In anticipation of the Freebird / Word On Columbia St. screening of "It Don't Pay to Be an Honest Citizen" on October 11th, Freebird's Peter Miller conducted a Q&A with the film's director Jacob Burckhardt, who lived on Columbia St. at the time of the film's creation 25 years ago.
The interview is reposted below. Head over to Freebird's site for some other commentary and background information related to the interview and the event.
So the movie is based on your experience being mugged. What happened exactly to you?
The events happened in, I think, 1978. After the second day I realized that, while I was a bit scared by it all, it was pretty interesting and funny, and I started keeping a diary. The movie script was based on that. All of the best lines in the movie were actually said to me, and almost all of the characters were based on real people, with names changed to protect the guilty. The exceptions to this were the visiting girlfriend, who was an amalgam of several people who were made nervous by the neighborhood, and the scene with Allen Ginsberg and Yoshiko Chuma, which was a total fiction in order to get them in the movie (Toi Jugatsu, one of the Japanese car burners is somewhat famous in Japan). There was also an episode with an insurance agent that didn’t make it into the movie.
Where did you live in the neighborhood?
297 Columbia Street, between Summit and Woodhull. First on the ground floor, which had been Sam’s Work Clothes, then at the time of these events on the top floor. Afterwards I was nervous that too many people knew where I lived and I moved to Rapelye Street, between Columbia and Hicks. A difficult move because my rent went up to $150.
What was the make up of the community at the time?
Italian and Hispanic, with a few bohemians sprinkled around.
Was there an arts scene in the area?
The only art scene that I was aware of consisted of some friends – Noah Baen, Geoff Davis, Vincas Meilus, Bill Belfer, Tom Jablonka, Dak and Delia Grodt, David Grossman, Sidelle and Jack Scott, Robert Bentley to name a few. I didn’t know anyone in “Red Hook Proper”, south of Hamilton Avenue. No galleries or bars or other hangouts.
The film suggests you had some run-ins with the local mob. Were you intimidated?
The bar scene in the movie happened originally in a social club on Columbia street, and I found out at some point, maybe later, that some of those guys had connections with the Gallos. The last scene happened somewhere in Canarsie. In both of those scenes I felt not intimidated but humiliated, especially in the last one. I hope that’s clear in the movie.
What do you make of the changes in the area? In over the last 25 years?
You could write a book about that, and it would be boring. Sometimes I think nostalgia for the old days is just nostalgia for our youth.