text by Adam Lehrer
Sandro Miller has been using photography as a medium for storytelling for over 30 years. In both commercial work and fine art endeavors, Miller has shown time and time again that the still image can be imbued with as much emotion and theatrics as a 90 minute film: “ I strive to make images that move people and facilitate conversation,” says Miller.
Many of Miller’s best known projects are loaded with Freudian subtext and even pathos. His images examine the psychologies of his subjects to find out what drives them and simultaneously fulfill a kind of personal fantasy for Miller. For instance, his project American Bikers looks at life in a biker gang and finds out that bikers don’t ride Harley Davidson motorcycles because they are the fastest or smoothest bikes; on the contrary, they ride them because they are the loudest and most obnoxious bikes. These bikers ride bikes to communicate to the world, “I am here, goddamn’ it!” His portraits of Cuban boxers capture the pain and agony of training that go into the athlete’s quest for personal improvement and glory. All the while, Miller admits that a part of him has always wanted to be a boxer and a biker. “I fulfill these fantasies through my photography,” says Miller. “Since the biker project, I’ve been riding a motorcycle for 20 years.”
Another artist that uses images to explore his own fantasies and dreams is of course David Lynch. Miller has long worked with the Steppenwolf Theater Company and its actor John Malkovich. Malkovich has served as subject to numerous Miller projects, including one in which the pair paid homage to 36 iconic photographs (by the likes of Diane Arbus, Andy Warhol, Annie Leibowitz and more) entitled Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich. Now, the duo has turned their efforts in recreation towards the master of cinematic surreal horror, Lynch. In a short film recreating characters from Lynch’s output entitled Playing Lynch, Miller films Malkovich as Lynch himself, Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper and Log Lady, The Elephant Man’s John Merrick, Blue Velvet’s Frank, Eraserhead’s Henry Spencer and Lady in the Radiator, and Lost Highway’s chilling Mystery Man (once played by the utterly horrifying actor Robert Blake). One fascinating caveat of the film is that the characters, while selected by fans using a social media poll, are all emblematic in someway of Lynch himself. It’s arguably a conceptual personality analysis.
The film premiered last weekend at Lynch’s music festival The Festival of Disruption amidst performances by art-pop band Xiu XIu and Sky Ferreira doing the music of Twin Peaks, St. Vincent, and Rhye. The film is available upon donation through its website, and all proceeds will go to The David Lynch Foundation that promotes Transcendental Meditation as a means of overcoming trauma. Miller and I spoke about the project as well as a life spent in the creation of imagery.
LEHRER: So, I just wanted to start off asking you: judging from your prior work with Malkovich and also the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, I understand that you most likely have a deep love for performance and that probably extends to cinema. How did cinema become important to you?
MILLER: I came from a home that was run by a single mom who came over from Italy. The arts weren’t emphasized. My artistic soul developed at an early age I discovered photography at the age of about fifteen, seeing the work of Irving Penn. What really began my great love for cinema was seeing The Godfather in my teens. With that film I finally really began to get it: the importance of cinema, the impact of cinema, and what it really means to visualize. It was a way for me to begin to heal a lot of the early years of a very dysfunctional childhood.
LEHRER: That’s interesting to me, too, especially with you being Italian. As much as I love [Federico] Fellini and [Michelangelo] Antonioni, ‘70s Hollywood cinema and [Francis Ford] Coppola and [Martin] Scorsese and [Brian] De Palma are my guys. Hollywood at that time was pouring a lot of money into really bold, artistic statements which is something doesn’t really happen anymore.
MILLER: Right, for the really big productions, like Ben-Hur, it was just so grandiose. That chariot race was so unnerving. I remember as a youngster, sitting at the end of my couch, and watching, going ‘Oh my god! There’s going to be this huge accident!’ You could feel it. That was the golden era of cinema.
LEHRER: Especially now, with the big studios the superhero films eat up most of the budgets and they’re super safe and they’re going to make a billion dollars anyway. There’s only a few auteur American directors that can still get funding whether they be PT Anderson or Wes Anderson or [Quentin] Tarantino. Most conceptual filmmaking has gone towards TV or streaming.
MILLER: You know Adam, I have to tell you: just this week I received fifteen Woody Allen films in the mail. There’s a guy who just made [cinema] very very simple. It was just great scripts that he would write, great humor, a great connection with all of his actors and actresses, and they all wanted to give him so much. It was really film at its basics.
LEHRER: With that, he was really able to create a clearly defined aesthetic. Manhattan I think was the one that I most identified with. I love that movie.
MILLER: Absolutely, absolutely. I like New York Stories, which I just watched. It was kind of a three piece film that Coppola and Scorsese shared with Woody Allen. There’s so many great Woody films.
LEHRER: I’m just curious, did you watch the De Palma documentary?
MILLER: I have not seen that yet.
LEHRER: Noah Baumbach did it. It’s basically just DePalma in his office talking about every single one of his movies. It’s fascinating. He starts off by saying pretty much everything he does he ripped off from Hitchcock and just modernized the Hitchcock aesthetic by saturating it with color. It’s pretty awesome.
MILLER: Well, I give him credit for putting his Hitchcock influence out there. [DePalma] has done so many great things. He has definitely earned his place in cinema.
LEHRER: Yeah, absolutely. It’s hard to imagine a studio funding a movie like Sisters or Carrie now. It wouldn’t happen.
MILLER: Yeah, it wouldn’t happen. Exactly.
LEHRER: So, I wanted to also ask you, leading into photography, do you think photography and images have the capability for narrative tension and emotion that theatre and cinema does? Or, is that at least what you’re aiming for in your photographs? Because they are rather emotional.
MILLER: That’s a great question. I do believe so. I made my name doing commercial photography and I got hired from all over the world to create very emotional portraits: people crying, people laughing, people dying. Whatever it might be. I always tell people that photography is the big educator. If you think about it, most of what you know—about what wars are like, what a tsunami or AIDS looks like— it isn’t personally experienced. Photography is how we know. Photography, along with travel, has been my education.
LEHRER: We’re living in such a photograph heavy society, with digital photography and cell phones, and I read this quote by a photographer, it might have been Collier Schorr but I can’t remember, who said something like, “everyone’s a photographer but there are very few image-makers left.” Do you agree with that at all?
MILLER: Absolutely. It hurts me to see that the photographer and the photograph isn’t as important as it once was. I’m being passed up on jobs for people who are now called “influencers,” people who buy fans or “friends,” who are instagrammers and who get hired for jobs because of how many people that follow them on social media. It’s disgusting. What about the great photographers? We’re guys who eat, sleep and breath photography. I’ve been doing this for forty years. It’s my life. There isn’t a day that goes by where I’m not involved in image making. When you hear of these young kids who take photographs from their iPhones, put them on an app, and they have hundreds or thousands of friends and all of a sudden they’re considered photographers? I have a problem with that.
LEHRER: So, moving on to the David Lynch project. He’s probably my favorite artist of any medium. It’s fascinating to me that he hasn’t even made a film in ten years but he’s still discussed by every artist around. His aesthetic is eternally powerful and copied. What draws you to his aesthetic personally?
MILLER: You know, there is only one David Lynch. If you take a look back at one of the most important film ever created, Eraserhead, that was an art school project and today it’s probably one of the greatest films of all time. David is one of those people who, when you sit down and watch one of his films, some [latent emotions of yours] is going to come up. You’re going to feel something and it’s going to be powerful.
LEHRER: You project your own feelings.
MILLER: Yes, you project your own self and fears into his own films. He is a monster. I just don’t know of any other director that moves me the way that David has moved. The characters that he creates are so memorable. Iconic. And whether you like the film or not, you’re not going to forget these characters.
LEHRER: And also his films don’t need to be understood, they are experiences. Like Lost Highway, which is underrated I think, I didn’t start to think about it narratively and what it meant until several views in. It begs you to keep watching it until you understand it. Like the scene in Mulholland Drive where they go behind the diner and they see the monster. Every time I watch that movie, I want to close my eyes because I have no desire to see that monster again and every single time, I watch it.
MILLER: When I watch Blue Velvet, Frank Booth creeps me out so bad. I’ve got a freaky side to me, but he is so out there, so freaky, that he totally wigs me out every time I see him in Isabella [Rossellini]’s apartment. I mean I just don’t want to watch it, but I do! What is so scary is Lynch’s people are real. They’re out there. They’re walking the streets of Chicago, New York, LA. That’s what makes it even more upsetting. And more gripping.
LEHRER: I have a theory about why you used the characters that you did in your series and you can tell me if I’m in the ballpark or not. To me, all these characters; David Lynch himself, Cooper, the Mystery Man, Frank; They all represent or communicate something about David Lynch himself. Cooper is his more rational, deductive side. The Mystery Man is his guilt. Frank is his rage. What do you think?
MILLER: I think you nailed who these characters are. But we actually used a social media blast to find out who were David Lynch’s fan base’s favorite characters. It was a two week survey where they gathered all this information and they gave me ten names and I was able to pick seven of them to recreate. I think you’re right on when you say that those characters are absolutely different characteristics of David.
LEHRER: That’s kind of fascinating that his fanbase is so rabid that they picked the characters that are most emblematic of his creative process.
MILLER: Tomorrow night is the VIP party where we’ll be premiering the film and Saturday night is the big press production. I’m sure it’s something you’d have loved to be able to attend
LEHRER: Yeah, he has a relationship with sound and music that no director on Earth has and I’d love to see him put together a showcase of music. It sounds amazing. There was actually an article that came out yesterday in Pitchfork where they interviewed Angelo and a bunch of other musicians that have worked with him talking about how he interprets music and how he processes music into his work. David’s in-house engineer Dean Hurley was talking about Lynch hearing Kanye West’s Yeezus for the first time and how he can tell when David likes something. [David] will get a “serious death stare” and that’s how Dean knows he likes it.
MILLER: I’d love to read that. It’s in Pitchfork?
LEHRER: Yep, yesterday.
MILLER: I’ll have to check that out. He has a new album in production that’s being released this weekend, actually. I’m anxious to get ahold of that.
LEHRER: I’m just rabidly waiting for the next season of Twin Peaks. In your videos, I love seeing John in there repeat this dialogue and playing up the camp of it. I thought it really amplified the humor in David Lynch’s work, which is something that is often missing in his critical analysis. Is that all intentional?
MILLER: Well, it’s funny because we really did it as a serious homage to David. Have you seen the whole film?
LEHRER: I’ve only watched them as individual clips.
MILLER: I look forward to when you get to see the whole film which really uses John as David Lynch as the thread. It wasn’t meant to be comical. When you pay homage to someone, (I mean David is a master) you want to recreate it in his honor. Even though it might come off slightly as a parody or a little comical, both John and I wanted to go in and tilt this thing into perfection. John put so much into each one of his characters and the amount of research and detail we put into every single shot, every set, every stitch of clothing was so that we could pay a great homage to David. Really to say, ‘thank you for what you have given all of us.’
LEHRER: When you were creating this, were you in contact with David or any of the people that worked with David? Was John in contact with Kyle McLachlan, for instance?
MILLER: I sent the script to David thirteen times for his approval on all the dialogue, the sets that we were using, and the characters. We got on the phone with David just once, and one time, with Kyle. David wouldn’t have given me direction. He had a lot of trust. David had seen my homage series and was really blown away by it and when he offered me to do this film, he knew I was going to do it justice. After he gave me the approval on the dialogue, David let me run with it.
LEHRER: I can imagine him being quite curious in another great artist’s take on his work.
MILLER: David was working seven days a week, fourteen, sixteen hours a day on Twin Peaks while we were shooting. So he was so wrapped up with Twin Peaks schedule. He really didn’t have the time to obsess about our project. He loved everything though.
LEHRER: That’s great. I want to say congratulations. It’s a great series.
MILLER: Thank you so much. I really look forward to you seeing the whole piece. When you see the David Lynch part that really intertwines everything together, it’ll really come together. There’s a great story there. When John delivered the “Lord is my Shepherd” Elephant Man Speech, the crew was crying.It was such a beautiful delivery. I mean you really felt John’s heart.
LEHRER: John is such a terrific, dextrous actor. Especially in his facial expressions. What was that movie that was kind of an action movie, but better? With Clint Eastwood?
MILLER: In the Line of Fire.
LEHRER: That movie is so emblematic of how good he is. It’d be terrible without him, but he brings it this eccentric element that makes it a ‘90s action classic.
MILLER: John brings a dynamic presence regardless of the size of the role. He plays characters you don’t forget.
LEHRER: I was discussing with a friend whether Being John Malkovich could have been Being someone else, you know like Being Billy Bob Thornton. And there’s no way. It wouldn’t have worked.
MILLER: He’s got an incredible presence.
LEHRER: While I have you, I wanted to ask you about a couple other of my favorite projects of yours. I’m really into The Blood Brothers project and also the project you did with the bikers and I really feel like those series and more of your projects are almost Freudian in their ability to use imagery to examine what makes these characters tick. Like in the bikers project, we find that these guys like Harley Davidsons not because they’re the fastest or the easiest, but almost because they’re the most obnoxious and the most masculine. Are you always trying to examine how someone thinks and what makes them tick?
MILLER: Most of my projects like that explore a culture I long to be a part of: I would have loved to be a biker or a great boxer. I did another book on a bullfighter: I’ve always fantasized about being a bullfighter.
LEHRER: By that reasoning, does a part of you want to be David Lynch?
MILLER: Uhh, no I don’t think I want to be David Lynch. I think he goes non-stop. I mean I think he just turned seventy and what he just did with Twin Peaks, putting in almost 3-4 months, seven days a week. I don’t know where he finds that stamina to be able to keep on going.
LEHRER: That’s interesting though, because a lot of contemporary fine art photographers shoot people in their own lives. A lot of people are very good at it, but I really feel like that classic photographer, the one who maintains a healthy distance between him/her and his/her subjects, is missing.
MILLER: Thank you so much. It’s been a great 40 years of being able to explore the world. It has been an unbelievable way of life.