Saturday, June 30, 2012

Conrad Rooks: Chappaqua and beyond

Conrad Rooks, Thailand, 2000 © Carl A

The question apparently remains: How come this incredibly talented moviemaker, Conrad Rooks, has never made any more mind-boggling epics after Chappaqua (1966) and Siddhartha (1972)? This is surely one of life's little mysteries.
I tried my best to figure some things out though, by going to see Rooks in the year 2000. Then at age 66, he was living a reclusive life in a bungalow on the beach in Pattaya, Thailand. He told me he was indeed working on new projects and there were computers en masse all over the house, indicating some kind of editing process, I guess.
Chappaqua, Rooks' first and probably most well-known film, is a suggestive psychedelic insight into the very core of drug dependency. And into the fierce and painful battle of trying to regain free will. With astoundingly beautiful cinematography by Robert Frank, music by Ravi Shankar and contributions from Beat icons like William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Chappaqua is an underground jewel in film history. It displays, in images typical of the era (both visually and psychologically), an eternal story about human dignity.
Siddhartha is a pretty straight recounting of Herman Hesse’s classic novel of illumination. In this film also, there’s some exquisite cinematography, this time by Swede Sven Nyqvist. Despite the slow pace of the film, it became a success in India too – a feat very few foreign films manage.
Conrad Rooks’ life is fascinating in many ways. Partly through the outer life experience in itself – a comfortable financial background, becoming a misfit, an escapist, getting caught in various forms of dependency, inheriting $3 million (in the 1960s – what would that sum be in today’s value?), using the money to make his films. But also partly through the inner journey, with initial restlessness, losing his free will to drugs and drink, later reclaiming it and, even later, the need to tell of his experiences in a very poetic manner.
Through all of these phases, inner as well as outer, Rooks has had metaphysical beacons guiding him through the stormy seas of the soul: American Indian shamanism, psychedelics, Hinduism and Buddhism. The phenomenon that he has mostly become associated with - the ”Beat” culture - is probably what affected him the least.
– The Beat scene was a very drug-taking culture, Rooks remembered. Also, New York at that moment, with all the Jazz musicians, was heavily into junk. So was Bill (Burroughs) and all of that crowd. I was much more into alcohol, but I would take junk to get over a hangover.
– But what really got me, I think, was the trip I made with my wife around the world. We left for the East in ’59 and I was heavily addicted to alcohol and anything else I could get my hands on. We came out here because of our interest in Buddhism, of course, but there was a drug trail too, long before there were any hippies. Long before that thing was even going on. There were a few Italian aristocrats who smoked opium. I smoked opium with Cocteau through my wife. This was more of a fluke. They offered me a pipe and I said, ”Sure...” That didn’t make me an addict, but I had been exposed to it then. It was through the Italian prince Dado Ruspoli that I got hooked.
– Ruspoli was also friendly with the Royal Family in Thailand, Rooks continued. My first wife was a Russian aristocrat and we came out here with letters from her father. We had those letters of introduction and we stayed with a Thai prince. He had a French wife, and my wife was fluent in French, as that was her first language. There was an automatic connection there. He gave us a Thai house at the back of his house. We stayed there for three or four months until we found our own house. In those days there were no streets. You went practically everywhere by boat. It was really old Siam.
– We started smoking opium and got the finest stuff brought to us. We used to start cooking at 9 pm and then go on until the sun came up. We stayed in the dream. This went on for a very long while, maybe six months or so. My wife wasn’t into it like I was, because she was taking care of my son. I was into the experiment, she wasn’t. As a result I got terribly addicted. I was up to 72 pipes a day, which is an extraordinary addiction. That really is the limit. If you go beyond that, you’re a dead man. It’s so toxic at that point you can’t really go beyond it. In the midst of all this, I got a letter from my father saying he thought he wouldn’t be around much longer. It’d be a good idea to try and get back home.
– I started, but only got as far as Hong Kong, because I had this horrible addiction. Alcohol wasn’t doing the trick. I found out that the rickshaw boys would deliver five grams of heroin for ten Hong Kong dollars. I got every rickshaw boy in Hong Kong running around. Finally I’m living with the rickshaw boys. I had sent my wife and child back to America and was now living in a hut made of rags and tin, overlooking glorious Hong Kong harbour. The boys were my source, so I thought ”why not move in?” The rest of the time I spent with a bunch of Australians in the lobby of the Peninsula Hotel.
– Finally I got another letter from my dad saying, ”this is it... Hurry up...” So I did. When you go back to America, you dread it because you know you can’t really continue with the drugs. You have to try and find some way off. I went for alcohol, so I wound up drunk all the time. It’s really not a good way to live. Within a year of my getting back, my father had a massive heart attack. His death shocked me so much.
Of course, this meant an extra turbulent period in Rooks’ life. Despite the fact that he was existentially at rock bottom, Lady Luck smiled at him and provided the inheritance from his father (who had helped build the cosmetics giant, Avon). If this twist of fate hadn’t occurred, Rooks claimed he would have most likely died.
– My wife told me about a doctor in New York who knew about addictions, a Viennese doctor. He was treating people like myself with very unorthodox methods. He was giving speed to get me off the alcohol. And he succeeded. But it had to be just the right mixture of speed and vitamins. A pretty massive vitamin shot with the right amount of speed in it. I didn’t get addicted to speed and I didn’t get drunk. It takes your metabolism and puts it right, almost instantly. Remarkable. That enabled me to stay away from things. All of the crawling up the walls was gone. He then suggested I go for a treatment where I wouldn’t get addicted to the shots. It was a method that had saved a lot of French top actor junkies. I went to Zürich and took this treatment. It was pretty horrific.
– But it certainly did me a lot of good. I stopped everything. I stayed clean and sober for 14-15 years. During that period I made my two films.
With his feet on the ground, a sober mind and a fortune on his hands, Rooks could seek solace in making films. He had been writing poetry all along but was convinced he could only translate his vision properly through film. For a while, he worked with exploitation master Barry Mahon, who at this time (early 60s) produced masterpieces like Violent Women, Rocket Attack USA, Hollywood Nudes Report and The Adventures of Busty Brown. I asked him what his most important lesson from this era was.
– I learnt we could make a movie for $29.000!, Rooks laughed. That blew my mind. I couldn’t believe it. When I realised that, I also realised what an enormous croque of merde Hollywood is, from start to finish. They inflated everything beyond their wildest dreams. And they’re all in league together on this. But it’s just a great hype. So I woke up when I learned I could make a movie for very little money. Forget Hollywood! Why not make a movie about my own life for a little more and put Moondog in it, put Ornette Coleman in it?
And this was how Chappaqua was born, one of the most hallucinatory movies ever made. Rooks plays the lead himself, as alcoholic and drug abuser Russell Harwick, who reluctantly checks in at a clinic in France to detox and regain normal consciousness. William Burroughs in the role as head of the clinic in this nightmarish environment is priceless, especially considering what a state Burroughs’ own metabolism was in at this time.
– I was stone cold sober shooting the film so you can imagine what it was like trying to get back into that state of mind, Rooks continued. It wasn’t the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I had to hypnotise myself, saying, ”you’re stoned again”. I couldn’t just act it. You had to do it. I wasn’t willing to start it all over again so I had to use a form of hypnosis. That triggered all the behaviour and emotions from the unconscious, the memory of it all. Even to the point of bringing all the pleasurable aspects out too. The euphoria. It was also a way for me to take that entire thing and throw it out the window. It was a period of my life that was finished. In that sense, it was successful. That’s a magic theory.
– It was the most horrific thing I could have done to my family, I’m sure. They weren’t really thrilled about the film or its publicity. Hollywood of course tried to use it in the worst possible way. I was still young and stupid enough not to realise what they were doing. Everyone actually believed that that’s how I was. You become stuck with that. No one could really believe that I’d acted it all. Noone was willing to believe that I could act in that way. It was so effective that noone’s ever hired me to act because they think I’m not capable of acting. I think that happened to Orson Welles too, to some degree. The only person who realised it was my brother. He even said, ”well, it looks like you’re another Orson Welles... you’re going to end up the same, stuffing yourself at French restaurants...” It’s when you get caught in your own mythos. You have to watch the myth.
– I might add that there are two Chappaquas. There’s one shot on 16mm, which was the precursor of the final version. We were just warming up in a way, basically learning how to operate all of this equipment. We thought that if we could operate everything on 16mm, we could automatically do it on 35mm too. After we had traveled, shot, edited, traveled, shot, edited and so on, we became quite good at it. I spent 18 months on the road with the first Chappaqua. It was a long time. I used up five rented cars that I just burnt out.
– The insurance paid for it, Rooks remembered, even though some had bullet holes, because we were shot at quite often by the police. We got arrested in Mississippi and thrown into this redneck jail. That was quite an experience. That experience later on became the Jack Nicholson- scene in Easy Rider. I had told Peter Fonda about it and he used it. Initially he was going to call it Easy Rider and Captain Marvel. I just told him, ”the theme is these guys on the road meeting a lot of stupid redneck Americans and getting damned near killed... and actually killed in the end.” I told him about a number of these experiences. He got the message and he did a hell of a job. He had a good writer working with him. He recorded a lot of the stuff I told him. You’re lucky. I usually don’t open my mouth that often after that experience. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. It became a great film. In the final analysis, it’s always nice to see something good come out of things.
William Burroughs’ novel The Naked Lunch was at this time one of the most scandalous and debated books around. Now that Rooks had money to spend he was actually the first one to buy the movie rights for the book. Initially it was that book he wanted to make a movie of, in order to illustrate the state he’d been in during his years of drug abuse. I asked him what he thought of David Cronenberg’s film.
– Not very good. I don’t think he understood what Naked Lunch was about at all. And he’s certainly never been a junkie. I don’t see how anybody who hasn’t been a junkie could even conceive that they could shoot Naked Lunch. I’m not saying he isn’t creative and that the film wasn’t pretty and all of that.
– I think Chappaqua is as close as I can get to Naked Lunch, Rooks continued. One could never have distributed Naked Lunch. No studio would touch it in 1963. So what good would it have been to spend a lot of money and time when you knew that it couldn’t be shown? I thought somehow that I could do it but when I really tried to start work on it I realised that it wasn’t going to be tolerated. Chappaqua was for me almost like the next best thing. Today it’s different. I feel I’ve run out of steam there though. Each film takes six years of your life. We don’t have forever here.
In 1966 Chappaqua was released to overall good reviews. Surprisingly good reviews if you consider the advanced cinematography and sometimes incoherent narration (if that’s the correct word here). The film was nominated for a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 1966, but was eventually awarded the Special Price of the jury.
Encouraged by this and realising he still had some money left, Rooks now wanted to go for one of the strongest Western interpretations of Eastern thought: Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. As Chappaqua had received good reviews in Sweden, and Rooks was an admirer of the work of Ingmar Bergman, it was natural for him to court Sweden in general and Bergman’s cinematographer Sven Nyqvist in particular. Also, Nyqvist’s own love for Hesse’s novel was well known (something that is mentioned, for example, in Nyqvist’s son’s documentary from 2000, ”Ljuset håller mig sällskap”)
– Yeah, I was in Sweden a lot. But I got so tied up in India, and married an Indian girl. I have a son of 18 there, who’s now in artcollege in America. My life changed totally. I became very Indian in a sense and very involved with India. That romance lasted a long while. But unfortunately like all good things, it came to an end. I divorced that wife and life changed radically. You find that many of your alliances really aren’t your alliances at all. Suddenly you’re a stranger in a strange land again. You’re not really, of course, but one can get paranoid at times like that. I came back to Thailand, to the place I visitied with my first wife 41 years ago, the beach in Pattaya.
The theme of Siddhartha is man’s search for answers to the basic existential questions. The answers, if they’re to be found at all, lie more in simplifying than complicating. The very same theme applies to Chappaqua and, it seemed, to Rooks’ own life. I asked him if he looked at himself as someone with a specifially Hindu way of looking at life.
– There’s a stronger theme, which is Buddhism itself, and Eastern thought. It’s running so strongly through so many areas of contemporary life. My then wife and I went East 41 years ago (1959). For me, the most severe time trip was when I went to Angkhor a few weeks ago. I walked on the same ground as my wife and I had walked on. There wasn’t anyone out here back then. Now, Angkhor is surrounded by thousands of yuppies from all over. It was astounding for me to see this. The forest was in control when we were there and there was only one single place to stay. Over the last 41 years, it’s been torn down but the foundation is actually still there.
– But it was also built as a scale model of the universe, Rooks explained. And a scale model of time, time travel, incarnation, reincarnation, etc. If you go from one end to the other, you have made an entire trip through birth and re-birth. Going through that walk with my Thai wife evoked so many memories. The place was built for that reaction to happen. It’s been stripped of all its treasures, the most magnificent Buddhist art in the world. It’s in collections and in some museums. Basically, everywhere but there.
– Those things vibrate. A lot was destroyed during the Vietnamese war. The destruction went on with everybody. You can really see the devastation. There’s even carved-in graffitti in those old trees, like ”Kilroy was here”. It’s just disgusting. Gradually, that 75-acre compound is being worn out by all the tourists. It wasn’t meant to have millions of tourists climb all over it on a constant basis. There isn’t a great deal of money to help the temples. The country itself is struggling to reach some kind of level of civilisation. That monster (Pol Pot) did unimaginable things to his own people. It bugs me that he could die in his bed. He should have been put through a meat grinder slowly. His first brother’s torture chamber is probably the second most popular tourist attraction in Phnom Pen after the killing fields.
But perhaps exposure to Buddhist sacred sites and objects can help enlighten Westerners, I suggested. Illumination by inspiration?
– We have Richard Gere running around with the Dalai Lama, Rooks replied. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s hope that Richard is sincere and trying hard. Anyone who can do the Dalai Lama some good is very high up in my book. That’s the most wonderful man imaginable. Anything that can support him, I’m very much in favour of. Buddhism is after all a serious philosophical, psychological training of the mind. Whoever embarks upon it should do so with trepidation. My wife’s brothers entered the monkhood for four months, that’s how it is. Sometimes it transforms them and sometimes they’re no better than when they went in.
– It’s certainly a very remarkable environment here in Thailand, where something that’s 2500 years old is practised in this modern context, as a phenomenon. It is this thing, amidst these 300,000 whores, that I think is very, very interesting. That this can all be balanced in some way. Amidst of all of this, there is a powerful message about many different things. I can see why Americans are fascinated with Buddhism and other Eastern things.
– We have more geriatric men coming to Pattaya than anywhere else, except maybe Florida. I have never seen anything like it in my life. Just take a look on the beach and see all the old men. It’s endless, in the thousands. They’re pensioners from Europe, Scandinavia, and they’re all way over 70.
– A woman wrote an interesting piece in the Pattaya Mail recently about the symbiotic relationship between these old men and these young girls. Of course, money. Of course, the "father image". Of course, many things. But nevertheless, they truly do enjoy each others’ company. It wasn’t solely some sort of business deal. There were a number of factors involved. It exists and it works.
– So this is a theme I find quite interesting for a movie, Rooks elaborated. But I’m working more on the technological aspect than anything else right now. You really shouldn’t work with more than one or two actors, to just set the pace. But the more performance you can get out of non-actors, the better off you’re going to be with this. Both as far as the girls are concerned, and as far as the older men are concerned. When you start doing that, it starts getting tough because you’re with people who don’t know all their lines and are not ready all the time to deliver. So it’s going to be a lot of shooting. But as it doesn’t cost much to shoot on video, and the editing can be done speedily, then it’s worthwhile. I’ll probably edit on celluloid eventually though, as I think it’s still a bit sharper. I’ll have to experiment a bit and see what looks best.
One could ask why a driven movie director like Conrad Rooks, with his good self-esteem and good enough reputation to seek out new capital, didn't want to make a new film in his native USA?
– I hate Los Angeles, he replied. I can’t stand it. I hate the movie industry there and of course that makes it a little hard for me. I will never be on their side.
Well, aren’t there other places than Los Angeles he could have handled? Both the American and the international market for ”independent” films is stronger than ever.
– If I take the right route, and that’s to go through the festivals, then perhaps... the ones where I was most successful and most popular. If it gets some kind of attention, that immediately gets noticed by distributors. The great secret about this is to keep it in such a low budget area but still have it look so professional that you can’t possibly lose. If Blair Witch Project can make it, then...
– I’m also thinking of von Trier and the Dogma-attitude, Rooks continued. I was doing ”Dogma” before they were even born. The Dogma I was doing grew out of Beat writing. The essence of the Beat was anti-establishment, anti-everything... just a stream-of-consciousness and let it all roll... then it would have some kind of symbiotic relationship. That was very much Burroughs’ approach to his writing and his basic artistic efforts. These things have a way of wanting to join each other no matter what you do. They have a life of their own. The trick is to find these connections and to find this life.
Another aspect that appealed to Rooks was that the new technologies, with video cameras and digital editing in computers, have made everything both easier and cheaper. In his beach cottage in Pattaya, there were computers all over the place.
– I must get with it. I’m now taking apart and building my own machines. I’m inside the computers now because that’s where it’s at. When I got involved with cameras, I really got involved with them. I lived with them and slept with them. I shot day and night, thousands of feet just to get a feeling for the light and the camera. You have to do the same thing with computers- to become one with it in some way. The only way you can become one with it is to constantly live with it. That’s why I have some eight computers in here right now, and there’s even more in my bedroom. I don’t know how my wife can live with me, frankly. It’s like living with a pack rat who’s constantly bringing stuff home.
– I work a lot like Bill, Rooks continued, from the newspapers. I chop up newspapers. A lot of his lyrics were chopped out of newspapers. The Dadaists too, of course. It’s not necessarily a new tradition but it’s finding new outlets.
– I realised that my collective unconscious knows everything anyway. It’s centuries old, millennia... the thing is: How do I get to it? Very often I just scan newspapers and wherever my mind seems to focus on, that’s what I cut out. And then you start collecting these things. After a couple of years you have thousands. Then you go back through them and see what the fascination was at the time. What is the connection? And you start moving them around and pasting them up on the wall and studying them. Very soon, patterns will emerge, a mosaic.
And in those patterns Rooks found new ideas, I wondered.
– Sure, and storyboards and storylines and then, finally, text. It will all be a gigantic mosaic of thousands of items from the past and present. And even the future. Memories that keep drifting and returning when you dream or wake up. I always try and write this stuff down, because you can’t really imagine what it’s all about. Later on, it’ll become clear.
– Jack Kerouac was doing a lot of this stuff, Rooks remembered. He was getting high on speed, Benzedrine, and playing Charlie Parker and various other people, listening to those riffs and those scats and trying to write like that. He only had a beat up old typewriter but he was pasting his papers together on rolls and typing on bits and peices that just fell to the floor until he had lots of stuff. He was doing it off the top of his head. He was stoned, listened to Charlie, listened to Bop, listened to Jazz and he’s trying to keep up with it all by activating his subconscious. Plus his literary background. After all, he was an English major at Columbia. He was involved with a lot of authors that he was fond of and he was mimicking them. All of these things at the same time. And he was also having intense discussions with Burroughs and Ginsberg and, I might add, Robert Frank, who was around then too. Huncke too, and Neal Cassady.
– When I think back, that was what he was trying to make me aware of. I didn’t quite understand it at that point in time. I was much more traditionally oriented. I finally just paid Bill to teach me the cut-up technique. That was the best way to do it. I started doing that with him for hours and hours in his little room at the Beat Hotel in Paris. I’d come in and say ”How many hours can we put in?” and he’d say, ”let’s do four or five.” Anyway, he was stoned so it didn’t matter to him. I wasn’t. But he taught me how to do it. He pasted stuff up on the wall too, and I began to understand what it was all about and how it works. It was important to me, because the guy that had been so instrumental in developing the technique was teaching me. He really was like a kind of Harvard professor anyhow. People even called him ”the professor”. That was one of his nicknames.
– Bill was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known, Rooks continued. A very sardonic, black, insane sense of humour. He was really poking fun at everybody. I hope people realise that. In Naked Lunch he’s just putting everyone on. Science Fiction, Scientology, whatever... that was Bill’s very funny mind at work.
Another central character in the development of the ”cut-up”-method was Burroughs’ friend Brion Gysin. Not entirely unexpectedly, Gysin too was a part of the Rooksian crowd in Paris when Rooks was working on editing Chappaqua in the mid-60s.
– Gysin was always into the Dreamachine and I didn’t find that particularly exciting. He was always trying to sell me his paintings. I bought hundreds of Gysin paintings and I bought the original Dreamachine too. When I was working with that, I also started working with Ian Sommerville. Ian was really a superbright kid and a very interesting guy. He worked with me on the soundtrack for Chappaqua for months and months. Bill also worked with me. We shot, took a look at it, shot some more.
– I also had Man Ray helping me, Rooks continued. He was very much into the same things. He also believed in the same loose approach. He also believed that things have their own relationship, one that we can’t really understand until we put them together in new ways. I spent a lot of time with Man Ray, quite often going to lunch. We looked at the material in different screening rooms in Paris. The man who was the CEO of the lab we used had a son and he was friends with my girlfriend. She knew this family very well. The father allowed me the freedom of the lab so that I could do whatever I felt like. The little ladies in there taught me a lot of things. It was a fantastic time. I could experiment with a thousand different things. This was all pre-video of course, so there was no other way but trial and error.
– When I look at MTV, I see stuff that we were doing back then, but optically, not digitally. It all started with Harry Smith and then moved onwards. I spent years with Harry too. That was a really unique relationship. If there was ever a true genius, it was Harry Smith. His head was too heavy for him. He was all brains. They should have taken his brain out when he died. It was like possessing several libraries at the same time. Any subject, just push the button. Any question, and he’d pour out reams of material.
– Harry was very much into the Kabbalah and studying that. He’d found a group of Jews in New York and he was the only outsider to be allowed to sit in in their sessions. They had an electronic Kabbalah board there, with a Tree of Life that could light up. But the only one who could really explain it to them was Harry Smith! I found that very funny. The Rabbis couldn’t explain it. He became a leading expert on the Kabbalah for the Jews.
– I had so many great times with him, Rooks remembered. One was when he was doing The Wizard of Oz and he’d take over a huge Park Avenue townhouse. It was a palace and he’d taken the ballroom and turned into his workroom to build a three dimensional camera which shot in 3-D. He did it by taking old RKO cameras from the late 30’s and tearing them apart. Then rebuilding them on huge levered stairways that moved up and down and had to be operated by cranks. He shot the most extraordinary film. He invited me over to a couple of screenings. It was just incredible stuff. Very unusual. Very few of the people he showed it to had any idea of what he was doing.
– He was issuing Owsley’s finest grade-A acid to people as they came in. He had, for the first time, enormous money behind him. He needed three or four projectors to show his work. All of it was based on trances that he had learned from American Indians, mindpatterns... He knew how to trigger these patterns. Activating these patterns, he knew what results would follow. Talk about magic! He was doing some extraordinary magic, he really was. He was definitely a magician.
– When I met him, he lived at 300 1/2 East 85th Street. It was a house that belonged to one of the big houses. Harry somehow had a room on the top floor. A poet friend took me over there and we started throwing rocks at the window. Finally, this weird looking thing that looked like he was the assistant to Frankenstein or something, a Quasimodo type, as he was hunchbacked too... He stuck his head out, looking absolutely mad. His beard hadn’t been cut for years and he wore really thick glasses. We went up there to find cans and cans of film and sculptures from American Indians and feathers. It looked like he had a part of the Museum of Natural History at home. He was making these films in his bathtub. He did everything himself, even the developing!
– He was working with old army surplus cameras. They were used by bombardiers to film where they bombed. You could buy one for five to seven dollars at the time. He bought film stock that was out of date. I started going there and studying with him. I realised immediately that this was an incredible source of information. Bill Burroughs and Harry Smith have been the two biggest inspirations and influences in my life.
The late 60’s and early 70’s were undoubtedly a vital time for creative and groundbreaking filmmaking, with detours into mindexpanding experiments and courageous grandeur. Except for Rooks and people like Nicolas Roeg, there was also Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky, with his epic cult classics El Topo (1970) and Holy Mountain (1973). I asked Rooks what he thought of those films.
– He got too much into Black Magic for me. I think "El Topo" was a very interesting film. But I think the Devil got him, finally. Roman Polanski is an example of that too. The Devil will come after you if you keep on playing with his themes. I wouldn’t want to pay the price that Roman has had to pay. If you’re playing with these things, you’re playing with fire. Jodorowsky made ”Holy Mountain” an adaption of Thomas Mann, and then there was the other one where he was butchering elephants. That’s a huge sin. That will condemn you forever. He’s lucky he’s still alive.
– I’m thinking also of the guy who made Mondo Cane and movies like that. You’re treading on very dangerous ground. If you keep peering into the abyss, you can fall into it. That’s exactly what I’m talking about. You’re allowing the audience to peer into the abyss. Also, it’s the same with The Exorcist. He’s asking for trouble again. At a certain point the abyss peers back.
I wondered if film, like any art form, isn’t a useable channel when wanting to understand man’s own dark side, in order to create a better balance?
– Sure, but are you prepared to pay the price? You’re not a Saddhu, you don’t have the protection of the gods, you don’t know how to call on the supreme force... so who’s going to protect you? Tell me. What are you going to do when all the Siddhi come after you? Are you prepared to take all your clothes off and wander for 20 years? And put up with everything? The nature, the atmosphere, the mountains...? I don’t think so. So that’s why I say you shouldn’t fool with it unless you’re willing to take the road. You’re playing with some heavy stuff. That’s the great danger in my opinion. You can be fascinated with it and you can even write about it and be like Colin Wilson who makes his living out of writing about the occult. It’s dangerous stuff. Of course the public is fascinated.
Conrad Rooks seemed to be doing OK. But sometimes it seemed obvious as we talked that his own story was like a two-edged sword. On one hand I clearly noticed that he would have liked to make more movies. And who can blame him? His sense of moviemaking was sublime and he could really tell a story in a unique way, whether it’s fast-paced and experimental in Chappaqua or slow-paced and conventional in Siddhartha. On the other hand there was a part of him that knew what $3 million in 1963 could have led to if he hadn’t invested it in his movies.
– It’s like 30 years of poverty when I could have been enormously wealthy and never have had to worry about anything at all. That was a sacrifice.
I wondered what inspired him as a child. Was it obvious to him all along that he wanted to work with film?
– Actually, I wanted to be a poet. I was often booted out of schools but the one thing that kept me going was that I got poems printed. The English teachers felt I had talent but they didn’t know how to develop it. They were always very close to me. The English teachers were always my best friends. I knew that I had some talent.
– I’ve written thousands of letters and I’ve kept many. You chop them up and keep the really good parts. That becomes your book. Then you couple that with the thousands of newspaper articles. There are people that I’ve spent time with who suddenly appear in a newspaper. That’s something you should write about.
– I spent four days getting drunk with Ernest Hemingway, Rooks stated as an example. That’s an experience. He and I were dancing with the gypsies and drinking. Have you ever seen that wonderful painting by John Singer Sargent, where he shows the flamenco dancers and the girl with her castanets...? That’s exactly how it was. They were dressed in exactly the same way. Hemingway loved that stuff and so did I. If you get stoned enough, you can dance with them. You have to reach a certain level of high. The same is true in Cuba. You can dance with Cubans if you can reach a certain level of high. My brother and I used to take on all the Blacks, all the Puerto Ricans, everybody in New York City... and we were both blond white kids. It got to the point where Tito Puente used to take his hat off to us because occasionally we did win.
Our interview came to an end in the infernal Thai heat. Conrad Rooks wanted to take me to dinner at the best seafood restaurant in town and who could say no? Before we finished, I asked him which his all time favourite movie was.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. That had everything for me. Location work, real people mixed in with actors, shot under very difficult conditions and it had some of the most gifted people in the business involved. It’s almost a surrealist piece of work when you think about it. It’s a great novel and a great theme. There’s a bio on Bogart that goes into great detail about the shooting of that movie. It’s very interesting. The penultimate scene of scenes is when Walter Huston dances his Pan dance when they discover the gold. That’s evoking everything back to the Greeks. An act of genius. It’s the great god Pan dancing. Cinema at its best. A magical confluence of talent you could say. A lot of the best material isn’t produced by choice but by chance. That was Burroughs’ theory, anyway.
Post Scriptum: This interview was first published in Swedish in Tidningen Kulturen and in the book "Olika Människor" (Hström, 2007). In 2010, I published this interview for the first time in English at another site,, having packaged everything in a distinctly past tense because of my assumption that Rooks had died in the US in 2008 after leaving Thailand in the mid 00s (the information about that stemming from the Internet). In October 2011, I was contacted by Alexander Rooks, his son, saying that his father was in fact very much alive. Happy to hear that, I made some minor edits, and what you have just read is the final (?) revised version.


  1. Very interesting! Thanks for posting this Carl.

  2. Mr. Abrahamsson, you have really and truly performed a tremendous service in publishing this interview with Mr. Rooks. While the Internet is groaning and sagging with the weight of the sheer mass of information it offers, nonetheless it makes it that much more difficult to find the stuff that really enlightens and illuminates. I haven't seen Mr. Rooks' films, but when I do I will be that much more entertained and informed by them because of the deep revealing of Mr. Rooks' mind, heart and spirit that you provided.

  3. I drank on my veranda with Conrad here in Thailand and have seen his films.A fascinating, talented and interesting man. A great loss. But why I wonder, why did he waste it by procrastinating?