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 Struggling With Bukowski

Author Charles Bukowski is best known as the real-life model for the movie Barfly. In prose and poetry, he takes the most desperate rock-bottom experiences—alcoholism, bad jobs, turbulent relationships, life’s innumerable heartbreaks—and writes about them in a way that virtually anybody can relate to. His language is simple and sometimes salty; his perspective is almost always original, unexpected and brilliant.

I discovered Bukowski's work in 1994, just after his death. At that time, I was working in an advertising agency, writing commercials for Apple Computer. While the computer itself may have been “intuitive, easy and friendly,” the agency, and client, were not. One day I checked myself into the emergency room with chest pains—thanks to five straight years of sixty-hour work weeks. Around that time, I read Post Office, Bukowski's account of his fourteen-year stint with the U.S. Postal Service. He was describing the intolerable hell of the post office, and also my office. And my life. I was instantly hooked.

I started reading and collecting Bukowsk's books. Soon, I encountered all kinds of people, such as bookseller Red Stodolsky, who knew Bukowski personally. Hearing their incredible stories, I realized somebody had to collect them. At first, I thought of doing so in a book. I contacted Linda Bukowski who, somewhat amazingly, agreed to work with me. She also suggested I do a documentary. Why the hell not?

So, armed with zero knowledge, experience or credibility, I began. I read all of Bukowsk's books; I visited special collections at university libraries; I hired a private investigator to find people; I worked with Linda Bukowski, and helped her organize the Charles Bukowski archive; and I started shooting interviews, paying for it all with my advertising salary.

To say that I was in over my head is an understatement. Luckily, I did have two things going for me: passion and perseverance. The people I interviewed must have picked up on this, which kept them from laughing—at least to my face. Along the way, divine intervention must have also played a part, for the right people, the right information and the right help always arrived at just the moment they were required. In many ways, I truly believe, this film was the creation of some kind of universal will; I just helped.

After five years, I had shot seventy-five interviews and had collected roughly thirty hours of Bukowski footage, and hundreds of photos, from around the world. By this time, I had also quit my agency job, had become a father and homeowner, and was freelancing full time. For my wife, the hand wringing began in earnest—but she stayed the course, and has provided a strong foundation throughout.

In 2001, I contacted Victor Livingston, the editor of Crumb, to help me bring order to this Mount Everest of material. Over the next year and a half, we began the painstaking task of viewing, organizing and transcribing hundreds of hours of material. Eventually, Victor began to assemble scenes, and a structure emerged. Along the way, friends viewed our progress, offering invaluable suggestions.

By October 2002, the film was only two-thirds completed. It still had a visible time code, the sound was barely audible, key scenes were missing and it had no ending. Nonetheless, we submitted it into the Sundance Film Festival. When it was accepted into the festival a month later, out of thousands of entries, we were shocked. From that point, we secured domestic and foreign distribution deals. The critical reviews were also very positive, the film was invited to subsequent festivals, and audience reaction has been overwhelmingly gratifying.

That was the film part. Then, there’s the Bukowski part.

By the end of the project I had interviewed over 150 people in total, who had some level of personal involvement with Bukowski. I talked to relatives, teenage friends, fellow postal workers, other poets, girlfriends, and particularly his wife Linda, at great length. I tried to capture his life accurately in two hours, with a film aimed at both Bukowski neophytes, as well as hard-core fans. Within these limitations, I believe the film solidly succeeds as a biography—as a number of Bukowsk's friends have told me.

Victor and I wanted the film to be authentic, using as much of Bukowski as we could—telling his story in his own words, rather than using the voice of the “omniscient narrator.” This was supplemented by the narration of those who knew him. For the score, composer Jim Stemple employed the style of the classical music Bukowski listened and wrote to. Sara Hodges, our title designer, even created a typeface out of his actual handwriting.

From the very beginning, we tried to dig beyond the “Bukowski Myth” —that of the raunchy, vulgar, “beer-drinking machine”—to show the highly perceptive artist underneath. Then again, this “myth” was carefully created and sculpted, mostly by Bukowski himself. So the facts keep looping back upon themselves. In movie scripts, people’s lives can follow perfect “character arcs.” In reality, they rarely do. People go to their graves deeply conflicted and mysterious, with loose ends still unraveled. With someone as complex as Bukowski, a biographer or filmmaker has to accept and embrace these kinds of contradictions. Sometimes there’s just no easy answer.

At the end of the process for me, however—far more important than the myriad biographical details—is what Bukowski represents. As I began experiencing the gut-wrenching financial hardships of making my own film, I came to empathize with his own struggle to express himself. Throughout all the pain he endured in his life—a physically abusive father, alcoholism, disfiguring acne, artistic failure, a string of unfaithful, abusive relationships—he prevailed. He took the negatives and, through decades of perseverance, transformed them through his writing. Being an outsider, he used his loneliness as a haven to create. He wrote poetry and stories that other outsiders could also relate to—and be inspired by. In the end, Bukowski's life is a supreme example of self-empowerment. And the real meaning of the story isn’t just how wonderful Bukowski was. But how wonderful we all are, when we really decide to go for it.


Known for Love is a Dog from Hell, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and the autobiographical novels Women, Hollywood and Post Office (as well as the screenplay for Barfly), Charles Bukowski's simple, powerful and often graphic prose succeeded in creating a mythos of epic proportions around its creator. First time director John Dullaghan's documentary manages to reveal the man behind the myth, utilizing interviews of Bukowski and the people who knew him best, peeling off the hardened mask of the beast to uncover the insecure, loving and extremely human man underneath. Includes readings by Sean Penn, Bono and Harry Dean Stanton.