. Which is actually why I met Gordon and Jerry. They saw the film at Sundance and approached me afterwards and said “Hey, you live in Chicago we should talk.” I’m honored because this is an exception they are making since it’s not a Kartemquin film. We are really excited to be re-distributing it with a brand new package and new cover, with the emphasis of getting it to individual people. We want it to be widely available, which was the whole idea from the very beginning.
My last question is a silly question.
There are no silly questions, just silly people.
How much did you pay to license the song Magic Bus?
Ahh – that’s a good question. And I don’t know that I can say. I can’t remember. I’d have to look it up. Pete Townshend is just very, very generous and forthcoming with stuff like this - with independent films. Since then I’ve noticed that a fair amount of Who shows up in people’s documentaries, but also on commercials. I hope he’s making money off that stuff. He didn’t make much money off us. He gave it to us pretty cheap.
It’s perfect for the film.
It is perfect. And the key in that instance and in other films of mine where we’ve licensed things that people said we’d never be able to license is to send the rough cut and get them involved in the content. Then they usually want to be on board.
We had a similar experience with Refrigerator Mothers and John Lennon’s song Mother, which was licensed to us by Yoko Ono. Everyone said – you’ll never get that song, she doesn’t ever do that. This is long before any Beatles songs ever showed up in commercials as they have in recent years. But, we sent the tape to her and got a fax back a few weeks later that said, “Mrs. Lennon would like you to have this song for your project.”
That is amazing!
It really was. So – it never hurts to ask.
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