To watch Matt Wolf’s revelatory documentaries is to see life as a moving collage in which the past and present are woven together. Over the course of nine intensely researched and intricately crafted features and shorts, Wolf has combined his passion for preservation with his desire for experimentation, mining history to create reappraisals of visionary outsiders.
After growing up in California, Wolf attended film school at New York University. At the same time, he sought out experimental cinema in the queer art world, which helped him begin to develop his own unconventional methods for documentary filmmaking. Regardless of the story he is telling, Wolf approaches his subjects and themes with a critical eye. His narratives are constructed with precision, but the way he assembles his material is guided by emotion, which allows him to create unique and powerful associations between sound and vision.
Immediately following film school, Wolf made his first documentary feature, Wild Combination: A Portrait of Arthur Russell (2008), a kaleidoscopic study of the avant-garde composer, singer, cellist, and disco producer, who died from AIDS before he was able to see the vast influence of his work. In 2013, Wolf made his next film in collaboration with journalist and punk chronicler Jon Savage. A poignant meditation on the birth of youth culture from the end of the nineteenth century to the first half of the twentieth, Teenage is built from a mix of rare archival footage, diary entries, and meticulously restaged moments.
What came next for Wolf was even more ambitious: Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project (2019), which explores the life and legacy of a civil-rights-era radical turned wealthy recluse who privately recorded American television news programs twenty-four hours a day for over thirty years. His most recent feature, Spaceship Earth (2020), is a fantastical examination of a group of dreamers who spent two years quarantined inside a self-engineered replica of Earth’s ecosystem. Between these films, Wolf has found time for smaller-scale work that offers him creative freedom and pleasure, including the elegiac biographical film I Remember: A Film About Joe Brainard (2012), and Another Hayride (2021), a portrait of controversial self-help guru Louise Hay.
With a collection featuring all of Wolf’s work now playing on the Criterion Channel, I spoke with him about the philosophical ideas that fuel his filmmaking and the process of becoming a vessel for his subjects.
When you first began thinking about the work you wanted to make, you didn’t intend to become a documentary filmmaker. I’m curious how your interest in this form developed and how you found your voice in it.
I was a gay teen activist in Northern California in the late nineties, and someone made a documentary about me, which was a negative experience. This was after Matthew Shepard was murdered and Ellen DeGeneres had come out, so being a gay youth was kind of the hot-button social issue of the moment. With other teens from around the Bay Area and within my school, I was doing activism that was intersectional before that was a term, but I got singled out as this sort of gay poster child in the media. I won a scholarship to film school, and a documentary was made about it, but I hated the experience so much because I felt really controlled. But I was still intrigued by documentaries because I had a formative experience seeing Arthur Dong’s License to Kill  on PBS, which I watched furtively in my bedroom late at night when I was fourteen. The film shows interviews with prisoners who murdered gay men, and it made me realize that to counteract violence we need to be visible. I came out the next day. Around that time, I also started going to the art-house movie theater in San Jose to see things like Welcome to the Dollhouse, and I skipped prom to see Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols film, The Filth and the Fury.
When I got to film school, I rejected conventional filmmaking. I thought New Queer Cinema was where it was at, but I quickly realized that moment was over, and I felt disenchanted with the education I was getting. So I began immersing myself in video art and avant-garde film, and I wanted to center my education on experimental media. I didn’t think I was necessarily going to be making that kind of work myself, but I wanted to internalize the conventions of those kinds of films and bring them into a more mainstream style of filmmaking. Kelly Reichardt was my professor, and she cracked open the possibility of being an artist and a filmmaker in a way that doesn’t fit into a conventional mold.
Given that he was such a multifaceted person and artist, Arthur Russell feels like the perfect subject to explore with this kind of unconventional and playful approach. What brought you to his work and sparked the idea to make your first feature about him?
I was first introduced to Arthur’s music by a friend, the writer Jeremy Atherton Lin. He said, “There’s this gay disco auteur who used to ride back and forth on the Staten Island Ferry listening to cassettes of his own music. He died of AIDS, but he sounds very contemporary. You should listen to him.” So I listened, and I distinctly remember driving over a bridge with his music playing and thinking, this is what I care about. Later I realized that the reaction I had when listening to Arthur was connected to my desire to create these reappraisals of gay men who died of AIDS, which was a preoccupation that started to percolate among artists and writers of my generation in the early 2000s.
Can you say more about what it means for you to exhume these untold stories of subjects you never had the chance to meet?
For me, it’s about forging a kind of relationship with people I identify with but who are no longer alive to speak for themselves. With Arthur, I wanted to resurrect the presence of an artist who was experiencing a critical reappraisal, but who died before he could prove himself. Through making this film, I realized that interviewing people, getting them to tell stories, then compositing those stories into a larger narrative or portrait is something I have a knack for.
I didn’t intend for it to be a feature documentary, although my cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes kept telling me that’s what I was making. I’d say to him, “No, I’m making a nonlinear video EP. It’ll play like a record.” But as I started to do more interviews, I realized the shape Wild Combination was taking. In the process, I came to see that documentaries don’t have to be dry or stodgy—they can be places to experiment with representation and collage. I wanted to make cultural histories that spoke to the things that matter to me, whether political or personal. I was trying to find a niche for myself that would allow me to be an experimental artist while still being a part of the film industry. My friend referred to it as finding a “you-shaped hole.” I found that with this film and as a documentary filmmaker, and I learned from Arthur that, as artists, we can be so many different people all at once, even if society doesn’t give us permission to be.
I’d love to know more about how you craft a narrative once you’ve settled on a subject for a film.
I was never really interested in “storytelling.” My approach has always been intuitive and led by emotion. I’ve always been interested in larger themes: cultural history, appropriation, television, queer identity, youth culture—all of these different things melded together. The premise that one can have a very strong emotional relationship to bigger ideas definitely drives me.
I knew that treating Arthur as a queer artist who died prematurely of AIDS was meaningful, but I didn’t realize that I was also making a queer love story about him and his boyfriend, Tom, and how that would strike a chord with a lot of people. Music geeks were enamored with Arthur, but I didn’t come from that perspective, so the love story became more important for me. I made this film early in my own relationship, which has lasted nineteen years now, so it became very personal, because I was looking for models of what that kind of relationship could be. Experiencing the music through that prism of love made the film something more intimate.
I’m wondering how your relationship to a film differs when the subject is more removed from your personal experience.
I’m a sensitive person, and I get very emotionally involved with my subjects. I have intense relationships with the material I’m working with, and I want to engage with it so that it becomes a part of my life experience. That means that an important barometer for making my films has become am I feeling anything? I think about what I can do to a film editorially, structurally, and representationally to make myself feel something. Often, I find myself crying or laughing while watching a rough cut, and I think, if I’m feeling this strongly, there’s a chance other people might feel this way as well. I want to leave people with a lasting emotional impression that connects them to history and ideas, but also to other people. Maybe the people who connect with my films share a certain sensitivity to the world.
But I’m always interested in the process of finding myself in the material that I’m working with. With Wild Combination it was more obvious, but once I started making films that weren’t as tied to me or my identity, it became a different process of feeling in my gut that it was something I connected to and wanted to explore.
Did you feel a kinship with Marion Stokes and her work?
At some point I realized that the “unconventional visionary” is a thread in my films—people who just don’t fit, people who were doing innovative things but may not have been strong advocates for themselves or were uninterested in creating a narrative around what they do in a way that’s accessible to others. I’m very attracted to playing the role of translator, of seeing people with complexity and interpreting their lives into a coherent narrative, so that others can appreciate them. I think that I’m well-suited to do these kinds of reappraisals of complex visionaries who were at times problematic or misunderstood or overlooked.
In the case of Marion, that impulse to save and hold on to things, to leave no stone unturned, is something I relate to. I don’t have the dysfunctional tendencies that many private archivists have—they’re often called hoarders or pathological historians—but I do feel that I’m the right person to make use of the material they’ve diligently saved.
How did you begin working through all of the footage she recorded, and was that an intimidating process?
I always like to up the ante and take on bigger challenges for myself, and making Recorder felt like the ultimate archival challenge. I kept going deeper and deeper until there was no turning back. I was all in, indexing this archive of tens of thousands of tapes, digitizing hundreds of hours of footage, and trying to make a film out of this material to show the significance of Marion’s life’s work. It was really ambitious, but it gave me a deeper appreciation for the type of people I make films about.
When you start a new project, do you seek out what might be available archivally before deciding to take on the subject?
In the case of Spaceship Earth, when I started working on the film, I had the instinct that this story would be well-covered by the media and that there would be personal archives. I went to the commune ranch in New Mexico where my subjects conceived of Biosphere 2, and I discovered a closet that had hundreds of analog videotapes, 16mm films, and thousands of slides. I thought, how does this happen to me? Yes, I actively look for big archives, but for the most part I stumble into them, which probably has to do with the subject matter I’m drawn to. For some, that impulse to save everything can be narcissistic—the idea that what you’re doing is so historically important—but it can also be kind of philosophical or hopeful. Things matter, and if they’re thrown away, so much is lost; even if you don’t know when or how it’s going to be used in the future, at least it exists.
A lot of the stories I’m interested in have major VHS elements connected to them, and as time goes on there’s a lot of audio and visual dropout that happens in analog media. Sometimes you have to literally bake tapes to get the emulsion to stick and to get clean playback. Footage that’s even fifteen years old is already rotting, so I feel a sense of urgency in preserving these materials before it’s too late.
What makes your films so absorbing as character studies is the depth of insight we’re given into your subjects outside of the main characteristics or events they’re known for.
While I was working on Spaceship Earth, I became obsessed with this idea of the “epic prehistory”—to give weight to everything that led up to the main event, all the thinking that went into the thing that people expect the film is going to be about. For me, that’s often more interesting and adds not only depth and complexity, but also a certain kind of logic to the story. I think that’s what my subjects are least conscious of, how many early experiences or experiments lead them to embark on the work that came to define their lives.
When I was making Teenage, I learned from Jon Savage just how many youth subcultures we don’t know about that came before the term teenager was even coined. We all talk about the rockers, beatniks, and punks, but not the German swing kids, Wandervogel, or the flappers and subdebs. Making that film sparked a certain fascination for me with discovering hidden histories, and a desire to know everything that came before the main attraction.
That concept of an “epic prehistory” is also very present in Teenage. I’d love to know how you and Jon approached the material.
Jon created the formal basis for the film—this idea of a “living collage”—which was something he recognized during the punk era of the seventies, when young punks would take thrift clothes from rockers and teddy boys and other subcultures, and cut them up and reassemble them together with safety pins to create something new. It’s pastiche but done in a way that’s intuitive and alive.
Another thing that was influential for me was something Adam Curtis has explored: if you put music under any archival footage of people dancing, it instantly becomes compelling. I started playing with that kind of anachronism, and it’s so true. I recognized that by putting music with a punk sensibility under this material from the twenties, thirties, and forties, it could become transportive and collapse time in this living collage.
Sam Green, a friend and filmmaker who watches a lot of my rough cuts, learned from the experimental filmmaker Nathaniel Dorsky the concept of dance numbers, meaning moments when the viewer can just experience the material, when the critical faculties of storytelling are paused and you’re given space to just breathe. Since getting that note, I’ve focused on dance numbers and creating opportunities for the viewer to have a purely emotional response to the material.
I was moved by quite a few of those moments in Recorder, particularly the footage from the morning of 9/11, in which you present various news stations in real time without interruption.
In a perverse way, that’s a dance number. It allows a viewer to experience the nature of television in real time, and to recall their own collective experience without commentary. It was a big challenge to figure out how to tell a story and make an argument about the media, but to still allow the material to speak for itself. I learned that you don’t tell the audience that someone is a genius, you make them feel it. Unfortunately, a lot of documentaries tell you what the idea of the film is and how to feel about it rather than letting the material do that for you. I want the viewer to engage with the full complexity of a story or a character, and to feel multiple things at once.
Although they’re often just as dense and stirring as your features, do you find your short films to be a different kind of creative expression for you?
I Remember and Another Hayride were the most fun I’ve ever had making anything, because I made them quickly, without outside intervention. Nowadays, I find that my filmmaking lacks immediacy because the projects have become too ambitious to just come together intuitively. I love collaborating with different people, but there’s something pure about creating those shorts in a very autonomous way. I make them after I finish a feature, as a brain cleanse. Even though I made I Remember years ago, I still feel very connected to it, and I learned an interesting lesson from Joe. He lacked self-confidence as an artist and quit; he just stopped doing it and was actually happier. I wonder what it’s like to consciously move out of being an artist and to just live. That’s complicated. But tricky and ambivalent people are the most interesting.
I saw my friend, the writer Lynne Tillman, do a talk with Cynthia Carr about her book Fire in the Belly, about the artist David Wojnarowicz, and she discussed how David becomes a vector for looking at so many different cultural histories. I obviously think of my subjects as complex human beings, but I also see them as vectors. The things I explore in my films are the things that I want to talk about in my life. I want to learn things from all of my subjects, and I want to see the world differently through them. I transform by engaging with somebody or something with that kind of intensity.