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Love, Sex and Big Joy: The Story of James Broughton (Full Version)

Stephen Silha met James Broughton by coincidence at a camp. He had seen Broughton’s works before, but it is the artist’s inimitable and joyful presence that made him a larger-than-life character. As such, Silha, with his co-director Eric Slade, set out to capture those qualities of Broughton’s in the documentary Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton. In Hong Kong for the first time, Silha sat down to discuss the legacy of the oft-unheralded filmmaker.

As a journalist, why did you decide to make a film about James Broughton?
Well, he was a friend of mine, and originally I was going to write a book about him, but it didn’t make sense to me to write a book about someone who is relatively unknown. And when I thought about his films, then I thought that you’ve got to make a film about a filmmaker, even though he was a consummate writer – he wrote many unpublished novels and wrote in his journals every day. But ultimately I had to make a movie.

I guess that the best way to portray Broughton’s moving images is to show it on-screen. Describing it in writing is still somehow one step removed from his actual works.

How did you get your co-director Eric Slade involved?
I really loved Eric’s documentary about Harry Hay [Hope Along the Wind: The Life of Harry Hay, 2002]. I like the way he did recreations, the way he used archival footage, and so I asked him if he would help me. He said, “Sure, as long as I don’t have to raise the money” [laughs]. I felt like it was a really good partnership because I was the one who wanted it to be more dreamy and poetic, while he was very good at sticking to the storyline. So both of use brought different things to the table. It took us four years to make the film.

Are there any footages that you regret you didn’t have more of?
I regretted that I didn’t have more footages of James himself getting interviewed. The footage that I had was recorded just months before he passed away, and by that time you can see that he has grown frail. I wish that I had interviews with him from the different periods of his life. It would have been fascinating.

It’s interesting to see that his two daughters did not want to be interviewed for the film.
James even admitted that he was a terrible parent. But when the children were young, you could see that James had a wonderful time with them. But he was never much involved in their lives, especially once he moved away with Joel [Silver]. His daughter with Suzanna Hart even said that, “I’ve learned that if you have nothing good to say, then it’s better to say nothing at all.” As for his daughter with Pauline Kael, she told me that she was looking forward to seeing BIG JOY so she can learn more about her father, whom she didn’t know much about at all.

Broughton’s decision to pursue his own happiness by leaving his wife and children to go live with Joel Silver sparked a new creative resurgence in his art, but it came with a heavy price to his family. Do you think that was a wise decision?
Unfortunately this did leave some unhealed wounds. At that point in time James was withering creatively and was losing his passion, but Joel brought all this energy back into him. They lived very happily with each other for another 25 years. In the end James brought joy to many, many more people, both personally and artistically. So even though he left some embittered, if we’re talking about society at large then his creative reawakening touched a far larger group of people, and to me that is ultimately a good thing.