Art star Robert Longo turns to the big screen, directing Johnny Mnemonic
Maclean’s, September 12, 1994
It is 5 p.m., but Robert Longo is far from finished work. He has stepped outside a Toronto film-production building for a brief respite from the stale air of an editing suite, where he is cutting and mixing the soundtrack for his debut effort as a feature film director. The movie is the science fiction thriller Johnny Mnemonic, starring Keanu Reeves. It has to be ready by November, and there are still the verdicts of the studio bosses and preview audiences to be accounted for.
A great deal is riding on Johnny Mnemonic. With a budget of $32 million, much of it devoted to elaborate special effects, it is the most expensive Canadian film ever made. It may also be the hardest work the driven Longo — one of the superstars of the 1980s New York City art scene — has ever undertaken, even more demanding than his monumental drawings, complex gallery installations or vast sculptures. “About three-quarters of the way through shooting, I had this feeling that I hadn’t had since I was 15 that was like waking up in the morning and not wanting to go to school,” Longo, 40, admits as rush-hour traffic roars east, deserting downtown. “The life that I’ve built for myself over the past 20 years is as an artist, which has some structure to it. But it wasn’t an everyday job. This is an everyday job. And I was prepared for that, but its taken its toll on my family and my life [he is married to German actor Barbara Sukowa, and they have three sons]. I gained about 60 pounds making the movie, and I had a baby that was born during the year in Toronto, and I hardly saw the kid.”
The movie’s three-month shoot, which began in Toronto and ended in Montreal in April, was one third longer than the average domestic production. And the major backers, TriStar in the United States and Alliance Releasing in Canada, have taken a big gamble in hiring New York-based Longo, whose previous film experience was limited to short experimental art movies, videos for bands including R.E.M. and New Order, and two episodes of the HBO horror series Tales from the Crypt. But Longo says directing the movie — the first film adaptation of a “cyberpunk” work by Vancouver author William Gibson — was a natural progression for him. “I’ve never viewed being an artist as being someone locked in a studio, painting my neuroses,” says the burly Longo, who wears his long hair in a ponytail and tends to dress entirely in black. “My work has always been media-based, and making movies is part of the investigation. It’s important the artist functions outside of a studio. Artists are the last people left who can tell the truth. Nobody’s sponsoring us.”
True to his work ethic, and to his habit of constantly juggling several projects at once, Longo was keen to get back to painting and drawing while still at work on Johnny Mnemonic. In the spring, as principal photography was wrapping up, he rented space in a Toronto industrial neighborhood and started work on 13 huge abstract-expressionist canvases, which he calls Johnny Paintings. Then, once he began editing the movie, he created a series of sketches that he refers to as the Mnemonic Drawings. The paintings are now on display at the Genereux-Grunwald Gallery in Toronto’s west end until Oct. 1. And getting to show them was a coup for gallery owners Linda Genereux and Fela Grunwald. Longo first visited their establishment to look at an exhibition of contemporary furniture that might serve as set decoration in the movie, and then offered to mount his work there. His Johnny Paintings, which sell for between $13,000 and $110,000, represent a rare excursion into non-figurative work. And he is surprisingly blunt in his assessment of them. “I’d say 80 percent are pretty successful paintings. The other ones are there to keep the 80 percent legitimate.”
Longo is similarly upbeat about Johnny Mnemonic, although he concedes that it was “weird doing art by committee. Someone told me they didn’t realize how Machiavellian I was. I figure there are 160,000 pictures — individual frames — in a 90-minute movie, so I’m trying to figure out how many of them I can actually have control over. For whatever criticism I have about this system to make the movie, it’s also important to understand that I appreciate them giving me the opportunity. When I look at the movie, I realize how much control I did have. There are a lot of people with a lot of money in this movie, and they deserve their voice. They’ve taken a degree of risk, and I appreciate that.”
Johnny Mnemonic is the futuristic tale of a data courier (Reeves), a kind of binary mule who is transporting purloined computer code in chips inside his skull. The information that he carries in his head is valuable to a range of bad guys, including a messianic monstrosity played by hulking blond action-movie stalwart Dolph Lundgren. And Johnny’s mission is complicated by a personal quirk: he has no memory of his childhood or adolescence. All that nonessential data was cleared out of Johnny’s head in order to increase his computer-code storage capacity, to make him a more efficient courier.
Almost all of Gibson’s novels, including Neuromancer and Count Zero, had already been optioned for film by the time the producers obtained the rights to Johnny Mnemonic. It was Gibson’s first published short story, appearing in 1981. In the late 1980s, the author and Longo became friends, and the two began planning a movie version. Recalls Gibson: “For a while we were thinking of doing it as a small art film, for maybe $1 or $2 million. We went around to people in Hollywood with that figure and they just laughed. One guy was so amused by the idea that we thought we could do it that cheaply that he was almost ready to give us the money just to see what we came up with.” In the end, TriStar and Alliance teamed up as producers. They decided to go with Longo as director largely because of the partnership that he and Gibson had forged during five years of trying to get the picture made, and because of Alliance producer Don Carmody’s admiration of Longo’s artwork.
During the filming, it was rumored that relations had soured between the producers and director, and that the project had fallen behind schedule. But key players — Longo and Carmody included — dismiss that muttering as wishful thinking. “The shoot was incredibly pleasant,” Longo says. “I never had any problems with actors, and that was one of my biggest fears. I think people want to believe that there are problems with this film. The movie has a lot of pressure on it because Keanu’s become a superstar [with the success of Speed].”
Carmody was on the set daily throughout principal photography and is supervising postproduction. He says that Longo’s work has been “just incredible. When he started working on this, he wasn’t a complete neophyte, but about as close as you can get. Action pictures like this one are the toughest genre to direct. There were no guarantees in his contract. We could easily have fired him at any time. At first, you could see the actors particularly were wary. But he talked Keanu into taking some incredible risks.” The production is under budget and, according to Carmody, “only a couple of weeks behind schedule, but nothing serious.” Any fights that occurred, he says, were good-natured disagreements. “I’m already talking to him about working on another picture, and there are other producers discussing future projects with him as well.”
Longo says the only difficult aspect of making the picture has been looking at its images over and over again through the process of editing and post-production. He’s used to working a set of imagery in his painting or sculpture, then moving on once he feels the exploration is complete. “I keep seeing mistakes I made, and there’s no way I can get ’em back. I can’t walk up to the screen with a pencil and, like, fix the lighting on Keanu’s ear.”
As a visual artist, Longo is known for the drama, aggression and scale of his work. Born to an Italian-American family in Brooklyn in 1953, he did not decide on a career in art until he was 20. Yet within a decade he was reaping the whirlwind of fame and money in the unprecedented art boom of the 1980s. Longo’s best known work is perhaps his series of huge charcoal and graphite drawings, Men in the Cities, which he produced from 1978 to 1981. The pieces depict archetypal Eighties urban achievers — men in suits and women in cocktail dresses — straining in atavistic struggle with a variety of foes: greed, aspiration, ambition and each other.
Many still refer to Longo as part of a triumvirate of Eighties New York art-stars along with David Salle and Julian Schnabel. Eminent U.S. critic Robert Hughes once denounced Longo as an emblem of everything that was wrong with American art during the past decade: “an oversize mélange of technical sophistication and sentimental blatancy, with more wallop than resonance.” And Longo’s current foray into filmmaking has been dismissed by some as just another careerist leap. But he has always worked to express himself in several realms at once. He has also been a musician in rock bands and directed plays and opera while working in a variety of artistic media.
Directing movies may prove a career salvation of sorts for Longo. As the 1980s ended, his efforts to engage both collectors and audiences stalled. Staff members at his New York dealer, Metro Pictures, say his art — which once fetched as much as $270,000 per work — dropped to more realistic amounts, along with everyone else’s. Notes Longo: “When I did this big retrospective of my work in ’89 [at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art], that’s when it hit the brick wall. In 1990, I left New York and moved to Paris. The reason I left was because I was being blamed for the Eighties art world.” After two years, Longo returned to New York revitalized. “I had readjusted myself quite a bit, and the world that had helped build me, once it knocked me down, couldn’t hurt me anymore.”
Now, with Johnny Mnemonic, Longo is downloading a new set of skills and hoping to quash charges that he is a facile dilettante. “It was a great learning experience,” he says of the filming. “I will most definitely make other movies, now that I know how to do it.”