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It's Just Art on a Big Screen : How did a New York artist land $27 million and star Keanu Reeves to make his very first Hollywood movie? Robert Longo says it's just that he always wanted to direct.

May 21, 1995|Kristine McKenna | Kristine McKenna is a regular contributor to Calendar

When New York artist Robert Longo befriended writer William Gibson six years ago, it was to prove a fortuitous turn of events. The grand pooh-bah of cyberpunk, a recently minted genre of fiction that combines elements of the pulp detective thriller, punk, Existentialism and the high-tech end of science fiction, Gibson has turned out several vividly cinematic novels tailor-made for the movie screen. It seemed only a matter of time before the film industry, ever on the prowl for new talent to plunder, discovered Gibson.

That a controversial visual artist with no movie-making experience and only the most tenuous ties to Hollywood will be the first to translate one of Gibson's stories into film--Longo's adaptation of Gibson's "Johnny Mnemonic" opens Friday--is surprising. That he somehow secured a budget of $27 million and convinced Keanu Reeves to play the lead puts another spin on what could prove to be a directorial debut worth watching.

That Longo is at the helm of a major motion picture may surprise Hollywood, but it won't be big news to art-world insiders. Surrounded by assistants and subcontractors of every stripe, Longo has always approached art-making as if he were running a movie studio and has been repeatedly lambasted for the grandiose streak of Barnum & Bailey showmanship that has colored both his work and the way he has handled his career.

Coincidentally or not, two of Longo's colleagues from the high-rolling '80s art world--New York painters David Salle and Julian Schnabel--are also making first films, but neither has a budget close to Longo's. Salle's "Search and Destroy," made for $1 million, opened recently to mixed reviews, while Schnabel's bio-pic of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is slated to be shot for $5 million.

There are those who say the three are tackling movies because the art-world money dried up, and several critics have commented that Longo, in particular, had lost his way as a visual artist by the mid-'80s. Dubbed "Robert Long Ago" by New York Times critic Roberta Smith, Longo was the subject of a major retrospective organized by LACMA in 1989 that was roundly trounced by the art intelligentsia.

Longo, however, says that he hasn't abandoned visual art in despair but that it has always been his intention to direct. A veteran of performance art who has been in punk rock bands, Longo did costumes and sets for the Mozart Festival's "Lucio Silla" (a production that has been presented several times over the past four years at theaters in Salzburg and Frankfurt). The 42-year-old artist has also directed rock videos, a short film titled "Arena Brains" and an episode of "Tales From the Crypt." Investing everything he has done with a larger-than-life theatricality that even he describes as bombastic, Longo's an obsessive moviegoer who has based much of his art on film stills. He believes he has been heading toward "Johnny Mnemonic" all his life.

"I've never liked the idea of the artist as this guy who's marooned in a studio, and I always wanted to make work that competes with the things that influence me--like movies," Longo says. "Moreover, art and movies aren't separate for me. The process of editing, for instance, was central to a lot of the art produced in the '80s, so this film isn't about putting art on the back burner, and I don't consider it a sellout. I'm not trying to make 'Last Year at Marienbad,' but I'm not making 'City Slickers' either."

"Johnny Mnemonic" also stars Dolph Lundgren, Henry Rollins, Ice-T, Takeshi Kitano, Dina Meyer and Barbara Sukowa (who was featured in several films by Rainer Werner Fassbinder and is also Longo's wife). The film was shot last year on locations in Toronto and Montreal.

Reeves plays Johnny, a courier whose clients pay him to load data into his computer-enhanced memory cells. Longo describes the character as "a low-grade 007" and those familiar with his art will recognize that the look of Reeves' character--sharp suit, tie and slick haircut--was first hammered out by Longo in the early '80s in a series of drawings titled "Men in the Cities."

Reeves, who has worked with such prestigious directors as Francis Coppola, Bernardo Bertolucci and Kenneth Branagh, knew nothing of either Longo or his art before "Johnny Mnemonic." So why did he sign on?

"Because Johnny's a great character and I trusted Robert," he flatly declares. "I looked at some of his artwork, and on meeting him it was immediately apparent to me that he's a creative man. He's directed opera and performance art and been in a band, so he has a feeling for how a creative community works.

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