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STYLE WARS DVD: Interview with Tony Silver & Henry Chalfant



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y Silver & Henry Chalfant

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Film producers Henry Chalfant and Tony Silver were interviewed about their classic 1983 hip hop documentary STYLE WARS by Billy Jam. This interview originally appeared live on KALX 90.7FM Berkeley.


Billy Jam: For the DVD version you added a lot of different things, like footage of that guy from the MTA in one of the "bonus" parts where he was saying something like how just in the nature of making this documentary that you were probably going to encourage people to go out and do more graffiti. But let me ask you first. How did Style Wars on DVD come about?

Tony Silver: Well the beginning of the project was a two prong effort. One was we were at the rock and roll hall of fame in the year 2000 and we've been thinking how to do a DVD and was talking to distributors who didn't quite get it and we had them bring out SKEME and his mother, who you must remember from the film, to do a Q & A with us at the screening at the Rock and Roll Museum and we were able to hang with him for a couple of days and just shoot some footage and it was extraordinary to see how much alike they were in both their affection for one another in regard for one another and in Barbara Andalcio(Skeme's mother) absolutely unreconstructed condemnation of what he was doing. It was remarkable, they were exactly the same except more and more matured, they were wonderful and so we shot this footage and didn't do anything with it and then I went to NY and Sam Pollard was the editor of the film and was a professor of film at NYU film school gave me the use of the last film the cutting room left at NYU film school and I brought in about ten boxes from storage of outtake's, of print material, little snippets of rolled up, crackling, 16 mm work print and with the help of a student of Sam's we were able to put together about three reels of outtake's which we transferred in the middle of the night with some people a the tape house in New York to tape and that was sort of the beginning of the archive of material, and then when Plexifilm came on board and stepped up to do this DVD and said "well maybe you guy's can shoot four or five interviews with some of the people in the film, you got to have some interviews I guess." we ended up with 32 interviews which is still not nearly enough and many people still missing,

Billy Jam: Which is always the case.

Tony Silver: Yeah. Well we're missing Lady Pink, KASE 2, and some other people and it's most unfortunate and yet I keep on hoping that there is going to be another edition and more outtake's, god knows there's more outtake's.

Henry Chalfant: Scratching the surface.

Tony Silver: Yes, Yes. But it's scratching the surface of hip-hop, or any part of hip-hop. The layers are endless, the stories are endless ..... And all of them are real and all of them important as a point of view because it was about individual spirits, individual artist finding themselves, discovering themselves and discovering their collective endeavor at the same time.

Henry Chalfant: Part of the going back to shoot the update part was a really wonderful decision that Plexifilm made to bring Joey Garfield on into the project to direct those sequence's, which was a wonderful idea because he's like in his early 30's, these guy's were like heroes to him growing up, so he came with this freshness of outlook and curiosity when he met them, and I went along with him to provide the "Yeah, I remember this" part and to encourage people to speak on that but Joey's perspective was great because he brought this freshness,

Tony Silver: He approached this with questions we might not of thought of or that we might of took for granted.

Henry Chalfant: Joey being the breath control guy, the director of breath control a film about the human beat box.

Tony Silver: Yeah.

Henry Chalfant: Yeah.

Billy Jam: Question: That narrator of Style Wars with that cool voice that has been sampled to death. How was he?

Henry Chalfant: Sam Schacht.

Billy Jam: A brilliant voice!

Tony Silver: Yes. .There was Zephyr, there was Dust, there was Seen.

Henry Chalfant: There was one that was sampled a lot and that was "What'd you do last night?"

Tony Silver: Yeah, yeah that was another one.

Billy Jam: What I love about the film is that you're like these non-participant observers and years before there was like this "reality TV" craze you were there with the cameras rolling non-stop capturing all the little intricicies. .So was thta the goal when you went ou to film?

Tony Silver: Well it was a combination of interviews and what I call observational documentary You all ways hope something will happen by it's self, that you have nothing to do with while your rolling. The beauty of this moment, this time, these people, these culture was they were living there own lives as they all now say "we were just doing it" and the hope that you have as a documentary film maker is that you'll be rolling as there just doing it. So there was many things that we asked for but everybody had their own inner-spontaneity, I mean like the scenes in Harry's studio for example, when there talking about CAP you know we got to get together, and then Shy walks in the middle. I do remember him really walking in on the middle of a take where we were doing something else and I did ask him to go back out and come back in so we could catch the entrance, but he had something he wanted to say which was about a piece that had gone over by CAP, so that discussion had just began with Min saying "never forgive action" which is another great dialoge moment. It is interesting listing to this with out even thinking about somebody saying you could never write this and it's true, you never could, they wrote it, they were writing it themselves in more ways than one and we were lucky enough to catch it.

Henry Chalfant: With very little encouragement from us you get them together and the life was going on so they would start talking about it and the subjects would come up.

Tony Silver: There was a moment where I wished we were shooting when it happened but we were at the bench and this was very early in the process at 149 St. and Skeme and Dez were supposed to meet us there along with some other people and we were waiting and waiting and I was standing at the south end of the platform peering into the darkness in the tunnel and it curves into the station at that point and there's a cat walk and I was just looking around, there was a train, all of a sudden I hear these voices coming from the empty tunnel not knowing if it was workers or who they were and it was Skeme and Dez they had walked over from Manhattan under the Harlem River to the Bronx just idle chatting away about pieces they've done and seen and the paint they were using and just having and idle professional conversation about their vocation and eventually they wander over like "Oh, hey guys!". It was amazing, it was extraordinary. It's and image of them embedded in my mind of seeing them emerge from the darkness engaged in their own conversation.

Henry Chalfant: Having to walk to the Bronx under the Harlem River.

Billy Jam: When exactly did you start filming Style Wars. Was it in '81 or '82?

Henry & Tony: 1981

Tony Silver: Well Charlie started to do something before. (Film director) Charlie Ahearn and he was already filming "Wild Style" from a different perspective spending along time in the Bronx in the early club scene uptown which I think was part of his source of his inspiration and then Henry should tell the story that answers you question.

Henry Chalfant: Yeah well, Part of the ease with which these scenes happen and their willingness to share with us came from my being involved with them for a long time and started to take pictures in the mid 70's and my collection of photo's which I had 3 years worth before I met any writers, so I came sort of armed with a passport which gave me this incredible grand stand view of something that was evolving. To them I was a valuable source for archiving their work and so they overcame rapidly their suspicion that I was a cop and that my involvement was pretty benign and was mainly about pictures. So we had this relationship that was really valuable, they called me on the phone and told me what they were doing and wanting me to go out and get the picture and Skeme he would leave these great rap calls on my message machine and he would go "the S, the K, the EME, take it from the bottom to the T O P" things like that and he would tell me "on the 3 line I did this piece last night from top to bottom" so then I would go out and try to get it and it would help me to know where I was.

Billy Jam: And as far as the legal aspect with the graffiti there was no unfortunate fallout from that as a result of the film cause like a lot of the artists it was the first time people saw their faces.

Henry Chalfant: There was no unfortunate fallout legally.

Tony Silver: There was some concern but fortunately there wasn't.

Billy Jam: Here's a question that I was wondering when I was watching the movie again. How many cameras in all did you have rolling?

Tony & Henry: One

Billy Jam: Only one. Really?

Tony Silver: I don't think we ever shot with two cameras. At different times we had three great camera men, originally we had Burleigh Wartes who is from Seattle was one of the great visual documentary camera men, I regard him as a teacher to me as a film maker, who shot about 60% of the film. James Szalapski.Both of them are departed unfortunately, shot maybe 30-40% of it and Jeff Wayman shot a couple of sequences, but the shooting was spread out on many separate occasions when something in particular was happening or we were able to gain a certain access that we needed and so I was glad to have these friends who at least one of them would all ways be available.

Billy Jam: Now did you independently produce the film and then go to PBS?

Tony Silver: No, well yes, and no...we began it independently and immediately began writing proposals to various aspects of public television. Went to channel 13 in New York. Which forget about it no way? I went to see the new director...program fund corporation for public broadcasting. Who said two memorable things to me. He said I'm here for two years and I'm gonna go do something else. And there is a brand new subway here and I can't leave this job as the person responsible for the destruction of the brand new Washington subway and then he said let me ask u something..."umm, is this gonna be a balanced report?" and then I said I don't really see this as a report, I really don't see this as a report, it is a drama essentially. And what I want to do is represent that drama, it's a real life drama that's going on and somebody has to make a film about it. So that's what I want to do and there will be many perspectives but will it be a balanced report? I don't think you can look at it that way.

Billy Jam: Did all of your subjects like the guys from TRANS M.T.A.,the politicians including Mayor Koch. .Did they all know what your angle was? That you were pro-graffiti? Was it obvious to each of those interviewee's?

Tony Silver: Yes

Billy Jam: Did that not automatically hinder the interviews?

Tony Silver: NO, Ha ha ha I don't know how to explain that exactly. Well, I didn't present it as a pro-graffiti film. I presented it as a film about a war that was going on, this phenomenon. .This drama. This standoff. And I have to tell you this is the way I saw it. I was not especially pro or anti graffiti when I began. I was just interested in the amazing phenomenon, that this thing has going on this long 12 years when we started and it had flowered in this extraordinary way. It was an exploration for me .and .I became completely engaged with that here was a culture that was created by 15-17 year old kids and how far it would go and how influential it would be was unthinkable at the time. Well, if you think about it now... A whole worldwide culture started by children.

Billy Jam: And it's amazing too, there are people going out risking getting arrested, risking their lives. Doing it for free, in fact spending money all on spray paint.

Tony Silver: There is a little piece of dialogue from Dondi most people don't notice because it's a voice over. And it was a little piece of wild track that we did while finished filming. And I have asked and he was very shy in coming in front of the camera. But I asked him "what is the special thing, for you the most special thing and i must have asked him the question. But what he says in the film "you cannot imagine adults doing this" and that to me is the absolute core of it. I can't imagine adults doing it.. and I think he captured it in just that little remark. The absolute essence of it is nearly at the end of the film.

Henry Chalfant: You can't imagine adults taking risks

Tony Silver: Right, just to do it.

Billy Jam: When you were filming then, obviously you had this goal of telling a story...sort of like this war of this new art-form that wasn't understood by the politicians and the general society of New York. And then during the filming the whitewashing of the trains unfolded.

Tony Silver: That had been long been happening but it became much more aggressive.

Billy Jam: That was it 72 hours or something?

Henry Chalfant: They painted them white, which was more significant than just buffing them.

Tony Silver: One of the questions that I had posed to Richard Ravitch... Why white? why not blue or green? or pink or whatever? And his answer was an exercise in periphrasis and it was truly unbelievable and I spent a lot of time trying to edit it down to something manageable in what was going to be an hour version of the film on PBS and couldn't do it. And was looking for the out take and still hadn't found it. It was so convoluted and he knew he'd been put on the spot and well white, it's a symbol" Well, what a symbol of what? "cleansily, uh purity?blah blah blah" It was amazing, he knew he completely worked himself into a ridiculous corner. I don't think he probably knew why somebody think that it should be white. I doubt it was he that decided it. It was interesting because he got it. He was the classic New York sort of cold war liberal kind of person who was very aware of many sides of an issue. But had his job to do his fundamental inner core bedrock sense of duty of what his task was.. So a combination of these things allowed him finally these look like estimable gentlemen Henry Chalfant & Tony Silver. and uh, I had met him in college actually so that helped. So, I'll trust them to do this and not create a , you know some kind of antiauthority film. So he let us take a cruise with our lights and our steady cam and all the rest of it.....

Billy Jam: With New York City today in summer 2003 the five boroughs are once again (like in the years you shot your movie) heading into the toilet. The New York City economy is as bad as 20 years ago with the city budget running low on funds. So I wonder if now, with the shitty economy in place once again, if .things like graffiti, like in 1980, will again return to the subways of New York.?

Henry Chalfant: Some writers naturally are expecting that to happen are waiting with abetted breath for that moment when that guard is lowered. And they'll be able to do it, I don't think it will happen anytime soon. They got that guard pretty well up. Writers will continue to go into the yards and paint and to do so is success. But the train never runs now, they have enough trains to be able to schedule keep their schedule up...taking trains out of service and cleaning them...and that's the big incentive of doing it cause if you don't see it run then why do it?

Tony Silver: Another thing is the stainless steel surface doesn't take the paint the same way.

Billy Jam: Like the new ones the #6 train. . Isn't it ironic that the #6 train is now pristine and beautifully clean as it goes right by all these galleries and museums where inside they have the graffiti displayed on their walls today?

Tony & Henry: Yeah, right...

Billy Jam: It is also interesting seeing all these familiar people in the film: people like Doze and Crazy Legs when they were so very young.

Tony Silver: Doze was 13 and Crazy legs was like 15

Billy Jam: How much did you keep in touch over the years with your subjects, cause it seems you've developed a close relationship during the filming.

Henry Chalfant: Because I live in New York I stayed pretty close to them and cause I have the archive...uh there was always kind-of something's going on where I would need my photos or something like that, they would have shows and I'd go to them, so I kept up pretty well. Up until we started to go back and do the revisited part and then u know i left into the world again.

Billy Jam: Out of all the artists in the film how many actually went on to make a living at it?

Tony Silver: Oh boy, a number of them a variety of graphic designers, web designers, artist's, painters visual artists, sculptures. It's interesting Peter Girardi .who designed the DVD and for no amount of gratitude or respect would be sufficient both for his dedication and the quality of the work which is just extraordinary. He was a kid from Staten Island which is sort of a periphery of how shall I say of New York street culture in a lot of ways. .He was an admirer of what was going on in the graffiti world and got into it. Sort of right after Style Wars. And I never knew him. I only met him from a guy at school in visual arts here Peter also teaches... and he has a company in New York called "Funny Garbage" and Peter to me he is the paradigm of what that kind of self empowerment can potentially produce of taking the means of artistic production into your own hands as a kid and discovering yourself...your own potential and the possibilities. Peter worked his way into a scholarship at school in visual arts. He was going to be a studio artist. He worked for people like Jeff Koons in Soho back then and wanted to get into graphic design. So he is into very many art's and design making with a very large world view. And at the same time his sense that what created him which was an original experience is absolute. And it's for this reason that he said when I said to him "Peter why are you so interested in doing this and giving to this ..hours and hours of stuff, If you look at the DVD you see all his work it's all his stuff. he said "payback". So that's a very humbling feeling to me. Um that we are a beneficiary of that. But what is even more humbling is the idea again that this activity of just doing it with turntables or just doing it with flow pens or just doing it with your own voice as a beat-boxer creates you and through you, creates a whole worldwide culture.

Henry Chalfant: Which is totally opposite of the view of the law enforcement and the conservatives was that graffiti is a highway to hell. It was an entry level crime, as they used to say. You start there and you end up doing big crime. When in fact, from a far majority of kids who are involved in it ended up as Peter did as the seed of their future life. As an artist, creator as a profession. And with any kid you don't know where it is going to go or where it's gonna take you but, It could take you to hell or it could take you nowhere and certainly there are people in the film for whom it became sort of like a portal to another level of life as an adult. .It's essentially kind of like a dead end. I mean you can't grow out of it in a way. .I think it would be true for any kind of kid in any kind of kid activity.

Billy Jam: And the fact that someone is doing it for the moment. They're not even thinking long term. Especially if it's a 14 or 15 year old. They're not thinking about tomorrow. They're just thinking of going out and making their mark today.

Tony Silver: The other side of this is, I kind of you know absented myself from this after the film and went on to try to do some other things. And came back and moved to Los Angeles around 1990 and I came back to New York at around a time when a group of kids were putting on a play in New York called "What happens now?" and it was the first time I really dipped back in from what was going on.and it was an extraordinary immersion from the point of view of being away from it because it was exactly about that issue, it was the subject of the play it was a hope hopeless we grew up and created something and because we were just doing it and the question is and it's the largest possible existential question "what happens now?" and it was just amazing to me, It defines that cusp of being a kid and growing into something else and what you might make of yourself at the next stage of your life.

Billy Jam: Yeah, I just think it's amazing how by simply providing a platform, your documentary can and has clearly inspired others to go and make more art.

Henry Chalfant: You know it's interesting because it was attractive and because it was magnetic that's how it got around the world.that's how this platform was something for people all over to pick up and go on I mean we have to like, we didn't promote it , I mean none of this to say the least

Billy Jam: But you really altered history, if we go back in time and if there was no "Style Wars" or no "Wild Style" then I believe that there probably wouldn't be the same graffiti movement all over the world today. It might have just died out in New York when the subway system painted the trains white right?

Tony Silver: Well, I don't know actually whether that's true or not. It might be.

Henry Chalfant: But there may have been other vehicles to do that but these were the vehicles that's true that did spread it

Tony Silver: And part of the mystery of this is just about any aspect of hip hop that you want to pick. Say rap music which everybody said 'You know it's just a fad' or 'It's just a temporary thing,...It's gonna go away...It doesn't mean anything,....It can't cross over. It can't influence anything There's no real fertile ground here" And this was 1980, 1982, 1984 every other 18 months or less you would hear "It's finally crossing over, but not really!"

Henry Chalfant: We were always afraid it'll be over before the book came'll be over before the film is done.

Billy Jam: You did the film as a hip hop documentary, but it's a graffiti documentary, but you did go off into other elements, was that intentional or what was your original focus?

Henry Chalfant: It was mostly graffiti and it was the b-boys because right around that time when we started to make the film, I had encountered breaking and so you know we got into that. And the fact that was the first thing that attracted Tony into the idea of making a was coming to that performance that we did at Common Ground in 1981 and we didn''s funny the thinking when you're doing something like this, we didn't think oh, there is four elements and were gonna put them all together. We kind of focused on what we had & hadn't. .Which were the contact to the world at that time, in which for us included contact with the relationship with graffiti writers and the b-boys..And with Fred and Rammellzee who was my entry way into rap was through them and also at that time there was the stuff that was on the radio "Rapper's Delight" and that kind of thing.the first actual flesh and blood rappers I met were Fred and Remmelzee So they were part of the film for that reason.

Tony Silver: Not precisely mainstream especially

Henry Chalfant: Not precisely! Hahahahha!

Henry Chalfant: I don't know maybe train surfing in Brazil, which luckily didn't take off in the same way.cause it had a high mortality rate, but at the same time it was the same kind of thing coming from a situation of despairing nothing to lose kind of poverty that these kids were demonstrating incredible skill & surfing the inner city trains between Rio and San Paolo and of course hanging ten off the edge of the train and they achieved in a very short flash of fame you know. This excellence and notoriety for being able to do that and most of them died.

Tony Silver: Some people talk about skateboarding as parallel similar kind of thing and the same kind of discussions are going on in the skateboard world now. Since Dog-town & Z-boys.

Henry Chalfant: There is a guy who just written an article he's from San Francisco, he's a skateboarder & he lives in New York now. But he's written an article for the London Review of books, and I can't remember his name, but he talking about that how you can't film the experience of skateboarding getting from point A to B that all that is it's real skateboarding you know what you do in between, you hit the wall go on the wall, the moves that you make, and since you can't do that with film, the film makers including dog-town concentrate on some virtuoso moves that are catchy to the you see one move after another happen on the half-pipe or something like that and it maybe spectacular to look at but it doesn't capture the spirit of the whole enterprise..

Tony Silver: I really like the first half of the film (Dogtown/Z) very much you know where this foundations stuff is happening and there's the surfing moments, actual water surfing moments where they are inventing new techniques that are wonderful and how that translates to land surfing so to speak.that stuff was great..

Billy Jam: Since Style Wars what have you both been working on?

Tony Silver: Well, I made a film that I finished in's a feature documentary about a New Yorker named Marshall Arisman .... It was in the Mill Valley Film Festival actually and a bunch of other festivals.Marshall is a very famous illustrator and shamen and demonic character with a very laid back funny personality at the same time and a world renowned teacher of illustration and also is a painter and he's also a visionary. Sort of trickster/spiritual sort of guy. Umm filmed him in China where he had and exhibition at the Guangzhou museum. Filmed him in his studio. Jim Szalapsky who shot a lot of "Style Wars" was the director of photography and died almost immediately after completing the film of cancer. The film is dedicated to him. And it's another way of thinking about making art and the person of one artist. Who has kind an odd sort of spiritual quest going on in his life.which to me sort of became a metaphor for the art making process, and the spirit of making art is well it's wherever it comes from, but it has to be there. so that's and that film is going into educational distribution shortly through New Day Films and will be available very soon, a lot of people have been writing me "when can I get it" and it's coming.

Henry Chalfant: Well, I stopped making sculpture shortly soon after we finished making this film, and uhh, I made a film of my own about street gangs in New York from the seventies..sort of a longitude study from the seventies to the nineties of people who are teenagers involved in street gangs in the seventies called "Flying Cut Sleeves" and I made it with Rita Fecher who was the woman who took pictures back in the seventies of the gangs and then I worked a while of a film about my father based on footage he shot in 1931 on a trip around the world and I didn't finish it but I will. And then I did a, produced a rap group, a Puerto Rican rap group called "Latin Empire" and I did two music videos with them. I did more recently a film about Palestinian children in the West bank based on a short visit there called "Visit Palestine" and I'm working on a thing now with City Lore in New York called well the working title is called "Mambo to Hip Hop" and it's gonna span, it's gonna be this portrait of the south Bronx neighborhood seen through the music in the Latin community and it spans from the 50's through the 60's where it's a big salsa scene and then hip hop emerges from the same community so it's this incredibly vital community.


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